The Portrayal Of Identity Crisis And Alienation In The Thing Around Your Neck


In The Thing Around Your Neck (2009), Nigerian the author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie presents twelve short stories to the readers. , Eeach of them is dealsing with the Nigerian characters and their struggle in their daily lives. This struggle brings along their alienation from society and even themselves, which leads the characters to go through an identity crisis. This paper aims to analyse the portrayal of identity crisis and alienation of the characters with a specific focus on certain stories, such as “Cell One”, “Imitation”, “A Private Experience”, “Ghosts”, “Jumping Monkey Hill”, “The Thing Around Your Neck”, “The American Embassy”, “The Arrangers of Marriage” and “Tomorrow is Too Far” through a postcolonial lens. The stories deal with the experiences of Nigerian characters in their home country Nigeria, their home country, along with their reactions to their new social environments in The United States, where they are the ones who had to leave their homeland due to a number of reasons related to the effects of British colonialism and the chaotic atmosphere in Nigeria, such as poverty, and the lack of safety and lack andof education. Therefore, each different story has isolated characters who suffer from alienation on their land either stemming from their race, family, patriarchal mindset of the society, violence, or loss of a loved one. Although migration, its results and consequences are the main issues in the stories, the aspects of gender problems are also portrayed by Adichie as a part of a colonial attitude, which adds up to the characters’ social alienation of the characters from their environments and themselves.


In the postcolonial texts, identity is an important term, especially regarding some key concepts, such as immigration or enslavement, since experiencing these terms might create a great deal of change in one’`s identity depending on the environment toof which they become a part. This change might occur in a negative way and cause individuals to isolate themselves from what is around them, which can be defined as alienation. The term aAlienation, as put forward by Jaeggi, in a broadly sense means “… the inability to establish a relation to other human beings, to things, to social institutions and thereby also — so the fundamental intuition of the theory of alienation—to oneself.” Therefore, alienation does not necessarily mean that individuals gradually become estranged to the others, but also to themselves. The concept of alienation, its reasons and results may vary from one person to another depending on the personal experiences. The term started to be widely used in literature, especially after the first and second the wWorld wWars I and II, when Western people started to experience war-related traumas and psychological disorders. Thus, it became one of the central themes in modernist literature. It is also one of the major key themes in Adichie`s short stories, as her characters are going through alienation due to many reasons including the ones of gender, race, the conditions of their corrupted environment, and having to adapt into a new land. As mentioned above, traumatic experiences of the individuals have been a common theme in literature, especially of those who areof the minorities or marginalised communitiesoutcasts, as stated by Satkunananthan: “The collective experiences of marginalised communities, be they third‐world, postcolonial, coloured or otherwise subject to collective trauma, are often commodified in mass‐produced literature, art or advertising”. However, in Adichie`s work, besides the racial alienation, female alienation also forms an important part component as the her black women are the ones who are exposed to both racism and sexism in a colonial setting. The importance of the effects of the colonial mindset and the practice of enslavement on black women is defined by Patterson:

“It was women who first lived in terror of enslavement, and hence it was women who first came to value its absence, both those who were never but lived in dread of it and, even more so, those who were captured and lived in hope of being redeemed …” 

Women, more specifically black women in regard to Adichie`s work, have been under the gaze of the colonisers on the streets, at work and even at home. Therefore, their alienation from the means of authority is not only linked to the British colonialism in Nigeria, but also to their position as women in relation to being a part of a patriarchal society. Consequently, Adichie`s choice to depict ordinary women in her stories allows the her readers to empathise with these characters and comprehend their psychological state sof their minds.

The portrayal of social and female alienation in the characters of a colonial land in The thing around your Neck by Adichie

The first story of The Thing Around Your Neck, “Cell One”, is mainly about Nnamabia, who is the brother of the narrator and supposedly a member of one of the cults formed with teenagers. He is going through a sense of estrangement from the society; therefore, a social alienation. This rebellious character even steals even from the family, which can be explained in a way that in a corrupted society, in which there are various cults and the mother needs to bribe the officers for his son to receive a better treatment in prison, he is trying to gain his own voice and assert his own identity. The effects of Western life on Nigerian teenagers is also mentioned in the story with a specific focus on American rap which is believed to provoke the spread of cults, and it is suggested that the teenagers in Nigerian society are adapting themselves into this new trend that is introduced by the to them via media. However, Nnamabia`s attitude gradually changes as soon as he is put sent into the prison and begins to deals with the attitude of the officers towards the prisoners. He even feels a sympathy for an old man, who is treated badly and never receive sees any visitors. This situation evokes such a feeling in Nnamabia that he wishes to give the food that ihis family s brought to ings him by his family to the old man. His transformation from the rebellious boy to a sympatheticcompassionate adult represents his transformation from being an isolated character, who needs to prove himself through rebellious actions in order to survive in that society, to a character who cares about for solidarity, as it might be the only way for these individuals to stand against corruption.

Although corruption in the society is an important major theme in the text, Adichie shows how the reasons behind the alienation of the characters in the text are also linked to the family ties. As sensed with the depictions by the narrator of the same story, there is a rivalry between the two siblings, which stems from the attitude of the parents and the people surrounding them.

“When my mother took us to the market, traders would call out, “Hey! Madam, why did you waste your fair skin on a boy and leave the girl so dark? What is a boy doing with all this beauty?” And my mother would chuckle, as though she took a mischievous and joyful responsibility for Nnamabia`s good looks. And my mother would chuckle, as though she took a mischievous and joyful responsibility for Nnamabia`s good looks.” 

Nnamabia is the mostre beautiful and loved one with a fair skin, which adds up to his beauty according to the generalised beauty standards, whereas the sister is confined to darkness. The fact that the narrator stays unnamed throughout the story gives provides evidencea clue about how lost she feels in that her family, as having the concept of having a son is believed to be superior tobetter than having a daughter. Not only does she suffer in a society in which safety is a big major issue, but also, she has to be reminded that she isas a woman, she is and inferior to men even in a small and loving community like family. Therefore, the narrator`s alienation as a sister has various dimensions linked to her colonised and unsafe homeland and its patriarchal mindset.

Family issues are brought along by AdichieAdichie brings along family issues many times throughout the book, as exemplified in Tomorrow is Too Far, in which jealousy is also a common problem between two siblings. No matter how skilled or interested the narrator is, she is overshadowed by her brother, Nonso, and her grandmother favours him by neglecting the potential of the narrator since she “She is the incidental the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the subject, he is the absolute.” The feeling of not being loved and realised by the family members is what leadsmakes the narrator to take an action to prove her existence. Provoking Nonso into climbing up the tree and resultsing in his death., Tthe narrator aims to get rid ofeliminate him and receive all the love for herself from her mother and grandmother for herself. However, her plan does not work as she thinksplanned, and she stays asremains the Other, even in the absence of the brother since male figure in the family is superior to the female figure as “in a wide range of countries a sizeable preference for sons is found.” 

The issue related to patriarchal mindset is portrayed by Adichie in various contexts throughout the book. “In “Jumping Monkey Hill” , for instance, the experiences of Ujunwa’s experiences are told in a writer`s conference around Cape Town, in

“the kind of place where she imagined affluent foreign tourists would dart around taking pictures of lizards and then return home still mostly unaware that there were more black people than red-capped lizards in South Africa.” 

Along with dealing the stereotypes of Africa, Adichie shows that how this woman author Ujunwa is constantly under the gaze of the British organiser Edward and exposed to sexual harassment as “… he always looked at her chest rather than her face …” (Adichie 109). The fact that he is married does not hold him back from attempting to ignite an intercourse with Ujunwa since the African woman is “authentic and different” and as put forward by Hooks “to these young males and their buddies, fucking was a way to confront the Other, as well as a way to make themselves over, to leave behind white “innocence” and enter the world of “experience.” (Hooks 368). Not only does he feel superior to Ujunwa due to his race but also his gender.

Edward’s The colonial mindset Edward has is again revealed again when he attempts to teach an African woman about African staples and makes assumptions of Africa by underestimating her knowledge about her homeland and looking down on her as well as deciding to what extent the story of Ujunwa is “real African.” In that way, Rodriguez states that

“Edward’s authority threatens this diversity of representation as he expects the workshop participants to represent, in their own behaviour as well as through the stories they write, his single image of Africa and African writing.”.

The way Edward sees Africa is a separate world, far from the Western conditions, and he wishes to impose this image into the African woman by creating his own reality. Ujunwa`s identity and background are ignored by him. C; consequently, she has to suffer from both the results that come along with her race and gender. The fact that Edward is more concerned about her body and rarely looks at her face is an example of his perception of her, the one that is as nothing less but the one of a sexual object. However, as in all the stories in the book, Adichie also gives also Ujunwa her own voice and thea chance to establish her identity by making her ask thea simple question: “Why do we always say nothing?”, whose the answer of which might give a solution for the de-humanised women to get over the instinct to isolate themselves from the society as well as her personal ability to create stories that allows her to gain power.

The attempt of non-Africans to show offdisplay their knowledge about of Africa is depicted in “The Thing Around Your Neck” through Akunna`s story as well, which is about the opportunity that she obtainsgets to apply forobtain the American visa and start working as a waitress. Even though people around her in Nigeria exaggerates the life conditions in the USA and encourages her to set up her life there, she faces the bitter truth by realising that the American Dream is simply not tailored for the immigrants when she arrives. She is a foreign n immigrant woman , who is exposed to sexual harassment by her own uncle and needs to work hard but to gains earn less money than the other workerss. During her encounter with the customers, she realises that many people try to make assumptions of about Africa with the same attitude than the event organiseras Edward`s in “Jumping Monkey Hills”, the one of the people who are far from understanding their culture. When she gets to knowmeets a certain special customer, who relatively knows more about Africa than the others, another moment strikes her to and she make her realises that the idea of travelling to Africa, getting to knowcoming across people and observing the poor is highly romanticised among Americans. However, the fact that the man refrains from defining her as his girlfriend gives clues aboutprovide an indication of hism deep-down feeling of superiority.

As stated above, the author portrays the patriarchal colonialism has been portrayed by the author in many stories, especially through the idea of marriage and giving birth. The United States is portrayed as a land of opportunities for Nigerians.; Ttherefore, getting married to ying someone from the USAAmerican is thea key thato opens the doors for the Nigerians who are forced to leave their home countryies. This idea is exemplified in the short story “The Arrangers of Marriage”. The protagonist Chinaza, the protagonist, is made to marriesry Ofodile, a doctor who lives in America. The marriage is arranged named Ofodile by her aunt and uncle, which is supposedly a way toof rescueing herself from the supposedly bad second-rate living conditions in Nigeria. Even though they have been married for less than a month, Chinaza already feels that something is wrong. The story is an example of the dominance of the male authority over femalewomen, as the husband refuses to let the his wife speak her mother tongue or cook their traditional dishes. Chinaza is forced to live an American life under the gaze of Ofodile, and not only when they are among other people but also in their private house, which results in her identity crisis since she is forced to adapt into her new identity and “to be as mainstream as possible and not left by the roadside” (Adichie 173). Especially, the fact that now she is to be called Agatha leads toemphasises the loss of her original identity as she is forced to leave change her name and its cultural associations dimensions behind. The theme of namelessness or renaming is a key concept n important theme in colonial and postcolonial literature and colonial settings in regards to identity as put forward by Kabore:

“… in the new world they find themselves in, names are so important that not having a name means one has lost one’s original identity and is reduced to mere archetypes …” 

Chinaza needs is forced to adopt into thea new identity and the American way of lifeving , which is created by her husband for her, and consequently, she is in a way tamed and enslaved by the her husband in this new environment. Although she now is now in a country with “full of opportunities”, she is not allowed to make her own choices or introduce herself to whomever she wishes to, using with her real identity. However, the fact that he is not an genuine American-born citizen and that he also had to go through hardships when he arrived in America, feeds the discussion of , in a colonial system, how victimised also the colonisers also are. Ofadelia`s shift from the colonised to the coloniser gives him an opportunity to be in charge, a concept which that he used to be far from, as stated by Turkmen:

“The colonialist identity for the colonizer breaks out with his arrival to the colonial lands. On arriving he goes into a sudden shift of identity. Being a mediocre man in his own country, the colonizer suddenly turns into a master, giving orders, earning money which he cannot otherwise dream about, having facilities exclusively at his disposal. ” 

With dDue regard being had to this statement, even though the readers of the story are more prone to empathise with the colonised, it is vital to understand how the a colonial atmosphere creates victims of in both sides and results in an identity crisis for both as well.

The idea of marriage failure iss also representeds itself in the story “Imitation”, when Nkem, the protagonist, Nkem needs to ignore the affairs of her husband’s affairs in Nigeria, while she lives estranged, with her children, in America, so as to provide them with a luxurious life for them. The affairs of the husband are known by others as well as by Nkem, and she fulfils the need to talk about it by communicating with the her maid, who is “her only source of companionship in America”. However, her husband`s affairs indiscretions are simply justified byas his status as aof man, and additionally, his wealthy allows him to impose his way of lifestyleving. Nkem`s attempt to decisionde to shape her life according to her will, is a determining step which she takes to integrate with her husband and recover from her isolation estrangement from him. Her transformation, from thea silent figure to thea woman who stands up for her wishes and by decidinges to leave America, represents how frustrated she feels about her new land and her relationship with her husband, Obiora. Therefore, the ideal America, which Nigerians are dreaming of, does not necessarily bring happiness to them as portrayed in the story. The fact that Adichie includes problematic relationships in her book shows that either the alienation of the Nigerian characters begins in their private spacespheres, at home, or the way they are living isir daily life is simply affected by the hardships they come across due to the problems occurring in where the environment they are a part oflive.

Violence-related traumatic experiences and the consequences

The psychological aspects of the stories become more dominant in “Ghosts”. The protagonist James is openly talking about death, and with the presence of extradiegetic analepsis, readers are able to see how the Nigerian Civil War, or in another name the Biafra War that occurred in 1967-1970, has left memories in his mind. The fact that he claims to be visited by the ghost of his dead wife suggests that he is suffering from traumatic neurosis due to the effects of war as stated by Kardiner:

“The war situation definitely contributes to the frequence of incidence of traumatic neuroses and allied disease and is undoubtedly responsible for the difference in character between these neuroses and those which occur in peace time in a more attenuated form.” 

The feeling of loss he is experiencing puts him into thea situation , in which he is treated as a mad man by his friend Ikenna. However, his supernatural interaction with his wife suggests that he feels alienated from the people around him and simply wishes to maintain the connection with the woman who had had a bond with him, before she passed away. James liveis in fear of being sent to America by his daughter if he mentions that Ebere is still visiting him, which is linked to his fear of being introduced to another environment and feeling more isolated than before.

The feeling of losing a loved one appears in “The American Embassy” as well, this time about a woman who is experiencing the death of her son. The idea of a corrupted story presents itself with the portrayal of many people waiting in the line to obtainget the American visa to improve their life conditions, such as in the case of t, he narrator`s life, herher journalist husband being in danger, the death of the her son and the narrator`sher decision to give up her career. The narrator feels distant to the people in the line, stays silent and thinks about “why she did not share in any familiarity that had developed among the others in the line.” However,; despite what she has been going through or when she is refused to obtainget the visa at the end of the story, the fact that she makes an attempts, even by showing upbeing present in the line, gives a sense of her wish to continue her life. Therefore, the author suggests that the idea that whatever happens in the lives of these characters`s, they always try to find a way to continue. 

The desire to continue pursue someone`s life is also portrayed in “A Private Experience,” in which two women with different religious backgrounds come across in a shop while en there is a riot between Muslims and Christians of Nigeria is happening ion the street between Muslims and Christians of Nigeria., but They still manage to have a daily conversation about their experiences in the shop where they need to protect themselves. It is sensed in thise story that alienation, which is experienced by the characters of the stories, is not practically essentially about Nigerians as being the Others. The Muslim woman, who has been experienced ing many riots, is under the gaze of an Igbo Christian Igbo woman, Chika, who is from the same country, and has read about the riots only in newspapers. Chika doubts that whether the woman is able to grasp what Chika she is talking about since she has been exposed to the fact that they are the inferior ones due to their religions, and their socioal and economic status.; Ttherefore, as a result of the Christian Igbos’this way of thinking of the Christian Igbos, the Muslim woman is forced to be isolated from a part of the society. They are both going through a violence-related traumatic experience in Nigeria due to the chaotic atmosphere, yet the shop is isolated from the riots on the streets symbolising the woman`s isolation from society. However, the situation in which they are brings along solidarity between these two women who belong to different sides, yet get have the chance to listen to one another.

“She hardly ever lies, but the few times she does, there is always a purpose behind the lie. She wonders what purpose this lie serves, this need to draw on a fictional past similar to the woman`s ...”

The fact that Chika is lying about her family to create something mutual between herself and the woman, suggests that she feels an inner bond with the woman. Chika is experiencing something that has not been mentioned in the media: not all the Hausa-speaking Muslims are violent against the non-Muslims, as it is written in “The Guardian” (Adichie 55). These two women with different backgrounds are experiencing a short-term friendship, which changes their opinions about the other side, and Chika`s wish to keep the woman`s scarf is the symbol of her adopting a new point of view. At the end, both these women are from the same chaotic and colonised country and solidarity between them might bring a solution to the chaos and their forced alienation, as in the case of Nnamabia in “Cell One” standing up for the old man in the prison.


In Adichie`s short story collection The Thing Around Your Neck, the portrayal of the alienated characters differs from one another due to the various reasons that cause their isolation. Although each story analysed in this paper includes an identity struggle, Adichie manages to present to the readers that the aftermath of their psychological deterioration is not necessarily the same. Nnamabia in “Cell One” and Chika in “A Private Experience” find a way to get overcome their alienation and survive through solidarity as well as; Chinaza in “The Arrangers of Marriage”, Nkem in “Imitation” and Akunna in “The Thing Around Your Neck” through their determination to take an action for themselves and keep their dignity, the narrator in “The American Embassy” through her wish to continue her life and Ujanwa in “Jumping Monkey Hill” through creation as an author. However,; James in “Ghosts” still pursues a bond with his dead wife and whether this situation helps him to hold onto life or isolates him is open to debate. Despite the fact that the stories ofin this postcolonial work collection deal with various themes through many characters with different backgrounds, the mutuality is that Adichie refrains from putting placing the chaotic setting experienced by Nigerians due to colonialism as a central theme, but she rather focuses on representing their struggles in their daily lives. The way Adichie brings along the gender-related alienation of black women is highly related to the colonial mentality. ; Ttherefore, the stories are not only about the colonised nation and their sufferings but also women as colonised beings by the patriarchal authorities. The experiences of these black women involve the exposure to racism as well as sexism.; Cconsequently, they are the double victims of a colonised country.


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16 August 2021
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