Petals of Blood


Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

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Petals of Blood Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o's Petals of Blood. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o was born James Ngugi in 1938 in Kamirithu, a suburb of Limuru, a town in Kenya. He is Gikuyu, the most common ethnicity in Kenya, and grew up speaking the Gikuyu language as well as English. His older half-brother belonged to the guerilla Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KLFA), more commonly known as the Mau Mau, which fought against the British Empire’s colonial control of Kenya during the Mau Mau Rebellion (1952–1960). Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o went to Uganda for college and graduated from Uganda’s Makerere University College in 1963—the same year Kenya won its independence from England. In 1964, he published his first novel, Weep Not, Child, written in English. He then went to England to begin an MA in English at the University of Leeds, which he abandoned without completing. In 1965 he published his second novel, The River Between. His third novel, A Grain of Wheat, came out in 1967; around this time, he embraced Marxism, began critiquing English as a language that colonizers forced on Kenyans, and changed his name from James Ngugi to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. He published his fourth and final English-language novel, Petals of Blood, in 1977; due to the novel’s trenchant critique of Kenyan politics, as well as the critique forwarded in his 1977 play I Will Marry When I Want, the Kenyan government arrested him, and he spent a year in prison. After his 1978 release, he and his family fled Kenya. He spent time teaching at various international universities—including the University of Bayreuth in Germany, Yale University, and New York University—while continuing to write novels and nonfiction, now in Gikuyu. He currently works as a professor of English and Comparative Literature in the School of Humanities at the University of California, Irvine. In total, he has written eight novels and five memoirs, as well as plays, short story collections, and assorted nonfiction.
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Historical Context of Petals of Blood

Petals of Blood depicts the suffering that post-Independence Kenya experienced in the aftermath of European colonial exploitation. Foreign exploitation of Kenya has a long history. In the 1600s, Omani Arab slavers often kidnapped and sold people indigenous to Kenya; Portuguese people both bought Kenyan people as slaves and colonized parts of Kenya. By the late 1800s, both Germany and England had a colonial presence in Kenya. In 1920, Kenya—then called the “Colony and Protectorate of Kenya”—officially became a royal British colony under England’s King George V (1865–1936). From the late 1940s, a guerilla organization called the Kenyan Land and Freedom Army (KLFA), more commonly known as the Mau Mau, began trying to drive out British colonizers. These attempts blossomed into an official war, often called the Mau Mau Rebellion, from 1952 to 1960. In 1956, British forces captured the KLFA/Mau Mau’s most famous leader, Dedan Kimathi (1920–1957); the next year, they executed him. Nevertheless, the KLFA/Mau Mau continued to take action against the British for several years afterward. Likely due to the Mau Mau, the British realized they could not continue to control Kenya politically without recurrent violence. Kenya officially became the Republic of Kenya, independent from British rule, in 1963.

Other Books Related to Petals of Blood

Petals of Blood repeatedly mentions William Shakespeare (1564–1616). In particular, a minor antagonist quotes from Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice (c. 1596 – 1598), while a major antagonist, Chui, quotes at length from Shakespeare’s play Troilus and Cressida (1602). In Petals of Blood, Shakespeare’s plays represent the imposition of English literature upon Kenyan students, who want to read African literatures and other literature more relevant to their personal and historical context. In a contrasting fashion, the novel also mentions God’s Bits of Wood (1962) the English translation of Senegalese author Ousmane Sembène’s 1960 French-language novel Les bouts de bois de Dieu. This novel represents Senegalese resistance to French colonialism. By representing a politically engaged Kenyan student reading this novel in Petals of Blood, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o may be suggesting both that God’s Bits of Wood inspired his own work and that Ousmane Sembène is a more appropriate author for African students to read than William Shakespeare. Like Petals of Blood, the first three novels written by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o represent elements of Kenya’s colonization by and independence from England, whether it be Kenyan culture under British rule as in The River Between (1965) or the fight for Kenyan independence as in Weep Not, Child (1964) and A Grain of Wheat (1967). Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s younger Kenyan contemporary Meja Mwangi has also written repeatedly about the Kenyan fight for independence in the Mau Mau Rebellion (1952–1960), as in his novels Carcase for Hounds (1974) and The Mzungu Boy (1990). Finally, as Ugandan author Moses Isegawa writes in a glowing introduction for the Penguin Classics edition of Petals of Blood, it seems possible that Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s work influenced Isegawa’s novels The Abyssinian Chronicles (1998) and Snakepit (2004), both of which are set in Uganda after it gained independence from British colonial rule.
Key Facts about Petals of Blood
  • Full Title: Petals of Blood
  • When Written: 1970–1975
  • Where Written: Evanston, IL, USA; Limuru, Kenya; Yalta, USSR
  • When Published: 1977
  • Literary Period: Postcolonial 
  • Genre: Novel, Realism
  • Setting: Kenya
  • Climax: Munira admits he set the fire that killed Kimeria, Chui, and Mzigo.
  • Antagonist: Kimeria, Chui, Mzigo, Nderi wa Riera
  • Point of View: First-Person Plural (the people of Ilmorog)

Extra Credit for Petals of Blood

Fun with Poetry: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o took the phrase “petals of blood” from “The Swamp,” a poem by Derek Walcott (1930–2017), a writer from St. Lucia (a Caribbean island colonized by both France and England) who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o uses a quotation from Walcott’s “The Swamp” as the epigraph for Petals of Blood.

Literary Children: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o has four children who have also published novels, including the Cornell professor Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ and the journalist Wanjikũ wa Ngũgĩ.