The River Between

by

Ngugi wa Thiong’o

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Circumcision Symbol Analysis

Circumcision Symbol Icon

In the novel, circumcision represents one’s adherence to Gikuyu traditions and cultural identity. Every Gikuyu man and woman is circumcised, a rite of passage that ushers them into adulthood and affirms them as a true member of the tribe. Waiyaki recognizes circumcision as their tribe’s most important rite; beyond being a personal source of meaning and identity, circumcision also provides the tribe’s “social cohesion” and connects the tribespeople to each other and to their ancestors throughout history. In other words, one cannot be truly Gikuyu without being circumcised. Muthoni speaks to this when she explains that she wants to be circumcised so that she can be “a real woman, knowing all the ways of the hills and ridges.” To Muthoni, circumcision is a marker of adulthood, but it imbues her with a certain knowledge of the Gikuyu way of life.

However, circumcision also represents the difficulty some characters have in embracing both the white missionaries’ Christianity and their own Gikuyu traditions. Joshua, the Gikuyu Christian pastor, and Livingstone, a white missionary, both forbid their followers from practicing circumcision, which they see as a sinful “pagan” ritual. But in outlawing circumcision, these men symbolically spurn the Gikuyu people’s own cultural identity. Although Joshua’s youngest daughter, Muthoni, is devoted to the Christian faith, she feels that she cannot be a real woman unless she is circumcised like the Gikuyu woman of old. Her simultaneous desire to be circumcised and desire to maintain her Christian faith symbolizes her conflicted identity. Ultimately, Muthoni defies Joshua and leaves their family to participate in the tradition—even though her father disowns her for it—which speaks to how important a sense of personal and shared cultural identity is for the Gikuyu people. Indeed, after completing the procedure, Muthoni feels like a “true woman of the tribe.” Tragically, though, Muthoni’s surgical site becomes infected and she grows sicker and sicker. Before she dies, Muthoni sees a vision of Jesus and announces that she feels like a true Gikuyu woman, signifying that she managed to successfully embrace both her Christian faith and tribal identity. However, her death signifies that such resolution may come at a severe cost, especially when one is caught between such fierce ideological opposition.

On the other hand, when Waiyaki wants to marry Nyambura, a Christian, the tribe forbids it because she is uncircumcised and thus not committed to their tribal identity. Moreover, when the Kiama is considering violence against Joshua’s followers, they decide they will circumcise the Christians “by force,” signifying that they will demand allegiance to the tribe through violence.

It is important to note that female circumcision, which is prominent in the story, is now commonly called “female genital mutilation” and regarded as a human rights abuse. However, the story only uses it as an important cultural custom that women voluntarily undergo. Within the narrative, female circumcision is only significant as a symbol, not as an ethical dilemma.

Circumcision Quotes in The River Between

The The River Between quotes below all refer to the symbol of Circumcision. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Colonialism Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Penguin edition of The River Between published in 2015.
Chapter 6 Quotes

“Father and Mother are circumcised. Are they not Christians? Circumcision did not prevent them from being Christians. I too have embraced the white man’s faith. However, I know it is beautiful, oh so beautiful to be initiated into womanhood. You learn the ways of the tribe. Yes, the white man’s God does not quite satisfy me. I want, I need something more.”

Related Characters: Muthoni (speaker), Nyambura, Joshua, Miriamu
Related Symbols: Circumcision
Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 7 Quotes

Joshua was such a staunch man of God and such a firm believer in the Old Testament, that he would never refrain from punishing a sin, even if this meant beating his wife. He did not mind as long as he was executing God’s justice.

Related Characters: Joshua, Miriamu, Kabonyi
Related Symbols: Circumcision
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 8 Quotes

[Miriamu’s] faith and belief in God were coupled with her fear of Joshua. But that was religion and it was the way things were ordered. However, one could tell by her eyes that this was a religion learned and accepted; inside, the true Gikuyu woman was sleeping.

Related Characters: Miriamu, Joshua, Muthoni
Related Symbols: Circumcision
Page Number: 33
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 10 Quotes

The knife produced a thin sharp pain as it cut through the flesh. The surgeon had done his work. Blood trickled freely on to the ground, sinking into the soil. Henceforth a religious bond linked Waiyaki to the earth, as if his blood was an offering.

Related Characters: Waiyaki, Muthoni
Related Symbols: Circumcision
Page Number: 44
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 11 Quotes

Circumcision had to be rooted out if there was to be any hope of salvation for these people.

Related Characters: Reverend Livingstone
Related Symbols: Circumcision
Page Number: 54
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 14 Quotes

Circumcision was an important ritual to the tribe. It kept people together, bound the tribe. It was at the core of the social structure, and a something that gave meaning to a man’s life. End the custom and the spiritual basis of the tribe’s cohesion and integration would be no more.

Related Characters: Waiyaki, Reverend Livingstone
Related Symbols: Circumcision
Page Number: 66
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 15 Quotes

Nyambura was not circumcised. But this was not a crime. Something passed between them as two human beings, untainted with religion, social conventions, or any tradition.

Related Characters: Waiyaki, Nyambura
Related Symbols: Circumcision, The Honia River
Page Number: 74
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 17 Quotes

As the spiritual head of the hills, [Joshua] enforced the Church’s morality with new energy. All the tribe’s customs were bad. That was final. There could never be a compromise.

Related Characters: Joshua, Muthoni
Related Symbols: Circumcision
Page Number: 82
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 22 Quotes

“You must not [marry Nyambura]. Fear the voice of the Kiama. It is the voice of the people. When the breath of that people turns against you, it is the greatest curse you can ever get.”

Related Characters: Waiyaki’s Mother (speaker), Waiyaki, Nyambura
Related Symbols: Circumcision
Page Number: 119-120
Explanation and Analysis:
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Circumcision Symbol Timeline in The River Between

The timeline below shows where the symbol Circumcision appears in The River Between. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 3
Christianity, Tribal Customs, and Identity Theme Icon
Tradition vs. Progress Theme Icon
...When Waiyaki’s friends tell him that he cannot play the giant since he is not circumcised and has not been “reborn,” Waiyaki uses the “half-imploring, half-commanding” power of his eyes to... (full context)
Chapter 6
Christianity, Tribal Customs, and Identity Theme Icon
...Nyambura thinks about how the villagers use the cold water to numb their bodies for circumcision. The thought makes her feel guilty, since Joshua, a Christian preacher, views female circumcision as... (full context)
Christianity, Tribal Customs, and Identity Theme Icon
Unity and Division Theme Icon
Muthoni’s wish to be circumcised upsets Nyambura, since it goes against the missionaries’ teachings. Muthoni insists that although she does... (full context)
Chapter 7
Christianity, Tribal Customs, and Identity Theme Icon
Unity and Division Theme Icon
...Christianity, many people initially converted. However, they soon went back to drinking, tribal dancing, and circumcision. Now, Joshua’s preaching grows more wrathful by the day, and he “observes the word to... (full context)
Christianity, Tribal Customs, and Identity Theme Icon
Unity and Division Theme Icon
...Murungu. Joshua’s followers prepare for Christmas while everyone else prepares for the initiation rites and circumcision ceremonies. Joshua views female circumcision as the “unforgivable sin” and laments that his own wife,... (full context)
Chapter 8
Christianity, Tribal Customs, and Identity Theme Icon
Tradition vs. Progress Theme Icon
Unity and Division Theme Icon
...Muthoni, Nyambura finally admits that Muthoni has gone to their aunt in Kameno to be circumcised. Joshua seizes Nyambura, enraged, and she is terrified of her father. Eventually he lets her... (full context)
Chapter 9
Christianity, Tribal Customs, and Identity Theme Icon
Tradition vs. Progress Theme Icon
Unity and Division Theme Icon
...them. He resents that the Christians teach against the beautiful rites of the tribe, especially circumcision. He believes that Waiyaki is strong enough to learn from the missionaries without falling into... (full context)
Colonialism Theme Icon
Christianity, Tribal Customs, and Identity Theme Icon
Tradition vs. Progress Theme Icon
Unity and Division Theme Icon
Waiyaki will be circumcised in a few days and become a man. Chege knows that, when this happens, he... (full context)
Chapter 10
Christianity, Tribal Customs, and Identity Theme Icon
Tradition vs. Progress Theme Icon
...morning, Waiyaki sits naked on the riverbank with the other initiates. “The surgeon” makes the circumcision cut, and Waiyaki feels a sharp pain. He watches his blood trickle onto the soil,... (full context)
Colonialism Theme Icon
Christianity, Tribal Customs, and Identity Theme Icon
Tradition vs. Progress Theme Icon
Unity and Division Theme Icon
Chege speaks with another elder, proud of Waiyaki for enduring circumcision and proving that his time amongst the white people has not weakened him. The elder... (full context)
Chapter 11
Colonialism Theme Icon
Christianity, Tribal Customs, and Identity Theme Icon
Unity and Division Theme Icon
...war that comes from stripping a people of their own culture. However, Livingstone regards female circumcision as a singular exception, an unarguable evil that must be “rooted out.” To Livingstone, Muthoni’s... (full context)
Chapter 12
Christianity, Tribal Customs, and Identity Theme Icon
Unity and Division Theme Icon
...in Siriana corrupted him. Joshua now explicitly bans any Christians from having any connection to circumcision, and his new ferocity emboldens his followers and grows their influence. (full context)
Chapter 14
Tradition vs. Progress Theme Icon
...if they do not want to become white people themselves. In the midst of this, circumcision becomes even more important, as it’s a way to bind the tribe together and maintain... (full context)
Chapter 15
Christianity, Tribal Customs, and Identity Theme Icon
...both walking to Makuyu, so they walk together. Waiyaki privately reflects that Nyambura is not circumcised, though he thinks this should not be a crime—they are both human beings after all.... (full context)
Chapter 19
Colonialism Theme Icon
Christianity, Tribal Customs, and Identity Theme Icon
Unity and Division Theme Icon
...his schools. Many of his own followers are returning to their tribal customs, such as circumcision and taking multiple wives—Joshua does not understand why the latter is sinful, since it occurs... (full context)
Chapter 20
Christianity, Tribal Customs, and Identity Theme Icon
Unity and Division Theme Icon
...to the missionaries, and rumor has it that Waiyaki will marry Nyambura, Joshua’s daughter, an uncircumcised woman. Waiyaki brushes off the threat, but Kinuthia tries to convince him that these rumors... (full context)
Chapter 22
Colonialism Theme Icon
Christianity, Tribal Customs, and Identity Theme Icon
Unity and Division Theme Icon
...tribe’s next initiation rites will occur soon, on the same day. The Kiama now regards uncircumcised women as traitors, symbols of the white people’s influence. Waiyaki rises from his bed, since... (full context)
Chapter 23
Colonialism Theme Icon
Christianity, Tribal Customs, and Identity Theme Icon
Unity and Division Theme Icon
...reflect that Nyambura turned him against the tribe and decide that all Christians must be circumcised “by force.” (full context)
Chapter 25
Christianity, Tribal Customs, and Identity Theme Icon
Tradition vs. Progress Theme Icon
Unity and Division Theme Icon
...Muthoni tried to reconcile Christianity and tribal culture and died in her attempt. But female circumcision is too culturally important to suddenly abandon. If Christianity is to exist in their tribe,... (full context)
Christianity, Tribal Customs, and Identity Theme Icon
Tradition vs. Progress Theme Icon
Unity and Division Theme Icon
...Teacher. They cannot believe that Waiyaki would break his oath of purity and marry an uncircumcised woman. Kabonyi attends, determined to defeat Waiyaki. He burns with hatred for him and “identified... (full context)
Chapter 26
Colonialism Theme Icon
Christianity, Tribal Customs, and Identity Theme Icon
Unity and Division Theme Icon
...declares that Waiyaki has broken the oath by seeking to marry Nyambura, Joshua’s daughter, an uncircumcised woman. The crowd will not believe it, so Kabonyi presents Nyambura and challenges Waiyaki to... (full context)