The Thing Around Your Neck

The Thing Around Your Neck The American Embassy Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The embassy narrator stands outside the American embassy in Lagos. She's the 48th person in line and holds a file of her documents. She stares straight ahead and ignores the newspaper and food vendors. The man behind her asks if she has change, and she tries to focus and tell him no. She tries to keep her mind blank like her doctor told her to—she needs to be alert for her visa interview. She tries to keep her mind blank, but the image of her four-year-old son, Ugonna, falling bloody to the floor keeps popping up.
The narrator has obviously experienced major violence and trauma, which has forced her to seek refuge in America. The fact that it seems as though a whole market exists to sell to people waiting in line at the embassy suggests that there is a huge amount of bureacracy and red tape involved in getting an American visa. This is indicative of the draw of the American dream.
Themes
Women, Marriage, and Gender Roles Theme Icon
Family and Lies Theme Icon
Colonialism and Violence Theme Icon
The American Dream Theme Icon
The man behind her taps the embassy narrator and tries to draw her attention to a soldier beating a man. She turns to look and is reminded of her jump from the balcony. She says nothing to the man, who continues to be friendly. She wonders if he's curious as to why she's not joining in with the camaraderie of those in line, who all woke up early to stand in line at the American embassy and quickly became friends. The man behind her continues to speak about the soldier, but the narrator looks up the street at the market that pops up to sell food, chairs, passport photos, and newspapers to those standing in line.
The people in line form their own community based on the common goal of wanting to find a better life in America. While the woman's unwillingness to engage certainly speaks to her trauma, it also suggests that she's not as sold on the promise of the American dream as the others.
Themes
Women, Marriage, and Gender Roles Theme Icon
Colonialism and Violence Theme Icon
The American Dream Theme Icon
Two days earlier, the embassy narrator buried Ugonna. The day before, she helped smuggle her husband out of the country. The day before that, life had been normal. The man behind her wonders if the people in the American embassy enjoy watching the soldiers whip people. The narrator tries to keep her mind off Ugonna.
The woman is unable to keep her mind off of her son, which shows how deeply his death is affecting her. In this way, it’s suggested that she defines herself in terms of her son. The man behind her implies that the Americans enjoy their positions of power and making the Nigerians suffer and jump through hoops.
Themes
Women, Marriage, and Gender Roles Theme Icon
Family and Lies Theme Icon
Colonialism and Violence Theme Icon
Two days ago, three men had come to the embassy narrator’s home looking for her husband. They put a gun to her head and asked for her husband, and she told them she didn't know where he was. They asked her about the story her husband wrote for the paper. When it seemed like the men were going to leave, Ugonna ran to the narrator, screaming and crying. The men shot him.
As in "Cell One," government violence and corruption is what's breaking the narrator's family apart. By destroying the narrator's family, the government is robbing the narrator of the only thing thus far that gives her purpose and meaning in her life.
Themes
Women, Marriage, and Gender Roles Theme Icon
Family and Lies Theme Icon
Colonialism and Violence Theme Icon
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The embassy narrator refuses an orange from the man behind her. Her head hurts and she thinks about her jump from the balcony. When she heard the gun go off and saw Ugonna fall, she told herself that it was palm oil and he was playing a game. As the three men deliberated as to what to do, she jumped off the balcony and hid in the garbage bin. After the men had left, she went back to the apartment and held Ugonna's body.
The narrator told herself stories so that she could preserve her relationship with Ugonna long enough to save herself. This mirrors the way that Chika in "A Private Experience" told herself that her sister was still alive; doing so allowed Chika to maintain her cool and find safety.
Themes
Family and Lies Theme Icon
Colonialism and Violence Theme Icon
The man behind her asks the embassy narrator if she's nervous about the visa interview. He instructs her how to nail the interview. The narrator remembers all the people who told her to tell her interviewer about Ugonna so she'd get an asylum visa. The man asks the narrator what kind of visa she's getting, and she tells him she's asking for an asylum visa. She wonders if the man knows about her husband and thinks that if he reads The New Nigeria he probably does. Her husband had been the first to write about the coup and call it a sham. He'd been arrested for two weeks and when he was released, he and the narrator had a party to celebrate.
While the woman's story about Ugonna originally just served the purpose of getting her out of the house alive, now the narrator must use the story to influence others. The narrator is faced with the prospect of performing her grief for an audience that controls her future. This suggests that the American dream is built on the difficult and destroyed dreams of people in other countries (and even in America itself), dreams that the American dream is supposed to replace.
Themes
Women, Marriage, and Gender Roles Theme Icon
Stories and Representation  Theme Icon
Family and Lies Theme Icon
Colonialism and Violence Theme Icon
The American Dream Theme Icon
The man behind her tells the embassy narrator again that asylum visas are hard to obtain. She asks him if he reads The New Nigeria. He does, and he praises the bravery of the editors. The narrator thinks that the editors are selfish, not brave, and remembers her husband skipping a family trip to conduct an important interview. When they returned from their respective trips, they spoke to each other only about Ugonna, which is most of what they talked about anyway.
The narrator describes a family dynamic in which she puts a great deal of importance on the family itself, while her husband cares only for his work. While there's no indication that her husband is cheating, this dynamic echoes the other marriages described in the collection. Though the narrator finds comfort and a sense of identity in motherhood and her marriage, they don't necessarily make her happy.
Themes
Women, Marriage, and Gender Roles Theme Icon
Family and Lies Theme Icon
The embassy narrator confirms with the man behind her that he thinks the editors are brave, and he looks at her suspiciously. She thinks about telling him about her own journalism, which she gave up when she finally became pregnant. She turns away and watches the beggars. She doesn't see The New Nigeria on the closest newspaper stand, and thinks about her husband's latest article. It hadn't worried her because it was only a compilation of the killings and failings of the government. However, a few days after it came out, someone on the radio had praised her husband.
The narrator's decision to give up her journalism job in favor of being a parent speaks to the importance of motherhood on a personal as well as a cultural level, but also shows how women are often expected to give up their careers to support their families in situations where men aren’t. The narrator also shows the divide between public and private as her husband is praised on the radio for his political actions but arguably being irresponsible towards his family.
Themes
Women, Marriage, and Gender Roles Theme Icon
Stories and Representation  Theme Icon
Family and Lies Theme Icon
Colonialism and Violence Theme Icon
The American Dream Theme Icon
Her husband had tried to act as though he wasn't nervous, but he soon received an anonymous call saying the head of state was angry and he was going to be arrested for the last time. The embassy narrator had driven her husband to a coeditor's house and he'd made it to Benin. The plan was for him to apply for asylum in New York, and for the narrator and Ugonna to join him at the end of the school term. Ugonna had been restless that night, and the narrator let him stay up. She wished she'd sent him to bed when the three men burst in.
The narrator's husband's work has disastrous consequences for his family, even if he is doing something brave and just in the public sphere. Notably, the story never mentions how he might feel about his son's violent death; it never even states if the narrator has spoken with her husband about it.
Themes
Women, Marriage, and Gender Roles Theme Icon
Family and Lies Theme Icon
Colonialism and Violence Theme Icon
The man behind her begins a conversation with others in line about the need for shade and the corruption of the American embassy. The embassy narrator gives money to a couple of blind beggars and they bless her with money, a husband, and a job. She thinks they didn't bless her with children. The embassy opens and asks for the first 50 in line, and the man behind remarks on their luck.
Though the narrator is at the American embassy to apply for asylum, this mention of the embassy's corruption suggests that despite the power of the American dream and the safety it promises, America itself has issues as well. Corruption is inescapable, and this reinforces that the American dream is ultimately not so rosy as it’s made out to be.
Themes
Colonialism and Violence Theme Icon
The American Dream Theme Icon
The embassy narrator's interviewer asks the narrator for her story. The narrator thinks of Ugonna and looks at the man interviewing next to her. She realizes she'd rather die before talking about Ugonna in exchange for a visa. She tells the interviewer that her son was killed, but doesn't offer any other details. The interviewer asks how the narrator knows that her son was killed by the government, and asks for proof that the narrator isn't safe in Nigeria. The narrator says she buried the evidence—her son's body—the day before. The interviewer offers her condolences and says that the United States offers "a new life" but needs proof.
The narrator sees Ugonna's death as a purely personal and private tragedy. In doing so, she jeopardizes her chances of escaping Nigeria. The woman's belief that her story is private recalls Edward's search for stories of the "real Africa," and many characters’ struggle with the divide between story and lived experience. Ugonna's death is a story that could easily be sensationalized, but in doing so, the story would become abstract and depersonalized, rather than meaningful and deeply human.
Themes
Women, Marriage, and Gender Roles Theme Icon
Stories and Representation  Theme Icon
Family and Lies Theme Icon
Colonialism and Violence Theme Icon
The American Dream Theme Icon
The embassy narrator thinks that Ugonna gave her a new life. She thinks she wants to go home and plant flowers on Ugonna's grave. The narrator looks again at the man next to her, whose interview is going badly. The interviewer tries to get the narrator's attention, but the narrator gets up and walks out of the embassy.
The narrator confirms that she built her identity around being Ugonna's mother, and wants to continue to cultivate this identity even after his death. For her, family and love are more important than sacrificing a crucial part of herself in pursuit of the American dream.
Themes
Women, Marriage, and Gender Roles Theme Icon
Stories and Representation  Theme Icon
Family and Lies Theme Icon
Colonialism and Violence Theme Icon
The American Dream Theme Icon