The Thing Around Your Neck

by

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on The Thing Around Your Neck can help.

The Thing Around Your Neck: The Headstrong Historian Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Nwamgba mourns her husband for years after he dies. She remembers when they first met at a wrestling match and were immediately attracted to each other. A few years later, when Obierika came to ask to marry her, Nwamgba's mother was aghast because Obierika was an only child and his father was known for fertility issues. Nwamgba tells her father she'll run away from any other man but Obierika, so he agrees to allow them to marry.
As the final story, "The Headstrong Historian" actually provides a starting point for the themes and problems explored in the other stories. The story begins in a vague past in Nigeria—earlier than the other stories. Here, Nwamgba is a powerful woman who controls her own destiny. She marries her lover and seems unconcerned at this point with his family's fertility problems. Furthermore, her father supports her decisions.
Themes
Women, Marriage, and Gender Roles Theme Icon
Stories and Representation  Theme Icon
Family and Lies Theme Icon
Obierika comes with his cousins, Okafo and Okoye, who are like his brothers. Nwamgba hates them immediately, but tolerates them because Obierika loves them. They regularly take advantage of Obierika and tell him to marry again when Nwamgba has her third miscarriage, but Obierika tells Nwamgba that he won't marry another wife until they're old. The taunts of the villagers that Nwamgba has cursed her husband begin to get to Nwamgba, and she decides to find another wife for Obierika.
Though Nwamgba sees and accepts that Obierika's family isn't perfect, notice that she doesn't lie to herself about that fact. She simply sits with it. Obierika seems extremely devoted to Nwamgba—even though Nwamgba suggests that polygamy is a common and accepted practice in their culture, he insists on only having one wife.
Themes
Women, Marriage, and Gender Roles Theme Icon
Family and Lies Theme Icon
Colonialism and Violence Theme Icon
One day, Nwamgba goes to the Oyi stream and meets her friend Ayaju. Ayaju is descended from slaves and goes on trading journeys. Ayaju tells the Women's Council about the newly arrived white men with big guns, and everyone respects her. Ayaju suggests a young woman to be Obierika's second wife and also suggests that Nwamgba take a lover so she can get pregnant. Nwamgba shuts down Ayaju's suggestion and feels a pain in her back that she knows means she's pregnant, but she miscarries a few weeks later. She and Obierika travel to the oracle and make a sacrifice. Nwamgba gives birth to her son about a year after.
The power structure in which Nwamgba and Ayaju exist mentions specifically that it values women and women's ideas (in contrast to the post-colonial world of the rest of the book). These female characters have autonomy, though the arrival of the white men with guns begins to bring into question whether or not that's going to last. Nwamgba is equally as loyal to Obierika as he is to her when she refuses to take a lover. Their trip to the oracle yields results, which suggests that there's real power in religion.
Themes
Women, Marriage, and Gender Roles Theme Icon
Stories and Representation  Theme Icon
Family and Lies Theme Icon
Colonialism and Violence Theme Icon
Nwamgba and Obierika name their son Anikwenwa. He's a happy child, but Nwamgba fears that Okafo and Okoye will try to hurt him or Obierika. Later the cousins poison Obierika, but Nwamgba can't prove it. At Obierika's funeral, his cousins take his ivory tusk. They steal Nwamgba's livestock and Nwamgba takes the issue to the Women's Council. The council warns the cousins to leave Nwamgba alone, but she knows they won't. She takes Anikwenwa on walks and tells him about his lineage, and never lets him out of her sight.
Okafo and Okoye's actions after Obierika's death suggests that Nwamgba and Obierika had power and autonomy thanks to their relationship with each other—their positive, healthy relationship was crucial to their success and happiness. Further, the Women's Council seems to have less power here, which alludes to the possibility that female power is slipping.
Themes
Women, Marriage, and Gender Roles Theme Icon
Family and Lies Theme Icon
Colonialism and Violence Theme Icon
Get the entire The Thing Around Your Neck LitChart as a printable PDF.
The Thing Around Your Neck PDF
One day, Ayaju returns from a journey with a story that the white men tried to tell the women in Onicha how to trade, and when the people in Onicha refused, the white men destroyed the village. Ayaju explains that the white men have very big guns. The white men are also asking families to send their children to school. Ayaju sends one of her sons to learn the ways of the white men, telling Nwamgba that those with the best guns become rulers.
Ayaju asserts that there's power to be had in education, especially when that education comes from people who are already quite powerful. This early violence by white men shows that they value their beliefs and systems over those of the locals. They believe their ways are superior, and they have the weapons to make sure they spread them.
Themes
Stories and Representation  Theme Icon
Colonialism and Violence Theme Icon
Related Quotes
When the white men come to Nwamgba's clan, she hurries to the square and is disappointed at how ordinary the men look. One of the normal helpers of the white men explains that they're from the Holy Ghost Congregation. Nwamgba asks about their guns, and the man tells her about his god and explains that the Royal Niger Company has the guns. Nwamgba laughs when the man describes his god.
When Nwamgba describes the helper as "normal," it turns the tables on the power structures presented in most of the book. The white person here is an "other," while his black helper is “normal.” The mention of the Royal Niger Company sets this story sometime between 1886-1900.
Themes
Stories and Representation  Theme Icon
Colonialism and Violence Theme Icon
Several weeks later, Ayaju tells Nwamgba that white men set up a courthouse in Onicha and suggests that Nwamgba send Anikwenwa to school. Nwamgba thinks she never will, but changes her mind when Okafo and Okoye steal her land. She hears that a man who spoke English won a land dispute in court, even though the land wasn't his. She also hears about missionaries who save men from slave dealers and turn them into Christian missionaries. Nwamgba fears that her husband's cousins will try to sell Anikwenwa into slavery, so she takes him to the Anglican mission.
Though Nwamgba cares very deeply about making sure Anikwenwa remains connected to his culture, she can no longer deny that the white men are more powerful than the “normal” men. She sees sending Anikwenwa to school as a means to an end; she doesn't think doing so will have any lasting, negative effects. Rather, she sees an English education as being a way to beat Okafo and Oyoke at their own game.
Themes
Stories and Representation  Theme Icon
Family and Lies Theme Icon
Colonialism and Violence Theme Icon
Nwamgba pulls Anikwenwa out of school at the Anglican mission when she learns that lessons are taught in Igbo. She then takes Anikwenwa to the Catholic mission, where a missionary baptizes Anikwenwa as Michael. Nwamgba doesn't like how the missionaries beat their students, and she angrily informs them to not beat her son. She brings Anikwenwa home every weekend, and he joyfully runs naked. He hates school and the clothes he has to wear there.
Nwamgba puts the most importance on learning the English language, even though the Anglican mission seems to otherwise align better with her desires to keep Anikwenwa in touch with his culture. Nwamgba behaves as though she's still superior and more powerful than the missionaries, which shows that she still believes in her own power to create change.
Themes
Women, Marriage, and Gender Roles Theme Icon
Colonialism and Violence Theme Icon
Nwamgba begins to notice that Anikwenwa soon adopts strange habits. He refuses to eat "heathen food" and tells his mother that her nakedness is a sin. He refuses his coming-of-age ceremony, though Nwamgba makes him participate. She's sad at this change, but proud when he comes home with papers that say the land stolen by Okafo and Okoye belongs to Nwamgba.
Anikwenwa's religious training has the opposite effect of what Nwamgba intended, though he does win Nwamgba's land back for her. This shows that while he's somewhat loyal to his mother, he cares more about what the missionaries are teaching him is right and wrong. He places more importance on things outside his family than within it, and has internalized the colonialists’ ideas of sin and superiority.
Themes
Family and Lies Theme Icon
Colonialism and Violence Theme Icon
Anikwenwa soon goes to Lagos to teach. He returns and talks about "winning souls," and Nwamgba wonders if she meddled too much with his destiny. He tells her later about the woman he's going to marry, a woman named Mgbeke, though he calls her Agnes. He marries her in a church, and Nwamgba finds the ceremony strange. She decides she likes Mgbeke but comes to pity her, because Anikwenwa is impossible to please.
The narrative implies that the discontent in Mgbeke and Anikwenwa's marriage comes from their Christian religion, as it has very specific requirements for what is right and wrong. Anikwenwa seems to enjoy the power he gets from being a Christian husband, as he denies Mgbeke things that make her happy.
Themes
Women, Marriage, and Gender Roles Theme Icon
Family and Lies Theme Icon
Colonialism and Violence Theme Icon
One day, Mgbeke goes to get water at the Oyi stream, but refuses to remove her clothes as is customary because she's a Christian. The women at the stream beat her, and Anikwenwa threatens to lock up the women. Nwamgba is ashamed of her son and thinks he treats people who aren't Christian as though they have diseases.
Nwamgba rightfully takes great offense to Anikwenwa's misguided sense of superiority. Though Anikwenwa was once Nwamgba's hope for the future, her shame indicates that she's become disillusioned with the promises made by the white men.
Themes
Family and Lies Theme Icon
Colonialism and Violence Theme Icon
Nwamgba makes sacrifices so that Mgbeke can give birth to a son, believing that her grandson will be Obierika's soul returned. Mgbeke has three miscarriages before giving birth to a boy. She names him Peter, but Nwamgba calls the boy Nnamdi. Nwamgba doesn't feel Obierika's spirit in the boy. Mgbeke has several more miscarriages and then has a girl. She names her Grace, and Nwamgba calls her Afamefuna. Nwamgba knows that her granddaughter has Obierika's spirit. Grace shows great interest in her grandmother's poetry and stories, but Anikwenwa makes her attend boarding school.
Again, traditional religion has real power in this story, as it remedies (to a degree) the family’s infertility. Nwamgba insists on using her family members' Nigerian names in an attempt to remind them of their Nigerian history. Even in death, Nwamgba is still very connected to Obierika, which shows that family is still a strong, guiding force in her life. Grace's interest reinforces that understanding one's history is important to happiness and fulfillment.
Themes
Women, Marriage, and Gender Roles Theme Icon
Family and Lies Theme Icon
Colonialism and Violence Theme Icon
When Grace leaves for school, Nwamgba knows she's going to die soon. Anikwenwa wants to baptize her so she can have a Christian funeral, but Nwamgba refuses. She asks to see Afamefuna. Anikwenwa tells Nwamgba that Grace can't come, but Grace comes on her own.
Grace's mysterious arrival shows that there are powerful forces at play. Anikwenwa is selfish; he cares more that his mother dies the way he wants than that she dies in a way that makes her happy.
Themes
Family and Lies Theme Icon
Colonialism and Violence Theme Icon
In Grace's schoolbag is a book about the "pacification" of Nigerian tribes. She goes on to read about the "savages" with interest, and doesn't realize she's a descendent of the "savages" until a teacher tells her that Nwamgba's poetry isn't actually poetry. Grace begins to despise Anikwenwa and tries to avoid him. She listens to stories of white men razing villages but doesn't know if she should believe them, since the people also tell stories about mermaids.
The fact that Grace didn't make the connection between the tribes in her textbook and herself shows that one of the most detrimental effects of colonization is that native peoples are entirely divorced from their culture. European culture doesn't value art forms like Nwamgba's poetry; it insists that the only art worth studying is European art.
Themes
Stories and Representation  Theme Icon
Colonialism and Violence Theme Icon
Related Quotes
In college in 1950, Grace changes her degree to history after hearing about a Nigerian man who resigned from an educational council after the council began talking about adding African history to the curriculum. Grace realizes that education brings dignity, and begins to rethink her own education and Anikwenwa's teachings. Grace travels to Europe and writes a book called Pacifying with Bullets: A Reclaimed History of Southern Nigeria. Grace realizes her marriage won't last when her husband says the subject of the book isn't worth writing about, and she divorces him in 1972. Grace receives prizes and awards for her work writing for international organizations, and thinks of her grandmother.
The actions of this Nigerian man demonstrate again the horrific effects of colonization: even though the man is Nigerian and powerful, he doesn't value Nigerian culture enough to allow it to be taught. He is more like Edward from "Jumping Monkey Hill" here than like the people he's descended from. Even Grace's husband doesn't see that her work has purpose, but unlike other female characters, Grace advocates for herself and her own happiness and ideas by divorcing him. Grace thus becomes a figure of hope for the future, a character who values Nigerian culture and sees the dark truth about colonialism, but who also receives a Western education and embraces her own independence.
Themes
Women, Marriage, and Gender Roles Theme Icon
Stories and Representation  Theme Icon
Family and Lies Theme Icon
Colonialism and Violence Theme Icon
As an older woman, Grace goes to the courthouse and changes her name to Afamefuna. As a child, however, sitting next to Nwamgba, she simply holds her grandmother's hand.
The story suggests that Grace is able to achieve this happiness and power because she worked hard to truly connect to her roots. In this way, the book as a whole suggests that some of the damage done by colonialism can be remedied when colonized people celebrate their cultures and advocate for their happiness. The book ends on a more optimistic note than many of the individual stories do, concluding with this small moment of intergenerational tenderness and understanding.
Themes
Stories and Representation  Theme Icon
Family and Lies Theme Icon
Colonialism and Violence Theme Icon