The Thing Around Your Neck

The Thing Around Your Neck The Shivering Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Someone knocks on Ukamaka's door in Princeton. It startles her; she's been on edge all day, reading the Nigerian news and calling her family for information about a plane that crashed in Nigeria. She fears that her ex-boyfriend, Udenna, was on the plane. Ukamaka looks out the peephole and opens the door to a pudgy, dark man. He says that he's Nigerian and wants to pray about the crash with her. Ukamaka lets him in.
Initially, Ukamaka's concern for Udenna seems to be a perfectly normal concern for human life in general. The stories she's reading on the internet leave much to be desired, which leads her to make up her own stories in an attempt to understand what's happening. We also see the potential for camaraderie among Nigerian expatriates in America.
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The man takes Ukamaka's hands and prays in the Nigerian Pentecostal fashion that mentions the blood of Jesus uncomfortably often. Ukamaka wants to stop the man, but she doesn't think she could make it sound convincing coming from her and not Father Patrick, the priest at her Catholic church. The man continues to pray. In a pause Ukamaka says "amen," but the man keeps going. Suddenly, Ukamaka's body begins to shiver. She remembers this happening once before when she was a teenager and saying her Hail Marys. She'd only ever told Udenna about it, and he said she'd created the experience herself.
Though we know little about Udenna at this point, his comment about Ukamaka's prior religious experience indicates that he puts little faith in religion or in Ukamaka's lived experiences. This particular experience of shivering while praying indicates the depths of Ukamaka's emotions about the situation, and also the potential for an unknowable, quasi-mystical aspect of life. The man in Ukamaka's apartment seems deeply religious.
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The man ends the prayer and Ukamaka slips away to the bathroom. When she returns, the man is still in her kitchen. He introduces himself as Chinedu. Chinedu sits down on her couch and talks about his morning listening to the news. He mentions the Nigerian First Lady's death, which also happened that day, though she didn't die in the plane crash. Chinedu says that God is telling them something, and only He can save their country. Ukamaka takes comfort in his habit of calling Nigeria "our country" and feels close to him. Chinedu continues to talk about the ills of the government.
The quick sense of closeness between Ukamaka and Chinedu illustrates one aspect of the immigrant experience in America. Ukamaka implies that Udenna was one of her only links in America to Nigeria, and Chinedu can now fill that role for her. They're bonded, essentially, by their shared experiences of being "other" in America. The difficulty both Chinedu and Ukamaka had finding Nigerian news in America shows too how much Nigerian news isn't valued or considered important in America.
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Chinedu asks Ukamaka if she knew anyone on the flight. She says that her ex-boyfriend Udenna may have been on it. Chinedu says that God is faithful. The phone rings. Ukamaka answers it, and her mother tells her that Udenna missed the flight. Ukamaka puts the phone down and cries, and Chinedu holds her and comforts her. Ukamaka feels he understands her many emotions about Udenna and their breakup.
Again, the way that Ukamaka connects so quickly to Chinedu suggests that Udenna likely wasn't just her only link to Nigeria, but possibly one of her only friends and companions in America.
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Ukamaka invites Chinedu to stay for lunch. Ukamaka tries to engage him in theological conversation, but Chinedu only says that God doesn't always make a "human kind of sense." Ukamaka thinks of when Father Patrick had said the same thing, when she met him in the hours after Udenna broke up with her. Udenna broke up with her in an ice cream shop. He told her the relationship was "staid," even though Ukamaka had been planning her life to accommodate his wishes. Ukamaka cooked with hot peppers to please him, even though she didn't like them.
Chinedu's response to Ukamaka's religious questions suggests that she's trying to make God make sense in a more human way. This shows that Ukamaka desperately wants proof and affirmation that things happen for reasons she can understand, unlike Udenna's reason for breaking up with her. Like the other women in the collection, Ukamaka has spent the last few years building her life around Udenna's and ignoring her own desires and her happiness.
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Ukamaka had wandered up and down the streets until she ran into Father Patrick, who told her people have to have faith even when things don't make sense. She'd replied that that's like telling someone to be "tall and shapely," which she's never going to be. Father Patrick laughed and said having faith means being okay with not being tall and shapely.
Ukamaka desperately wants to have faith, but she sees it as something she just can't achieve. Once again this is connected to ideas of story and representation, as Father Patrick describes faith as being inherently linked to an acceptance that some things don’t fit into a coherent story or have an understandable meaning.
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Ukamaka continues to ask Chinedu about his religious reasoning and she takes note of the "bush" way he eats rice with a spoon. Chinedu asks about a picture of Udenna and Ukamaka. Ukamaka lies and says she's been meaning to take the photo down. Chinedu asks where they met, and Ukamaka explains that they met in the United States at a party and had a lot in common. She says that Udenna looks like Thomas Sankara, the former president of Burkina Faso.
Even with Chinedu, Ukamaka lies in order to tell him what she thinks she should tell him, not necessarily what's actually true. This again allows her to build a relationship with Chinedu, while still holding onto her (one-sided) relationship with Udenna. However, she differentiates herself from Chinedu when she takes note of the way he eats.
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Chinedu says he saw Ukamaka and Udenna in the parking lot one day and knew they were Nigerian. Hearing this makes Ukamaka feel as though the three years she spent arranging her life around Udenna's were real. She says that she remembers seeing Chinedu, but thought he was from Ghana. He reminds her of a boy whom Udenna consistently snubbed: poor and from the bush, and not worth Udenna's friendship.
Ukamaka implies that she has trouble believing the true story of the last three years of her life without outside validation that it actually happened (reflecting the thoughts of the narrator at the end of “Jumping Monkey Hill”). She continues to suggest that Udenna isn't actually a very nice person. By comparing Chinedu to the boy Udenna snubbed, Ukamaka is able to feel superior to Chinedu while also feeling charitable for engaging with him.
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Ukamaka asks if the stew is too peppery, and explains that she only started cooking with hot peppers when she met Udenna, and that she doesn't really like it but now she's used to it. Ukamaka refreshes her web page and it reads that everyone on the plan was killed. Chinedu implies that the crash was a punishment from God.
Here, Ukamaka mirrors other female characters like Nkem and Kamara in that even when she's alone, she's still conducting herself as though her own needs and desires matter less than the needs of her male partner. She doesn't keep cooking with hot peppers because she likes them—she's just used to it.
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Ukamaka explains that she used to go to Mass daily, but stopped. She says she simply stopped believing, though Chinedu deems it a crisis of faith and asks for more rice. Ukamaka explains that Udenna never told her he loved her because he thought it was a cliché, and he always made Ukamaka feel like she wasn't smart enough. Chinedu doesn't answer as Ukamaka continues and says that Udenna always minimized her happiness. Over the next few weeks, Ukamaka looks forward to Chinedu's visits so she can talk about Udenna.
Ukamaka confirms that Udenna wasn't nice to her and didn't act as though he wanted her to be happy. It seems that he never took Ukamaka's desires into account, although it's also noteworthy that Ukamaka never outright says that she wanted Udenna to say "I love you." This suggests the possibility that through her relationship with Udenna, Ukamaka truly lost her voice, though she's finding it again as she talks to Chinedu.
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Ukamaka marvels at Chinedu's friendliness with the other residents of their building. She tries to ask Chinedu about his program of study, but he sidesteps her questions. He thanks God that Ukamaka has a car, and Ukamaka is thrilled that they're friends and that he'll keep listening to her talk about Udenna.
Something is going on with Chinedu, but Ukamaka is too involved in herself and in keeping her relationship with Udenna alive through talking about it to truly notice. Even though the stories she tells about Udenna are sad, continuing to tell them makes them seem real to her.
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On Sundays, Ukamaka drives Chinedu to his Pentecostal church, attends a Catholic service, and then they go grocery shopping together. Chinedu is frugal and doesn't understand why Ukamaka would pay more for organic vegetables. Ukamaka laughs and says that Udenna cared; she doesn't really care about it. She offers to buy them lunch, but Chinedu says he's fasting for personal reasons.
Again, even now that Udenna is absent from her life, Ukamaka continues to follow his way of doing things regardless of her own desires. She thus allows Udenna to maintain power over her life even as he is absent from it. This also reinforces Ukamaka's self-absorption; she doesn't see how absurd it looks that she acts like this.
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Ukamaka chatters about visiting home last Christmas and how her uncle teased Udenna about when he was going to propose. She asks Chinedu what he's going to do with his chemistry doctorate, but Chinedu says he doesn't know and changes the radio to a music station. Ukamaka pulls over at a sandwich shop and stops in to grab one for herself. When she gets back in the car, Chinedu tells her that her phone rang. Ukamaka is annoyed that it wasn't Udenna, but Chinedu suggests that maybe it's better he didn't call so that Ukamaka can move on.
From the perspective of any outsider, Chinedu's suggestion is a shining voice of reason. Listening to it, however, would require that Ukamaka reconsider the way she lives her life and think about what she wants out of it, not what Udenna wanted her to want from it. It's easier for the women in the collection to go along with their male partners' desires than it is to advocate for their own.
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Ukamaka is even more annoyed. She wants Udenna to call, since she still has his photograph up in her room. Back at Ukamaka's apartment, she tells Chinedu that he doesn't know what it's like to "love an asshole." He replies that he does, and when Ukamaka seems surprised, he says she never asked about his love life. Chinedu begins to describe his love, a Big Man's son named Abidemi. Abidemi was possessive and vicious. The relationship went on in secret for two years until Abidemi insisted Chinedu attend a party and meet his wife. Abidemi sat between his wife and Chinedu, making jokes about both of them. Chinedu tells Ukamaka that he knew Abidemi would be fine keeping up the charade, so he ended it.
Ukamaka’s self-absorption is revealed when she realizes that she knows nothing about Chinedu’s tragic love story—she’s been too busy dwelling on her own. The fact that Chinedu was able to make the decision to break up with Abidemi is indicative of society’s view that men's desires are more important than women’s. Even in a forbidden same-sex relationship, Chinedu had the wherewithal to advocate for his own needs, because he's been taught that those needs are important.
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Ukamaka expresses disbelief that Abidemi could claim to love Chinedu but only expect Chinedu to do things that Abidemi wanted. She says that Udenna was the same way, and Chinedu angrily says that not everything is about Udenna. Chinedu stands up and asks Ukamaka why she put up with Udenna's abuse, and asks if she ever considered that Udenna didn't love her. Ukamaka tells him to leave her apartment.
Though Ukamaka is correct that Udenna and Abidemi share a number of similarities, by putting everything in terms of Udenna once more, she minimizes Chinedu's lived experience with Abidemi and subsumes it into her own story.
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The day Ukamaka kicks Chinedu out of her apartment, she'd begun to notice that he never went to campus and didn't have his name on his mailbox. A week later, she knocks on his door and he shuts it in her face. On Sunday, Ukamaka begins to panic, thinking about someone else driving Chinedu to church. She knocks on his door and apologizes, offering to drop him off at church. He invites her in and tells her the truth: his visa expired three years ago, he's not a Princeton student, and he's waiting on a deportation notice from Immigration.
The reader has been led to believe that both Chinedu and Ukamaka are at Princeton to pursue the American dream through education. With Chinedu's admission, the reader is reminded again of the difficulties of the immigrant experience and the pursuit of the American dream for those deemed “outsiders.” For Chinedu, fulfilling the dream means simply staying in America, where there are more opportunities. His dream entails only making it from one day to the next.
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Ukamaka invites Chinedu to come to Catholic Mass with her. In the car, she tells him about her shivering experience when they prayed together the first time, and he says it was a sign from God. Father Patrick greets them outside the church and they sit down in a pew. Ukamaka teases Chinedu about liking Father Patrick, and assures him that they'll figure out his immigration issues. Chinedu confides that he also had a crush on Thomas Sankara, and notes that Abidemi looked like Thomas Sankara. They laugh.
Chinedu validates Ukamaka's religious experience, which is the first time in the story that any person Ukamaka deems important treats her thoughts and beliefs as real and worthy of attention. This will hopefully help Ukamaka begin to get over Udenna and learn to value her own thoughts and feelings.
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Father Patrick walks up and down the aisle flicking holy water on the congregation. Ukamaka thinks of how this would happen in Nigeria: the priest would use a branch from a mango tree to drench the congregation, and everyone would feel blessed.
Despite the fact that Ukamaka seems to believe fully in the American dream, she admits here that she still feels a deep connection to and gets fulfillment from her Nigerian roots. Adichie ends the story on this lyrical, wistful note of nostalgia.
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