The Thing Around Your Neck

by

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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

Summary
Analysis
The narrator, Akunna, says she thought that everyone in America had a car and a gun. She wins the visa “lottery,” and her family members tell her that she'll soon have a big car and a house, but not to buy a gun. They gather to say goodbye and ask her to send them purses and perfumes.
Akunna's family and friends define the American dream as cars, houses, guns, and plenty of luxuries. Terming the "visa lottery" as such shows how coveted American visas are; they're something won, not just something one gets.
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Akunna's uncle picks her up from the airport. He buys her a hot dog and takes her to his house in Maine. He enrolls her in community college and helps her apply for a cashier job, and says that his wife has to drive an hour to find a salon that does black hair. When the girls at the community college ask Akunna about her hair and how she speaks English so well, her uncle says to expect treatment like that. America is give and take; it provides opportunities but you give up a lot to get them.
Even if her uncle's house and life seem idyllic from the outside, America shows itself to be not exactly hospitable to black people, and this lack of hospitality is expected and seen as normal. It's not easy to fulfill needs like a knowledgeable hair salon, and most white Americans obviously know very little about black people or Africa.
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One day, Akunna's uncle comes into the basement, grabs her buttocks, and sits on her bed. He says that all the smart girls let men like him "help" them. Akunna locks herself in the bathroom until he leaves and gets on a Greyhound bus the next morning.
Akunna's uncle's horrifying behavior adds a grim perspective to his statement about American “give and take.” He expects her to give up her autonomy to maintain the relatively comfortable life she has at his home.
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The last bus stop is a small town in Connecticut. Akunna enters a restaurant and asks the manager for work, saying she'll work for less than the other waitresses. He hires her, under the table, for a dollar less, because "all immigrants work hard." Akunna tries to continue studying at the library since she can't afford to attend classes. She thinks of home and her friends' envy that Akunna won the American visa lottery, and sends money home to her family every month without an accompanying letter.
Akunna is already disillusioned with the American dream, and her disillusionment silences her voice—she can't write anything to her parents, because what she experiences isn't the American dream they hoped for. Though her employer agrees to hire her, he makes very broad assumptions about her based only on the fact that she's an immigrant.
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After a few months, Akunna wants to write to her family and friends about the openness of the Americans and how the poor Americans are fat while the rich are thin. She can't afford to send the requested purses and perfumes, though, so she doesn't send letters. At night, Akunna feels invisible and tries to walk through her walls, and when she's about to fall asleep she feels like something wraps itself around her neck and almost chokes her.
Again, Akunna stays silent and lonely as a result of her disillusionment with the American dream. This silence also make her feel invisible, as nobody sees her as a full, rounded person. The loneliness and depression she experiences is the “thing around her neck” and, notably, it comes from her silence. Adichie writes about depression in other works as well—and particularly depression among immigrants coming to America—and the image she creates here is particularly vivid and powerful.
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At the restaurant, customers ask Akunna if she's from Jamaica. One day, a boy asks what African country she's from, and then asks if she's Yoruba or Igbo. Akunna thinks he must be a professor, but he says he's traveled in Africa and enjoys studying sub-Saharan Africa. Akunna tries to show disdain to the boy because white people are all condescending.
The boy seems as though he can likely identify Nigeria on a map and is aware of some of the Nigerian ethnic groups. However, Akunna's distrust stems from her prior experiences with Americans fetishizing and romanticizing Africa.
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The boy shows up at the restaurant for the next few days and tries to talk to Akunna about Lagos. He tells her about his travels to Bombay and how he likes to visit the "real people" in the shantytowns rather than doing tourist activities. That night, he's waiting outside for Akunna after her shift, and he asks her out. He tells her he's a senior at the university and gives his age. When Akunna asks why he hasn't graduated yet at his age, he says he left school to travel and find himself. Akunna thinks she didn't know that people could choose to not attend school. She tells him no for four days. On the fifth day, he's not waiting for Akunna after work. When he finally shows up, she says she'd love to go out with him. He takes her to Chang's and her fortune cookie fortune is blank.
The boy obviously romanticizes the life of poor people in foreign countries. His ability to choose to leave school and travel indicates that this boy comes from a wealthy privileged family, which indicates that he has the ability to visit these countries, experience the "romance" of poverty, and then return home to his comfortable life. Akunna's inability to understand how he can do that is indicative of her own lack of choices and resources. However, the boy is the first person in America to really pay any attention to Akunna, which at least begins to remedy her loneliness.
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Akunna feels that she and the boy are becoming close when she tells him that she never roots for white men on Jeopardy. She tells him about the time her father hit a Big Man's car in rainy Lagos traffic and laid out in the road in shame. The Big Man's driver eventually let her father go, and Akunna told her father that he looked like shit. The boy grabs Akunna's hand and says he understands, but Akunna feels annoyed and says there's nothing to understand.
Akunna's story shows that women aren't the only ones that suffer at the hands of Big Men in Nigeria—poor men like her father are humiliated too. Though the boy is trying to be comforting, it's obvious that he finds the story exciting and, primarily, a story. Like other characters in the collection, he doesn't understand that this “story” is someone else's everyday reality.
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The boy finds an African store and drives Akunna there. The storeowner asks the boy if he's African, and the boy says he is, and then is pleased he fooled the owner. Akunna cooks onugbu soup and the boy vomits later. Akunna doesn't mind, because the boy is vegetarian, and now she can put meat in the soup. She doesn't tell the boy that her mother cooks with cubes that are pure MSG, because the boy believes MSG causes cancer.
Passing for African is a status marker for the boy, while for Akunna, being African in America is a detriment. For all the boy’s talk about how poor people are the "real" people of a country, Akunna realizes that he would think very poorly of her family because the boy is truly upper class, no matter how much he tries to deny it.
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At Chang's one night, the boy tells the waiter he speaks some Mandarin. The waiter asks the boy if he has a girlfriend in Shanghai, and Akunna loses her appetite when the boy says nothing. She doesn't enjoy sex later and finally tells the boy that she's hurt that he didn't correct the waiter at Chang's. He apologizes, but Akunna realizes he doesn't understand.
The boy doesn't understand that it's hurtful for Akunna to watch him confirm the waiter's unspoken belief that the boy, as a white person, couldn't possibly be dating Akunna. Again, the boy sees that his travels make him seem mysterious and doesn't understand the power that his wealth and whiteness affords him as he moves through the world.
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The boy buys Akunna gifts, and Akunna finally tells him to stop buying her things that aren't useful. Akunna keeps the gifts of clothes and shoes to give to her family. The boy offers to fly both of them to Nigeria, but Akunna doesn't want him to be able to check Nigeria off his list of countries he's visited. Akunna confronts him about his belief that the poor people of a country are the "real" people of a country, and asks if he's a real American since he's not poor. They make up later, and the thing around Akunna's neck starts to loosen.
Despite Akunna's confrontations, the boy remains ignorant of his own power and privilege. He has the financial power to buy gifts and plane tickets, things that Akunna will never be able to afford because the American dream is not available to her. Even if the boy isn't a "real" American by his own (misguided) standards, Akunna is aware that he's living the American dream.
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Akunna knows that her relationship with the boy seems abnormal to many people, but the boy's parents make everything seem normal when they go to dinner one night. Akunna doesn't understand why the boy is so stiff, and feels thankful that they don't treat her like she's exotic. The boy tells her later that his parents ration their love, and they'd love him better if he agreed to go to law school. Akunna is angry and thinks of two weeks ago when he'd refused to take Akunna on a trip to Canada with his parents. Akunna cries in the shower and doesn't know why.
Because Akunna comes from so little and has been taught to be thankful for any good thing, she's acutely aware that the fact that the boy can say no to trips or free school is indicative of a blind sense of privilege. She sees those things as things she couldn't say no to, as they'd allow her to come closer to the American dream. For him, however, it's important that he's able to decline these offers.
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Akunna writes home and receives a letter that her father died five months ago. Her family had used the money from Akunna to give him a good funeral. Akunna curls up in bed and thinks of her father. The boy holds her and offers to fly them both to Nigeria. Akunna insists on going alone, and the boy asks if she'll "come back." Akunna mentions that she has to return in a year to maintain her green card. The boy drops her off at the airport and Akunna hugs him tightly before letting go.
Returning home is absolutely necessary for Akunna in order to keep with her role as a daughter. The boy uses "come back" to mean Akunna returning to him and their relationship, not just to the country. By letting the boy go, the story suggests that Akunna won't truly return to the boy and his particular brand of Americanism.
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