Many of the stories in The Thing Around Your Neck focus on fraught relationships between men and women. Specifically, Adichie explores the roles women are asked to play within their birth families and then in their romantic relationships. Most of the coupled female characters subsume themselves in favor of their husbands or partners and lose sight of their own identities and sense of agency in the process. The stories question how and why this happens, and then set about discovering what can be done about it.
A number of the collection's partnered women experience an epiphany in which they realize they've shaped their entire lives around the whims and desires of their husbands or boyfriends: Nkem habitually waxes her pubic hair the way her husband likes it; Ukamaka cooks with hot peppers even though she doesn't like them much herself; Chinaza learns English to comply with her husband's desire to assimilate into American culture in private as well as in public. The thought processes of the married women specifically suggest that there's safety and prestige in being the wife of a “Big Man,” particularly when the Big Man sends his wife to America. This suggests that women's goals are centered on attaining marriage and financial security through that marriage, rather than personal fulfillment. The women's discontent, however, indicates that reaching these goals isn't as fulfilling as many of these women hoped it would be.
Furthermore, many of these women's husbands have other girlfriends. Though this makes the men look prestigious (the girlfriends signify that they can afford to care for multiple women at once), the wives' discontent at these situations shows that what they want on some level is to be noticed and valued as a person with feelings and desires, rather than seen only for their role in making their husbands look powerful. However, Nkem mentions that when she was young she dated married men, and she notes that it's not uncommon for young women to do so. In this way, the reader gets a sense that this kind of situation is cyclical and based on a female desire to be noticed by powerful men, as well as the obvious male desire for power.
Several of the women find purpose and a new sense of identity in their marriages as they become mothers or caregivers. While for some this is a welcome distraction from their unhappy marriages and creates a sense of purpose, for other women, like the embassy narrator, it becomes all-consuming. Because the embassy narrator's young son Ugonna provided her an outlet through which to emotionally distance herself from her difficult relationship with her husband, Ugonna's sudden and violent death leaves her completely broken. When she later gives up on immigrating to America to join her husband, she loses all hope of having a happy life as she has nobody to care for anymore.
Many of the book’s women also question how they got to the point at which they subsume their lives into their husbands’. The stories of younger women answer this by showing that placing value on male lives and desires over female ones is a widespread cultural practice, and one that begins in childhood. The Cell One narrator observes that her beautiful and troubled older brother, Nnamabia, is allowed to get away with all sorts of bad behavior. He steals, cheats, and skips class, and because he's handsome and male, their parents excuse Nnamabia's behavior. This dynamic is taken to the extreme in "Tomorrow is Too Far" when the tomorrow narrator admits to accidentally killing her older brother Nonso with the hope that she might take his revered place in their parents' hearts. She's ultimately unsuccessful, which once again supports the idea that mothers define themselves in terms of their male children, while female children are relatively ignored. Further, both the “Cell One” narrator and the “Tomorrow” narrator are unnamed in their stories, which illustrates how little they're valued as people in relation to their male family members.
Essentially, the lives of most of the women in the collection are lived in terms of their relationships to others, whether those others are family members, spouses, or children. Though the collection doesn't prescribe one remedy (or indeed, any remedies) for its female characters' discontent, it suggests that women can move closer to happiness when they begin to take control of their own lives and demand that their voices be heard by the men around them.
Women, Marriage, and Gender Roles ThemeTracker
Women, Marriage, and Gender Roles Quotes in The Thing Around Your Neck
Kamara wondered where the child's mother was. Perhaps Neil had killed her and stuffed her in a trunk; Kamara had spent the past months watching Court TV and had learned how crazy these Americans were.
She did not remember his toes with hair. She stared at him as he spoke, his Igbo interspersed with English that had an ungainly American accent... He had not spoken like that on the phone. Or had he, and she had not noticed? Was it simply that seeing him was different and that it was the Tobechi of university that she had expected to find?
She had taken to closing her eyes while Tobechi was on top of her, willing herself to become pregnant, because if that did not shake her out of her dismay at least it would give her something to care about.
Staid, and yet she had been arranging her life around his for three years... Staid, and yet she cooked her stews with hot peppers now, the way he liked.
They did not warn you about things like this when they arranged your marriage. No mention of offensive snoring, no mention of houses that turned out to be furniture-challenged flats.
You left your husband? Aunty Ada would shriek. Are you mad? Does one throw away a guinea fowl's egg? Do you know how many women would offer both eyes for a doctor in America? For any husband at all?
When she went into Nonso's room to say good night, she always came out laughing that laugh. Most times, you pressed your palms to your ears to keep the sound out, and kept your palms pressed to your ears even when she came into your room to say Good night, darling, sleep well. She never left your room with that laugh.
Maybe it was because of the way she said the divorce was not about Nonso—as though Nonso was the only one capable of being a reason, as though you were not in the running.
The summer you knew that something had to happen to Nonso, so that you could survive. Even at ten you knew that some people can take up too much space by simply being, that by existing, some people can stifle others.