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The African society is being explored in many works of Ngugi’s A Grain of Wheat and Petals of Blood, two of his novels that betray that fact. Hence, this work explores the theme and characterization in those two novels. To do this effectively, the formalistic approach to literary criticism is used. The work is structurally divided into five chapters. The introductory chapter discusses the theoretical framework used for this research work, evaluates the significance of the study; highlights the definition of the critical terms and offers the biography of Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Chapter two is the review of related literature. Chapter three focuses on the thematic analysis of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s A Grain of Wheat and Petals of Blood. In chapter four, the focus is on characterization in the two novels and finally chapter five is the conclusion to the research work where the contribution to knowledge and research findings is brought to the fore.






1.1   Introduction

The concept of theme and characterization has been as a matter of fact pedagogical. In recent times, emphases are laid on disciplinary variation in research with the motive to make learners function aptly in their respective discourse. Drawing from the view, theme and characterization could be seen as one of the comprehensive concepts which could be studied in the field of literature, especially African literature. In Africa, the study of literature is regarded as one of the channels for expressing and instilling into the youth, the importance of literature in educating them on issues of slavery, pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial experiences.

Basically in most of these writings, theme and characterization is vital in expressing society’s physical and spiritual existence which seems to have been given little attention in the field of African literature. It is in light of this that the study focuses on the theme and characterization in the writings of the legendary and prolific writer, Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

Theme and characterization is an interesting issue to Africans at large. Ngugi is a Marxist writer whose works are furnished with theme and characterization issues in Kenya as an East African country that is bestowed with multiplicity of culture, ethnic languages, social groups and religions. It would be of great importance to examine theme and characterization in Ngugi’s works as far as communal existence during the pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial periods of Kenya which is one among the major issues of African literature. Kenya is a nation of diverse races, languages, ethnicity, religion and class. These are significant human societal institutions which could promulgate different issues of theme and characterization as far as Ngugi’s two novels: A Grain of Wheat (1967) and Petals of Blood (1977) are concerned. The two novels constitute relevant periods in literary history of Kenya which need critical investigation to unravel social dilemma of what theme and characterization really constitute and how it could be constructed in the human sphere of life in literature. Thus, Ngugi’s A Grain of Wheat and Petals of Blood have been purposely selected among his numerous works of art to explore the feat.

A Grain of Wheat is a novel by Kenyan novelist, Ngugi wa Thiong’o was first published as part of the influential Heinemann African writers series. It was written while he was studying at Leeds University and first published in 1967 by Heinemann. The title is taken from the Gospel according to St. John 12:24. The novel weaves together several stories set during the state of emergency in Kenya’s struggle for independence, focusing on the Mugo, whose life is marked by a dark secret. The plot revolves around his home village’s preparations for Kenya’s Independence Day celebration, Uhuru day. On that day, former resistance fighter, General R. Koinandu plan on publicly executing the traitor who betrayed Kihika, a heroic resistance fighter from the village.

Petals of Blood was Ngugi’s first novel written over a five-year period. Initially begun whilst teaching at Northwestern University in 1970, the writer continued to work on the novel after his return to Kenya, finally finishing the novel is Yalta as a guest of the soviet writers’ union. Ngugi was inspired to write the novel as a way of synthesizing the notion of a post-colonial nation, and a willingness to portray the agents of social change present in Kenya’s change from British East Africa.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o is likely the most important and significant writer to have emerged from Africa in this 21st century.  His book, Decolonizing the Mind quoted in Anyuaka’s media, explains how Ngugi challenges the African writers to abandon writing in colonial language as he calls literature written in these languages ‘Afro-European Literature’ and instead should choose their native languages to give African literature its own genealogy and grammar. Ngugi calls the African writers to make sure that literature is connected to their people’s revolutionary struggles for liberation from their (neo) colonial contexts.

In the same vein, he discusses the importance of oral literature to his childhood. According to Ngugi’s way of seeing, you cannot study African literature without studying the particular cultural and oral traditions from which Africans draw their plots, styles and metaphors.

Furthermore, Ngugi argues that colonization was not simply a process of physical force. Rather, “the bullet was the means of the subjugation. Language was the means of the spiritual subjugation.” He is of the view that writing in African languages is a necessary step toward cultural identity and independence from countries of European exploitation. This idea evokes Ngugi to reflect his native language (Gikuyu), culture, experience, and identity in his works including his two selected novels A Grain of Wheat and Petals of Blood. Ngugi’s contributions and ideas have helped in developing the standards of African literature and instilling the issues of identity, pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial experiences.

1.2   Theoretical Framework

This research work is situated within the framework of formalistic approach to literature. The formalist believes that a work of art is a concrete entity and can therefore be analysed to ascertain its meaning by revealing the constituents necessary for understanding and interpreting the work.

Formalistic Approach to literary criticism follows the pattern of basic elements of all parts of literary work. Coleridge quoted in Ikechi talks of “Organic Unity” which emanates from his belief that:

…a literary piece exists in its own way, with its own kind of life… his concept of organic unity, which says that the whole work of literature should be a harmonious involvement of all its parts, presupposes the efficiency of the various elements as they unified total meaning (53).


Abrams and Harpham posit that the formalist “stresses the function of purely literary devices to produce the effect of freshness in the reader’s experience of a literary work” (139).

Fundamentally, formalists are of the view that what must be studied is the work of art, in order to find meaning in direct relation between a text’s idea and its form; the connection between what the text says and the way, the method and the manner it is said. The formalist focuses on the organizational principle or ways and manner and study in which parts of a work is composed and arranged, which differentiates it from other works of art.

Again, formalists assert that, content and form is inseparable; they rather should be studied together. There should be dichotomy in meaning, unity or coherence between the content and form. Wellek and Warren quoted in Ikechi chose to substitute them with “material” and “structure”. “Materials are the aesthetically indifferent elements in a work, while “structure” refers to the manner in which they acquire aesthetic efficacy” (56). Thus, structure of a work also refers to the form of the work which is a part of the formalism which seeks to organize the principles to be applied in the practical study of the work.

1.3   Statement of the Problem

So many people, including the students of literature, find it difficult to write on the two selected novels of Ngugi Wa Thiongo’s A Grain of Wheat and Petals of Blood because of its pattern of narrative and arrangement of events. Also his characters bear Kenyans names which most readers find it difficult to decode and remember their names.

The novels starts In Media res and weaves together, several stories set during the State of Emergency in Kenya’s Struggle for Independence. It follows the episodic pattern of arrangement in a cumbersome form. As a result, so many lack the knowledge of Mau Mau insurgence in Kenya and relevant issues, such as, colonization, education, betrayal, oppression, tradition, versus modernity and nationality. It is this critical paucity in the literature that the present study aims to address in Ngugi’s A Grain of Wheat and Petals of Blood.

1.4   Significance of the Study

This research work seeks to examine the realization of theme and characterization through character development in “A Grain of Wheat” and “Petals of Blood” by Ngugi Wa Thiongio. In the course of this investigation, the researcher will attempt to highlight the manners in which the characters in the two novels handle the issue of power in colonial and post-colonial eras and how it relates to the public, mostly the Africans.

The current work would make a considerable contribution to the ongoing scholarship work in the field of theme and characterization in African literature.


1.5   Definition of Critical Terms

1.5.1        Definition of Theme

According to Udumukwu, Kamalu, and Otu “Theme is the meaning released by the work when we take all aspects of the work in its entirety into account” (255). Abrams and Harphen define theme as “A general concept or doctrine, whether implicit or asserted, which in imaginative work is designed to involve and make persuasive to the readers” (229).

This simply means that the theme of a work of art is the message about people, life and the world which the author wants the reader to understand. It an aspect of human experiences that the author wishes to share with the readers. It is the overall message that strikes with the reader, long after the work is read.

Furthermore, theme is defined as a main idea or an underlying meaning of a literary work that may be stated directly or indirectly. The major and minor theme is two types of themes that appear in literary work. A minor theme, on the other hand, refers to an idea that appears in a work briefly and gives way to another minor theme.

The theme in a story is its underlying message or big idea. In other words, what critic’s belief about life is what author is trying to convey in the writing of a novel, short story or poem.

1.5.2        Definition of Characterization

According to the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, characterization is defined as “The way a writer makes a person in a book, film or play seems like a real person” (269). From the above definition two key words can be deduced “person” and “description”. This simply means that characterization deals mainly on the description of a person. Characterization is the concept of creating characters for a narrative. It is a literary element and may be employed in dramatic works of art or everyday conversation. Characterization may be presented by means of description through their actions, speech or thoughts.

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia sees characterization as; “the representation of persons (or other beings or creatures) in narrative and dramatic works of art” (1 web). Therefore, it is the task of the author to create character that draw the readers’ attention and remain in their memory. It is through effective characterization that any writer portrays his/her thoughts, feelings and the reality he/she perceives to the readers. Through characterization, the writer mirrors or reflects the life of characters and also expresses his/her emotions, ideas and depicts the realities he/her experiences.

Furthermore, characterization is the way in which an author conveys characters to the reader. There are two ways an author can portray a character, which are direct or explicit characterization. Indirect or direct characterization, the author literary tells the audience what a character is like. This may be done through the narrator, another character or by the character themselves. But indirect or implicit characterization, the audience must infer for themselves what the character is like through the character’s thoughts, actions, speech, choice of words, manner of speaking, physical appearance and interactions with other characters, including other characters’ reaction to that particular person.

1.6   Biography of Ngugi Wa Thiong’o

Ngugi Wa Thiong’o is a Kenyan writer who was born in 1938 in Kaminithu, near Limuru, as James Ngugi. His father was a tenant farmer who had four wives and twenty-eight children, Ngui initially attended a missionary school but then was sent to Gukugu School. However, after the State of Emergency in 1952, all schools had to teach in English. He was not directly involved in the Mau Mau uprising but his elder brother was and as a result, their mother was arrested and tortured. After attending the prestigious Alliance High School, he went to Mekerere University College in Kampala, where he studied English. It was during this period that he started writing, including plays, short stories and his first novels. After university, he worked for a while as a reporter before going to the University of Leeds. His first novel Weep Not, Child was published while he was there. His works include novels, plays, short stories and essays, ranging from literary and social criticism to children’s literature. He is the founder and editor of the Gukuyu Language Journal Mutiiri.

In 1977 Ngugi embarked upon a novel form of theatre in his native Kenya that sought to liberate the theatrical process from what he held to be “the general bourgeois education system”, by encouraging spontaneity and audience participation in the performances. His project sought to “demystify” the theatrical process, and to avoid the “process of alternation (that) produces a gallery of active stars and an undifferentiated mass of grateful admirers”, which according to Ngugi, encourages passivity in “ordinary people”. Although Ngaahika Ndeenda was a commercial success, it was shut down by the authoritarian Kenyan regimes six weeks after its opening. Ngugi was subsequently imprisoned for over a year. After that it was at this time that he became more politically active. He changed his name to Ngugi Wa Thiongio and started writing in his native Gukuyu. After independence, he became very critical of the Kenyan government and was imprisoned for writing the very political play I Will Marry When I Want. After his release, he left for London and then the United State, returning to Kenyan only briefly in 2004. There were rumours of assassination attempts by the Kenyan government. He has continued to write, including much non-fiction, and has worked for human rights in Kenyan.

He taught at Yale University for some years, and has since also taught at New York University, with a dual professorship in comparative literature and performance studies and the University of California, Irvine. Ngugi has frequently been regarded as a likely candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. He has a peculiar way of writing and narrating styles which is totally differently from any other authors.

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