Displacement and Development: Thiong’o’s Construction of a Bildungsroman

In his powerful novel Weep Not, Child, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o paints a haunting portrait of the heated anti-colonial protestation and excruciating violence of British-occupied Kenya. The crippling dehumanization of Kenya’s citizens by British colonizers, through which Kenyans experienced not only significant depletions of legal rights but also implied and overt racism, led to widespread emotionally- charged uprisings including the notorious Mau Mau rebellion. The ensuing confusion serves as the premise for Thiong’o’s narrative, in which each character, specifically young Njoroge, must decide how to feel and whom to trust. As a bildungsroman, or a coming-of-age novel, Weep Not, Child, follows Njoroge’s profound experiences with loss and his eventual interpretation of and reaction to these losses. In the same way that the main character of a bildungsroman novel typically undergoes a gradual, sacrificial process of maturation in which he ultimately must come to terms with his losses, Njoroge must endure the loss of his optimism, which antecedently served as the glue for his composure in the face of such traumatic, disquieting events. Njoroge must then determine how to respond to this bereavement, which severely damages the foundation of his ability to persevere, for the sake of his personal future as well as that of his crumbling society. In these ways, Njoroge epitomizes the standard bildungsroman protagonist as one called upon to grapple with and act in the name of difficult losses, with subjective success.While Njoroge can internalize and suppress certain losses, the loss of his once- omnipresent optimism affects his perception of his life and those around him. Once fully complacent with the notion of a future framed by education, he long resisted the reality of his fantasy, in which education, rather than liberating him from his colonial oppressors, further placed him under their menacing heels. Binded by his dream, Njorge sees no true cause for concern where he cannot see direct danger. However, he initially begins to recognize the exhaustion of true hope in chapter eight of the novel, when Njoroge listens to one of his peers, Karanja, excitedly delineate the deception of the white police force by Dedan Kimathi, leader of the African Freedom Army. Karanja paints an extremely colorful, dramatic picture of the event, in which Dedan disguises himself as a white man to get what he wants and of which Karanja concludes: “Dedan can change himself into anything- a white man, a bird, or a tree. He can also turn himself into an aeroplane. He learnt all this in the Big War.” (pg. 68). Njoroge recognizes that the logistics of this story cannot be entirely based in fact, but the desperation of the times causes him to cling to a certain amount of abstract hope: “(Njoroge) knew that (Karanja’s story) was exaggerated but still there might be an element of truth in it. Stranger things had been said to have happened. He had heard his father and Kamau say that Kimathi could do very wonderful things. He must surely be a great man to elude all the keen vigilance of the white man.” (68.) Here, Njoroge, if only subconsciously, experiences the loss of true optimism for the futures of himself and his society. Along with everyone else, Njoroge must resort to believing in fantastic stories for encouragement under such extremely bleak circumstances. This loss, because it is less tangible and negotiable and because it affects the mind so explicitly, has a greater, more corrupting effect on the young mind than would the physical loss of a friend or family member. Embodying the persona of a true bildungsroman character, Njoroge is forced to age lacking an aspect once essential to his identity: the fragile yet tenacious positivity on which he once thrived, fueled by a distorted, beautified perception of his academic future and its role in his society. Njoroge’s perception and analysis of this loss, or what it means and how it will affect his proximate and immediate futures, help determine his place in society, just as the bildungsroman character as such must in some way face the environment in which he matured. The natural optimism with which he once viewed the coming events of his life deteriorates as certain circumstances and happenings prove this optimism is unfounded, until stark loss creates a barrier for any possible source of life. Njoroge’s prior inability to accurately gauge his future in terms of the dismal options his societal, academic and familial foundations supported does not allow him the strength to face his reality; thus, he gives up entirely and attempts suicide. Njoroge now foresees nothing to live for, and in this way determines to end his life: “…Njorgoge had now lost faith in all the things he had earlier believed in, like wealth, power, education, religion. Even love, his last hope, had fled from him” (134.) Yet the extremity of Njoroge’s previous optimism renders his subsequent bout with pessimism also extreme. Right before trying to hang himself, Njoroge comes in contact with one of his two mothers looking for him; he immediately decides to abandon his attempt and goes home with her, finally realizing the truth of his life, in which, despite its darkness, he does have a responsibility to his family to uphold: “(Njoroge) was only conscious that he had failed her and the last word of his father, when he had told him to look after the women. He had failed the voice of Mwihaki that had asked him to wait for a new day…(Njoroge) felt only guilt, the guilt of a man who avoided his responsibility for which he had prepared himself since childhood” (136.) In true bildungsroman hero fashion, Njoroge comes to comprehend the true actuality of his life circumstances as a result of the extreme loss he faces- namely the loss of his optimism- and as such decides to live as a member of his community with responsibility and the composure of one who, through experience, truly knows where he belongs.Thiong’o’s structure of his bildungsroman shows the development of Njoroge in the context of his fermentative conditions as he fearfully confronts the stark hopelessness of his life, and, with panic, addresses this reality. We as readers witness the innocence of Njoroge, and his tenacious belief in the possibilities of his future, falter completely as the catastrophic circumstances of his life consume him. Njoroge’s ultimate loss of faith results in his extremely pessimistic perception of what he can and should accomplish, and thus falls into a pessimism that almost ends his life. However, Njoroge’s sudden conceptualization of his loss of faith at the end of the novel causes him to react in a more responsible way, rationalizing that while his lack of faith renders his future bleak, he must nevertheless face it for the sake of his family. Njoroge survives the ultimate sacrifice in his coming of age, just as the definition of a bildungsroman would suggest.