Analysis of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Devil on the Cross

Devil on the Cross was written during the year that the Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (1938– ) spent in prison. During this same imprisonment, Ngugi put on a performance of the Gikuyu play Ngaahika Ndeenada (I Will Marry When I Want). He composed the novel on sheets of toilet paper and took great care to hide them in his cell. The novel stands as an indictment of the greed of capitalist neocolonial influences and the Kenyans who encourage these capitalistic influences to reign supreme over alternative movements toward modernization by native ideas.

The story centers on Wariinga, a young woman from Ilmorog who is trying to make her way through Kenyan society. This is a time when attractive young women become playthings for rich older men and where the values and aesthetics of the European bourgeoisie are very much in vogue. Her story is told by a Giccandi player, a “Prophet of Justice” who, though reluctant to tell the story, is compelled by a divine voice to share the “prophecy.” This prophecy, he is told, “is not his alone.” In telling Wariinga’s tale, the Gicaandi player reveals the depth of the greed that plagues modern Kenyan life and the tragedies that beset one who tries to resist it.

Ngugi’s use of a Giccandi player as the narrator is crucial to the complex interaction between form and content in Devil on the Cross. Giccandi is a genre of Gikuyu storytelling which, unlike much Gikuyu storytelling, consists of a duet of speakers rather than a single speaker who is backed up by a chorus. It is a competitive yet collaborative exchange of dialogue that ends up sounding much like an exchange of proverbial or riddle- like statements. As a genre, Kimani Njogu points out, Giccandi is “composed of hidden coded messages,” a fact that led to its suppression by the colonial government. Much of the novel’s dialogue occurs in duets and has this riddle-like quality, while the main event of the plot, the competition among the International Organization of Thieves and Robbers, is a corruption of the traditional precolonial Gikuyu poetry festivals.

The player begins by recounting the sadness of Wariinga’s life, from her pregnancy by an older rich man who abandons her to her heartbreak when the kind, intelligent, and sensitive youth with whom she falls in love rejects her after she resists the advances of Boss Kihika and loses her job. In her distress, she decides to leave Nairobi and boards a matatu (minibus) bound for Ilmorog. There she encounters the rest of the novel’s main characters, particularly Gatuiria, an educated man who later becomes Wariinga’s fiancé.

The novel’s action is divided between the matatu journey to Ilmorog and the competition to “select seven experts in modern theft and robbery,” a competition held in Ilmorog by the International Organization of Thieves and Robbers. Over the course of the journey, the reader learns that all the passengers have reason to be at the competition, though only Mwireri, who is to be a competitor, has in his possession an authentic invitation. Everyone else has received a phoney invitation produced by a student protest group, which calls the gathering a “Devil’s Feast” hosted by “Satan, The King of Hell.” The message is clear: The greed of capitalism which subjugates the Kenyan people can be equated with the devil’s work. Discussions of the devil emerge often in the novel. His power is feared and his existence debated by the characters who resist commercial greed, while those “thieves and robbers” never discuss or debate him, presumably because their interests are in league with his. However, he also emerges in Wariinga’s narrative as an alternative resistance to the passive acceptance of Christian doctrine, which is Eurocentric and upholds and validates the oppressive values of Western capitalism.

As a child, Wariinga dreams of being a white man on a cross who is taken down and restored to life by black men in suits. Later in the novel she is tempted by a voice while she sleeps on a golf course. The voice is deemed to be that of the devil. He argues that Wariinga and her people need to reject the tenants of Christianity that emphasize passivity. He offers her a charmed life of beauty and respect if she will follow him. The chapter ends with Wariinga saying, “No! No! Get behind me, Satan”; however, readers are unsure whether she has totally rejected the devil’s advice, particularly at the violent conclusion of the novel.

Indeed, when the action shifts forward two years to see Wariinga now living in Nairobi and employed as a skilled car mechanic, the cynical hopelessness on display at the competition is replaced by the possibility that Wariinga is making her way successfully through Kenyan society. She and Gatuiria are engaged, and the novel’s concluding action sees Wariinga dressed beautifully in “the Gikuyu way” and prepared to meet Gatuiria’s bourgeois parents. Tragedy strikes when the devil’s urges to Wariinga to take an eye for an eye emerge. Wariinga meets her fiancé’s father, and they are both surprised to realize that he is the man who had impregnated her and abandoned her years before. She shoots him and flees the house, knowing that “the hardest struggles of her life’s journey lie ahead.”

African Novels and Novelists

African Literary Theory and Criticism

Analysis of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Novels

BIBLIOGRAPHY Jussawalla, Feroza, and Reed Way Dasenbrock, eds. Interviews with Writers of the Post-Colonial World. Jackson and London: University of Mississippi Press, 1992.

Categories: Literature, Novel Analysis

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: