Petals of Blood Novel

In this post, we will go over the summary and analysis of Ngg wa Thiong’s novel Petals of Blood.

Petals of Blood often surfaces in debates regarding the twentieth century’s most notable African novels. Ngg wa Thiong’o was a student of Chinua Achebe’s until they had a violent disagreement about philosophy, at which point Ngg decided to abandon English in favour of his native Kenyan tongue, Gikuyu. For Africans, an African language. Achebe intended for his work to reach a bigger audience. Ngg’s final English piece, Petals of Blood, appeared in 1977.

It is a thought-provoking and engrossing book. Its four main characters – weak schoolteacher Munira, activist Karega, shopkeeper and donkey enthusiast Abdulla, and the woman they are all in love with, Wanja – are all stereotypes. One or more of them may be killers, and the novel is a mystery: who murdered three prominent businessmen, Kimeria, Chui, and Mzigo?

A continuous investigation into the triple murder of three socially prominent men drives the plot forward. The inquiry takes us on a voyage into the past, not only of the main suspects Karera and Munira, but also of the victims Kimeria, Chui, and Mzigo, as well as the past of Africa itself. The novel, set in embryonic Kenya, is a stinging indictment of former European imperialism and its destructive influence on the African nation. It is also a moving depiction of a nation’s ongoing ethical, cultural, and political deterioration as a result of neocolonialism. The language is laced with African oral literature, faithfully recording their simple and contented way of life. It becomes caustic as it criticises the errors of capitalism, morality, history, religion, urbanisation, and cultural tourism. The main characters, each tethered to a festering wound from the past, each gnawed by inner tensions, seek hope and answers in a nation on the verge of dystopia. Through the private monologues of the several characters, Thiong’O skilfully analyses various issues. He investigates the dubiousness of morality through Wanja, religious hypocrisy through Munira, the shallowness of a British-modeled education system through Karera, and the futility and disillusionment of war through Abdullah. Thus, Petals of Blood by Ngugi wa Thiong’o is unquestionably one of the classics of postcolonial literature, reflecting the pain and struggle of all conquered nations.

Summary of The Petals of Blood

Soon after the release of Petals of Blood (1977), Ngugi wa Thiong’o was arrested, jailed without charge, and condemned to one year in maximum-security prison by Kenya’s then-government.

It was because this epic novel, as well as his community-driven plays written in Gikuyu with the Kamirithu Community and Cultural Center, such as Ngaahika Ndeenda, criticised the way the political ruling elite duped the peasant class into a position of socioeconomic privilege while leaving the latter in a state of deprivation. Petals of Blood, which is based on an investigation into the mysterious murder case of three capitalists: Chui, Kimeria, and Mzigo, is written in such a way that it represents different types and classes of people in Kenyan society at different historical times: pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial. It depicts a world riddled with betrayals of the peasant class by the powerful ruling elite. Ngugi aims to awaken the revolutionary spirit among Kenyans through this novel, which can be seen as a product of the then-ongoing, albeit incomplete, transition from an Afro-European to an African novelistic style, similar to that of the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (Mau Mau) freedom fighters during the battle for independence against European settlers. This national consciousness is based on Frantz Fanon’s concept of the writer as a native intellectual who is in one of three phases: the first phase, which is characterised by the writer’s unqualified assimilation, the second phase, which is characterised by the writer being ‘disturbed but decides to remember who he is’ by simply recalling his people’s past life, and the third phase, which is the fighting phase, where the writer becomes an ‘awakener of the In this article, I will examine how Ngugi wa Thiong’o, as an ‘awakener of the people,’ utilises the novel Petals to instil national consciousness, particularly among peasants in neocolonial Kenyan culture.

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The first, and certainly most significant, thing to examine when defining Ngugi’s goals in Petals of Blood is the individuals for whom he created the book, his target audience. While commenting on the language dilemma he found himself in in his essay titled The Language of African Fiction from Decolonizing the Mind, Ngugi said-

“I knew whom I was writing about but whom was I writing for?”
(72, Decolonizing the Mind)

He referred to Petals of Blood as the “climax” of his Afro-European writing, although it is evident that, despite writing it in English, Ngugi intended the novel’s primary readership to be the Kenyan working class. The novel is set in the isolated but changing village of Ilmorog, and the heroic characters, such as Abdulla, Karega, Munira, Wanja, and Nyakinyua, are individuals with whom Kenyan peasants may connect. Furthermore, Ngugi appears to be more welcoming of the peasant class and critical of individuals who do not conform to this class’s beliefs. For example, when Munira first arrives in Ilmorog, he tries to establish himself as an academic who does not seem to comprehend and is terrified of understanding, the dynamics of the peasant class, such as rain patterns or indo cia thakame, things of blood. Due to this tendency, he encounters opposition from the locals, including Nyakinyua, who sees him as having come to fetch the remaining children in order to transport them to the city (Petals 9), and Njuguna, Ruoro, and Muturi, who see him as a’msomi’ whose ‘hands are untouched by soil as if they wear a ngome.’ (11) Ngugi’s portrayal of Munira in this scene demonstrates a rejection of middle-class academics who refuse to be part of the masses. The storey also criticises the capitalist and political elites through characters such as Mzigo, Chui, and Kimeria, all of whom are slain at the end of the novel, as well as the sloganeering politician Nderi wa Riiera and Munira’s father Ezekieli. Peasant characters, on the other hand, such as Nyakinyua and Muturi, are revered as the keepers of the people’s history, but they are oppressed by the ruling class and must work together to alter their status. Karega, the son of a peasant named Mariamu, is portrayed as the driving force behind the Ilmorog people’s and workers’ struggle to an oppressive state and a profiting capitalist class. This leaves little doubt that Ngugi’s goal is to push Kenya’s have-nots to see themselves in the characters and their problems and to recognise their power to rise up against the tyranny of the haves.

The character of the language in the novel also tells of a man who is direct in his address to the working class, but in transition in terms of his writing language. Ngugi employs cultural and geographical references in the novel without offering a clear context for the reader to understand the experience. For example, when the elderly men debate weather patterns, not much detail is provided, and a reader unfamiliar with the area would struggle to make sense of their talks. Ngugi also sprinkles Gikuyu and Swahili terminology throughout the storey without providing a glossary or translation for the majority of them. This demonstrates Ngugi’s growing desire to write to his people rather than merely about them for another group of people to read about. From my own experience as a Gikuyu speaker and someone who can easily contextualise the condition of life as written in Petals of Blood, I found it much easier to access the meaning than my peers who were limited by the text’s use of Gikuyu and Swahili and the novel’s lack of a complete description of the nature of the human condition.

It is crucial to note, however, that when writing Petals of Blood, Ngugi had reservations about the novel’s capacity to reach this targeted audience because, unlike the Kenyan upper class, most of them could not speak English or had a non-English epistemic understanding of things. Wa Thiong’o was writing Petals of Blood while also collaborating with Ngugi wa Mirii and The Kamirithu Community and Cultural Center on Gikuyu plays like Ngaahika Ndeenda, which were more accessible to his core audience. This must have been a result of his concerns expressed in a 1967 interview cited in The Language of African Fiction about his confusion about who his primary audience was, and it would also explain his insistence that intellectuals from marginalised languages—languages that have largely been ignored in literature—realize that their primary audience is the community that gave them their language (Pozo 2). This explains his irreversible choice to switch the language of his creative works from English to Gikuyu, beginning with his next novel Devil on the Cross, which was released in 1981.

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Furthermore, some of the literary strategies used by Ngugi wa Thiong’o in Petals of Blood show us a man putting his own recommendations in The Language of African Fiction into practice, and the end result is likely to be what he suggests in the essay. These include deviations from a linear plot, stories within stories, and a consistent shift in narrative voice. Ngugi employs these tactics to achieve a storey of communal consciousness as well as to advance towards a more African novel inspired by techniques from other experienced writers who impacted him. The shift in narrative voice is especially crucial for the formation of communal consciousness. While portions of the work contain an omniscient narrator or the diary-style as Munira recalls his twelve years in Ilmorog, the third person plural perspective, such as at the beginning of part three, reveals a community energised by their common struggle against oppression.

Another component that might be interpreted as Ngugi’s attempt to restore revolutionary awareness is the allegorical nature of Petals of Blood. Petals of Blood is an allegory that attempts to recreate a portrayal of a neocolonial Kenyan state using people, settings, and events that reflect the realities of the actual post-independence Kenyan state. The peasant class, portrayed by characters such as Muturi, Nyakinyua, Njuguna, and Ruoro, creates class contrasts with the capitalist and political classes, represented by characters such as Nderi wa Riera, Mzigo, Chui, and Kimeria. There is also a middle class represented by the immigrants to Ilmorog, particularly through the character of Munira. Furthermore, each character in the storey appears to play a specific function that is characteristic of a specific set of people in real Kenyan culture. Munira, for example, represents the middle class that “stood outside” during the struggle for independence and is now struggling to fit in with the rest of society by attempting to “pay back” through service but still fears confronting the difficult questions of rampant inequality, as evidenced by his anxiety in refusing to answer the children’s questions about the “flower with blood petals.” (Petals 12 and 26) Munira exemplifies Fanon’s concept of the second phase of the native intellectual. The more combative Karega, whose name means ‘the one who opposes’ in Gikuyu, represents the third phase of the local intellectual who is willing to confront his people’s history and tangible realities with his people. As a teacher, he educates the students about the world outside Ilmorog, and he actively pursues a deeper understanding of his people’s historical and political intricacies, particularly after meeting the lawyer who represents a political class of revolutionaries but whose concentration on property is criticised. Wanja, on the other hand, symbolises the hardships of a Kenyan woman who is compelled by circumstances to utilise her sexual power to acquire favours but yet defies capitalistic class tyranny. Abdulla represents the revolutionaries who have participated in past fights but have been betrayed and continue to suffer in abject poverty. Joseph and Wanja’s newborn child appears to symbolise a new generation of revolutionaries fighting for a more just Kenya. On the other hand, the capitalists (Kimeria, Chui, and Mzigo) appear to be’slaves of the monster god’ that is money, whereas Nderi wa Riiera represents the deceitful neo-colonial politicians whose efforts to terrorise and divide the people through the Kamwene Cultural Organization (KCO) are purely for his personal gain.

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Petals of Blood can also be viewed as an African version of the modernist aesthetic genre. Modernism is an aesthetic trend that began in the nineteenth century and gained popularity in the early twentieth century thanks to artists such as Pablo Picasso, Bertolt Brecht, and Igor Stravinsky. It was distinguished by a rejection of the conventions established by previous forms such as realism and romanticism, critique of the current way of life controlled by capitalism, and a higher level of alienation of the audience in order to stimulate deeper thought and comprehension. According to Edna Aizenberg, as African states found themselves in a post-independence era crisis, as the ruling class usurped socioeconomic power, causing the economies to decline, the African intelligentsia felt the need to develop a ‘literary language to symbolically enact the disillusionment…a style in which the complex form, strained language, and uncertain ground of the modernist aesthetic were melded with indigenous linguistic and narrative traditions to translate (Aizenberg, 1989) She accurately identifies Ngugi wa Thiong’o as part of this new wave of African writers, alongside Wole Soyinka, Ayi Kwei Armah, Yambo Ouologuem, and Kofi Awoonor. Petals of Blood is a novel that fits modernist ideas and aspirations in many aspects, such as alienation through the use of Gikuyu terms and phrases without translation and advocating Marxist philosophy to disturb capitalism inequalities.

The didactic quality of Petals, which may alternatively be seen as a modernist defiance to classical novelistic rules and a function of Ngugi’s appeal to the Kenyan working class, also tells of a novel set on teaching as a means of increasing national-revolutionary consciousness. While a traditional western novel would try to entertain its readers in their spare time through fiction, Petals of Blood takes a different approach. While it is an entertaining investigative thriller, it also educates Kenyan history as well as the current socio-economic and political situation. It takes on a wholly didactic form at times, to the point where it seems like a textbook with aspects of a novel. For example, at the start of Part Two, Nyakinyua gives the Ilmorog people a storey about Ilmorog’s history. Despite the narrative format, this section of the novel clearly teaches pre-colonial history from the time of the community’s founder, Ndemi, to the arrival of colonialists, when people like Munoru betrayed the community by collaborating and being assimilated by the Europeans while Nyakinyua’s husband resisted (Petals 145–149). By doing so, Ngugi hopes to help Kenyans understand their history and, without romanticising it, acquire lessons from it in order to improve their current situation.

The way Ngugi sees Kenyan history as seen by diverse categories of people is also crucial in understanding Petals of Blood as a weapon for creating a revolutionary awareness. Ngugi asserts in an interview with Michael Pozo that aesthetics do not arise in a social vacuum, and hence art must reflect the perspective of life that it represents (Pozo 2). As a result, Ngugi investigates many versions of history, ranging from Chui at Siriana’s tautological “history is history” (Petals 206) by Chui at Siriana meant at institutionally assimilating Kenyan students to the black professors who viewed African history as “one of wanderlust and pointless warfare between peoples” (237). This stands in stark contrast to the history that Nyakinyua forced the Ilmorog people to relive through her songs during the Theng’eta drinking session. Theng’eta-inspired history is one that is in touch with people’s current realities and leads to the revealing of truth. This interpretation of history, which Fanon also lauded as “the truths of a nation are in the first place its realities” (Fanon 42) is the one Ngugi hopes will awaken the people to national awareness.

Thus, it is clear that Ngugi used his final English literary work, Petals of Blood, to present the history and current reality of the Kenyan people in the form of an allegory based on the collective struggle of the Ilmorog people in order to inspire consciousness among the Kenyan peasant and working class.

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