Half a Yellow Sun: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Kelly Baker

Kelly has taught college composition and creative writing and is graduating with a master's degree in English.

In this lesson, we will explore the plot of 'Half of a Yellow Sun.' You will learn about the basic structure of the novel, its historical context, and other important elements that make up the plot.

Plot Summary

Nigeria became independent from Great Britain in 1960. The Nigerian-Biafran civil war lasted from 1967-1970 and was marked by extreme starvation and ethnic violence. Ethnic tensions fostered by the British played a major role in the war. The majority of eastern Nigeria, was comprised of Igbo peoples, and this area seceded to create Biafra.

Biafra, in eastern Nigeria

The 'half of a yellow sun' is the symbol of the Republic of Biafra, appearing on both its national flag and military uniforms. This novel follows the course of the Nigerian-Biafran civil war through the experiences of the ethnically Igbo characters, Olanna, Odenigbo, Kainene, and Ugwu.

Half of a Yellow Sun is told in third person point of view in four parts. Each chapter marks a change in point of view, shifting between Ugwu, Olanna Ozobia, and Richard Churchill.

Parts One and Three take place in 'The Early Sixties.' Parts Two and Four take place in 'The Late Sixties.' The primary purpose for these divisions is to draw a comparison between the life of privilege led by the characters in the early sixties and the poverty of war depicted in the late sixties. It also marks a series of sexual infidelities committed by Odenigbo, Olanna, and Richard that take place during Part Three.

In Part One, thirteen-year-old Ugwu leaves his village to work for Odenigbo, a revolutionary university professor, at his large home in Nsukka. Shortly thereafter, Olanna, daughter of a wealthy Nigerian chief, comes to visit Odenigbo. Ugwu learns she will soon be moving in. Ugwu is initially jealous of Odenigbo's affection for Olanna, but eventually grows into a friendship with his master's lover. Olanna is apprehensive about moving in with Odenigbo, fearing she will fall out of love with him. She refuses to marry him, but eventually tries to conceive a child with him.

Olanna's standoffish twin sister, Kainene, runs her father's business in Port Harcourt. Richard is a shy Englishman striving to write a book about Nigeria. He feels disconnected from his community of racist expatriates in Nigeria. He is immediately taken by Kainene when the two meet at a party. They begin an affair that lasts throughout the novel.

In Part Two, we learn that something has happened to create unhappiness between Odenigbo and Olanna, that they were separated for a time, and that they now have a daughter, Baby. Throughout these chapters, a series of disturbing events occur that mark the beginning of war. Richard witnesses the mass shooting of Igbo people. Olanna witnesses a similar massacre in her cousin's village while visiting her former lover, a Hausa man named Mohammad. The trauma leaves her unable to walk for a time. Biafran independence is declared. Odenigbo, Olanna, and Ugwu flee Nsukka while Kainene and Richard remain in Port Harcourt.

Part Three details the affairs had by Odenigbo, Olanna, and Richard. Odenigbo's mother tricks him into sleeping with her servant, Amala, who becomes pregnant. Olanna, overcome with grief, goes to bed with Richard after a night of drinking. Olanna eventually forgives Odenigbo and adopts Amala's unwanted child. Kainene is enraged upon learning of Richard's infidelity. She burns his manuscript, but the two end up forming a stronger bond than before.

Part Four sees the horrors of war and starvation first hand as Olanna, Odenigbo, and Ugwu are moved to increasingly worse refugee camps. Ugwu falls in love with a refugee named Eberechi. While walking with her, he is forced into the Biafran army, where he participates in the rape of a bar waitress. This experience haunts him, particularly when he returns to his family and learns his sister was raped in a similar manner.

Kainene and Richard flee Port Harcourt, and she ends up running a refugee camps and trading across borders. In the final chapters, Kainene goes missing and is never found. The novel closes with Odenigbo, Ugwu, Olanna, and Richard returning to Nsukka and mourning the loss of Kainene.

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