The Influence of Context on Characterization

Throughout the vast history of world literature, there has been an abundance of commonalities which bind texts as one collective unit. One theme prevalent and expanded upon in a vast array of works of literature is the notion of identity, and more specifically, changes in identity. Identity is a concept in which one’s recognition of their own character leads to revelations about their role in the world. This idea is used in literature to assist readers in understanding the reasoning for the decisions that characters make throughout a work.

In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, identity is explored in great depth. These works all demonstrate character identity as something that is molded by personal past experiences when put through the filter of historical context. Each text is constructed around a significant historical period that can be contextually utilized to understand character arcs. In Half of a Yellow Sun, it is colonialism.

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In Beloved, slavery is used as a subtle backdrop. In Mrs. Dalloway, war distributes its own impact amongst Woolf’s cast of characters.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun depicts a period of great change in Nigeria. When young Ugwu comes to work as a houseboy for the strong-voiced professor Odenigbo, a compelling relationship begins to develop, as the two represent a clear and definitive difference in status. During Ugwu’s stay in his house, Odenigbo poses powerful questions to the young Igbo native, such as “how can we resist exploitation if we don’t have the tools to understand exploitation?”, to which Ugwu, a child who lacks a proper education, does not have an answer (Adichie 13).

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The novel traces Ugwu’s encounters with and gradual understanding of these larger questions, and thus the story follows the progress of Ugwu’s identity. Ugwu begins as a native village boy, becomes a member of the educated class, then a soldier, and then later becomes a writer who writes about the experiences of his own people (in a language that is not his own). Ugwu’s arc is arguably the most significant in the story, and it is molded by his developing relationship with colonial Western values, culture, and privileges. It is this relationship, as well as Ugwu’s experiences as a soldier and refugee, which drive him to become a writer who recounts the story of the Biafran conflict in his work. As Ugwu grows more Western-oriented, he undergoes an eventual disconnect and even disgust with his native people from the village in which he grew up.

Ugwu, while not only being the most significant character in the story, is also one who reflects a clear shift in identity. There is one event which can serve to mark the changes that Ugwu has gone through. In one scene, Ugwu rapes a girl at a bar under peer pressure by the soldiers around him. In doing this, Ugwu has given up his humanity and done something that defies his moral code. This particular moment severely impacts Ugwu’s identity, and it is an important turning point, as it urges Ugwu to come to the realization that he is now not only a victim of injustice and suffering, but he has now become a contributor to the suffering of others. While Ugwu’s immediate reaction to the bar girl looking at him with a “calm hate” after he’s assaulted her, a clear and gradual change takes place in Ugwu’s identity over the course of the novel (458).

By the end of the book, Ugwu rejects Biafran nationalism and the deeper political questions that once consumed him when listening to Odenigbo ponder greater questions of humanity when he was a child. His belief in Biafra has been crushed, and so he makes an effort to avoid the topic entirely, even refusing to listen to the radio: “Please turn that thing off… I want to hear the birds (320).” His identity has undergone massive changes, in that he feels separated from the true believer he once was. He even goes on to say that “there is no such thing as greatness” (321). This is an instance in which the combination of smaller personal experiences and a greater historical backdrop both prove to have an influence on a character’s identity; Ugwu transforms from a naive village boy to a cynical writer because of the toll that the Biafran war takes on him.

As Ugwu exhibits and witnesses a struggle between traditional and colonial forms of thought throughout the novel, there are other characters who have difficulty with this as well. In Half of a Yellow Sun, the prevailing assumption amongst all the characters is that Western ways are superior to all others. This assumption creates a collective identity for those colonized groups experiencing cultural, economic, and political domination. Odenigbo is an example of a character who creates an identity that brings together elements of Western culture with his own in asking the greater questions about his identity as an Igbo person. More traditionally-rooted characters such as Odenigbo’s mother and Ugwu’s mother are strongly opposed to Western influence, and they firmly align themselves with their traditional cultures and label Western culture as fully separate from their own. For instance, when Ugwu shows his mother the toothpaste he has been using to clean his teeth at Odenigbo’s house, his mother does “not look impressed…” she even goes on to ask, “What is wrong with using a good atu?” (116).

After the Nigerian Civil War has ended, Odenigbo asks another one of his thought-provoking questions, which is “what do you think accounts for the success of the white man’s mission in Africa?” (350). Odenigbo says that colonizers created racism and “used it as a basis of conquest… to conquer a more humane people,” believing that there is a strong correlation between colonialism and racism (402). Odenigbo appears to struggle with his own identity more than other characters in the novel; while Ugwu undergoes the most significant changes, his are much more fluid than Odenigbo. Odenigbo initially establishes that he is aware of and is opposed to the faux identities created by colonizers: “I am black because the white man constructed black to be as different as possible from white” (16).

However, he goes on to admit that the idea of Africans being lumped together as one inferior group doesn’t just come from the Europeans; just as colonizers view Nigerians as a completely separate culture from their own that is deserving of separate treatment, Odenigbo is guilty of viewing any ethnic groups outside his own in this way. This inner conflict creates problems for Odenigbo, who turns to alcoholism and becomes depressed as the story continues. This prevailing tendency to create identities has tragic results throughout the story, as the anti-Igbo pogroms resulted in the deaths of thousands. Thus, Half of a Yellow Sun puts forth the idea that colonialism can lead to a change in identity; with Western imperialism comes the changes from wealth to poverty, death becoming part of everyday life, and fear and lack of confidence in oneself.

While Half of a Yellow Sun uses colonialism as a backdrop, Toni Morrison’s Beloved includes it in a much harsher form. Beloved explores the physical and emotional impact of slavery, which haunts the characters who have come in contact with it, especially those who were once slaves. Slavery has a negative impact on former slaves’ sense of identity, as slaves were told they were not human by their white owners. Paul D. is one character who exhibits this post-traumatic stress greatly, being so skeptical of and estranged from his own sense of identity that at one point, he doesn’t know whether the screaming he hears is his own or someone else’s. He is insecure about his role as a man, which then translates to his value as a human being. While he was a slave, Paul D. suppressed all of his emotional pain in the “tobacco tin buried in his chest where a red heart used to be” (Morrison 149). The difficulty in releasing these thoughts lead him to fear loving anything too much, and his identity suffers because of it.

As Paul D. suffers from past experiences, Sethe is another character who has a past which harms her identity. As a kid, she walked in on a schoolteacher giving the students a lesson on her “animal” characteristics (228). Just as Paul D. is, Sethe feels alienated from herself and is filled with self-loathing. Paul D. fears that talking too much about his past and his memories will wreak havoc on the minds of the two former slaves, and that “saying more might push them both to a place they couldn’t get back from” (149). This is an active attempt on Paul D’s part to rid himself of his identity as a slave and not allow it to interfere with his current life. While Paul D. is making this effort to move forward, it is much more difficult for Sethe, who views the past more as something that takes a physical form and recognizes it as something that is difficult to get away from. Sethe says that “it’s so hard for me to believe in [time]. Some things go. Pass on. Some things just stay. I used to think it was me rememory. You know. Some things you forget. Other things you never do” (43). In Sethe’s case, the past and historical context of slavery do not necessarily control her identity, but destroy it, as she is so consumed by the pain of her memory that she cannot focus on the present.

While the past leads Paul D. to question his role as a man, Sethe fights to maintain her role as a mother amongst the troubles of her memory. She warns her daughter Denver about the past: “If you go there—you who was never there—if you go there and stand in the place where it was, it will happen again; it will be there, waiting for you . . . Even though it’s all over—over and done with—it’s going to always be there waiting for you” (36). Sethe is haunted and controlled by the past. Her memories of her life as a slave partnered with her attempts to murder her own children are integrated into her life and install in her mind the notion that she can never get rid of the past, and that is exists in the present. She spends her entire life avoiding any encounter with her past life, just as Paul D. does, except Sethe allows it to take a physical form, this form being Beloved. Sethe’s immense fear of the past blinds her from the striking similarities between Beloved and the daughter Sethe murdered. Once Sethe realizes this resemblance, she still allows Beloved to take control of her just as thoughts of her past do.

Mrs. Dalloway is a story which, unlike Half of a Yellow Sun and Beloved, deals less with poverty and immediate suffering and has a focus more on the issues of the privileged upper class. Virginia Woolf’s post-World War II British society is quite hierarchical, and one’s identity is based on society and class. The upper-class people often come from royalty or immense familial wealth, while there is little social mobility for those on the lower end. Clarissa Dalloway, the novel’s protagonist, bears an identity which has been molded by her youth and her memories of her time at Bourton, as it reflects the notion that identity is mostly static for those on the higher end. Clarissa finds comfort in reassuring herself of her true identity; even the first line of the novel demonstrates her need to keep this notion in mind: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself” (Woolf 1). At the lavish parties she throws and attends, Clarissa associates mostly with those who are of the same social status or higher; there is even an instance in which the Prime Minister comes to her party. However, there are other characters like Ellie Henderson and Miss Kilman who loathe Clarissa because they are socially beneath her. Almost every character is concerned with altering or maintaining their social class, as Woolf presents the notion that this was majorly important in this historical context.

Unlike Clarissa, Peter Walsh reflects the rare attempt amongst the people in post-war London to separate himself from his past. Like Odenigbo, Peter analyzes society and is focused on the world around him: “Absorbing, mysterious, of infinite richness, this life,” he says as he ponders his role in the world (190). Peter matures in his time in India in an attempt to escape from the troubles of his world and to become his own person. Peter’s stay in India reintroduces him to a more normal life, rather than the obsessive lifestyle that his dear friend Clarissa promotes. When Peter wakes from a dream in which he sees Clarissa react rather judgmentally to some controversial news about a neighbor and utters, “The death of the soul” (43). This is an instance of Peter subtly noticing how the people around him are so focused on socializing and class that their souls are dying, while there are other harsh realities to be concerned with (43). These thoughts of Peter’s reflect his later attempts to maintain a true identity amongst the conformist hierarchy that surrounds him.

Like Half of a Yellow Sun and Beloved, the past plays a major role on identity in Mrs. Dalloway. Like Ugwu and Sethe, Septimus is an important character who reflects a change in identity. A veteran of World War I, Septimus suffers from shell shock and is lost within his own mind. “It might be possible that the world itself is without meaning,” he mutters to himself at one point (62). As he hates himself for being made numb by the war, he feels guilty for even taking part in it. Septimus’s doctor urges his wife Lucrezia to make Septimus be more aware and pay attention to the world around him, but Septimus has already removed himself from the physical world, living internally, hallucinating, and talking to his friend Evans who was killed in war. Septimus fears that people have no capacity for honesty or kindness. His identity is affected in that he becomes a social pariah, due to his inability to catch up with the real world which is moving too quickly for him. It is Clarissa’s realization of how similar she is to Septimus that brings the two characters together and makes Clarissa understand that her own identity transcends that of a conformist.

Throughout the three texts analyzed, historical context proves to have an influence on the identity of characters. Each text includes a significant historical backdrop that has placed the characters in their situations and has affected the changes in identity that they go through over the course of the story. In addition, characters have proven to be a reflection of this change. In Half of a Yellow Sun, Ugwu represents this change; in Beloved, it is Sethe and Paul D.; in Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa, and Septimus all undergo their own changes. As the works make evident, personal past experiences in a greater emotionally-inducing historical context tend to play a definitive role in molding identity.

Works Cited

  • Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Half of a Yellow Sun. 1st North American ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.
  • Morrison, Toni. Beloved: A Novel. Knopf Publishing Group, 2004. Print.
  • Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co, 1925. Print.

Cite this page

The Influence of Context on Characterization. (2021, Dec 02). Retrieved from

The Influence of Context on Characterization

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