I’ve been reading (and teaching) Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s critically acclaimed novel Americanah for the first time this spring. Many of my students were disappointed with the ending, but not me. Here’s why. (SPOILERS, obvs.)
Americanah has been a satire with serious bits since the beginning. That makes it a comedy. Comedy genre rule #1 is that it ends happily (often with a wedding). To turn tragic at the end with a character death to separate our star-crossed lovers would be a mishandling of the book’s genre at large.
While the middle part of the novel was definitely about race, and was perhaps the most interesting to us because it was ABOUT us (Americans), the novel as a whole was about Ifemelu’s (and Obinze’s to a lesser extent) identity, including race when she comes to America, but also family, love, public personas versus inner life, gender, class, and morality. Overall, it is a coming-of-age book, except the transition from child to adult is complicated by changes in geography and society. At the end, Ifemelu finds her way back to herself. She leaves the job she doesn’t believe in, starts the blog that allows her to write about the important issues of Lagos, pays her own way in life, makes peace with the previous loves whom she left in lurch, and ends up being on her own for seven months, probably assuming Obinze had decided to stay with Kosi, and more or less moving on. That Obinze returns to her doesn’t negate her own independence.
Obinze and Ifemelu are fated to be together. They are built to be a couple who are together despite society’s expectations. Remember how Obinze was fated by the “gods” to be with Ginika back when Ifemelu met him? It seems that fate, or gods in the form of society, are continually trying to keep them apart. Their ability to come back together does break up Obinze’s marriage, but it was a “transactional” marriage, and one that I think we all see as a “lesser” marriage. This is a “white person” belief according to Obinze’s friend, which ties their non-conformity to their time and interest in the West, but I don’t think it originated there. They were bucking society’s expectations for love from the very beginning.
But despite their fated relationship, Adichie keeps it real. If there is dissatisfaction with the ending, it is that love can’t conquer all without consequences. Adichie makes us look at the consequences of what’s life’s thrown at them and what they’ve chosen along the way in response. There are lasting effects, and finding each other again after all this time is no easy feat. Deciding to be together, openly, honestly, means ending other ties and recommitting, figuring out how to pursue love but also maintain duty. I believe that if Obinze says he’ll see Buchi every day, he will. But honesty is a big theme in this novel, and when Obinze says that one day Buchi will realize he’s been pretending to be a fully invested father who loves her mother, she’ll become resentful of the lie.
So much literature ends with death and destruction of dreams and ideals. Gatsby. Heart of Darkness. Things Fall Apart. Hamlet. Cuckoo’s Nest. Slaughterhouse. White Noise. It almost seems like literature can’t be literature without the tragedy. Little value is given to the comedy or the book that retains hope. But comedy isn’t easy (try it and see). And maintaining hope in a world like ours, in the face of racism, poverty, body trafficking, and corruption (all topics Adichie deals with earnestly), is likewise hard. Ending on tragedy, in my opinion, is the easier way out. Finding a way to say, “Yes, you can survive this struggle, and it will define who you are, but it won’t crush you. Love for people and love for life will get you through,” that’s the bigger challenge. And the more important one.