Analysis of The Narrative Structure in Nervous Conditions

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Words: 2265 |

Pages: 5|

12 min read

Published: Jun 29, 2018

Words: 2265|Pages: 5|12 min read

Published: Jun 29, 2018

Narrative structure is often one of the most crucial and strategic rhetorical elements of a work of literature. This is particularly true when the narrator is essential to understanding the themes and purposes of the text itself, such as the personal story of a specific character or group. Tsitsi Dangarembga’s striking novel Nervous Conditions represents this strategy wonderfully. Dangarembga’s narrative structure focuses on the personal journey of the narrator, Tambudzai, yet allows her to reveal crucial insights into the socio-political situations in which the journey takes place.

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An understanding of the narrative structure begins by inspecting the role and character of the narrator herself, as well as the setting in which the narration takes place. The novel is set in Rhodesia, a pre-colonial African environment that housed a tumultuous mixture of English and Shona cultures, and suffered a multitude of problems stemming from colonization. Tambudzai was subject to opposition in every direction: the two cultures clashed both externally, as the English attempted to assimilate the Shona societies into Western thought, and internally, as the women struggled to maintain their identities in the rigid patriarchal societies. The narrator states early in the text that she feels “many things [during the later] days, much more than [she] was able to feel in the days when [her] brother died, and there are reasons for this more than the mere consequence of age” (Dangarembga 1). From this statement, the reader deduces that the speaker is the older, more mature Tambudzai, telling her story from a hindsight perspective. She has “reach[ed] maturity after being socialized by two divergent social systems, the Shona community and the mission school propagating Western standards,” and is therefore able to commentate upon her past with more wisdom (Berndt 45). The reflective, analytical tone of the narrative also characterizes Tambu as mature and educated, thus adding to the validity of her story and implying that it contains insight worthy of consideration.

The narration of Tambudzai’s development is primarily formatted to serve the classic style of Bildungsroman that traces her growth from child to adult. As literature commentator Walter P. Collins, III puts it: “specifically, Nervous Conditions functions as a modern African Bildungsroman as it portrays the conflicted path and ultimate enlightenment and escape of the young Tambu” (Collins 73). Dangarembga cleverly combines the Bildungsroman framework with the grown narrator in order to “[transfer] her authorial prerogatives to Tambu, allowing her to ‘author’ or narrate her story thus giving her a voice of her own” (Collins 74). What results is a text that beautifully allows the reader to experience the social and psychological growth of the protagonist from the viewpoint of the protagonist herself. The narrator Tambudzai’s retrospection, woven into the storyline as passages in third-person omniscient point of view, elucidates the significance of the events as they take place. This allows Dangarembga, through the mature voice of the narrator, to comment upon the situations and characters described, as “the reader counts it as a privilege to have the advantage of a mature narrator in Tambu who is able to put the pieces of the puzzle back together as she relates the events of her development from childhood forward” (Collins 74). By the conclusion of the novel, the reader realizes that “Tambu’s insights, gained through personal development and Bildung, prove critical to Dangarembga’s message concerning colonialism, patriarchy, and possibilities of expansion” (Collins 75).

In accordance with her classic Bildungsroman journey, Tambu begins to describe her development in the environment which she will eventually be led away from. This environment is her rural home, where she was surrounded by her immediate family and the deep roots of the traditional Shona culture. The Bildungsroman structure also “offers its protagonist diverse directions and models of development…these future prospects are incorporated by the major characters who accompany Tambudzai’s growing up” (Berndt 86). In the home environment, they are Tambu’s mother and her aunt, Lucia.

Tambu’s mother teaches her “from a very early age” that the “business of womanhood is a heavy burden…and [in those] days it [was] worse, with the poverty of blackness on one side and the weight of womanhood on the other” (Dangarembga 16). Lucia, however, is fiercely independent: she “had been brought up in abject poverty [yet had not] been married to it at fifteen. Her spirit, unfettered in this respect, had experimented with living and drawn its own conclusions” (Dangarembga 127). According to literature reviewer M. Keith Booker, “Dangarembga carefully situates these characters in relation to one another so that they evoke the kinds of relationships between opposing forces that were typical of colonial Zimbabwean society as a whole” (Booker 190). Therefore, the narrator purposefully acknowledges the relationships she had with these women, both for the purpose of following young Tambu’s development and also to identify forces within her culture. Tambu’s mother thus represents the willing self-subjugation to the traditional female role, while Lucia represents complete adherence to individualistic principles and liberation from gender roles. These relationships are present as forces in society also, as the patriarchal Shona role Tambu is thrust into and the command women maintain over their own bodies, respectively (Berndt 101). Tambu’s response to these female examples allows her to start questioning her own self-identity. For instance, Tambu rejected the obedient nature of her mother’s traditional role, and criticized the system, making statement such as: “The needs and sensibilities of the women in my family were not considered a priority, or even legitimate...In those days I felt the injustice of my situation every time I thought about it” (Dangarembga 12). As a narrator, Tambu is taking advantage of her position by clearly identifying for the reader the characters and forces that led to the questioning of her self-identity. She provides sufficient early history of the young Tambu for the reader to realize that “according to Dangarembga, black women need to question the ‘burden of womanhood’” - one that later is realized to be “even heavier because of the interplay between colonialism and traditional patriarchal society” (Berndt 62).

The narrating Tambu, having provided significant early development for the protagonist, then progresses into the stage of the Bildungsroman where Tambu crosses the threshold for her journey to self-identity. This takes place when, upon her older brother Nhamo’s death, she is given the privilege of attending the mission school and living with her prosperous uncle Babamukuru, aunt Maiguru, and cousin Nyasha. She employs powerful rhetoric to describe the situation: “What I experienced that day was a short cut, a rerouting of everything I had ever defined as me into fast lanes that would speedily lead me to my destination. My horizons were saturated with me, my leaving, my going. There was no room for what I left behind...At Babamukuru’s I would have the leisure, be encouraged to consider questions that had to do with survival of the spirit, the creation of consciousness, rather than mere sustenance of the body” (Dangarembga 58-59). This potent passage relies heavily upon the hindsight of the narrator to emphasize the significance of her transition and to extract its implications. It begins to become clear that “the interstice where the different identity layers are negotiated is the narrative itself,” for the critical points described by the narrator contain the most crucial commentary necessary for grasping the principles behind Tambu’s journey (Berndt 115).

Tambu also offers a unique combination of personal recollection and carefully planned story-telling to convey her transition in a more figurative sense. For instance, she symbolically reminds the reader that “although she appreciates the chance to lead a modern life according to Western standards, she pays the price of cultural estrangement” (Berndt 45). Inherent to the traditional Shona way of life is the presence of dirt and other natural substances; therefore the cleanliness greeting Tambu at her new home is a significant change, as she recalls: “Babamakuru’s taste was excellent, so that where he could afford to indulge it, the results were striking. The opulence of his living-room was very strong stuff, overwhelming to someone who had first crawled and then toddled and finally walked over dung floors” (Dangarembga 69). Tambu seems to imply that as the transition cleansed her of physical dirt, it also attempted to wash away the presence of her Shona background. Once the narrator has implanted this idea within her reader, she is able to introduce young Tambu’s response to it: “Some strategy had to be devised to prevent all this splendour from distracting me...I was very proud of my thinking strategy. It was meant to put me above the irrational levels of my character and enable me to proceed from pure, rational premises...I remained as aloof and unimpressed as possible” (Dangarembga 69-70). The narrator has begun to formally introduce the constant struggle that Tambu undergoes to formulate and maintain her identity. Booker reminds readers of the parallel significance of Tambu’s personal journey: “the changes that Tambudzai undergoes in the course of her education and maturation clearly parallel historical changes that were underway in colonial Zimbabwe...Thus the personal experiences of the protagonist are linked with public events in her society in ways that make her an emblem of her society and also serve as a reminder that individuals always develop within specific historical contexts” (Booker 190). Without the selective, analytical voice of the narrator to extract the subtle mechanisms behind Tambu’s journey, it would be extremely difficult to understand how it represents historical context. The narrator therefore is able to function as a bridge between comprehending the fictional story of the protagonist and analyzing the important historical events to which it relates.

The narrator continues to provide instances that are representative of Tambu’s journey to a Bildungsroman arrival at a stable self-identity. The rise in the analytical nature of the text seems to parallel the increasing depth and complexity of Tambu’s character. The conflict Tambu experiences “clearly cannot be reduced to a simple good-bad opposition between African traditional and European colonial cultures,” but must “[explore] this process of what might be called psychological, or internal colonization...the story of Tambudzai’s development is largely the story of her gradual recognition of this phenomenon and the decision to rebel against it” (Booker 191). Accordingly, the narrator increasingly turns inward to provide her reader with personal reflection and analysis that allows her to describe the experience her younger self had gone through. For instance, she describes the time as: “the period of my reincarnation...I expected this era to be significantly profound and broadening in terms of adding wisdom to my nature, clarity to my vision...It was a centripetal time, with me at the centre, everything was gravitating towards me. it was a time of sublimation with me as the sublimate” (Dangarembga 92-93). As Tambu’s mother and aunt had earlier served as examples of female roles and the societal forces that cause them, the narrator now turns to her relationships with Maiguru and Nyasha as representations of the various influences upon her character. By recalling and analyzing various characters, events, and books that the young Tambu responded to, the narrator successfully exposes the reader to “the multiple identity layers a colonized female subject can occupy” (Berndt 63). In addition, her inclusion of less agreeable and flattering situations, such as her criticism of her mother’s latrine conditions, reveals her determination to convey the journey accurately even when it may portray her character in a negative light.

Tambu concludes her narration by describing the eventual middle ground that she seems to have settled in. Collins states matter-of-factly the evidence of the connection between the story’s protagonist and the narrator: “The fact that Tambu reaches a sense of self is made evident in the various interjections the adult narrator of ‘her’ story is capable of making as she looks back at the ways her perceptions have changed from her time on the homestead, through her studies at the mission and ultimately at Sacred Heart” (Collins 85). Indeed, by the time Tambu settles in at her final school (Sacred Heart) she “becomes aware of the fact that it is up to her to decide what kind of personality she wants to develop, which identity layers she wants to accept and develop into subject positions. She will have to occupy an in between space between several cultural traditions” (Berndt 84). Tambu ends her narration with a final reflection on the mental turning point of her self-discovery: “Quietly, unobtrusively and extremely fitfully, something in my mind began to assert itself, to questions things and refuse to be brainwashed, bringing me to this time when I can set down this story” (Dangarembga 204).

Evidently, the narrative structure of Nervous Conditions, as well as the character of the mature Tambu narrator herself, is essential in Dangarembga’s exploration of the journey of an oppressed, Black female in a colonial and patriarchal context. The powerful combination of first-person narration and third-person omniscient allows the narrator to explain her story precisely how she wants it to be told. She highlights and analyzes the mechanisms of her journey in such a manner that they can be applied to the historical situations taking place within the novel. In this way, Dangarembga communicates her insight about personal growth under the constraints of the dynamic society, while maintaining the focus on Tambu’s persona.

Works Cited

Berndt, Katrin. Female Identity in Contemporary Zimbabwean Fiction. Germany: Pia Thielmann & Eckhard Breitinger, 2005.

Booker, Keith M. The African Novel in English. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1998.

Collins III, Walter P. Tracing Personal Expansion. Lanham: University Press of America, Inc., 2006.

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Dangarembga, Tsitsi. Nervous Conditions. Emeryville: Seal Press, 2004.

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Analysis of the Narrative Structure in Nervous Conditions. (2018, April 13). GradesFixer. Retrieved February 22, 2024, from
“Analysis of the Narrative Structure in Nervous Conditions.” GradesFixer, 13 Apr. 2018,
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