English Literature » Notes » Houseboy: Literary Analysis

Houseboy: Literary Analysis

In Houseboy by Ferdinand Oyono, the protagonist, Toundi Onduo struggles with his social identity and writes about his experiences in a diary which is the style of the novel.  He is forced from the brutality at his father’s hands into the arms of a Catholic missionary named Father Gilbert because of his curiosity with the colonials. Toundi becomes Father’s Gilbert’s houseboy, or personal servant, and is soon taught to read and write.  Toundi refers to this man as his master and holds him in high praise.  This affection for Father Gilbert is known as European paternalism which is the theme displayed throughout the novel.

Not long after he professes his admiration for his master, the religious leader gets into a fatal motorcycle accident.  Toundi mentions this event as “his first death” and witnesses the superficial actions of others at Father Gilbert’s funeral.  He also begins to realize how much the natives and the colonists are divided by the way that he is treated without the presence of his beloved master.  Toundi’s reputation as a houseboy is the only thing that tends to distinguish him from other natives because he is quickly hired by another leading figure whom he calls the Commandant.  The Commandant treats Toundi more as a servant than Father Gilbert, but Toundi does not allow this treatment to affect the quality of his work.  It becomes evident that Toundi has nothing more than respect for the Commandant and does not confide in him as much as he did with Father Gilbert.  When the Commandant’s wife arrives from Paris, Toundi’s situation changes dramatically.

Toundi respectfully calls the Commandant’s wife Madame.  He soon realizes that her beauty is the only thing that masks her authoritative nature.  The Commandant begins to travel again for lengthy periods of time and his wife soon grows bored.  Madame begins to have an affair with the prison-director in the community and does not sufficiently keep this relationship a secret.  She uses Toundi as her messenger and he tries to remain out of the situation.  He is disappointed with the actions of the Madame and feels sorrow for the Commandant.  The tension of the affair builds amongst the natives and, much later, the Commandant finds out about the affair.  He is infuriated with his wife at first, but she manipulates the Commandant to blame Toundi for his involvement.

Throughout the novel Houseboy, the theme of colonialism is very apparent.  The historical, social, and cultural context of Cameroon is attributed to the colonization of the country by many European cultures.  The purpose of this literary analysis is to examine the author’s usage of these components to portray the effects of colonization in Cameroon.  The setting of the novel takes place in the 1950s when the country was under the rule of the French.  There are many French characters mentioned within the novel who encounter Toundi and to whom he shows the utmost respect.  This historical context is the foundation on which the plot is created.  The effect of the colonial history of Cameroon leads the sense of European paternalism that Toundi feels towards the men that he serves.  Toundi continuously feels as if he is indebted to those who he works for because of the division between the Europeans and the natives.

The social context of Houseboy is established early within the novel.  Toundi’s desire to “follow the white man” instead of obeying his father showed the superiority of the colonists amongst the young natives.  The French colonists were given the power in Cameroon, but there were still leaders within the country.  These countrymen were described to have a mocking relationship with the colonists.  The colonists and the natives had a fabricated relationship to the extent that each group called out the flaws of the other.

A specific example of this situation is the Madame’s affair with the prison-director which is the pivotal point of the novel.  The natives begin to catch onto the actions of the pair much sooner than the other colonists because of the connections of the natives.  They held conversations about the “secret meetings” of the Madame and the prison-director so often that it did not take long for servants in other households to find out.  The natives regarded the colonists as peculiar individuals and analyzed many of their methods of courtship.  They mocked the colonists for their obliviousness to their surroundings and continued to converse about the situation in secrecy until the Commandant found out.  The natives perspectives of the whites is contrasted only by the colonists’ reassertion of their authority.

Not only did the colonists implement their superiority upon the natives, but also they began to have an influence on their culture.  The natives were accustomed to labor intensive work, but their cultural strength symbolically faltered within the novel.  Toundi was ultimately confused about his cultural identity until the last page of his diary when he asks, “what do they call the French men who are black?”  He was surrounded by these colonists for the majority of his adult life because of the work that he was chosen to do.  It is inevitable to remain in solidified cultural state when one is constantly surrounded by individuals who do not have the same beliefs as one does.  The presence of other native workers within the households helped keep Toundi in touch with his culture.  Many of these workers viewed Toundi differently because of how he treated the colonists, but this concern made a tremendous difference on the outcome of the book.  Their input gave Toundi another perspective on the decisions that he made around the colonists.

Houseboy by Ferdinand Oyono is written in the form of a diary.  The author’s choice of this text type makes each character become developed by the direct thoughts of the protagonist, Toundi. The components of this diary include a first person point of view, private comments and thoughts, and important events.  Toundi does not record every aspect of his life nor does he include dates so there is a slight discrepancy within the text.  His thoughts and ideas are the only perspectives that we are exposed to because it is a diary.  The effect of a first person point of view is a singular portrayal of events.  Toundi’s thoughts, experiences, and ideas give the audience a representation of colonial Cameroon through the eyes of a dedicated houseboy.

The theme of the novel is not clearly represented; however, it can be inferred from the text that European colonization caused many native Africans to struggle with their social and cultural identities.  Toundi has an inner conflict within the novel between his mind and his beliefs. He knows that certain actions are not appropriate, but he continues to debate within himself if he should follow through with them or not.  The conflict that he faces within himself is influenced by his colonial surroundings.