The Thing Around Nnamabia: Reversal and Recognition in “Cell One”

Age of Awareness
Published in
5 min readNov 17, 2022


Applying Aristole’s framework to Adichie’s short story — a testament to the universality of surprise and reflection

Photo by Breston Kenya from Pexels

The Thing Around Your Neck, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, is a compilation of short stories that each portray a facet of the Nigerian or Nigerian American experience, illustrating how no man or tale is the same. “Cell One” is the first short story in this collection, and it is about the narrator’s brother, Nnamabia, who is sent to prison after being seen in a bar with college student gang members. His prison experience and subsequent personal growth form the majority of the plot.

But what is most fascinating is the parallels that can be drawn from this story to an Aristotellian tragedy. Familiar Aristotelian characteristics like reversal and recognition tie with themes like loss of innocence that Adichie is well known for. Aristotle’s definitions of reversal of the situation and recognition accentuate the character development of Nnamabia from “Cell One” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

From the beginning, the narrator describes her brother’s actions as having a “theatrical quality” (Adichie 4) — creating a negative first impression of Nnamabia. Nnamabia laughs at the police, steals because it’s what his friends do, and enjoys the attention that comes with such actions. Even after his arrest, Nnamabia “seemed to enjoy his new role as the sufferer of indignities” (Adichie 13), as he recounts his tales in the prison cell with a certain degree of pride to his family.

The audience is repeatedly exposed to Nnamabia’s antics based on the anecdotes about him that Adichie chooses to incorporate, and thus we become compelled to expect it from him. This context portrays him as self-centered and oblivious to the true suffering around him, and the audience’s impression of Nnamabia is that of an immature adolescent.

For this reason, Nnamabia’s somberness after his experience in the infamous Cell One is the opposite of what the audience has come to expect from the character — making this reversal of situation all the more poignant. Nnamabia is forcibly sent to Cell One, the most violent prison cell in the police complex, after speaking up for an innocent, old man. With such an eventful change to Nnamabia’s life, the narrator notes how easy it would have been for him “to make a sleek drama of his story”(Adichie 21). But he doesn’t.

Here it’s important to note that reversal of the situation is, according to Aristotle, “subject always to our rule of probability or necessity”(Aristotle XI). We have gotten so used to Nnamabia telling the events in his life with a certain grandeur that this reaction seemed more probable to us given the severity of his situation.

The effect of this reversal of the situation is to highlight Nnamabia’s maturity and jaded wisdom that he has obtained after his experiences in Cell One. Witnessing the prison inmates and guards make fun of the old man has changed him. Reversal is one of the “most powerful elements of emotional interest in tragedy”(Aristotle VI), and this is one of the crucial moments in which the audience becomes emotionally invested in Nnamabia.

His character goes through a development arc, and this is most clearly demonstrated to the audience through this lack of a dramatic rendition of the abuse he faced. The change in his character gives the audience a reason to root for him.

Aristotle suggests that reversal of the situation is best received when it “produces the tragic effect that satisfies the moral sense”(Aristotle XVIII). Nnamabia’s ego and pride has gone down, and in that sense, the audience’s moral sense has been justified. It is immoral for a character to steal, and as readers, we don’t get closure with that mistake because Nnamabia seems to move on with his life and is as popular as ever.

Adichie’s choice to introduce Nnamabia with this mini anecdote and then end with the hardened realizations he had in prison is gratifying on a subconscious level to readers. Though we would never wish for his character to endure what he did, Nnamabia’s character arc is captivating because it shows he has learned his lesson.

Aristotle’s definition of recognition can also be applied to Nnamabia’s newfound knowledge about the cruel world he lives in. Recognition is often associated with reversal of the situation because both together “will produce either pity or fear”(Aristotle XI). In this case, it’s the former. Out of all of the characters in the short story, Nnamabia is the character that has most clearly gone through recognition, as we see how he has changed as a result of his Cell One experiences.

Nnamabia’s ignorance of his plight provides a stark contrast with his younger sister’s frustrations that he didn’t understand “how lucky he was that the policeman allowed him to come out and eat our food, or how stupid he’d been to stay out drinking that night, and how uncertain his chances were of being released”(Adichie 13). The parallel structure in this passage emphasizes the consequences of Nnamabia’s actions that we, as audience members, are privy of but that Nnamabia is either oblivious to.

As readers, we are unable to get insight into Nnamabia’s thoughts because of the particular limited first person narration, so our moment of recognition runs in parallel to that of his sister, the narrator. We are not seeing the change in Nnamabia’s maturity from his eyes but from that of his younger sister, and this influences our own sensitivity to the character.

Like the narrator, we must pick up on Nnamabia’s physical cues to interpret how we think he feels about his experiences in prison. There are times when he “seemed more subdued”(Adichie 15) and “spoke less and mostly about the old man”(Adichie 15) that foreshadow the moment of maturity Nnamabia displays in the end of “Cell One,” but the audience is left to construct our own perception and emotions towards the character based on how his sister’s observations and her own recognition that her brother is changing.

Her recognition takes place when she realizes the moments of maturity that are built through Nnamabia’s compassion towards the old man and “the audacity of the boy from university”(Adichie 21) to speak up against the mistreatment. Her feelings of tenderness towards Nnamabia mirror that of the audience members. We become more invested in Nnamabia’s development because we are led to view Nnamabia in a similar way as his sister (frustration, tenderness, compassion) does over the course of the story.

Nnamabia’s moment of maturity in the end of “Cell One” coincides with the reversal of situation and recognition that Aristotle deems necessary to an exceptional tragedy. The character goes from ignorance about his privilege to knowledge of the abuse that characterizes the prison experience in Nigeria.

While seeing Nnamabia finally let go of his antics is gratifying, there is also a naivety in his actions that we must respect. The ability to wholeheartedly stand up for something or someone without caring about the consequences is characteristic of the adolescents in the world who haven’t yet become cynical — perhaps teaching us all that there is always something worth fighting for.