Houseboy Summary and Study Guide

Ferdinand Oyono


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  • Features an extended summary and 5 sections of expert analysis.
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Houseboy Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 29-page guide for “Houseboy” by Ferdinand Oyono includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Christianity and Sexuality.

Plot Summary

Houseboy, by Ferdinand Oyono, is an epistolary novel focusing on the coming of age of an African boy. It is told through a series of diaries, known as exercise books. Originally published in 1956 under the name Une vie de boy, it takes place during the Spanish colonization of what is now Equatorial Guinea. Focusing on themes of colonialism, race, Christianity, and faith in the face of suffering, it is considered a classic of anti-colonialist literature.

Houseboy begins with an unusual narrative technique, as the main character is found near-death by a vacationing Frenchman in what was then Spanish Guinea. Although the injured man, Toundi, soon dies, the Frenchman discovers his diary (called an exercise book by the novel) and begins reading it. Aside from this prologue, the entirety of Houseboy consists of the diary that the Frenchman is reading, and the Frenchman himself plays no further role in the novel.

Toundi’s story in the first of two exercise books begins with him living with his family, including his abusive father. This causes him to run away from home and seek refuge with Father Gilbert, a kind priest who lives in the area. Although Toundi’s father implores him to come back home, Toundi refuses and rejects his birth family. He embraces Father Gilbert as his new father, and Father Gilbert helps him advance his education. Toundi learns to read and write, and Father Gilbert gives him a spiritual education as well, and Toundi becomes a firm believer in Catholicism. However, his faith and how it dwindles over the course of his life is a key element in Toundi’s story.

Toundi’s happy life with father Gilbert is short-lived when a motorcycle accident claims the priest’s life. With nowhere else to go, Toundi is soon taken in by the Commandant, the man in charge of the local colony. He is employed as a houseboy by the Commandant, the subject of the title. Toundi is deeply interested in the goings-on in the house, giving very little thought to himself during this segment of the story. After six months of serving the Commandant alone, Toundi’s life takes a new turn when the Commandant’s wife, known only as Madame in the story, arrives from France to live with them.

At first, Madame seems like a kind woman, although her beauty complicates things when every man in town begins flirting with her. This angers the Commandant. However, her personality starts to change after the Commandant leaves to go on tour, and Toundi is left alone with her. As time passes, the kind and gentle mask Madame wore begins to slip off, and she reveals herself to be a cruel and disrespectful woman. She is revealed to be having an affair with the local prison warden, Moreau, as well. Moreau is a cruel and racist man, and one of Toundi’s first encounters with him sees him beat two of Toundi’s fellow Africans to death. The introduction of Moreau and the reveal of his cruelty marks the end of the first exercise book.

As the second exercise book begins, the Commandant returns home. Although it is soon revealed that he knows about his wife’s affair, they reconcile after a few days. However, Madame’s personality continues to deteriorate and she begins to treat Toundi even more poorly. She is taking her frustration over being stuck in her unhappy marriage out on Toundi, but it soon becomes clear that she wishes to silence him due to his knowledge of her affair.

Toundi soon finds himself unfairly accused of participating in a theft with some of his fellow workers. Although he is innocent, he is not believed and he is taken to the prison run by the ruthless Moreau, where he is beaten as Moreau attempts to get a confession out of him. Moreau seeks to silence Toundi once and for all by ordering a muscular employee, Mendim, to beat a confession out of him. However, Mendim helps Toundi fake the effects of the beating by covering him with Ox blood.

Toundi’s relief is short-lived as he soon becomes very sick, and Mendim helps him to the hospital. There it’s found that the beatings have broken his ribs and damaged his lungs. Despite this, Moreau is determined to get his prisoner back as soon as Toundi is healed and continue hurting him. Seeing what his future holds, Toundi chooses to escape the hospital and run back to his home. As the beginning of the novel showed, he died shortly thereafter from his injuries. The process of Toundi gaining his faith from Father Gilbert and then losing it due to the cruelty of the people he encountered afterwards is emphasized over the course of the diaries.

Although it only attained modest success upon its release, Houseboy has gained attention as anti-colonialist literature increased in popularity. Ferdinand Oyono only had a brief literary career, publishing three novels from 1956 to 1960, but he went on to great success as a diplomat and politician in his native Cameroon. He served in positions…

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