26 Jun 2009

Sample Essay: Role Of Women In"THINGS FALL APART"

INTRODUCTION

Chinua Achebe ranks as the most famous  well read and influential of all contemporary writers. ‘Things Fall Apart’ ‘ his first novel  is a narrative dealing with the colonization of Africa by Europe and is told from the view point of the colonized people. First published in 1958, the book narrates the life of the warrior  and village hero Okonkwo, who is  the principle character of this book. It  describes the arrival of white missionaries to his Igbo village and their impact on African life and society at the end of the nineteenth century. Achebe, through his brilliant writing counters the images of African society and its people as depicted in Western literature and media, and goes on to  reclaim his own and his people’s history.

The narrative of Things Fall Apart is set in the period during  Europe’s violent partitioning of Africa at the end of the 19th century, and Achebe wrote and published the novel towards the end of the colonial period, during a time of burgeoning nationalism across Africa:

“African frustration was compounded by the inconsistency between, on the one hand, universalistic Christian ideals (for Christianity spread widely during the colonial period, as did Islam) and liberal political ideas which colonialism introduced into Africa, and, on the other hand, the discrimination and racism which marked colonialism everywhere. This discrepancy deepened during the Second World War, when the British and French exhorted their African subjects to provide military service and labor for a war effort which was intended, in part, to uphold the principle of national self-determination. Post-war Africans were well aware that they were being denied the very rights for which they and their colonial masters had fought.

This deepening sense of frustration and injustice set in motion the events which would lead to national independence for most of Africa by the mid-1960s” (“Issues in African History”).

References

Achebe, Chinua, “The African Writer and the English Language.” In Achebe, Chinua, Morning Yet on Creation Day: Essays. New York: Doubleday, 1975. 91-103.

Things Fall Apart. New York: Ballantine Books, 1959.

http://edsitement.neh.gov/view_lesson_plan.asp?id=382

Majority of reviews and comments on Things Fall Apart have been focusing on Okonkwo, however in this paper, the discussion will be focused on  two major female characters, Ekwefi and Ezinma, and one minor figure, Ojiugo. The female characters of these book have so far been rarely discussed,if at alll, by other critics of the text, and when referred to, it is only in relation to Okonkwo’s actions or motivations. In this paper, we will examine the roles played by the women in a patriarchial society   according to their self-perceptions, as well as societal awareness of them as women, wives, mothers and daughters. Exploring the relationships between these women reveals not only alliances between mothers and their offspring, but also alliances between comrades in arms This paper will be done in three parts and the focus of my study will include:

(a)         Status of women in Achebe’s world.

(b)        Ekwefi, His second wife and Ojiugo, the third wife(a minor player).

(c)        Enzienne, the daughter of Okunuwa

STATUS OF WOMEN IN ACHEBE’S WORLD

The world in Things Fall Apart is one in which patriarchy intrudes oppressively into every sphere of existence. It is an androcentric world where the man is everything and the woman amounts to nothing of significance. In domestic terms, women are quantified as part of men’s acquisitions. Three things — wives, yam barns, social titles — are the highest accolades for the successful farmer, warrior, and man of worth. These possessions determine a man’s social status, as illustrated by Nwakibie who has three huge barns, nine wives and thirty children, and the highest but one title which a man can take in the clan (21).

The society described by  Achebe is  (1850-1900) an agrarian one in which the crop — the yam — is synonymous with virility. Achebe explains that this all-important crop [stands] for manliness, and he who [can] feed his family on yams from one harvest to another [is] a very great man indeed . . . . Yam, the king of crops, [is] a very exacting king (34-35). Consequently, to produce an abundant harvest, the traditional farmer needs a good workforce. Women constitute (and still do) the core of the rural workforce — farming, tending animals, nurturing children, among other activities. To echo the Nigerian critic Juliet Okonkwo,  Achebe’s cultural universe is one in which women [are] to be seen not heard, coming and going, with mounds of foofoo, pots of water, market baskets, fetching kola, being scolded and beaten before they disappear behind the huts of their compound (36). It would not be out of place to ally the existence of such women to that of other diasporic black women described by Zora Neale Hurston’s metaphor “mule[s] uh de world” (14). Indeed, Zora s Janie is robbed of her voice by her own husband Jody, who, like Okonkwo, chauvinistically believes that women s place is in the home (41), lumps together women and chillun and chickens and cows (67), and wants to be a big voice” (27) in the affairs of the community.

EKWEFI

Ekwefi, Okonkwo’s second wife is portrayed as an insignificant person if viewed purely from the patriarchal standpoint, but when reexamined, her character emerges as that of a woman of  knowledge, love, and fierce independence.Throughout her life,  Ekwefi has endured much heartache and stigmatism. In Things Fall Apart (1969), women are viewed mainly as child bearers and help mates for their husbands. Due to the phallocentric notion that women must produce many hardy, male progenies to be valued within their cultural milieu, Ekwefi is considered a cursed woman because after ten live births, only one child – a daughter-survives. Thus, “By the time Onwumbiko was born, Ekwefi was a very bitter woman.”1 Accordingly, she resents the good fortune of the first wife: her ability to produce healthy, strong male children. Conversely, Culler (1982) asserts, “criticism based on the presumption of continuity between the readers’ experience and a woman’s experience and on a concern with the images of women is likely to become most forceful as a critique of phallocentric assumptions that govern literary works.”2 The conventional perspective of most readings of this text is that Ekwefi has been debilitated by life’s harsh circumstances. However, instead of continuing to lament her adversity, Ekwefi devotes her time and energy to the one child who does live, and finds solace in her relationship with her daughter.

While male readings indicate that “the man is the point of reference in this society” Palmer (1983) stresses that as child bearers, women are pivotal to the literal survival of community and societal norms.’3 After the death of her second child, it is Okonkwo, not Ekwefi, who consults the dibia to locate the source of her difficulty. It is also Okonkwo who confers with yet another dibia after the death of Ekwefi’s third child, highlighting Palmer’s contention that Ekwefi has failed, not because she cannot have a viable child, but because she cannot provide her husband with male progeny who would, then, carry on in his father’s name. Okonkwo is concerned about the deaths of the children, but impervious to Ekwefi’s privation. No one comforts Ekwefi as she is forced to watch the dibia mutilate her child, drag him through the streets by his ankles, and finally lay him to rest in the Evil Forest with other obanje children and outcasts. It is significant, though that Okonkwo does demonstrate concern for the female child, Ezinma, as he follows her into the forest after she is taken by the Priestess, Chielo.

Moreover, most readings of the novel do not address the brutal beating Ekwefi receives at the hands of Okonkwo: “Who killed this banana tree?” He asked. A hush fell over the compound immediately . . . Without further argument Okonkwo gave her a sound beating and left her and her only daughter weeping.”4The novel continues with a brief discussion of this continued abuse later when Okonkwo threatens Ekwefi with a gun after hearing her murmur under her breath. Yet, the next day, the New Yam Festival continues without a public outcry for this battered woman. Reading as a woman, one may understand Ekwefi’s resignation, as she recalls how she came to be Okonkwo’s second wife:

“Many years ago when she was the village beauty Okonkwo had won her heart by throwing the Cat in the greatest contest within living memory. She did not marry him then because he was too poor to pay her bride-price. But a few years later she ran away from her husband and came to live with Okonkwo.”5

Culler (1982) writes that “women’s experience, many feminist critics claims, will lead them to value works differently from their male counterparts, who may regard the problems women characteristically encounter as of limited interest.”6

Therefore, although a male critic may deem these events as minor instances, the feminist reader must note that there is, in these passages, a great sense of irony and regret. Preparing to attend her favorite pastime, the annual wrestling event, Ekwefi recollects her great love for the then impoverished Okonkwo. Although she was married to another man, Ekwefi’s desire for Okonkwo is so great that at the first opportunity she abandons her husband to be with him, yet a sound beating is the compensation she receives for her love and devotion. Although this brutality does not warrant any attention from the elders, Okonkwo’s flogging of his youngest wife, Ojiugo, does. There is a public outcry, not because of the physical battering, but, rather the timing of the occurrence – The Week of Peace: “You have committed a great evil’…It was the first time for many years that a man had broken the sacred peace. Even the oldest men could only remember one or two other occasions somewhere in the dim past.”7 Iyasere (1969) notes “the peace of the tribe as a whole takes precedence over personal considerations.”8He could have continued, elaborating that particularly in reference to women, the unanimity of the patriarchy is the main priority of the community, rather than the physical safety of its women.

Furthermore, there is no regard from the elders about Ojiugo’s condition; to the contrary, one elder boldly asserts that she is at fault, and thus, the beating itself is not the point of contention. Moreover, because Ekwefi is beaten after this week, there is no outrage beyond the intercession of the other two wives who dare say in support of their wounded sister, “It is enough.”9Communal events merely continue as normal. The great fight is fought, and new wrestling heroes are born. One may also wonder if while reflecting upon her life, Ekwefi is pondering the life of another young woman who has just decided that the new wrestling hero will become her husband, and the possible ramifications of such a decision. However, since Ojiugo is battered during the sacred week, Okonkwo must make a sacrifice to the earth goddess to recompense for himself and the community, which may be punished because of his dishonorable deed.

Culler (1982) notes that one strategy in the attempt to read as a woman is to “take an author’s ideas seriously when . . . they wish to be taken seriously.”11 There is, moreover, no week or even day of peace for the women of Umuofia. They cannot find sanctuary within the confines of their own homes, or in the arms of their own husbands.

EZINMA, OKONKWO’S DAUGHTER

There is one woman, or young girl who elicits pure love from all the lives she touches, even her father, Okonkwo. However, he cannot fully appreciate Ezinma as a person. Instead of admiring her for her strength and disposition as a burgeoning woman, Oknonkwo is saddened by the fact that she is not male.

Ezinma is Ekwefi’s only living child, and it is demonstrated that her father does in fact respect her character. When Okonkwo acknowledges these affections, a male reading may solicit a sense of alliance with him and wish, for his sake, that Ezinma were male: “She should have been a boy, he thought as he looked at his ten-year-old daughter . . . If Ezinma had been a boy I would have been happier. She has the right spirit. “12Reading the text from the male purview, one may empathize with Okonkwo who, because of the fates, has no child, except a daughter, worthy of conveying familial legacies. But because Ezinma is female, she cannot function in this capacity. Moreover, even a woman, in a traditional reading of the text would support this notion. Culler (1982) articulates that “what feminists ignore or deny at their peril . . . is that women share men’s anti-female feelings–usually in a mitigated form, but deeply nevertheless.” According to Culler this stems partly from the fact that women “have been steeped in self-derogatory societal stereotypes,” while being constantly “pitted against each other for the favors of the reigning sex . . . “13 While reading as a woman, one must acknowledge that women are also indoctrinated to envision the world from a patriarchal perspective, and that, in Ezinma’s case, one must revise these biases to appreciate her strength, singularity and vivacity.

Initially believed to be an obanje child who had only come to stay for a short period, after Ezinma thrives, she is pampered by her mother, and as the child who would be king if she were male. Ezinma is the embodiment of all the women in this novel represent: intelligence, vitality, and fortitude. Even in her relationship with her mother, Ezinma exhibits what Okonkwo, through his phallocentric lens, perceives as masculine tendencies:

“Ezinma did not call her mother Nne like all children. She called her by her name, Ekwefi, as her father and other grown-up people did. The relationship between them was not only that of mother and child. There was something in it like the companionship of equals, which was strengthened by such little conspiracies as eating eggs in the bedroom.”14

Ezinma calls her mother by her name, signifying the development of an autonomous, effectual being. Ezinma and Ekwefi share a bond that is unlike most other parental ties in the novel: they are virtually equals. Their affiliation is based on mutual love, respect, and understanding. They share secret moments, such as eating eggs in the confines of her bedroom (eggs are considered a delicacy), solidifying their esprit de corps, even after Okonkwo threatens them both. Culler (1982) notes that when analyzing one’s position as a female reader, “Critics identify (the) fear that female solidarity threatens male dominance and the male character.”15 Thus, this maternal connection becomes a caveat for Okonkwo and traditional society because he cannot control the depths of love and the shared enthusiasm between mother and daughter. This is most evident when, for example, Okonkwo forbids Ekwefi to leave her hut after Ezinma is carried off by the chief priestess. Ekwefi ignores her husband and risks a flogging to follow Chielo and her daughter throughout the night, until she is certain that her daughter will return home safely. When Okonkwo asks, “Where are you going?” Ekwefi boldly asserts that she is following Chielo.16 But instead of attempting to detain her, Okonkwo joins the journey, following from a safe distance, also to ensure the safety of his beloved child. This mother/daughter alliance is explicated throughout the text, though there is little discussion of it in most analyses of the novel.

One must acknowledge as well that male and female roles are societal constructs, and thus, the entire female identity is based more upon societal constraints rather than physiological realities. Women are taught to mother, while men are conditioned to dominate and control. Hence, we know that men may also read as women, if they are willing to rethink their positions, as well as women’s positions within patriarchal constructs. Culler (1982) writes “For a woman to read as a woman is not to repeat an identity or an experience that is given but to play a role she constructs with reference to her identity as a woman, which is also a construct…”17

As this constructed woman reader analyzes the characters of Ekwefi, Ojiugo, and Ezinma as major figures whose lives are not just affected by the whims of their father/husband, but also as women who affect their husband/father and each other, I believe that only when one consciously attempts to read as a woman, these formerly peripheral characters may be afforded proper critical attention by male/female readers of this great African novel.

REFERENCES

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1969.

Cary, Joyce. Mister Johnson. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1989.

Cook, David. African Literature: A Critical View. London: Longman, 1977.

Culler, Jonathan. On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982.

Iyasere, Solomon. “Narrative Techniques in Things Fall Apart”. Critical Perspectives on Chinua Achebe. Ed. Killam, G.D. London: Heyman, 1969.

JanMohammed, Abdul. The Economy of Manichean Allegory: The Function of Racial Difference in Colonialist Literature. “Race,” Writing and Difference. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1986. Pp. 78-106.

Perspectives on Chinua Achebe. London: Heyman, 1969.

Obiechina, Emmanuel N. Language and Theme: Essays on African Literature. Washington, DC: Howard UP, 1990.

Palmer, Eustace. The Feminine Point of View in Buchi Emecheta’s ‘The Joy of Motherhood’. African Literature Today. Ed. Eldred Durosimi Jones. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1983. Pp. 38-55.


NOTES

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1969. p. 76.

Culler, Jonathan. On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982. p. 46.

Palmer, Eustace. The Feminine Point of View in Buchi Emecheta’s The Joy of Motherhood. African Literature Today. Ed. Eldred Durosimi Jones. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1983. p. 40.

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1969. p. 39.

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1969. p. 40.

Culler, Jonathan. On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982. p. 45.

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1969. Pp. 32-33.

Iyasere, Solomon. “Narrative Techniques in Things Fall Apart”. Critical Perspectives on Chinua Achebe. Ed. Killam, G.D. London: Heyman, 1969. p. 94.

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1969.

Culler, Jonathan. On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982. p.47.

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1969. Pp. 61-63.

Culler, Jonathan. On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982. p.53.

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1969. p. 73.

Culler, Jonathan. On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982. p. 54.

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1969. p. 97.

Culler, Jonathan. On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982. p. 64.

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