The women in Achebe’s novels can be read according to their self-perceptions, as well as societal awareness of them as women, wives, mothers and daughters. For example, Achebe’s first novel, Things Fall Apart, is a presentation of cultural dislocation in a largely male-dominated setting. This novel is a manifestation of women’s multiple marginalities, and the dynamics of otherness, inclusion and exclusion. And it was not just the ownership of the story that was revolutionary - the language was too. Achebe's Things Fall Apart is part standard English, part pidgin, part language of folklore and proverb. His writing crackles with vivid, universal and yet deeply African images. Apart from the hero, Okonkwo readers identify not only with women and their personal hardships but also with the Ibo culture and its disintegration. Achebe wants to explain the truth about the effects of losing one's culture. One observes a gradual paradigm shift as the women emerge from cultural closure, transgress male domains and impose their voice (s) and roles in their societies. The landmark historical roles played by Igbo women in pre-colonial and colonial Nigerian societies have been well documented. Things Fall Apartclearly delineates the roles of men and women as viewed from both gender and cultural lenses.
The clash between the two, patriarchal and feminine, can be identified from the very beginning of Things Fall Apart. Okonkwo’s own son, Nwoye, rejects him, much like Okonkwo had rejected his own father earlier—only Nwoye rejects Okonkwo for being excessively masculine. This is shown in Okonkwo’s threat to his son, Nwoye: “I will not have a son who cannot hold his head in the gathering of the clan. I would sooner strangle him with my own hands. And if you stand string at me like that… Amadiora will break your head for you”. This outburst is a reflection of Okonkwo’s fear of having an effeminate son whose image cannot stand the expectation of the overtly patriarchal observes regretfully, “she should have been a boy”. On the other hand, Nwoye knows that he should enjoy the masculine rites of his fellow tribesmen, but he prefers his mother's company and the stories she tells. He questions and is disturbed by many of the tribe's customs. Okonkwo beats and nags Nwoye, making Nwoye more unhappy and further distancing him from the ways of the clan. Later, when most of the people were not interested in the missionaries' religion, but a few people, including Okonkwo's son Nwoye, converted. It might be seen as a revolt to a masculine father.
The iron hand with which Okonkwo controls his family is a response to gender role-sharing and self-definition as delineated by the society. Women are expected to obey their husbands without any right to challenge his command. Nwoye's mother is wise to the ways of the tribe. While she knows that her sons will never be able to display such emotions, she tells her children wonderful stories that describe feelings like pity and forgiveness. She attempts to keep peace in the family by lying at times to Okonkwo to help the other wives avoid punishment. She tries to adhere to sacred tribal customs. She shows compassion at the message that Ikemefuna is to return to his family. In her own way, Nwoye's mother displays the courage of a tribesman.
As it is said, Igbo women control certain spheres of community life, just as men control other spheres. Women are perceived to possess superior spiritual well-being and head many of the traditional cults and shrines. The limited space created for women at the family level is reversed by important spiritual roles played by women as priestesses. For example, Chielo the priestess of Agbala serves the oracle in Things Fall Apart. Even none of the clan challenges her authority. The priestess of Agbala mediates between the world of spirituality and the world of reality. Whatever are denied in reality is given in spirituality to Women. They are also empowered within the world of women, as we see in the status of Okonkwo’s first wife, Anasi. Again, we also find Ekwefi, Okonkwo's second wife, ‘the crystal of beauty’, is overcoming disappointment and bitterness in her life. Ezinma, the daughter of Ekwefi who survives the early diseases earns her father’s love and respect like a male child. Okonkwo favours his daughter, who is not only as beautiful as her mother once was, but who grows to understand her father and his moods as no one else does. Father and daughter form a special bond. Okonkwo and Ekwefi treat Ezinma like she is their equal rather than their child. They permit her privileges that other family and tribal children are not granted. However, Okonkwo's only regret towards Ezinma is that she is not a boy. She is an image of Ogbanje myth, a magic realism to establish an indigenous metaphor. She is a child of two worlds, defies the presumption of fixity of identity. She is a male empowered in female body.
The power dynamics between men and women as seen in Things Fall Apart is sometimes marked by a paradox or ambivalence. Okonkwo’s attitude to his wives is very patriarchal and domineering and this typical of the treatment of women in the traditional society. There are exception as we see how Ndulue loves and respects his wife, Ozoemena; “he could not do anything without telling her.” So mutual is their relationship that Ozoemena dies as soon as she hears about her husband’s death, on same day.
Perhaps the most significant exemplification of the subtle power of Igbo women is seen in the tradition that forces Okonkwo to recognize that “mother is supreme”. After okonkwo’s gunfire mistakenly kills the sixteen-year-old son of Ezedu at his father’s burial, Okonkwo has to flee as tradition demands. His most plausible place of exile is his mother’s village, Mbanta. His maternal relations immediately welcome him and his family and assist them in the process of a new beginning. The philosophical observations by Okonkwo’s maternal uncle, Uchendu, dramatize the gender tension in the meaning of the name, “nneka”. Uchendu calls the people of his extended family in Okonkwo’s new home and poses the rhetorical question to Okonkwo:
“Can you tell Okonkwo, why is it that one of the commonest names we give our children is Nneka, or mother is supreme’? we all know that a man is the head of the family and his wives do its bidding. A child belongs to his father and his family and not to his motherland. And yet we say Nneka-‘mother is supreme’. Why is that? …why is it that when a woman dies she is taken home to be buried with her own kinsmen?”(Chapter 14)
These questions expose the underlying philosophy of women’s importance, which is symbolized in maternity and maternal lineage as reveled in Unchendu’s answer: “It’s true that a child belongs to its father. But when a father beats his child, it seeks sympathy in its mother’s hut. A man belongs to his fatherland when things are good and life is sweet. But when there is sorrow and bitterness he finds refuge in is motherland…and that is why we say that mother is supreme.” (Chapter 14)
Things Fall Apart presents a world where the women’s role remains relatively static while the men confront the cultural disintegration brought about by the coming of the white man. Women are essentially objects and causative agents, as we see in the imminent war between Umuofia and Mbaino. A women’s death is the reason for the inter-communal conflict. Even in this, women are mere symbols for executing traditional rites. For instance, the dead women, Ogbueli Udo’s wife, are to be replaced by the ransom, an innocent girl from Mbaino.
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