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The novels Things Fall Apart and The Joys of Motherhood both present Nigeria as a competitive, consumption-crazed country. Each novel, therefore, also creates a parallel between Nigeria and capitalist, Western societies–yet each one shows that the differences are not in degree, but in the details. Furthermore, both Things Fall Apart and The Joys of Motherhood present alternative viewpoints on how colonialism impacted the country’s traditional morals and values.
Early on in The Joys of Motherhood, Emecheta foreshadows that Nigerian society will change forever. He writes, “The Ibuza people…fought and won many civil battles against their hosts” (11). Similarly, Achebe again and again describes how the Ibo culture is caught between primitive and progressive worlds, but belongs to neither. Both novels call into question the motives not only of the colonizers, but also of the natives, who are not as dissimilar from their oppressors as they would, perhaps, like to believe. There is no romanticization of the cultures of Nigeria in either Things Fall Apart or The Joys of Motherhood; instead, both author express tremendous courage in presenting the truth of their heritage, without opting to simply show outsiders as corruptive influences.
Things Fall Apart is primarily a story about a farming existence, taking the yam and its position as a cyclical crop so necessary to the survival of the civilization as a symbol of masculinity. As Achebe writes, “Yam, the king of crops, [is] a very exacting king” (34). The metaphor expands from there, including the representation of women as the working model without which production would collapse. Women do the chores and raise the children, but are never as important as the yam itself…or the man. In The Joys of Motherhood, meanwhile, the divergence between life in the small village and life in the city is more problematic. While the life left behind was hardly one of perfection, moving socially upward into urbanity’s sophistication is not a panacea. If the country can be viewed as a link to the primal past and the city represents progress, this novel seems to be saying that emasculation awaits men and commoditization awaits women. This sad state of affairs is addressed by Nnu Ego when she despairs “that by the time her children grew up the values of her country, her people and her tribe would have changed so drastically, to the extent where a woman with many children could face a lonely old age, and maybe a miserable death all alone” (219). Death, despair and the loss of humanity seem to be inescapable parts of progress. The ultimate message may be that there is no escape, but only a transformation from one set of problems into another.
Nnu Ego’s clash with the strangeness of life in Lagos is manifested by the introduction of Adaku. Polygamy is not new to Nnu Ego. What is different in Lagos, however, is that the value of women is no longer based on incalculable fertility, but has sunk down to the same economic means of production as everything else. The choice of language used by Nnaife could not be more succinct nor profound: “Did I not pay your bride price? Am I not your owner?” (48) In Ibo society, polygamy was viewed as “natural” because all wives shared equally and, in theory, lived in harmony. In Lagos, however, the underlying dynamic has changed to reflect the competitive nature of that society. A wife who is younger is deemed more valuable because she can produce more children, making the female little more than a necessary cog in the economic machinery. The view of polygamy in Things Fall Apart is not significantly different from the perspective that women are viewed an economic means; what is different is that this system is not viewed with suspicion or subversion by the author. The simple description that “He had a large barn full of yams and he had three wives” (6) is pregnant with underlying meaning. Attention is not brought to the fact that women and yams are viewed as essentially the same, as products to be acquired. Instead, is it the mundane and disinterested tone of the sentence that carries the full meaning. Women are simply objects to be bought and sold, traded, bartered, and even willed among the men. Thus, polygamy in Things Fall Apart seems to be more naturalized and normalized than in The Joys of Motherhood, where the author appears to attack the institution.
The expectations of women in The Joys of Motherhood are shown by the emphasis placed upon the woman as a receptacle for reproduction. Fertility, above all else, was prized and honored. The death of a child or fetus is portrayed as more than mere tragedy; it becomes a comment upon a woman’s placement in society. Such is this ideological attachment to fertility engendered that it is only after her son’s birth that Nnu Ego begins to feels like a “real woman” and is gratified that there will be somebody left behind to refer to her as “mother” (54). This, of course, comes after her suicide attempt as a result of losing her firstborn. While Emicheta’s novel cries out against this to the point of comparing it to slavery, Things Fall Apart has been targeted for implicitly supporting that patriarchal view. There is much in the novel to indicate that the author believes that it is the males who truly represent the African character, and that to be a man means to eschew all things feminine. Okonkwo’s relationship with his father is vital to the man he becomes; central to that wish to escape the past is the language used to describe masculinity: “he still remembered how he had suffered when a playmate had told him that his father was an agbala, that was how Okonkwo first came to know that agbala was not only another name for a woman, it could also mean a man who had taken no title” (10). Despite this, of course, it is also true that Okonkwo’s conception of what it means to be masculine is not one that is widely shared throughout the clan. He is almost alone in believing that masculinity equates with aggressive behavior.
The clash between the white man’s world and the Nigerian world in The Joys of Motherhood is presented prosaically. IT begins when the men, who insist that they remain what they used to be, become diminished in the eyes of women as they are forced to sell their labor to the colonialists. Cordelia’s observation that “men here are too busy being white men’s servants to be men” (51) indicates that the absolute power held by the men is now a dying tradition. Once the men have been emasculated symbolically in the eyes of the women, social change is not only inevitable, but already in motion. By contrast, the clash is offered in a much more stylized, symbolic manner in Things Fall Apart, highlighted by a metaphorical comparison of the white man to a plague of locusts descending upon the indigenous natives. The locusts that “settled on every tree and on every blade of grass” represent the unstoppable impact of the coming colonists. These locusts have been on a long journey and their arrival is greeted with both relief and trepidation. Just as real locusts change the geological landscape of an area, so the colonists change the psychological landscape. Once the colonists arrive, they will be just like the locusts, feeding on the natural resources for their own needs and leaving behind devastation without concern. They will be settlers just as the grasshoppers are settlers–but the land will not belong to them. Unfortunately for the Nigerians, the land they own once the colonists move on may not resemble what they have come to know.
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