Unpacking the Patriarchy

“[T]he ceremony was for men […] there were many women but they looked on from the fringe like outsiders ” (66).

In light of our discussion about the reception of Things Fall Apart, I recall the comment made by Adichie in her TedTalk about one of her readers assuming all Nigerian men were abusers like the father figure in Purple Hibiscus. Similarly, the danger of Things Fall Apart’s (certainly now past, but in some circles, remaining) status as “the” African novel is that, if divorced from its context or read alone, the novel may not necessarily undo “the single story” but replace it. I worry about the reception of Okonkwo’s actions toward women as emblematic or one-dimensional. I suspect that the portrayal of women in Things Fall Apart has already garnered a great deal of feminist/literary criticism, but I’d like to put forth some personal points of interest.

Overall, the treatment of women in the novel – the exclusion from major ceremonies, the rampant physical and emotional abuse, and the scorn with which the men mock the idea of matriarchy (55-56; of note is Achebe’s choice to include a reference to matriarchal African society, a clear indication of the local nature of his novel) – obviously codes them as subservient and second-class, often dehumanized and objectified. The marriage negotiations especially speak to a larger view of the female body as a commodity whose price can literally be haggled over (53-54). In the same scene, the bride-to-be’s body is twice described as “ripe” (52). When we consider that ripeness refers to fruit – kola nut, yam, cocoyam – the description obviously reinforces the equation of the female body with commodity; yet the symbolic elision here becomes even more interesting when we consider the positive linkage of a “good” female body with wealth and sustenance (especially in light of the extensive treatment of fruit/yams elsewhere in the book and their equation with prosperity).

I am fascinated by the line on page 31: “[Okonkwo] trembled with the desire to conquer and subdue. It was like the desire for women.” Here, the female-figure is clearly cast as an object of desire and, disturbingly, one which merits violent overpowering. But I would argue this pathology is specific especially to Okonkwo, or at least, specific to him in its severity. Though other husbands beat their wives, some garner disrespect for the action, and, as in the trial scene in chapter 10, ridicule. Elsewhere, the love between Ndulue and Ozoemena (49-50), and even some of the more tender moments between Okonkwo and Ekwefi, suggests the possibility of a relationship that moves beyond master-subject/human-object.

Ultimately, I caution the reader to examine the patriarchy depicted in the novel as locally specific and more complex than one might think. I think the novel itself does signal the local-ness and complexity of its depiction, but I believe those aspects merit unpacking. I also think the depiction of the women as “outsiders” (66) in their own community may point to Achebe’s own gendered perspective and the pressing need for female voices from the same community.

**A brief apology: I have not yet gotten to part 2 and my high-school recollections are foggy. Forgive me! Also, I’m using an online version so my pagination may be different.**

***I also want to say that the depiction of female dehumanization does not mean an endorsement of it and I think the narratorial voice does a good job of avoiding/rejecting that reading***

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Posted on September 3, 2014, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. One of the major themes of this novel, as this blog post points out, is the degradation/mockery/abuse of women. It is for this reason, I am glad to see the recognition of scenes with “tender moments between Okonkwo and Ekwefi” as well as other scenes that overcome the tendency of inequality. Such scenes were some of the most fascinating for me personally because it made the story seem more real and legitimate. It would be hard to believe if all men in the village were as harsh as Okonkwo or even if Okonkwo were as harsh as he could be all the time. It makes sense that there would be some men who “garner disrespect for the action”.
    In addition, I find these scenes extremely informative because they truly round out the character.
    Take the scene in which the priestess takes Ekwefi’s daughter to the caves and Ekwefi follows/waits outside. Okonkwo shows up on his own accord to wait as well and make sure his daughter is safe, he even offers Ekwefi the opportunity to go home and sleep, assuring her that he will stay and keep a watchful/protective eye.
    This scene allows us as the reader to see Okonkwo in a different, less harsh, light. We learn that he is willing to work with his wife somewhat and that he does have some kind of loving and protective feelings towards his daughter. I think having these details that tend to contradict Okonkwo’s ‘big strong powerful man’ persona allow us as the reader to realize that the abuse and mockery of women is not the only thing men are focused on in regards to the women in their lives.
    While patriarchy is a way of life/the culture, it is important to recognize that the degradation, mockery, and abuse of women is not constantly on every man’s mind and is not even strictly enforced by others. It is for these reasons that I completely agree with the above blogger’s statement that the patriarchy in the novel is more complex than one might think.

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