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Chinua Achebe’s Depiction of Women in his Books Research Paper


Abstract

In his own admission, Achebe states that he had recognized the increased roles that women needed to play in order to get Nigeria out of the mess it was in. According to him, his reflection of women in his fiction work was parallel to the Nigerian traditional culture whereby, women could not interfere in the running of the society until such a time when men had completely created a mess and were therefore unable to make any progress.

Introduction

Chinua Achebe is a renowned African author who was born in 1930 in Nigeria. He is the author of: No Longer at Ease; Things Fall Apart; Arrow of God; Anthills of Savannah; and A Man of the People; Achebe is also an editor and has worked on anthropologies such as “Hopes and Impediments” and “Morning Yet in Creation Day”. The poetry collection “Beware Soul Brother” is also credited to him (The Paris Review, 2007).

The reflection of women in Chinua Achebe’s books, have been modest compared to the traditional roles that African women have. In his earlier books however, Achebe rarely acknowledges the strength that women possess in the African culture. In Anthills of Savannah however, Achebe creates “Beatrice” a strong woman character that in a way acknowledges that women can contributes equally as much as men do in the African society.

This study argues that Achebe’s portrayal of women in his books was influenced by changes in society, which started of having little regard for the real value of women to a time when women were given more status in the Nigerian culture as opposed to pressures from the feminist groups.

Literature review

In an interview by The Paris Review (2007), Chinua Achebe reveals that he identifies with Beatrice the feminine character in Anthills of Savannah. He states that the character has the same hopes, aspirations and beliefs that he had towards life and development in Nigeria and Africa at large. Beatrice was the first woman character that Achebe gives a prominent role in his fiction books. By his own admission, Achebe agrees that he had used feminine characters in his past works, but none of the characters had assumed a prominent role.

In the interview with the Paris Review (2007), Achebe acknowledges that his works did not highlight women as strong and prominent contributors to the welfare of the society. He however refutes some of his critics’ suggestions that he had used Beatrice mainly from pressures initiated by feminists against him. In his defense, he quotes the use of the Beatrice character in two of his earlier books: A man of the people and No longer at ease.

In his own admission, Achebe states that he had recognized the increased roles that women needed to play in order to get Nigeria out of the mess it was in. According to him, his reflection of women in his fiction work was parallel to the Nigerian traditional culture whereby, women could not interfere in the running of the society until such a time when men had completely created a mess and were therefore unable to make any progress (The Paris Review, 2007).

When such is the case, Achebe states that women then move in and try to rescue the society from further damage. Drawing from a specific film by Sembene Ousmane where men are humiliated by the French rulers to the extent of abandoning their spears on the village arena, Achebe observes that women emerge to pick up the spears, thus standing for their men at a point when they have given up.

Women in Nigeria and Africa in general have historically suffered marginalization and exploitation (Nwagbara, 2009). While they were traditionally less favored than the men, the contemporary Africa society denies women equal opportunities in education, employment and politics.

The feminist writing in Nigeria seeks to break patriarchal norms that stereotypes what men and women can do with an aim of assigning women more roles in the public sphere. According to Nwagbara (2007), Achebe has been able to revolution his women characters from victims in the society who were regulated by patriarchal values and norms, to independent, self-assertive, political conscious women.

Nwagbara (2009) insinuates that Achebe integration of women in his fiction work was motivated by feminist writers who had earlier highlighted the need to consolidate democratic ideals based on feminist aesthetics in his works.

Being a writer whose main pre-occupation was good governance and the transformation of the Nigerian society, Achebe could not just ignore the feminist issue. His modification of previous ideas he had used to portray women was informed by the need to portray them as having a voice towards political activities in the country.

Oyowemola (2002) argues that by writing the Anthills of the Savannah, Achebe was trying to “establish his feminist credentials” as an author (p. 4). More to this, Achebe was also trying to express his solidarity with the people of Nigeria, most notably the women.

According to Oyowemola (2002), Beatrice character in the book was a deliberate effort by Achebe to make amends for the way he portrayed women in his earlier books. In Things Fall Apart, Achebe had portrays the woman as a protector of an erring male-child. This is however reversed in anthills of Savannah where he reverses the subordination he had on women and gives her a desirable equitable position in the society (Achebe 1987).

According to Oyowemola (2002), there are two symbolic acts in Achebe’s latter book that gives the woman a leading role in the society: 1) appropriating the child naming function to women rather than men; and 2) giving a girl child a male name.

Oyowemola (2002) is however not without some justifications about why Achebe regarded women as he did in his previous books. First, he argues that women in Nigeria were regarded as sensitive and hence the careful trending on the women issue by the writers; secondly, he argues that though there are chapters where women are on the receiving end of male insults or ridicule, he observes that Achebe does not portray scenes where such abuse to women was either condoned or applauded.

Oyowemola (2002) however does not support the portrayal of women or any other character in Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah. He says that the book was formulaic and designed to appease feminists and Marxists and was therefore suspect and artificial.

Drawing from a scene in the books where Beatrice description is given, we understand that Beatrice is well educated and employed a senior civil servant. Despite this however, she is still treated as a man’s property. Even when all men are killed off and Beatrice takes off the responsibility of naming a child, her actions have to be ratified by her uncle who even bestows his blessings on Beatrice (Achebe, 1987).

The criticism on how Achebe portrays Beatrice arises from the fact that there are qualitative differences between Beatrice and the male characters in Achebe’s book (Oyowemola, 2002). The man is depicted as an agonist who risks this life on convictions which are ideological in nature.

Men’s actions directly affect and even determine events in their respective societies. On the other hand, Beatrice, although a senior assistant finance secretary is portrayed as a girlfriend to one of the prominent men, and when she is summoned to a state function, she is portrayed as a token. Achebe fails to involve Beatrice in the public sphere even when she takes over the child-naming function. This was despite the ceremony being attended to by a woman for the first time.

Oyowemola (2002) further argues that by giving the girl child a male name, Achebe was perpetuating the misguided feminist theory where femininity is seen as a sign of weakness and hence people try to replace the same with masculine characteristics. The child in Achebe’s story was symbolically made to drop her female characteristics and take on male characteristics on the belief that maleness was more beneficial.

It is from this portrayal that Oyowemola (2002) asks, “How does the rejection of femininity translate to an affirmation of femininity? Or how does making oneself into a man empower one as a woman?”(p. 5). Notably, attaching m0ore worth to the male child means that the female child is less worthy.

Chinua’s portrayal of women in the anthills of the savannah further continues when Beatrice relates her childhood and the cruelity that the father treated her mother for failing to bear her male children (Innes, 1992). After giving birth to four girls, Beatrice’s mother had played that her fifth child would be a boy.

When it turned out the child too was a girl, she is given an Igbo name that directly translates to “a girl is also something”. Oyowemola (2002) criticism of Achebe’s work regarding this is that the name was given as a grudging and insincere compromise to the fact that the girl child was just as valuable as the boy child. Oyowenola (2002) questions Achebe’s efficacy of symbolically making women into women ostensibly to empower them.

Unlike Oyowemola (2002), Nwagbara (2009), had a different opinion of Achebe’s work. He states that right from his book- Things Fall Apart, to Anthills of Savannah which was published in 1987, Achebe had reflected the changing status of women in Nigeria and Africa. The first book he wrote had docile women who sat in political meetings as mere spectators, while later books had women who were self-assertive and somehow independent (Innes, 1992).

The culmination of the female characters in Achebe’s books is Beatrice, who is the heart and spirit of the story. According to Nwagbara (2009), Beatrice was a creation of women as Achebe would have liked to see them in the transformation process that was taking place in Nigeria. Prior to Beatrice, Achebe had portrayed women as fabled, but good, who would wait until their men crumbled in order for them to descend to their knees and sweep the shards left behind by the men away.

The new portrayal of women by Achebe seems to negate the fact that they only participated in public affairs when everything else had been tried without any success. In previous books, Achebe portrayed women as objects that brought prestige to the man depending on how old they were and the children they had born for him.

This explains in Things fall Apart men could take several wives. Women were however expected to work, meaning that they were not mere items after all since they could contribute to the general well-being of the home by growing crops that were meant to be grown by women only.

The women could not plant or harvest the Yam crop because it was largely seen as a man’s crop. However, they were allowed to plant, harvest and even trade in crops such as cassava, beans and coco-yams (Achebe, 1962). In this novel, Achebe indicates that the more women a man married, the higher his social status became.

More to this, a man who ranked low in the society was thought to be in the same status as women. Further, Achebe (1962) reveals that a man’s wealth did not count if he could not rule over his wives and children. As such, men as portrayed in his 1962 novel did not try to gain an understanding with their family members. Rather, they ruled their homes and families and expected that neither a wife nor a child could disregard their rules.

Regardless of the oppression that women suffer in Things Fall Apart, Achebe (1962) succeeds in bringing out the underlying value of women, which regardless of the injustices that the female gender suffers, still holds true. Such include a woman’s comforting nature and her love for her children. In one of the passages, a male character named Achendu states that “it’s true that a child belongs to its father, but when the father beats the child, it seeks sympathy from its mother…” (Achebe, 1962, p. 94).

Cultural changes in the Igbo culture are reflected when the women start trading the excess crop with foreigners (Innes, 1992). With time, its notable that their trading became successful thus giving them a bit more influence in the society. For example, it is notable that the women traders had ideas and opinions regarding crops and trade that they proposed to elders who had decision-making powers in the community.

Analysis

Termed as a ‘literally giant’ in Africa, Chinua Achebe is among the few celebrated African author’s whose name can only be grouped with the likes of Wole Soyinka and Ngugi wa Thing’o. Like other African writers, Achebe’s work revolves around post-colonial Africa and most specifically, his homeland Nigeria.

His portrayal of women is therefore not surprising especially considering the lowly positions that were (and still are in some cases) reserved for women in the African continent. Comparing the way Achebe reflects women in his initial book “Things Fall apart” and in his latter book “Anthills of the Savannah”, one notes a major difference in the two works of literature.

In Things Fall Apart, women are treated as mere subjects who are meant to ‘add value” to a man’s worth. The gender segregation was too great that some crops were specifically seen as men’s crops and hence could neither be planted nor harvested by women. In this book, women are punished by men through physical beating and this only serves to portray the low regard that women were held with in Nigeria.

Though a reader observes a slight change in women’s status when they take on trade, they remain undervalued and looked down-upon by their husbands once they return home. Their only value is attached to homemaking (bearing children and feeding them) and obeying the orders given to them by the husbands.

In the latter novel, Anthills of the Savannah, Women’s positions in the society is much better. Not only is the main character Beatrice given a high ranking political office, she is also portrayed as a decisive woman who is not afraid to venture into the previously male dominated field like presiding over child naming ceremonies. As observes in the literature review section, some author’s believe that Achebe’s portrayal of Beatrice does more injustice to women by displaying femininity as a less desirable trait of nature.

But was Achebe simply writing fiction work based on realism in Nigeria at the time or was his writings simply a quest to appease the “feminists and the Marxists” as Oyowemola puts it? By his own admission in an interview by the Paris Review (2007), Achebe stated that his positive portrayal of women in his latter work was not motivated by pressures from the feminists.

Accordingly, that meant that his motivation was by the realization that women need to play a more active role in the development of Nigeria. The criticism by Oyowemola (2002) is very well argued, but even if the accusations were real, they seem to resonate to the same misconceptions that people held regarding women assuming masculinity in order to assume equality. If this was the case then, Achebe was stating his points and reflecting on the society based on the reality on the ground.

Conclusion

Chinua Achebe’s portrayal of women in his different books seems to reflect the changes that the Nigerian society underwent in regard to the value of women and the respective roles that they could play in the society. Right after independence, political rule was seen as the preserve of the men in the society.

They were also rulers in their own homes and regarded women as mere commodities who were to be married off and later given the duties of attending to the man and his offspring. Achebe reflects the same in his first book, things fall apart. As the Nigerian society took a turn towards development and civilization started creeping in, women’s role in the society started earning more significance.

As such, Achebe reflects the same by giving the women characters a more pivotal role in his latter book. It could also be that the portrayal of woman as a key figure in the civil service as well as the decision-making process was not just a mere reflection of the society, but a society that Achebe wanted to pass to his readers and therefore helping them realize that their society would develop at a faster rate if women became active participants in the society.

This study can only anticipate what motivated the change of how Achebe portrayed her women characters in his novels. The evidence herein however leans towards the idea that Achebe was acknowledging the injustices that faced women in the traditional Nigerian culture and the influences changes in the same culture brought changes in how the society regarded women.

References

Achebe, C. (1962). Things Fall Apart. London: Heinemann

Achebe, C. (1987). Anthills of the Savannah. London: Heinemann.

Innes, C.L. (1992). Chinua Achebe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Nwagbara, U. (2009). Changing the Canon: Chinua Achebe’s Women, Public Sphere and the Politics of Inclusion in Nigeria. Journal of Pan African Studies 3(3), -20

Oyowemola, O. (2002). Discourse on gender: Historical Contingency and the Ethics of Intellectual Work. West African Review 3(2), 1-15.

The Paris Review. (2007). Chinua Achebe. The Art of Fiction, 139, 1-25.

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IvyPanda. "Chinua Achebe’s Depiction of Women in his Books." December 1, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/chinua-achebes-depiction-of-women-in-his-books/.

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IvyPanda. 2019. "Chinua Achebe’s Depiction of Women in his Books." December 1, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/chinua-achebes-depiction-of-women-in-his-books/.

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IvyPanda. (2019) 'Chinua Achebe’s Depiction of Women in his Books'. 1 December.

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