Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 696
The predecessors of Buchi Emecheta’s The Bride Price, the novels In the Ditch (1972) and Second-Class Citizen (1974), narrate the lives of Nigerians living in London. If the obstacles Nigerian women find there include indigenous sexist attitudes on the part of their husbands, then both men and women struggle to live in a different culture, marginalized by British racist attitudes. Emecheta’s third published novel, however, is set exclusively in Nigeria; indeed, most of the story takes place in provincial Ibuza, removed from the culturally pluralistic capital of Lagos. Although British law has circumscribed certain customs of the Ibo, the tribal grouping of The Bride Price, only one white person, the head of the local mission, actually appears in the novel, and does so briefly. The society whose virtues and vices are here depicted is relatively untouched by the West.
In the tradition of Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958), still the best-known African novel and also set among the Ibo, the third-person narrative voice carefully brings the reader to an understanding of and a respect for traditional culture—its assumptions and beliefs and the customs that flow from these beliefs. Like Achebe, Emecheta instructs the reader about the chi, or personal god, and about the ogbanje, or the living dead. Also like Achebe, Emecheta quotes Ibo proverbs for the insight they provide into the culture that produced them and which they reflect. The narrative voice also omnisciently informs readers of the great strength of Ibo culture: The Ibo have what is called by psychologists “the group mind”; furthermore, in Ibo culture “a child is the child of the community” and Ibo young people have “that distinctive and good-humoured quality of ease which was the heritage of people who had long ago learned and absorbed the art of communal living.” Ibo society works well on its own terms—after all, Aku-nna, her brother, and her mother are provided for on the death of their father and husband.
The strength and cohesion of the whole sometimes demand the subordination of the part. The Bride Price is a critique of traditional Ibo attitudes toward women. From the beginning of the novel, this point is clearly made. Aku-nna’s father is careful not to show the love he feels for his daughter: He does not wish to be mocked for wanting to be her husband as well. Upon the death of her father, Aku-nna’s educational ambitions are imperiled, leading her to face an unknown future. Her aunts try to console her with talk of the inevitability of women’s lot: “This is the fate of us women. There is nothing we can do about it. We just have to learn to accept it.” When Aku-nna arrives in Ibuza, she becomes a pawn in a complex game she does not understand, as Okonkwo, his senior wife, and their sons jockey to get possession of her bride price, the symbol of her virtual chattel status. Upon her attaining maturity, she is told by Okonkwo to discontinue her relationship with the man she loves. Finally, the Ibo still countenance the practice of kidnapping girls for marriage; and, in another culturally sanctioned practice, if a man who cannot afford a wife succeeds in cutting off a lock of a young woman’s hair, that young woman is considered his wife to be.
The other obstacle separating Aku-nna and Chike in this romantic tale is the Ibo scorn for the descendants of slaves. The British outlawed the institution of slavery, but this has had little effect on the immemorial attitudes prevailing in the Nigerian interior, where the people of Ibuza still remember the days when slaves would be killed upon the death of their respective masters.
Aku-nna and Chike are both denied full human autonomy, the former because of her gender and the latter because of his caste. Ironically, the story of Aku-nna, who had felt it “unjust that she was not allowed a say in her own life” and who cried out against the “savage custom . . . that could be so heartless and make so many people unhappy,” is made a warning to young girls against the very rebellion she had essayed.