Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2754
Reference to the Other is used both in feminist and postcolonial literary theory. The Other refers to the concept of establishing a norm, then relegating everything that is not the norm to the sidelines where it becomes the Other. To make this a little clearer, in a patriarchal society, man is considered the norm. Everything is defined in terms of the masculine. In general, all who have masculinity as their biological trait are given power, priority, preference, and privilege. In other words, man is what is defined as important. Women, on the other hand, become the Other or the unimportant. They are categorized as the powerless and, thus, they are marginalized. Feminist literary theorists examine the marginalization of women that occurs in literature when man, or the patriarchy, is set up as the norm.
Postcolonial literary theorists examine the marginalization of groups of people who have been colonized by outside powers. In this case, it is the outside powers that have set themselves up as the norm. For example, when the Europeans descended on Nigeria, European law prevailed over traditional rules. European languages were used in schools. Schooling was based on the educational standards of Europe. European religious beliefs were ingrained in the minds of the indigenous people while the traditional practices were simultaneously outlawed. A postcolonial literary theorist looks at the ways in which the indigenous people, as well as their traditions, have become the Other.
In a colonized country like Nigeria, the setting of Buchi Emecheta's The Bride Price, this concept of the Other becomes even more complex. The indigenous people, as they prepare for independence (and, thus, enter a postcolonial era) have been changed. They have lived under colonial rule for many generations, and now they must decide what will become the new norm: what they have become under colonial rule or what they once were.
All these elements play themselves out in Aku-nna, the protagonist in The Bride Price. Relegated to the role of the Other by both the colonial powers and her patriarchal society, Aku-nna, once she becomes aware of her own marginalization, resists. Slowly she learns to vocalize her thoughts, which, in the beginning of the book, are heard only inside her head. It is through this development of her voice as she moves from daughter to wife, from city girl to country woman, from prepubescent teen to mother, that the reader gets a sense of how it feels to be the Other, and what it takes to resist and, hopefully, break down the confines of that role.
From the outset of this story, Aku-nna is still steeped in her traditional role. She wants to make her father proud of her and is determined to marry well so as to bring her father a good bride price. Once that issue is settled, she would first have her marriage "solemnised [sic] by the beautiful goddess of Ibuza, then the Christians would sing her a wedding march ... then her father Nna would call up the spirits of his great, great-grandparents to guide her." This is Aku-nna's dream.
In the beginning, Aku-nna is very silent. Although concerned about her father's health and his aberrant behavior, she wants to question him, but she keeps her thoughts to herself because in "Nigeria you are not allowed to speak in that way to an adult, especially your father. That is against the dictates of culture." In the beginning, Aku-nna does not question those dictates.
There is a hint of tension building in Aku-nna, but that tension is not totally conscious. It is still quiet, like Aku-nna's voice. When questions build up inside of her, she reminds herself that "good children don't ask too many questions." When her father does not come home for supper as he had insinuated he would, she relaxes with the thought that in her culture her "neighbors would look after them ... in that part of the world everyone is responsible for the next person." But Aku-nna feels betrayed by her father when she discovers, through her uncles, that he is not coming home, that he, in other words, has lied to her. It is the narrator's voice that must inform the reader about certain facts concerning the culture that Aku-nna herself has not yet learned. The narrator states that Aku-nna's people think with a "group mind." Not only do they think alike, but it "would not occur to any one of them to behave and act differently." Upon reflection, Aku-nna forgives her father for lying to her. "He responded as much as their custom allowed—for was she not only a girl?"
It is during her father's funeral that the realization of being fatherless dawns on Aku-nna. "Nobody is going to buy you any more [clothes]," an aunt tells her. Then the aunt turns to another woman and says, "The pity of it all ... is that they will marry her off very quickly in order to get enough money for Nna-nndo's [Aku-nna's brother] school fees." Then turning back to Aku-nna, the aunt continues, "This is the fate of us women. There is nothing we can do about it. We just have to learn to accept it."
With these thoughts stirring in her head, Aku-nna accepts her fate and leaves Lagos and her former life and returns to her parents' ancestral village. As she walks down the dusty road toward her village, a cousin tells her stories about village life, realizing that Aku-nna knew little about the customs of her people. Listening to the tales that her cousins relates, Aku-nna exclaims, "It's just like the stories you read in books." It is as if she has distanced herself from her own life, not yet realizing that she has become one of the characters in those books. It is also along this road that the first hint of rebellion expresses itself when Aku-nna stands her ground and refuses to take the bicycle ride that is offered her and then, later, refuses to undress to take a public bath. These are small discretions, but nonetheless they are Aku-nna's first steps toward asserting her opinions.
Once she reaches the village, Aku-nna watches as the women, who only minutes ago were laughing, immediately begin to cry. This abrupt change is Aku-nna's introduction into village life. At this point, although she thinks it strange that the women can change their emotions so quickly, she is resigned to join in. "After all, she was going to be one of them," she says. With this statement, it is apparent that Aku-nna is still trying to understand her role and accept the restrictions within it.
Two year pass between Aku-nna's arrival at the village and the next chapter in the story. Aku-nna is fifteen and attending school. Her education "by the Europeans," plus the fact that she has not yet had her first menstruation, set her apart from most of the other girls. In the meantime, Chike, the young man who is the descendent of slaves, falls in love with Aku-nna. He falls for her because "he had never seen a girl so dependent, so unsure of herself, so afraid of her own people." It is through Chike that Aku-nna learns to voice her thoughts and gains the strength to resist the customs of her people. Her voice is still very quiet. She talks in secret to Chike. The reader is left to ponder whether she would have gained her voice at all had not a man been there to encourage her.
The first strong voice, although it is described as "faint and whispery," comes out of Aku-nna when Chike brings her things to help her through her first time of menstruation. They make slight sexual passes at one another, and when Chike asks what she thinks they should do about their forbidden relationship, Aku-nna responds: "Tell my people that you want to marry me." Chike is taken aback, but Aku-nna, gaining strength in both body and voice, covers his mouth with her hand "not knowing where the boldness which was working inside her came from." These actions and this voice are coming out of Aku-nna as if they did not belong to her. She seems to know neither the source nor the reason for them. "I always say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing. You are the only person I know who I am not afraid of." It is because of Chike that Aku-nna can speak. But her voice is still not strong enough. She is asking Chike to speak for her.
On her second cycle, the news of Aku-nna's menstruation goes public. Aku-nna realizes that from this point forward everything will be different. When the young girls around her begin to prepare her for the reaction to this news—the young men and their fathers bargaining a bride price with Aku-nna's stepfather—Aku-nna begins to understand more of the complexities of her newly embraced womanhood. She will soon be forced to marry, and her people will never consent to her marrying Chike.
Little by little, the warm joy she had felt only minutes before seeped away. How could the world be so blind? Could not everyone see they [Aku-nna and Chike] belonged to each other? She had never felt so strongly about anything in her life.
It is through her love of Chike that Aku-nna discovers her hidden strength as well as her hidden self. Her wanting Chike is the first time that Aku-nna has admitted that she has a self. When she refers to the world being blind, it is her first awareness that this female self, in a patriarchal culture, has been defined as the one without power; in other words, she is the Other. It is not that the world is blind, but rather that the female self, in the male-dominated culture, has been made metaphorically invisible.
Despite her awareness of her position in her society and her impulse to resist her culture, on her way home from the fields, Aku-nna is afraid of dishonoring the god of the river by stepping into it while she is menstruating. This scene predicts the dilemma that will haunt Aku-nna until the end of the novel. Try as she must, she cannot rid herself of her culture.
When she returns home from the river, her stepfather (the "voice of authority, that authority which was a kind of legalised [sic] power") delineates Aku-nna's marginalized position, in case she had not yet figured it out for herself. She must marry according to his decision; and she must stop seeing Chike. "He was telling her, not in so many words, that she could never escape. She was trapped in the intricate web of Ibuza tradition. She must either obey or bring shame and destruction on her people."
Ironically, it is at this moment when she feels most trapped that Aku-nna also asserts her most independent and rebellious thought. "She was beginning to feel that it was unjust that she was not to be allowed a say in her own life, and she was beginning to hate her mother for being so passive about it all." Although Aku-nna is still not taking her life into her own hands, she is at least coming closer to doing so. First, she wanted Chike to stand up and speak for her. Now, she is berating her mother for not doing so. At this point, Aku-nna, at least, sees potential power in a female.
Aku-nna breaks with tradition by refusing to eat the chicken that has been slaughtered in her honor. However, she bows to tradition in the custom of allowing young suitors to fondle her breasts. She takes two pills that "deadened the pain," prays to God (possibly the Christian God, this time) to take her life if she should have to marry a man other than Chike, then goes out to meet the young men. Her protest against their groping and against the fear and anger that she experiences is a silent falling of tears. The masculine, in the form of Chike's fists, step in to rescue her. Once the tears are dry, Aku-nna again silently questions her role in her society. "What kind of savage custom was it that could be so heartless and make so many people unhappy?" When her mother, again, turns against her, Aku-nna reaches for Chike's hands.
Shortly after, when Aku-nna is kidnapped, it is not until she hears Chike's whistle, coming from the bushes, that "her numbed mind came alive." From that point on, she uses her own wits to save herself from being raped. An unrecognized voice rises up from somewhere deep inside of her.
Maybe she was mad, because when later she remembered all that she said to Okoboshi [her newly intended husband] ... she knew that the line dividing sanity and madness in her was very thin. Out came the words, low, crude words, very hurtful and damaging even to herself.
This is the pivotal moment, the climax of the story. Aku-nna has figured a way to play the traditions of her people against themselves. She makes up a story, telling Okoboshi that she is not a virgin. Not only has she taken away from Okoboshi the privilege of "devirgining" her, she has insulted him and his family by claiming that she lost her virginity to Chike. Since tradition has determined that this act with a descendent of a slave is taboo, Aku-nna has won a temporary victory. She has delayed the rape by insulting Okoboshi. Although this sets up her ultimate escape to freedom, this is not the end of the story.
Chike, once again, rescues Aku-nna. And she, in the moment of victory, takes "refuge in passing out completely." The patriarchy may have changed faces, but, again, the masculine is the strength, and the feminine is the weakness. The two outcast characters, both marginalized into roles of the Other, leave the village and the traditions behind. Or do they?
At first it seems that joy has come into their lives. They live in a nice home, they buy nice furniture, they find jobs and are very happy. So happy are they that Aku-nna becomes fearful and again prays to the European God because too much happiness has come too quickly to them. And both of them pray to God every night to help them through Aku-nna's subsequent pregnancy. But it appears that the European God has been marginalized by the traditional deities. Aku-nna's stepfather, that voice of law, has called on the ancestral gods to curse Aku-nna because she has rebelled against his authority. She has disgraced him to such a degree that he refuses the bride price, multiplied many times over, offered by Chike's father.
Remembering that narrative passage from the beginning of the book, the one that describes what psychologists call the group mind—the mindset that demands all members of the tribe to think as one—brings this story full circle. "It would not occur to any one of them to behave or act differently." The existence of the tribe depends on this. So when Aku-nna, more so than Chike who is even more marginalized than she, tries to think independently, she finds that it is far more difficult than she imagined. She could run away. She could marry the man she loved. But she remains in bondage to the traditional ways of her people. Her mind is connected to the group mind. And it is the group mind that sentences her to death.
It is interesting to see that the only hope of freedom in this story comes from being born so far out on the edge that tradition no longer cares about who you are or what you do. Aku-nna's baby girl is that hope of freedom. Aku-nna has paid for her child's freedom with her own life. That freedom, despite the high cost, is not, however, totally unhindered. That child is still a female living in a patriarchal society whether or not she is accepted by her people. The independence comes to her at the price of not only losing her mother but of losing her grandmother, aunts, cousins, and all the men folk of the Ibuza village. To maintain that freedom, she must, as Emecheta herself must, remain an expatriate, possibly visiting her relatives but never living there. She lives so far out on the edge of the Other that she barely exists in terms of her own culture.
Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on The Bride Price, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6334
Returning to the issue of narrative intention, the question raised by the ending of The Bride Price then becomes the following: toward what goal has this novel been oriented? Or, more specifically, what direction do Western readers expect this novel to take? Does this expectation help us understand the novel, or does it interfere with understanding? For those of us who were trained to find patterns in literature by Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism, I would argue that the tacit assumptions we bring to The Bride Price virtually ensure that we will (try to) read it as New Comedy. This mode, according to Frye, is commonly centered on "an erotic intrigue between a young man and a young woman which is blocked by some kind of opposition, usually paternal, and resolved by a twist in the plot." Although the blocking agents initially govern society, a new society emerges at the end "after a discovery in which the hero becomes wealthy or the heroine respectable." As we can see from the following outline, for most of Emecheta's novel this comic pattern holds true—just long enough for us to expect a happy ending. But, ultimately, the narrator disappoints our expectations: first by failing to redeem the hero, then by killing off the heroine and apparently agreeing that it is best that she die, and finally by reinstating the power of the old society.
When Aku-nna is thirteen-years-old, her father dies unexpectedly. Following tradition, Ma Blackie takes her two children back to Ibuza to live, where she marries her husband's older brother. Shortly after Ma Blackie's marriage, the community school teacher falls in love with Aku-nna and begins to court her. [Boy meets girl.] Their love is forbidden, however, because Chike is the descendant of slaves. [Outside interference tries to keep them apart.] Though Aku-nna is widely sought after by many suitors, she knows she will be happy only with Chike. Once she becomes eligible for marriage, one of her suitors arranges to kidnap her—which, according to custom, is a legitimate way of getting a wife. [Boy loses girl to outside interference.] To save her virginity after she is captured, Aku-nna tells Okoboshi the lie that she has already had sexual intercourse with Chike. She then finally escapes and runs off with the man she loves. [Boy regains girl.] Her uncle is so enraged by her scandalous behavior that he divorces her mother and refuses to accept the bride price from Chike's father. [Here the comic plot begins to break down.] Aku-nna and Chike love one another deeply, but she never recovers from the fact that her village and family refuse to forgive her. The novel ends when Aku-nna dies giving birth to a daughter whom Chike names Joy. Following Aku-nna's death, the narrator concludes the novel with an extraordinary paragraph, in which she explains that ultimately Chike and Aku-nna reinforced "the traditional superstition" they had been unwittingly challenging. Moreover, she tells us that Aku-nna's death is used by her people as an object lesson to young girls, who are warned not to pick husbands on their own and to make sure their bride price is paid. If it is not paid, they will surely die, like Aku-nna, in childbirth. This cautionary tale, according to the narrator, still carries "psychological" weight today, but why it does is "anybody's guess."
If we have been reading the novel expecting a comic resolution, not only are we astounded by Aku-nna's untimely death, but we are at a loss as to what to make of the narrator's attitude toward it. Are we to mourn Aku-nna and pity her for her foolishness? Is her death tragic? Or is it a necessary punishment for her sins? Should we be glad for her society that its values were upheld? But if, indeed, Aku-nna must die, we expect at least the narrator to be sorrowful over this necessity. When she expresses no sorrow, she challenges us to rethink the genre we have been using to understand the novel. Clearly, the conflict between an individual and her society is more complicated here than we had originally been led (by our own cultural expectations) to believe. A Western reading would assume that tradition had somehow failed Aku-nna because it punished her for being herself. But the narrator's concluding remarks cast doubt on this interpretation. It will be recalled that the first time Emecheta wrote this book, the story ended with Aku-nna and Chike "living happily ever after, disregarding their people." But Emecheta finally concluded that the community's values were more important than a (Western-style) happy ending. So when she rewrote the story, she created a girl who purposely picked "her own husband because she was 'modern' but was not quite strong enough to shake off all the tradition and taboos." Aku-nna is thus destroyed by the guilt she feels for having disobeyed her mother and uncle. This outcome, justifiable as it might appear to Emecheta, troubles most Western readers, however, because of our predisposition to side with these two lovers, who have become social outcasts. It troubles us, in other words, because the beliefs it is based on are embedded in a tradition alien to our own.
At the same time, an obverse reading to the one just proposed—that Akunna fails her people by violating tradition—seems equally questionable since for most of the novel the narrator is extremely sympathetic to this rebellious heroine. Emecheta achieves this sympathy, in part, by narrating the novel from Aku-nna's point of view. The opening scenes, for example, seem calculated to pull on our heartstrings, as we witness first the unusually close relationship between father and daughter—and then see this bond torn apart by the father's unexpected death. In fact, Emecheta's heroines are usually closer to their fathers than to their mothers. Aku-nna's relationship, in particular, seems to symbolize that she would like to take over the role of the father by deciding for herself what she will do. After her father dies, it seems significant that Aku-nna temporarily loses her voice during the mourning rituals. This double loss (father/voice) suggests that in losing her father she has lost an advocate. At the same time, the death of her father can be seen symbolically as the Death of the Fathers; for once she has regained her voice, she "speaks out" against the Will of the Fathers by going against tradition. But hers is an ill-fated rebellion, soon silenced by the Voice of Tradition. What happens here is similar to what Peter Brooks describes as happening in Balzac's La Peau de chagrin (suggesting that some European fiction can, indeed, help us understand Emecheta's novels). When the father dies, Brooks argues, "the Name-of-the-Father—the father as prohibition, law, 'morality'—emerges only the stronger, to be submitted to in full abnegation, or else rejected in a total revolt." Aku-nna's rebellion fails, as we see later, because she is incapable of marshalling the resources needed for the total rebellion Brooks identifies. But before the failure becomes manifest, Aku-nna does seem to be assuming her father's protective mantle.
Once Aku-nna moves to Ibuza, for example, she becomes convinced that she will have to help take care of her mother and thinks she might be able to do so by becoming a teacher. She recalls sadly at this point that her father had wanted her to have more education. But this same loving father has named his daughter "Aku-nna, meaning literally 'father's wealth,' knowing that the only consolation he could count on from her would be her bride price." What the narrator means by "consolation" is not entirely clear, however. Does Ezekiel need consolation because he is disappointed that Aku-nna is not a son? Or does he need it because he will lose Aku-nna to another man? Or both? Whatever the meaning, Aku-nna herself is not upset by the arrangement. In fact, she only hopes she will not be a disappointment to him. Our sympathy for Aku-nna deepens after her father's death, when we see how ill at ease she is in her new surroundings. Though Ibuza is the village of her ancestors, Aku-nna is so unfamiliar with the customs of her people that one of her young relatives chastises her for her ignorance. Her mother is not much help either. It is not only ignorance but also shyness that makes the transition hard for Aku-nna. Not having been raised in Ibuza, for example, she cannot understand why it is acceptable for men to see her bathing naked in the stream or for her suitors to play roughly with her breasts. These customs are also alien to Western readers, who probably have much the same reaction to them as Aku-nna. Perhaps we sympathize with her as much as we do because she is like us in being unfamiliar—and uncomfortable—with Ibuza customs.
For his part, Chike makes a perfect Western hero. He is a handsome, charming, reformed rake who is absolutely devoted to his new love—treating her with kindness and compassion when everyone else ignores her. Perhaps the most touching scene in the novel occurs when Aku-nna gets her menarche during school. She is in pain and embarrassed, but Chike is so gentle and tactful that she lets him take care of her. After giving her an aspirin, he loans her his jacket so no one can see the blood on her dress; later he brings her a supply of sanitary napkins with a little booklet explaining what to do—all this from a man whose culture still teaches that a menstruating woman is unclean. It is no wonder Aku-nna falls in love with Chike. We practically do ourselves. Our sympathy only intensifies when it becomes clear that Chike and Akunna will not be allowed to marry because his ancestors were slaves. To us, this is a prohibition that makes very little sense. But the villagers and the narrator insist that for her "to marry the descendant of a slave would be an abomination." Class differences we might be able to accept (especially if we were British), but this goes beyond class. Chike, in fact, comes from a wealthier (and better-educated) family than Aku-nna. Nor would we regard marriage to the descendants of slaves as an abomination. Such events occur without censure—or comment—all the time in our culture. In sum, Western readers have trouble anticipating—and accepting— he ending of The Bride Price because the narrator focuses so much attention on Aku-nna and Chike's courtship ritual. In watching them meet and gradually fall in love, we ourselves become emotionally involved in their relationship—especially as they have to contend with the older generation's prohibitions. Illustrative of the difference between African and Western readings is Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi's description of Aku-nna and Chike's relationship. Where I as a Western reader enjoy the emotions evoked by their touching love story, Ogunyemi dismisses the "sentimentality evoked by the lovesick couple." How, then, are we to read this novel? Since our Western comedic genre is not particularly useful, we need to ask if we have any other genres that might do a better job of helping us understand Emecheta's novels.
Epic or Novel?
Bakhtin makes several distinctions between the epic and the novel that are useful to Western readers trying to understand Emecheta's fiction. The epic he associates with the "absolute past" and the power of tradition because it speaks in the monologic voice of unquestioned authority. The novel, on the other hand, "is determined by experience, knowledge and practice (the future)." Its dialogic (competing) voices speak in "unofficial language and unofficial thought." In short, where the epic is a closed genre reflective of what has already occurred, the novel is open—to the present and the future. As such, the novel is almost by definition a progressive genre. Since we in the West believe that Chike and Aku-nna would do no lasting harm to society by falling in love and marrying, at first glance "epic" seems a more suitable term to describe The Bride Price than "novel," as it certainly appears to valorize the past and to reaffirm tradition. Because we value individual rights over community rights and because we cannot take seriously the taboos surrounding the descendants of former slaves, we think Chike and Aku-nna should be free to marry. From our perspective Aku-nna's punishment by death is unwarranted, unmotivated, and implausible. To us, this ending is reactionary, invoking the archetypal endings of an absolute past when heroines were not free to do and become what they wanted.
But if we read the novel from more of an Africanized perspective, the ending, while perhaps not very progressive, does not seem to be particularly reactionary. It is conservative in that it does reestablish the old society, but Aku-nna and Chike's transgressions apparently threaten the very fabric of village life—as is evident in the villagers' response. In revenge for Aku-nna's behavior, for example, the Ofulues destroy all the vegetation on the plantation owned by Chike's father, and Ma Blackie's new husband divorces her. Though we in the West are horrified that Aku-nna must die to reaffirm her people's tradition, the narrative suggests that the sacrifice of this individual rebel is necessary for the well-being of the community. In her death, moreover, Aku-nna signals that she has accepted the importance of tradition. Because these traditions can be quite flexible, Ward argues that it is not necessary for Aku-nna to accept them blindly. But Alasdair MacIntyre, another student of tradition, sheds a different light on the situation when he argues that because an individual is part of an ongoing (narrative) history, she becomes, consciously or not, "one of the bearers of a tradition"—an assertion the novel seems to support. For even though Aku-nna might have felt initially that her actions were her own and thus of little interest to the community, she soon comes to realize that she herself is the community, that what she and Chike do affects everyone, not just themselves. After trying to make a life for herself, she realizes that she can live only within the community that raised her. Her death therefore becomes a symbol for the fact that she has finally accepted her role as a bearer of her people's African traditions.
But for us in the West to see that the ending of The Bride Price is not necessarily so tragic, we have to be able to foreground our own prejudices—and listen to the competing voices that, in Bakhtin's terms, make this more a novel than an epic. Whereas the monologic epic has a "singular belief system," the dialogic heteroglossia of a novel makes for multiple competing belief systems. Bakhtin finds, moreover, a correlation between what a character does and says—with the one informing the other ideologically. In the dialogic or competitive environs of a novel, unlike the mono-logic world of epic, the hero's discourse is constantly being challenged, leading Bakhtin to argue that the "idea of testing the hero" may be the single most important "organizing idea in the novel." Here Bakhtin distinguishes between "authoritative discourse" and "internally persuasive discourse"—which I invoked in my discussion of Adah Obi. Authoritative discourse originates externally in religion, politics, and morality. It is, therefore, associated, like the epic, with the authority of the past and treated like "the word of the fathers ... It is akin to taboo." Internally persuasive discourse reflects the ideology of the individual character, but, in direct contrast to authoritative discourse, it carries no status in society. Within a novel (but never an epic), these two kinds of discourses engage one another dialogically in the consciousness of a single character, helping to form his or her belief system. In what I will then call Emecheta's novel, the struggle between Aku-nna's internal discourse and the authoritative discourse of her African fathers can be seen most readily in how the hero/heroine copes with the pressures of tradition. Though Aku-nna listens to her own internal discourse and finds the courage to reject certain traditions, others she dutifully accepts.
Let us first look at the customs Aku-nna accepts, those that have to do with menstruation—the symbol of her womanhood that signifies her mar-riageability. She begins with a minor rebellion that she is unable to sustain. Because she does not want her family to arrange a marriage for her, she keeps the fact of her menarche secret for two months. She reveals her secret to her friends only when she needs to consult with them whether it will be permissible for her to cross a stream in her "unclean" condition. Far better to tell her friends, she thinks, than to risk being treated forever "as an outcast leper." When Aku-nna finally does cross the stream, she prays "that the god of the stream would be lenient with her for this terrible sin she was committing." This scene at the river suggests the differences between Emecheta's African and our Western attitudes toward nature, a difference that would certainly seem to favor Africa. Though it would never occur to most Westerners that they could sin against a river no matter what the act involved, we might all be better off if we were able to conceive of this possibility, as much of the world continues to use its fresh waterways (and its oceans) as repositories of untreated sewage. But Aku-nna is a traditional African woman who has been taught by her people the necessity of maintaining the purity of the village water supply. This teaching has been reinforced through myth and taboos to such an extent that it constitutes the very fabric of Aku-nna's being. Rather than reading these taboos as evidence of the sexism in Aku-nna's culture, Western feminists might better ask what is served by such customs. Philomina Chioma Steady argues, for example, that the taboos surrounding menstruation are not as misogynistic as they might seem to Westerners, since semen also "can be seen as polluting."
Though it simply does not occur to Aku-nna to question her unclean status as a menstruating woman, she does question other taboos—if only implicitly. In Bakhtin's terms, Aku-nna represents a "potential discourse," which is largely unspoken but nonetheless quite evident from her actions. In this novel, the authoritarian, closed language of the fathers (custom, tradition, taboo) is continually being challenged by the unofficial, open language of the daughters—a challenge seen in most of Emecheta's other novels. Though the language spoken by the daughters is not the revolutionary woman's language called for by French feminists, the terms of the battle are quite similar. Emecheta herself clearly establishes the primacy of the fathers' language. As soon as Aku-nna's stepfather, Okonkwo, learns that she has begun menstruating, he tells her she must give up her friendship with Chike, speaking to her in "the voice of authority ... which was a kind of legalised power. He was telling her, not in so many words, that she could never escape." The discourse of the fathers is so powerful that Okonkwo needs no words to tell Aku-nna she is trapped by tradition. She knows it, and the knowledge destroys her. Because the men hold the women enthralled by the power of the authoritative discourse of the fathers, the daughters must speak another language (an internally persuasive unofficial discourse) if they are ever to liberate themselves. When Aku-nna is kidnapped, it looks for a while as if she just might have the will to speak such a language. She is so sickened by the prospects of being married to Okoboshi that she achieves a mysterious strength that gives her courage to defend herself and "fight ... for her honour." Significantly, she saves herself by what she says—and what she says is a lie. It is a lie that overturns reality by challenging the legitimacy of the fathers' discourse. Furthermore, it is a lie that insults Okoboshi's manhood. Aku-nna says scornfully that his father is merely a "dog chief," since all he has been capable of stealing is "a girl who has been taught what men taste like by a slave." But hers is a doomed rebellion. Though she successfully defends herself against her kidnapper's sexual advances, she is soon discouraged by the realization that she has nowhere to run. Because she has brought shame on her family, her uncle prevents her mother from intervening and would kill her himself if he caught her. But Aku-nna knows that if she has to stay with her kidnappers, she will not live long since no one violates "the laws of the land and survives." Even after betraying her people, Aku-nna remains a believer, begging Chike, for example, to pay her bride price so she will not die in childbirth. Though Chike's father offers her uncle a large sum of money, Okonkwo refuses to accept it. Determined to kill this girl who has brought such shame on his household, Okonkwo makes a fetish in Aku-nna's image, the purpose of which is to force her to come home. Soon Aku-nna tells Chike's father that her stepfather "calls me back in the wind." Though she vows to stay, inevitably she surrenders to the authority of the fathers' discourse—the "voice" that tells her to return to her family.
Heteroglossia and Textual Plurality
Although Aku-nna's internal discourse is no match for the authoritative discourse of her African fathers and she herself is ultimately silenced by death, the novel itself is a veritable forum of competing discourses. Additional heteroglossia is evident, for example, in statements such as the following one, which describes Ma Blackie's attempts to have a third child by Ezekiel; desperate, she returns to her village in hopes that she can "placate their Oboshi river goddess into giving her some babies." There is no way that this statement can have the same meaning for Westerners as it would for Africans. It is not even clear that it would have any meaning for Westerners, if by this we mean to imply we actually think we understand what has been said. For, at best, we would probably consider it a quaint notion that a river goddess would have anything at all to do with fertility. We certainly would never believe it. What is a river goddess anyway? More particularly, what is an Oboshi river goddess? This passage and our questions about it suggest that Emecheta has not forsworn her African point of view, for the narrator never questions the premise behind Ma Blackie's attempts to placate the river goddess. There is absolutely no suggestion that the narrator thinks it is either a quaint or irrational approach to what (most) Westerners would regard as a straightforward medical problem. The question arises, therefore, of how we Westerners are to read Ma Blackie's behavior and informing beliefs. Do we accept her behavior on its own terms and regard it as rational, or do we judge it on our terms and regard it as irrational? At the very least, if we are sincere about trying to make sense out of an alien practice, we might do well to return once more to Peter Winch's advice about understanding Azande magic. It will be recalled from my discussion of his ideas in previous chapters that Winch believes it is wrong for us to try to force the Zande category into our own familiar distinction between science and non-science. Instead, because it is, after all, we who want to understand them, we have the far more difficult challenge of trying "to extend our understanding" of their categories. As we have already seen in our discussion of genres, Bernstein argues that the "primary issue [for Winch] is not whether the Azande make logical inferences according to the same rules that we use." Rather, what is at issue is "how we classify what they are doing."
To return, then, to the practice in question, Ma Blackie's visit to a river goddess. In describing the place of river goddesses in African culture, Elaine Savory Fido reports that such a "deity is usually beautiful, seductive, powerful," whose actions "can vary between malevolence and protective good nature." This description, however, does not offer much help to us Western readers who are still not quite sure how to categorize the concept of a river goddess. What we want to know is, how does placating a river goddess compare, for example, with our Western notion of prayer? How does it compare with soliciting advice from a medical doctor? Or are both these categories insufficient for understanding what is going on here? Is there a genre somewhere between faith and medical science that might be more useful to us in coming to terms with Ma Blackie's pilgrimage? Moreover, have the attitudes of Igbos themselves toward their own river goddesses changed significantly over the years? How would these or other African readers today interpret Ma Blackie's behavior? Would they find the behavior quaint and outdated? Or would they find real value in what she is doing? Unfortunately, Emecheta's novel remains silent on these questions—and in so doing reminds us of the differences that separate us.
Other examples of heteroglossia (which lead to similar problems of classification and interpretation) can be found in the African terminology that Emecheta includes—terms that also reflect a world-view alien to that of the West. As a child, Aku-nna gets sick every time an illness goes around; she is sick so often that Ma Blackie often implores her daughter to make up her mind if "she was going to live or die." This seems relatively clear. Any distraught Western parent might say the same thing. But then the text continues with the information that Ma Blackie could not tolerate "a 'living dead', an ogbanje". Emecheta does not stop to explain just what the term "living dead" means to these people. It does not mean what Westerners mean by it. It is not the same as a zombie. An ogbanje is a baby or small child who refuses to stay alive or dead: to torment its parents, it keeps getting born and then dies soon thereafter. In other words, if a family has three or four young babies die, it is the same ogbanje being born over and over again.
Ezekiel's response to his wife's infertility is another classic example of the heteroglossia in this novel, as it moves from one worldview to another in a single sentence. Keenly disappointed by the fact that he has only one son, he reminds Ma Blackie how unfair it is since once he had "paid this heavy bride price[,] he had had their marriage sanctified by Anglicanism" (emphases added). Ezekiel's funeral is a more extensive example of heteroglossia, as its components are created out of a melange of the old and the new. When it comes time to decide who gets to stay beside the body, Ezekiel's friends are faced with a real problem since the choice of mourners will determine where he goes after death. The men want him to join his father in the earth, but the more rebellious Lagos women "preferred Nna to go to heaven," attracted as they are to the exotic "imported" religion. In making the distinction between the old and the new, the narrator unexpectedly describes the old way as "pagan"—thus raising the question of whether she shares the Christians' negative perception of indigenous African religions. This question is raised in another passage when the narrator, having been a kind of advocate for her culture, suddenly takes the viewpoint of an outsider (who seems to have her own problems with classification). It is relatively easy, the narrator notes, for a visitor to see that Ibuza is an Igbo village. It is harder, however, to decide "whether to classify the people as Christians or pagans." As much as the term "pagan" sticks out here, it is also not clear what the term "Christian" means to people who believe in river goddesses, bride prices, and ogbanjes. Certainly, it does not quite mean what it would to a Western Christian. Other terms that are familiar to Westerners also have a different meaning in this African novel. The concept of "father" is extended to those male relatives who take care of children; "and in Ibuza one's brother-in-law was also given the title of husband." Some children might have such an abundance of "mothers" and "fathers" that they "may not see much of [their] true parents." The fact that the narrator explains these customs at all, of course, suggests a Western influence—for African readers (or at least most Nigerian readers) would already know about them and not need to have them explained.
In sum, in The Bride Price there is, indeed, a rich and complex dialogic relationship between the voices of tradition and those in rebellion against tradition—the very dialogic heteroglossia that helps qualify this text as a novel. But even though Aku-nna's unofficial challenge to authoritative discourse helps open the text to many interpretations, Aku-nna herself eventually does allow the Voice of the Fathers to overwhelm her internal voice, graphically reminding us of how dependent we are on others for our sense of self and our sense of reality.
Competing Discourses and the Construction of Reality
In The Social Construction of Reality, Berger and Luckmann describe a dialogic relationship between the individual and society that is similar to the one Bakhtin describes. Though objective and subjective reality can be characterized as basically "symmetrical," on Berger and Luckmann's view, there is always more objective reality than an individual can internalize. Because we simultaneously experience ourselves as a part of, and apart from, society, the status of the relationship between external and internal reality, then, is always being negotiated; in short, it is dialogic and dialectical. The "instrument" of our socialization, moreover, is language itself as it has been incorporated in "moral instruction, inspirational poetry, religious allegory and whatnot." At the same time that the maintenance of external reality is dependent on our conversation with others, the maintenance of an individual's subjective reality is also dependent on our various language systems. In sum, language defines us as human and saves us from the terrors of isolation. As Emecheta's novel convincingly illustrates, because of our (discursive) interdependence, even the simplest challenges to everyday reality are hard to maintain without some sort of group support. In most cases of individual rebellion, according to Berger and Luckmann, the heretic surrenders to the superior strength of the community with very little fanfare. In extreme cases, however, when someone seriously threatens everyday reality, society takes more active measures to protect itself by trying to re-educate the rebel. In effect, the rebel is talked out of her heresy through the therapeutic maneuvers of the analyst's couch or the confessional. If this relatively benign persuasive route fails, society labels the heretic insane or criminal and, if necessary, incarcerates her for either her own or society's good. African societies may be less threatened by heretics, may try to call them back to the fold by the informal intervention of relatives or friends, but the principle remains intact: individuals must fit into their social roles. The person who fails to be socialized, according to Berger and Luckmann, "is socially predefined as a profiled type—the cripple, the bastard, the idiot, and so on." Such predefining has the socially desirable consequence of denying both plausibility and permanency to any heretical self definitions that the individual might dream up.
So it is in The Bride Price. For whatever reason, Aku-nna does not accept all teachings of her people's authoritative discourse as her own. But in rejecting one of her people's most fundamental tenets, she fails to find enough external support to sustain her rebellion. Though Chike clearly adores her, his love is not enough to counter the overwhelming influence of what Bakhtin calls tradition "sacred and sacrosanct." Though the discourse of The Bride Price is not to be equated with that of an epic, therefore, the ideals of the past are justified and reconfirmed here in a process that is similar to what occurs in an epic. Tradition is not only how things were done but how they are still done. When Aku-nna's father dies, for example, even though Ma Blackie is still alive, her people treat Aku-nna like an orphan. Even in modern-day Nigeria, the narrator observes, a family without a father is "in fact a non-existing family. Such traditions do not change very much." In Berger and Luckmann's terms, therefore, we might say that Aku-nna has been socially predefined as an "orphan"—or, at the very least, she has been allowed to forget that she is a child of the community and must abide by its conventions. Chike is by birth socially predefined as an outcast. When they fall in love and break a taboo, therefore, they are simply acting out the outsider status they seem already to have. Because they are outsiders, their actions can have no validity or merit. Chike is doomed to social approbation and isolation because of his ancestry, but Aku-nna must be reunited with her people, if only in death—for tradition must be honored. Because this is a novel and not an epic, however, the ideals of the past are also shown to be vulnerable to challenge—a vulnerability that we have already seen in the text's abundant dialogic heteroglossia.
Though, indeed, Aku-nna herself fails the heroine's test and is ultimately silenced by death, neither side achieves narrative hegemony. The fathers fail to silence the heroine's internal discourse (Aku-nna never does go home), and the heroine fails to overthrow the fathers. Complicating the issue for Western feminist readers, however, is the fact that the fathers' language represents traditional African values, whereas the daughter's language, in some respects, represents almost a Western alternative to these old ways. Lest we think that the novel's meaning lies only with the daughter's voice, however, it is important to remember that the narrator speaks in yet another voice—one that is richly complex and full of contradictions.
In The Bride Price, as in all of Emecheta's fiction, the narrator functions as a kind of mediating voice between the fathers' and daughters' discourse—and between an African and Western discourse. Because Emecheta's narrator mediates between cultures, we might even suggest, adapting an idea from Marcus and Fischer, that she is functioning as an ethnographer. Envisioning the ethnographer as positioned outside the alien culture, however, they suggest—borrowing themselves from Clifford Geertz—that an ethnographer juxtaposes the alien culture's "experience-near or local concepts" with those "experience-far concepts that the writer shares with his readership." For my purposes I want to reverse the stance and suggest that the writer (narrator) in Emecheta's case is more likely to share the experience-near or local concepts with her subjects and, as a consequence, is frequently not speaking in terms familiar to her readers. Though we, as Western readers, may be tempted to see the narrator as speaking primarily in experience-distant concepts (our own), I think it is a temptation we must work to overcome. This shift cannot help but remind us that much of what we read is truly alien to our Western experience and not easily accommodated within our own horizons. Only by accepting these differences, after all, do we have any hope of seeing ourselves anew. This is not to say that we are so locked into our own language game that we cannot understand anything in the alien culture; it is to say that it is more difficult to understand than we might wish—or think. For Marcus and Fischer, when we attempt to understand across cultures, the ethnographer functions for us "as mediator between distinct sets of categories and cultural conceptions that interact in different ways at different points." From this I infer that we can expect some interactions to be relatively painless while others will be almost unbearably difficult. Clearly, there is much in Emecheta's fiction I feel confident I understand. But I am equally confident that much of this confidence is misplaced.
Following the passage cited previously in which Okonkwo has told Aku-nna to break off relations with Chike, for example, is this statement: "He walked away, leaving her standing there by the egbo trees, for he must not come near or touch her now when she was unclean" (emphasis added). What is unclear in this sentence is whose point of view the italicized part represents. It immediately follows Okonkwo's authoritative statements and could represent his thinking. Yet it is contained in a paragraph that expresses Aku-nna's point of view and internal thinking. We can be certain that Okonkwo, the Voice of the village Fathers, would share the perception that she is unclean. We can also be pretty certain from what occurred at the stream that Aku-nna shares the same perception. But we cannot tell whether the narrator joins them. In short, though we know who could be speaking, we are not sure who is speaking. According to Barthes, a text's plurality reveals itself in our inability to decide who is speaking—in fact, the "more indeterminate the origin of the statement, the more plural the text." The more plural the text, we might add, the more difficult our interpretive task of understanding. While we might simply be content, in this postmodern age, to enjoy the novel's plurality and let it go at that, if we accept Emecheta's texts as ethnographic documents (as they perforce must be accepted, at least to a certain degree), unthinkingly embracing their plurality seems a facile solution to a problem of "translation" that deserves more careful attention. At other times, however, submitting to the plurality of Emecheta's texts seems the "right" thing to do. Since the people who inhabit Emecheta's novel are, for the most part, not plagued by what Bernstein calls Cartesian anxiety, submitting to the plurality of her texts certainly seems an African thing to do.
Source: Katherine Fishburn, "The Sense of an Ending," in Reading Buchi Emecheta, Greenwood Press, 1995, pp. 80-92.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 371
It comes as no surprise that the manuscript Francis burned in Second Class Citizen surfaces as Emecheta's 1976 book, The Bride Price. With this book, set in the early 1950s in Lagos and Ibuza, she departs from her own life story. Despite this radical shift in subject matter, The Bride Price is a logical development of her writing. She continues to explore the injustices of caste, one of her main concerns in the first two books, but the emphasis is somewhat different. Whereas in her autobiographical books Emecheta stresses the possibility of overcoming the restrictions of caste or caste-like conditions through personal initiative, in The Bride Price and the following novels set in Nigeria she stresses the destructive potential of rigid caste structures, which persist in the otherwise rapidly changing Igbo society. Her main pre-occupation continues to be the role of women. Aku-nna, her name significantly meaning "father's wealth," is a young girl of thirteen when her father dies, and she is forced to move from Lagos with her mother and brother back to their village. Her desire to continue school is frowned upon but accepted, as educated girls fetch higher bride prices. Aku-nna is alienated from the village youth and falls in love with the school-teacher. He, however, is the victim of another caste structure: he is a descendant of slaves and thus not allowed to marry a freeborn. True love runs its course—they elope under dramatic circumstances, get married, and settle down to a good life, supported by the oil boom, education, and Western values, but tradition takes its revenge. The bride price is not paid, and according to tradition the bride must die in childbirth, which is what Aku-nna does. Emecheta's explanation for this hovers uneasily between either presenting it as a psychological effect of a strongly held belief—resulting in fear and fatalistic surrender—or using modern medical terminology. The book thus ends with the defeat of what is clearly portrayed as progressive forces, but this somewhat surprising defeat only helps to highlight the injustice of the situation.
Source: Kirsten Holst Petersen, "Buchi Emecheta," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 117: Twentieth-Century Caribbean and Black African Writers, edited by Bernth Lindfors and Reinhard Sander, Gale Research, 1992, pp. 161-62.