Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 884
Unlike Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958) and Arrow of God (1964), which infuse the elements of the tragic into the themes of the impact of colonialism on traditional African cultures, Elechi Amadi’s lesser-known The Concubine focuses on the private, the social, and the supernatural. Notably lacking the fanfare of color, ritual, rhetoric, and ceremony characteristic of many West African novels of the 1960’s, Amadi’s novel concerns the notion of cosmic totality, the precarious nature of man’s relationship to the supernatural—a relationship in which unseen forces manipulate human life and control human thought and action in the painful and tragic human drama. From its opening chapters to the end, the novel teems with omens, its pages pervaded by fatalism. Divine authority predominates; the presence of the gods is felt long before the story of Ihuoma’s status begins to unfold. Its plot and structure are controlled by supernatural forces. The remarkably simple plot describes a complex situation in which the fortunes and misfortunes of four key characters are set against a background of communal peace and harmony, an idyllic setting governed by a traditional propriety. Good behavior is applauded, excessive and fanatical feelings are frowned upon, and personal feelings are controlled almost to a fault. Except for Madume, the quarrelsome and greedy land grabber, the generous villagers of Omokachi live peacefully with one another. The good-natured humor, the constant bantering, and the profuse singing and dancing that characterize this seemingly perfect community is disrupted by implacable gods. In their hands it appears humans are like puppets, goaded by fate into the gods’ wily snares.
The tragedy of The Concubine is centered on the dual character of Ihuoma, the almost flawless embodiment of Omokachi’s ideal of propriety, a goddess-human who, unbeknown to her and the villagers, is fated to be the wife of the Sea-King even before birth. Reincarnated into the Omokachi community, Ihuoma becomes a death-snare for men, the bait to lure those with amorous intentions to a deadly rivalry with the Sea-King. Given this femme fatale’s winning personality and looks, it is not surprising that the cream of the village manhood is attracted to her. While the villagers readily give plausible explanations for Emenike’s and Madume’s deaths (“lock chest” and “big eyes” respectively), they are particularly stunned by the cruel and mysterious circumstances of Ekwueme’s death on the eve of his impending marriage to Ihuoma and on the day that his life is especially sweet.
When the two rival diviners—Anyika and Agwoturumbe—enter the scene, each with his own explanation and vision of the potency of the superior power at work and how to “bind” it, the action of the tragedy shifts to a blatant contention between man and god on two counts: Ekwueme’s unequivocal, often-repeated love for Ihuoma and his intentions to marry her, and Agwoturumbe’s presumptuous claim to power and knowledge strong enough to fetter the Sea-King. Moreover, Ekwueme’s well-intentioned but proud quip that “if Ihuoma was a sea-goddess, then he could very well be a sea-god himself,” combined with Agwoturumbe’s equally boastful reassurance that all will be well, even if it means making a journey to the bottom of the river himself, inevitably hasten the tragic denouement of the story.
The role of mystery, though downplayed through twenty-eight of the novel’s thirty chapters, is crucial in sustaining the plot and structure of the story. For example, even the most discerning reader, though vaguely suspicious of Emenike’s and Madume’s sudden deaths, does not discover the mystery of Ihuoma’s true identity and the nature of her unusualness until Anyika divulges it in fragments in chapter 28. Mysterious as Ihuoma’s goddess-human nature might be, the reader’s surprise at its revelation is short-lived because the reader recognizes the novel’s implicit belief in the coexistence of the natural and supernatural worlds.
Once made in light of Ihuoma’s “almost perfect” nature, Anyika’s revelation makes sense and is therefore credible because no human can be “quite so right in everything, almost perfect.” Emenike’s “lock chest” death, Madume’s “big eye” death, and Ekwueme’s young lover’s death are now fully explained because the jealous Sea-King husband, after highly involved rites, can be persuaded to tolerate concubinage but not marriage. For this reason, Ekwueme is marked, destined to die from the moment he expresses amorous interests in Ihuoma. Ekwueme, like the grasshoppers that Ihuoma’s second son feeds limb by limb to some ants, is helpless in the web of the relentless Sea-King. He is felled by an errant arrow meant for a lizard, the final, perhaps least consequential item on the list of materials for the rite that would ensure the future Ekwueme and Ihuoma were preparing for optimistically.
Amadi’s achievement in his first novel is his controlled narrative and sustained dialogue. Although not given to rendering the rhythms of traditional speech with the same flair with which Achebe captures Ibo oratory, Amadi successfully combines narrative simplicity with conversational language of everyday realities. Without being idealistic, Amadi paints an idyllic picture of village life, including the aesthetic and artistic, using the language of good-natured bantering, humor, singing and dancing. The Concubine ranks as one of the most successful, realistic West African village novels.
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