Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 659
Three central issues pervade Emecheta’s writing: the oppression of women (especially African women), education as the means of their emancipation, and the effects of the conflict between tradition and Western influences on their development. Her central intention is to explore and protest the roots of women’s oppression. This is a personal crusade. What she has uncovered and relentlessly critiqued in all of her novels is the enslavement of women by institutions in the private and public spheres: from welfare states that pauperize and deskill women to the insidious institution of slavery, the oppressive institution of marriage, and the martyrdom of motherhood. In the Ditch chronicles a series of journey-flights that the protagonist makes from one form of bondage to another, from a failed marriage to the den of an exploitative landlord to the demeaning snare of a welfare system.
In the Ditch illustrates the enslaving power of poverty, the symbolic embodiment of a caste system based on race, sex, class, and property. The society depicted is menacing to the poor, the economically deprived, and the uneducated, particularly women—the single, unsupported “mums.” Emecheta’s purpose is to present the hierarchy of the Pussy Cat Mansions as a microcosm of the oppressive hierarchies of society at large. The culture of poverty has its own hierarchy, its own protocol for socialization, and its own value system. If the blows of the treacherous Nigerian landlord’s terrorism and exploitation have merely bruised Adah’s self-esteem, then the verbal lashing with which the Mansions’ white plumber, Mr. Small, indoctrinates Adah to Mansions living puts black, African, and female Adah in her place.
The hierarchy plays out entrenched attitudes and expectations. Adah quickly learns the characteristics of the culture of ditch-dwelling: forced unemployment, dependency, lack of initiative, dole lines, hopelessness, and overbreeding in an unhealthy community of unloved, neglected single mums. Although a camaraderie develops—a collective of sorts—among the women which allows them to cope with the bleakness of their situation and perhaps win some improvements here and there, the fragile basis of such group solidarity is ineffectual in the face of an indifferent, powerful welfare system. It is precisely for this reason that Adah feels compassion for the ditch-dweller mums but cannot bring herself to identify fully with them or their lot.
Steeling herself against the destructiveness of institutionalized dependency, with its inherent self-defeating inclinations of alcohol, overbreeding, and overeating, Adah reminds herself that her superior education, her goal to be a writer, her previous experience as a one-time wage earner, and her current status as a sociology student are her only guarantees to escaping the ditch—hence Emecheta’s realism, her contention that the potential for choice rests ultimately with women. Where the ditch-dwellers such as Whoopey and Mrs. Cox continue to look to the system for their emancipation, Adah and perhaps the Jamaican Mrs. Cook entertain no delusions or faith in the welfare system to bring about equality or social change. Emecheta’s vision of women’s emancipation is fairly clear: Individual initiative, determination, and education are the liberating forces for transcending oppression and enslavement.
Adah’s move to a new matchbox maisonette flat across from the famous Regent’s Park, where “her own working-class council estate was cheek by jowl with expensive houses and flats belonging to successful writers and actors,” symbolizes the triumph of the artistic and creative resourcefulness, empowering Adah to resist appropriating the ditch-dweller status of the welfare system. This final journey, though underscored by procrastination, chronicles Adah’s emergence from the psychological ditch of dependence. Thus, despite the pervasive pessimism of Emecheta’s prose, delineated by the ditch metaphor, the work offers crucial hope in its simple philosophy of indestructible strength of will. Although criticized for its thinness of style and simple language, and therefore rarely discussed, In the Ditch and its companion piece, Second Class Citizen, are important because they constitute the first Bildungsroman by a woman writer in African literature.