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Marriage Is a Private Affair

by Chinua Achebe

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Understanding the theme and relevant background of "Marriage is a Private Affair" by Chinua Achebe

Summary:

In "Marriage is a Private Affair" by Chinua Achebe, the theme revolves around the conflict between tradition and modernity. The story highlights generational tensions as a young couple's love challenges their families' traditional expectations. Set in Nigeria, it explores cultural clashes and the struggle for individual freedom against societal norms.

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What is the theme of “Marriage is a Private Affair” by Chinua Achebe?

As Shakespeare famously said, the course of true love never did run smooth. And that certainly applies to Nene and Nnaemeka, the two lovebirds in “Marriage is a Private Affair.” Though they are deeply in love with one another, there is nonetheless a good deal of tension between them. This stems largely from the fact that they come from completely different backgrounds. Nene has lived her whole life in the big city—Lagos, to be precise, which at that time was the capital city of Nigeria. Nnaemeka, on the other hand, is an Ibo, and comes from a remote rural part of the country.

The town/rural divide causes considerable complications for Nene and Nnaemeka. Nene is keen to proceed with the wedding as soon as possible and blithely assumes that Nnaemeka's father Okeke will happily give them his blessing. But Nnaemeka's not so sure. Unlike her intended, Nene's not an Ibo, and so doesn't really understand the dim view that Ibo tradition takes of marrying outside one's ethnic group. Although Nnaemeka may have made his home in the city, he cannot and will not slough off the cultural traditions of his native village. And for a city girl like Nene, that's a big problem.

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What is the theme of “Marriage is a Private Affair” by Chinua Achebe?

The theme of Achebe's "Marriage is a Private Affair" is more or less summed up by the title. It is a theme of unconditional love in marriage, and how it is the business of the two parties involve to decide upon it. It teaches a moral lesson about how love is more important than tradition and standard practice.

Nnaemeka, who is the son of a father from the Ibo tribe, is very taken with a girl from another tribe named Nene, even though his own tribe traditionally arranges marriages. Nnaemeka fights his father's scorn and disapproval and decides to let love come before anything else, and he eventually builds a happy family with Nene. At the end of the story, it is proven that Nnaemeka was right to trust his love above his father's word, as his father realizes what a mistake he has made.

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What is the theme of “Marriage is a Private Affair” by Chinua Achebe?

One of the prominent themes Chinua Achebe explores throughout his short story "Marriage is a Private Affair" concerns the conflict between tradition and modernity as well as the importance of tolerance and acceptance. Nnaemeka is from the Ibo tribe and abandons its traditional marriage customs in order to marry the love of his life. According to Ibo tradition, the groom's parents arrange their son's marriage and Nnaemeka's father has already chosen a woman for him to marry. Nnaemeka and his wife, Nene, represent modernity while Nnaemeka's father, Okeke, represents traditional culture and customs. Okeke is vehemently opposed to his son's decision to marry Nene and shuns them for eight years. The conflict between father and son reflect the wider conflict regarding tradition vs. modernity. At the end of the story, Okeke learns about his two grandsons, who desire to meet him, and thinks about compromising his traditional beliefs in order to experience a loving relationship with his family again. Okeke's decision to open his heart and allow Nnaemeka and his family back into his life illustrates Achebe's theme regarding tradition vs. modernity and the importance of tolerance and acceptance.

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What is the theme of “Marriage is a Private Affair” by Chinua Achebe?

The theme of a piece of literature is the truth about human nature revealed in the story. A theme is often linked to a change in a main character. The theme of Chinua Achebe's short story "Marriage is a Private Affair" may be that the father, Okeke, realizes in the end that love, especially familial love, is more important than tradition. The conflict in the story revolves around Okeke's disapproval of his son's marriage to a girl who is outside of their ethnic group. Nnaemeka, from the Ibo tribe, marries Nene, an Ibibio woman, much to the dismay of Okeke, who objects to Nene for multiple reasons. Not only is she not Ibo, but she is also a teacher; and in Okeke's understanding of Christianity, women should not be teachers. Moreover, Okeke had intended for Nnaemeka to marry a girl from his small village because tradition usually dictated that fathers would arrange the marriages of their sons in the Ibo culture.

Because Nnaemeka goes ahead with the marriage anyway, Okeke basically disowns him and doesn't see him for eight years. In the meantime, the couple are happy and prosperous. They have two sons who soon learn about their grandfather and "insist" on being taken to him. When Nene writes to Okeke about her sons' wishes, he begins to soften and the suggestion at the end of the story is that Okeke will eventually see his son's family. While tradition is obviously important to Okeke, his family means even more, and in the last line of the story he worries that "he might die without making it up to them."

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What is the message of "Marriage is a Private Affair" by Chinua Achebe?

The message of Chinua Achebe's short story "Marriage is a Private Affair" is that, despite cultural and generational prejudices, family love is an essential part of life. Nnaemeka's father, an Ibo man, is dead set against his son marrying out of their ethnic group. He basically disowns his son because Nnaemeka marries Nene, an Ibibio woman. The father even cuts Nene out of the wedding picture his son sends him. The men of the Ibo village all agree that Nnaemeka has rebelled against his father and that his actions are scandalous. The fact the marriage is quite a topic of discussion in the village and among the Ibo women in Lagos renders the title an example of verbal irony

Fortunately for Nnaemeka, his father softens after receiving a letter from Nene saying that the couple has two sons who would very much like to see their grandfather. In the final lines of the story, the father is regretting his decision and hoping his son will forgive him and how he will make it up to the couple. He is overcome by the love that is inherent with blood. He is overcome by longing to see his grandsons. The message also has a universal purpose as Achebe is saying that love is stronger than any enmity which may exist between ethnic groups, religions or races.

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What is the setting of "Marriage Is a Private Affair" by Chinua Achebe?

When one speaks about the setting, one must address both place and time.  

The setting of place is most definitely the country of Nigeria on the continent of Africa. The reader can get even more specific in that the relationship between Nene and Nnaemeka takes place in the city of Lagos in a room at 16 Kasanga Street. When Nnaemeka goes to visit his father, the setting changes to an Ibo village in rural Nigeria.  

In regards to setting of time in "Marriage is a Private Affair," we can assume it is a "fairly modern" setting; however, we are not told a specific time period. There is a city involved and a specific street, but there are also rural villages. Because there is letter-writing involved, it can be assumed that the story takes place before email was prevalent. Also considering that Chinua Achebe wrote the story in the 1950s, the reader can then infer that the time period is most likely the mid twentieth century. In regards to the interval of time, the story takes place over approximately eight years and involves the interval between Nnaemeka falling in love with Nene to Nnaemeka having two young sons who request an audience with their grandfather.  

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What is the context in ‘Marriage is a Private Affair’ by Chinua Achebe?

You have identified a very important aspect of understanding literature. For us to be able to understand the context out of which a particular story has emerged enriches our comprehension of what the author is trying to convey. Chinua Achebe, himself a Nigerian, chooses to set this story in Nigeria, a land marked by ethnic diversity. Nigeria has more than 250 ethnic groups and these groups are distinct in terms of their culture and language as well as religion, customs and traditions. The two tribes mentioned in this story, the Ibo and the Ibibio, come from southeastern Nigeria, but traditionally did not marry. This story tells the tale of a young Ibo man and a young Ibibio woman who have moved from their native regions to Lagos, a large, modern city in southwestern Nigeria.

Thus when these two individuals fall in love and want to marry it causes great problems with the boy's father, who wishes traditions to be maintained and his son to marry an Ibo woman. The story thus focuses on entrenched cultural traditions about marriage and family, and most importantly, in the figure of the father who relents in order to get to know his grandson, the cost of maintaining those traditions even at the expense of losing your son and never knowing your grandchildren. Consider the final paragraph of the story, told looking at the father:

That night he hardly slept, from remorse - and a vague fear that he might die without making it up to them.

Achebe thus exposes the cost of pursuing a tribal, traditional view by focussing on the human casualties.

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What relevant background is needed to understand "Marriage is a private affair" by Chinua Achebe?

This is a very important question concerning the African literature that authors such as Chinua Achebe and Ben Okri produce. For us to be able to understand the context out of which a particular story has emerged enriches our comprehension of what the author is trying to convey, however, often, especially for Western readers, we are unaware of the contextual background which is used as the arena for the conflicts described in such tales as this one.

Chinua Achebe, himself a Nigerian, chooses to set this story in Nigeria, a land marked by ethnic diversity. Nigeria has more than 250 ethnic groups and these groups are distinct in terms of their culture and language as well as religion, customs and traditions. The two tribes mentioned in this story, the Ibo and the Ibibio, come from southeastern Nigeria, but traditionally did not marry. This story tells the tale of a young Ibo man and a young Ibibio woman who have moved from their native regions to Lagos, a large, modern city in southwestern Nigeria.

Thus when these two individuals fall in love and want to marry it causes great problems with the boy's father, who wishes traditions to be maintained and his son to marry an Ibo woman. The story thus focuses on entrenched cultural traditions about marriage and family, and most importantly, in the figure of the father who relents in order to get to know his grandson, the cost of maintaining those traditions even at the expense of losing your son and never knowing your grandchildren. Consider the final paragraph of the story, told looking at the father:

That night he hardly slept, from remorse - and a vague fear that he might die without making it up to them.

Achebe thus exposes the cost of pursuing a tribal, traditional view by focussing on the human casualties rather than bigger metanarratives that are still vitally important in Africa today such as tribal purity and segregation.

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