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Marriage Is a Private Affair

by Chinua Achebe

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What do "Marriage Is a Private Affair" and an excerpt from Nectar in a Sieve reveal about modernity's impact on traditional cultures and its characters?

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In “Marriage is a Private Affair,” Chinua Achebe presents modern Western marriage customs as a mixed blessing, but generally sees them in a positive light. However, in Kamala Markandaya's Nectar in a Sieve, Western industrialization is a curse, bringing misery and death to a formerly happy family.

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In Chinua Achebe's "Marriage is a Private Affair," Nnaemeka disobeys his father, who has arranged a suitable marriage for him with an Ibo girl, and marries Nene, a teacher from Lagos, with whom he is in love. He tells his father that marriage is different now, but his father refuses to listen and breaks off contact with him for eight years.

The effect of modernization on these characters is not simple. In the short term, it brings conflict and unhappiness. However, over the longer term, the author seems to feel that the words of his title are true, and there is much to be said for modernization in certain areas. Modern influences cannot be avoided altogether in any case. One irony is that Nnaemeka's father is always quoting the Bible, which is itself a fairly modern addition to the ancient Ibo culture. Moreover, Nnaemeka and his wife are happy together, and eventually bring his father around to their point of view. Although Achebe has written eloquently about the corrosive effect of Western incursions on traditional Ibo culture, in this case the prejudices of Nnaemeka and Nene's friends and neighbors, and finally of Nnaemeka's father are overcome.

In Kamala Markandaya's Nectar in a Sieve, Rukmani follows the traditional path into an arranged marriage. For her, modernization comes in the shape of capitalism, a large tannery in the neighboring village, which destroys her family's way of life. Although there are other causes of hardship in the novel, some of them natural, the tannery is always a blight on the family's existence, and eventually claims the life of Rukmani's fourth son. Unlike the reform of marriage customs, which occurs on a human scale, taking human feelings into account, soulless industrialization is overwhelmingly negative in the way that it affects traditional society.

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What do pieces such as “Marriage Is a Private Affair” and Nectar in a Sieve demonstrate about the influence of modern ideas and modern ways on traditional cultures? How are the characters in these works affected by the modernization of their respective societies?

Among the topics that both works address are arranged marriages, women working outside the home, and the impact of urbanization and industrialization. In some ways, in both works it is modernization that takes a son from his parents.

In “Marriage Is a Private Affair,” Nnaemeka and his father disagree vehemently about the son’s marriage plans. In part because the son has moved from the village where he grew up to the city of Lagos, he has been exposed to many new ideas. There he met Nene, who works as a teacher. His father disapproves of his son choosing his own bride, as he believes in that arranged marriage is the only correct kind and has already selected a bride for him; he also believes that women should not have jobs. There is also a tribal difference in that Nene is not Ibo, a fact that the father finds disturbing. In this story, the son disobeys his father and marries the non-Ibo professional woman he loves. Religion enters the picture in that the family has already converted, and an argument Nnaemeka uses to try to convince his father is that Nene is a good Christian woman, one of the father’s criteria. Their difference of opinion causes a long-term, nearly permanent rift because the father breaks with his son over his rebellion.

Nectar in a Sieve has a female protagonist who does enter an arranged marriage. Rukmani has some education, as she is literate, but after marriage to Nathan, she does not have a paid job. Rather, she works in farming alongside her husband. Modernization primarily affects the next generation. Rather than the protagonist going to the city, she stays in their rural area, and a factory is built there. It is an industrial tannery, which Rukmani opposes primarily on ecological grounds. Her sons, however, get jobs there. The unjust labor practices as well as the pollution the processing causes are two of the negative influences of the tannery. Religion enters the picture because the tannery owners are outsiders and Muslims, while Rukmani, her family, and the local people are Hindu. Rukmani ultimately loses her son when tannery workers kill him.

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