Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 536
Buchi Emecheta’s novel The Slave Girl interrogates the cruel history of slavery in a highly sympathetic way, foregrounding the experiences of the protagonist, Ojbeta. The novel is written from a postcolonial perspective which is subtly critical of the social norms prevalent at the time. An example of this is Emecheta’s...
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Buchi Emecheta’s novel The Slave Girl interrogates the cruel history of slavery in a highly sympathetic way, foregrounding the experiences of the protagonist, Ojbeta. The novel is written from a postcolonial perspective which is subtly critical of the social norms prevalent at the time. An example of this is Emecheta’s take on the notion of women as property, exemplified by the following quotation:
Every woman, whether slave or free, must marry. All her life a woman always belonged to some male. At birth you were owned by your people, and when you were sold you belonged to a new master, when you grew up your new master who had paid something for you would control you.
In this sentence, Emecheta illustrates that all women are bound by the rite of marriage, regardless of whether they are free or bound in slavery. This foreshadows the book’s ambiguous conclusion, when Ojbeta is “freed” from slavery by her husband, Jacob, but Emecheta simply sees him as “a new master.” This quotation implies the essentially feminist politics of Emecheta’s novel, which is also exemplified through the exploitative marriage of the Palagadas, marked by Pa Palagada’s laziness, sexual congress with the slave Chiago, and retaining financial control over his wife.
Emecheta also highlights the importance of tribal custom and spiritual tradition to the lives of the Ibos. Ojbeta’s mother covers her daughter’s face in expensive tribal tattoos in order to protect her:
On each cheek was drawn the outline of a large spinach leaf looking ready to be picked. It was not that many Ibos would have put so many on the face of a little girl. But Ojebeta's mother Umeadi, when she realised that her daughter was going to live, had had reason for going to the expense of engaging the services of the most costly face-maker in Ibuza. For, with such a riot of tribal spinach marks on her only daughter's face, no kidnapper would dream of selling her into slavery. What was more, if she got lost her people would always know her.
Ojbeta, Umeadi’s only surviving girl child, is covered in tattoos and shielded with ogbanje charms to protect her—a protection which sadly only lasts so long as her parents are alive. These tattoos mark her as belonging to “her people,” thus accentuating what is different about her so that she cannot easily fit in to the kind of household which would own slaves. Although the tattoos do not prevent Ojbeta from being sold into slavery, they do ultimately protect her insofar she is eventually freed, escaping the dire fate of illness, rape, or poverty which commonly befell female slaves. This quotation is important because it suggests the importance of what might be called magic to the story, which is echoed in the novel’s conclusion. In Ibo culture, money and objects signify more than mere trinkets: they are energetic ties which must be formally broken. Ultimately, Emecheta implies that Ojbeta escapes the ogbanje spirits who would capture her and drag her back to the other world and instead lives the life of a mortal woman, which requires being bound to a man to survive in patriarchal society.