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Themes

Buchi Emecheta's 1977 novel, The Slave Girl, chronicles the life of Ogbanje Ojabeta. Orphaned as a young child, due to the ravages of disease and poverty, Ogbanje is sold into slavery. Set in the early twentieth century, The Slave Girl, focuses the reader's gaze on themes of identity and belonging, personal agency and freedom, and the struggle of the individual against society. Emecheta expounds upon each of these themes, revealing the deep interior world of Ogbanje.

Her name alone, Ogbanje, begins to tell the story of her search for identity and belonging. Ogbanje is a name that means "a child that comes and goes." Born to a mother who had witnessed the death of all her female-born children immediately after childbirth, Ogbanje's first hours and days are filled with skepticism and uncertainty within her family that she will even survive. Eventually, Ogbanje's mother chooses to nurse her and love for her only daughter grows. The child that comes and goes eventually becomes a woman that comes and goes.

Following the death of their parents, Ogbanje's brothers decide to sell her into slavery to rich relatives, as their financial stability wanes. Sold by the family who adored her, in order to bring financial stability to the family she adores, Ogbanje becomes a servant to the Palagada family. Though Ogbanje experiences physical and emotional harm than other slaves within her village and household, she still wrestles with the worry and wonder of what it means to belong on her own terms, as a whole person whose worth is not defined by who owns her or what man may wish to marry her.

These issues of identity and belonging, paired with the longing for her true family help construct the themes of personal agency and freedom that emerge in the novel. Ogbanje never loses sight of her desire to be free. After years of servitude, she is eventually allowed to return to her village. Upon her return, Ogbanje is delighted to be among familiar people and in a familiar place. In her return, Ogbanje must contend with the pressures to marry and start a family, while also feeling that she in someways is capable of living a life wherein she is more than only a mother and wife. It is this struggle against social norms that confine and control women that help develop the theme of the individual's struggle against society.