The brief thesis focuses on expounding the major roles performed by women in the novel.
Introduction: - Chinua Achebe's "Things Fall Apart" is a formidable response to John Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" where the latter portrayed African society in a primitive light, called them savages and barbaric cultists. In "Things Fall Apart" Achebe portrays Africa, particularly the Ibo society, right before the arrival of the white man. The novel analyses the destruction of African culture by the appearance of the white man in terms of the destruction of the bonds between individuals and their society. Achebe, who teaches the reader a great deal about Ibo society and translates Ibo myth and proverbs, also explains the role of women in pre -colonial Africa.
Thesis Statement: - [I intend to] critically discuss the major roles played by women in the novel. I will further elucidate my essay by supplementing examples from the text.
After reading the novel for the first time, we may find the role of women appear to be unfairly limited in terms of their authority and power. The lack of feminine social identity and primitive cultures further reflect a distinctly negative social attitude towards females, and reduces women to a mere possession or an object of trade. This associated gender stratification ensures the perpetuity of patriarchy and subsequent domination of women.
Although the above premise is true, we can't form the conclusion on the basis of just one assumption. If we will give a deeper contemplation to the text, then we will find more powerful roles of women in the midst of this patriarchal society.
Family is a group of people who are bound together by the ties of love. A Family comprises people who can be related in marriage, blood or friendship. In the 19th century, Nigerian women were socialized to fill specific roles in their society. Their major role lied in maintaining the harmony of a household. It was considered that a good housewife will make a good household and a bad one will break it apart. But apart from performing the typical household works, women in Africa also performed larger social functions which are discussed below:-
As primary educators: - A woman is the closest person to her child who is aware of her child's emotional and physiological needs. In the novel women serve as the first teacher of her offspring. We find that women of Ibo educate their children through the ritual of storytelling. This helps in developing good manners as well as behaviour in children. This further develops social values, relationships and artistic consciousness in them. In short women inculcate values that make their children human and not a bunch of stoic masculine indigenous. Through short stories, women entertain as well as instil ethics in their children. This is reflected in the part when Ekwefi tells a story to Okonkwo's children. The narrator describes:
"Low voices, broken now and again by singing,
reached Okonkwo from his wives' huts as each
woman and her children told folk stories. Ekwefi and
her daughter, Ezinma, sat on a mat on the floor. It was
Ekwefi's turn to tell a story"
Thus, moral values are taught to children through creation of myths, such as the birds and the tortoise story. Among Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the "palm-oil with which words are eaten". The Ibo women thus play a significant role in the facilitation of this learning, which is vital to their children's ability to function within the Ibo culture.
As unflinching guardian of their children: - It is shameful that the Ibo society views the girl child as a malediction and women who bear them as a disgrace to the whole society. Such is the degree of the phallocentric notion that a goat is slaughtered in the honour of the mother who gives birth of three sons in succession whereas cursed is the woman who bears only girl child. Ekwefi, is such an example who has been shunned by the society because all her progeny except for her daughter died. But she exhibits no lamentation or remorse. She proves to be a well of knowledge, love, and fierce independence which is reflected in her devotion towards Ezinma. She is determined to nurse her child back to health and she puts all her heart and soul to it. Her love to Ezinma can be seen when Ezinma, late one night, is brought by Priestess, Chielo, the powerful Oracle of Umuofia to a cave for a spiritual encounter with the earth goddess. Terrified as well as fearful, for harm might come to her daughter, Ekwefi follows the Oracle at a distance. This shows that she can even challenge the gods for her daughter's welfare. She even risks a flogging when she leaves her home without telling Okonkwo.
As the Assistant in Farming: - Another important role of women is their continued assistance in performing household and agricultural works. Men perform hard labour whereas women perform light works. Women have an important hand in growing the crops that constitute the supplement for the family's income. These include crops such as corn, watermelon, beans, and cassava. Okonkwo's wives and children also help him in farming. Although they are not as strong as Okonkwo, they try to lighten Okonkwo's work. They always help one another. Okonkwo's three wives live in complete harmony. They do all works together so that all works can be done well and faster. This is manifested in the following lines:-
"Ekwefi rose early in the following morning and went
to her farm with her daughter. Ezinma, and Ojiugo's
daughter, Obiageli, to harvest cassava tubers. Each of
them carried a long cane basket, a matchet for cutting
down the soft cassava stem, and a little hoe for digging out the tuber".
In addition to these notable examples of the power of women, we observe women performing various roles sprinkled throughout the novel. We are told that it is "the women [who] weeded the farm three times at definite periods in the life of the yams, neither early nor late". This is an extremely important duty, considering that if this task is not carried out correctly, the yam crops will fail.
The last role played by women is that of a priestess and a goddess. Religion plays an important role in gender stratification of Igbo people. Female gods are emphasized as fertile and social caretakers, reinforcing the social roles designated by society. Religion is also used to prevent women from overstepping the social order by inspiring fear of retribution from spiritual powers of disobedience.
An excellent quintessence of powerful women in the Ibo village is found in the role they play in the Ibo religion. The women routinely perform the role of priestess. The narrator recalls that during Okonkwo's boyhood: "The priestess in those days was a woman called Chika. She was full of the power of her god, and she was greatly feared". The current priestess in the novel is Chielo, "the priestess Agbala, the Oracle of the hill and the Caves". The power of the priestess is shown in the episode during which Chielo has come for Okonkwo and Ekwefi's daughter Ezinma. We are told:
"Okonkwo pleaded with her to come back in the
morning because Ezinma was now asleep. But
Chielo ignored what he was trying to say and went
on shouting that Agbala wanted to see his daughter .
. . The priestess suddenly screamed. 'Beware, Okonkwo!' she warned".
There is no other point in the novel in which we see Okonkwo "plead" with anyone, male or female, for any reason. We witness a woman not only ordering Okonkwo to give her his daughter, but threatening him as well. The fact that Okonkwo allows this is evidence of the priestess's power. The ability of a woman to occupy the role of a priestess, a spiritual leader, reveals a clear important position of women in Ibo society.
Another such example is unveiled in the role played by Ani the earth goddess. Ani is described as such
"...the source of all fertility. Ani played a greater part
in the life of the people than any other deity. She was
the ultimate judge of morality and conduct. And what
was more, she was in close communion
whose bodies had been committed to earth"
In order to revere the earth goddess the Feast of the New Yams is held before the harvest begins. Ezeani's power is further illustrated through her role in the yam harvest. It is important to note here that all the members of the clan observe the Week of Peace prior to the harvest. This is done in order to "to honour [their] great goddess of the earth without whose blessing [their] crops will not grow". For a female spirit to possess such an important role is indicative of the actual deep-rooted power of women.
Conclusion: - As I stated before we can't form a perception taking in view only one premise. It is without doubt that in the novel women are considered inferior to men, occupy secondary roles, and serve as a modus operandi for facilitating truce but nevertheless we can't deny the fact that they are not respected. Nor can we deny the fact that they do occupy centre position in many vital areas. They hold powerful position as priestess, are worshipped in the form of Mother Earth, assist in farming and other domestic works and literally serve as nurturers and educators of the Ibo children.