English / A Woman'S Role In Colonial African Literature

A Woman'S Role In Colonial African Literature

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Autor:  anton  05 April 2011
Tags:  Womans,  Colonial,  African,  Literature
Words: 1191   |   Pages: 5
Views: 332

Over the years, women have fought for equal positioning in male-dominated societies. Oftentimes throughout this struggle they are overlooked in every facet of life: political agenda, idea formulation, and even literature. Despite this overall lack of representation, in some bright, shining moments, women have also found themselves as pivotal characters in these arenas. Such is the dichotomy of women’s roles in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Bessie Head’s When Rain Clouds Gather. Though both stories center around impoverished, African villages, the role of women in each greatly vary. In one, strong women play title roles, though they are heavily backed up by lesser women of the village. In the other, the women are feeble and timid, allowing their men to daily tread upon them. In addition, each text has its own view of opposing gender roles – one where women are a forceful and irreplaceable asset to society, and the other where women are thought of as little more than wives.

In the African villages represented, women play an interesting supporting role to their male counterparts. In Head’s Things Fall Apart, the village has six main characters, three of whom are women: Dinorego, Gilbert, Makhaya, Paulina, Maria, and Mma-Millipede. These three women hold dominant positions in society, although are frowned upon and spoken about by the other women, though they are secretly jealous of these women’s domineering attitudes and saddened by their own misshapen lives:

“All [the women of the town] had permanent lovers while Paulina Sebeso had none, and even a tradition was forming about her. A few men said she was too bossy. They all said it, overlooking the fact that they were wilting, effeminate shadows of men who really feared women. Things went smoothly as long as all women pretended to be inferior to this spineless species.” (89)

Paulina serves as one of the few characters with the ability to subvert the dominant pattern of female action. The represents men as apprehensive around women, though they were too worn down to notice this of themselves. It appears that women, although unwilling to admit it, have the upper hand in this society. Head speaks of how women are the primary caregivers in families, and how it is women who sweat in the fields in order to produce food both for sustenance and for to sell at the market. It is through the women that Dinorego, Gilbert, and Makhaya introduce their agricultural innovations, which will help their Botswana village turn into a prosperous land. Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, however, represents women in a much different light. The only women of whom the text speaks at length are the wives and daughters of the protagonist, Okonkwo, yet it at times brings up the plight of other village women. These women are only referred to as wives, and because the emphasis on the children is placed with the father, they are rarely even considered mothers, save for when Achebe discusses pregnancy. Despite this lack of respect for the women of the village, there is a certain level of importance placed on how many children a woman is able to bear, and how many sons will remain alive (as there is a great infant mortality rate). Women, throughout the text and without deviation, remain loyal to their men, never questioning their actions: “No women ever asked questions …” (84). If she dared ask a question, she was subjected to vicious beatings and sometimes even threatened with death. The ways in which women are represented in these two texts also gives a bit of insight into the gender ideology of the society.

How women are represented and how the specific society actually views gender roles are two independent events. Though Head spends a great deal of time discussing her three main female characters, she also notes that the other women in society are not so bold and are looked upon as weak by their male counterparts. Conversely, though, it appears that women really do control the essence of this society. The text speaks many time of how the women have several men at their disposal, and most certainly use their sexuality to gain. Head mentions that rather than currency, there are many times that a women uses sex to obtain what she wants from men in other towns. Several times, as well, Head makes note of the fact that men seem to rely more heavily on the women than the women of the men – when Makhaya and Gilbert outline the agricultural plan in which the cattle of the land are drastically lessened in number, the men are deemed useless, and must eventually work side-by-side with the women. As for Achebe, there are several negative connotations for women. In the beginning, the narrator makes mention that the words for a man without prestige or titles is agbala, the same word that is used for “woman”. This is a common occurrence throughout the story, and is the driving force behind many of Okonkwo’s actions – he finds himself doing many things simply so that others in the community might not view him as effeminate. Achebe is very outright in showing a woman’s place within the text. They are extremely subordinate creatures, adhering to their husband’s every need and falling at his mercy on several occasions. How a man controlled his many wives was another way to ensure others viewed him as masculine:

“… [Okonkwo] was happy when he heard [his son, Nwoye] grumbling about women. That showed that in time he would be able to control his women-folk. No matter how preposterous a man was, if he was unable to rule his women and his children (and especially his women) he was not really a man” (52).

It is made very clear throughout his story that Achebe’s characters feel women are simply placed in their villages to be domestic caregivers.

Though at times not portrayed as central characters within a text, females withhold the ability to shape each piece of literature. Achebe is very subtle in his usage of female characters, giving them nothing more than supporting roles in a text filled with men, yet these women aid in helping the reader to understand Okonko’s actions. Each female is depicted as weak and submissive under the rule of either her husband or her father, and there is barely even a glimpse of deviation from this lifestyle. Women are looked upon wholly as a weak gender, with ‘woman’ used as a derogatory term. On the other hand, Head places the three strong women of the community at the center of her novel, building them up as characters and integrating them into what is supposed to be a male-driven society. These women shape the lives of both sexes living around them, and also, as a whole, spearhead the agricultural initiative that we assume will lead to a prosperous Botswana.

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