"Mother is Supreme:" the Complex Feminine Presence in Things Fall Apart
Chinua Achebe's seminal novel, Things Fall Apart, portrays the difficult struggle of a native African society to preserve its beliefs and values when faced with a powerful and dangerous outside influence. The struggle is most poignantly captured in the story of Okonkwo, a warrior who cannot reconcile his most treasured principles with the changes occurring in his society. It is through the lens of Okonkwo's passions that we come to know the subtleties of his tribal village, Umuofia, and their complex religious and cultural practices. One of the most complicated concepts in this close-knit community is the concept of womanhood -- its weakness, its strength, and it sanctity. For both Okonkwo and the Umuofia society, the idea of the feminine is contradictory and difficult to sustain; it is at the same time a source of comfort and fear, pride and shame. These two faces of the feminine in Achebe's novel are embodied by two of the most significant female characters: Ekwefi, Okonkwo's second wife, and Ezinma, their daughter. In these two women, we find a concept of womanhood that is at odds with itself yet fully reconciled.
Though womanhood as embodied by Ekwefi and Ezinma is the most complex and enlightening vision of the feminine in the book, it is not the first. The reader's first exposure to the role of the female is through the view of Okonkwo. As a result of his experiences as a child, Okonkwo has developed a simplistic and emotionally charged view of women. This view was inspired, oddly, not by a woman but by a man -- his father, Unoka. Unoka was not a successful member of the clan. He did not value hard work, did not participate in violence, and was content to live off of the backs of his fellow tribesmen. This led to a great deal of shame in the young Okonkwo. Especially humiliating to Okonkwo was when one of the other children referred to Unoka as agbala, the Umuofia term for both "woman" and "one who has no titles" (Achebe, 13). This insult not only provoked shame in Okonkwo, but also a dread of being seen as feminine in any way. This fleeing from feminine characteristics becomes Okonkwo's driving force, and inspires his single-minded commitment to violence, physical labor, and limited emotionality.
Okonkwo's dismissive and disgusted view of women is not altogether reflective of his society's view of women. The cultural idea of the feminine within the Umuofia is considerably more complex. As Rebekah Hamilton points out, both the fictional Umuofia society and the real-life Igbo culture, on which Umuofia was based, have distinct views of both the feminine and masculine ideals, and are rooted in strong traditions in which "real and symbolic gender distinctions abound" (283). These distinctions color every aspect of society; each action can be characterized as male and female, from crimes to planting to parenting. Unlike Okonkwo's judgmental view, however, the social vision of gender is relatively free of internal value judgments. It is clear that women and men in Umuofia society have strongly delineated roles, and that men wield considerable physical and political power over women. Yet the value of femininity is not lost on the Umuofia. Even Okonkwo must occasionally acknowledge that "as childbearers, women are pivotal to the literal survival of community and social norms" (Strong-Leek).
The association of womanhood with motherhood is at the center not only of the Umuofia's practical idea of the feminine, but of their religious and spiritual views as well. Motherhood is a powerful symbolic concept among the Umuofia. Though patrilineal heritage is clearly more important than matrilineal, the role of the mother and her family is deeply valued. As Okonkwo's maternal uncle explains to him:
"Can you tell me, Okonkwo, why it is that one of the commonest names we give our children is Nneka, or "Mother is Supreme?... It's true that a child belongs to its father. But when a father beats his child, it seeks sympathy in its mother's hut. A man belongs to his fatherland when things are good and life is sweet. But when there is sorrow and bitterness he finds refuge in his motherland." (Achebe, 134)
This concept of the feminine as a nurturing mother is also evident in the Umuofia's religious practices. Goddesses reign in conjunction with gods -- most importantly, the Earth goddess whose benevolence they rely on and whose anger they fear. The power of the female in the tribe's spiritual life is evident in the fact that the prophet and high priest of the village is a woman.
This contradictory portrayal of femininity as something to be subjugated and reviled (according to Okonkwo) and something equally to be valued and respected (according to Okonkwo's uncle and Umuofian religious practices) is played out through the intricate stories of Ekwefi and her daughter, Ezinma. Ekwefi is in many ways emblematic of Okonkwo's view of women, though she does struggle against her place. She is Okonkwo's second wife, and the brunt of much of his violence. Though she has a naturally rebellious spirit -- she comes to be Okonkwo's wife by leaving her first husband for him -- she also accepts that her place is inferior to her husband's, and that her primary role is to bear him healthy children.
Ekwefi is noteworthy in that the one area in which she could be valued in Umuofian society, the area of motherhood, is the one area in which she fails repeatedly. All but one of her children dies young. Though it is apparent to any reader familiar with modern genetics that these children suffer from sickle cell disease and that the cause can be traced to both the mother's and the father's genes (Onyemelukwe, 352), Umuofian tradition holds that Ekwefi is being visited repeatedly by an evil child who continues to reincarnate. Despite her intense grief, her acceptance of this explanation allows her to stand by and watch while the corpse of her young son is mutilated and dragged through the streets in order to banish the evil spirit (Achebe, 78).
Ekwefi is so thoroughly invested in society's and Okonkwo's view of her that she totally absorbs motherhood as her sole identity. She becomes embittered by her losses and obsessed with her one success, her daughter Ezinma. She is so terrified of losing Ezinma that she staggers into the dark woods following her when the girl is taken by the high priestess to commune with the gods. She waits outside the cave, "[swearing] within her that if she heard Ezinma cry she would rush into the cave to defend her against all the gods in the world. She would die with her" (108).
That Ezinma's existence is central to her mother's identity is well-known to Ezinma, even early in her life. The fact that they both depend on the other for their existence leads to an unusual sense of equality between them. Ezinma even calls her mother by her first name (40). Even Okonkwo is wholeheartedly invested in Ezinma's well-being. He, too, goes to the cave to ensure her safety, and she is the only female character who commands his respect. In this way, Ezinma symbolizes the powerful cultural role of womanhood within the society -- the role of comforter and spiritual touchstone.
Ezinma comforts her mother through her very existence and through her shaky but successful growth into adulthood. She comforts her father in a very different way. As a companion, Okonkwo prefers Ezinma to any of his wives and even to his sons. But, as Linda Strong-Leek points out, "instead of admiring her for her strength and disposition…Okonkwo is saddened by the fact that she is not male." After Okonkwo's exile…