Thursday, August 6, 2009

Gender Themes: Comparing Themes in "The Joys of Motherhood" and "Purple Hibiscus"

Literary works have been regarded as fictional historical narratives. These works of art reflect not only the thoughts and feelings of the authors. They also show prevalent sociological subjects through their thematic contents.

Among the most talked about social topics which have been adapted by literary works is gender. Many novels, poems, and short stories relate a story of men and women who possess stereotypical characteristics and roles. Some representations even present arguments on how gender roles are adapted and developed. Others show different premises regarding gender development. Two novels – “The Joys of Motherhood” by Buchi Emecheta and “Purple Hibiscus” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – serve the said function.

The novels deliver the stories of families struggling with the social and physical implications of their gender roles. They showed stories of individuals – fathers, wives, sons, and daughters – who were forced to deal between cultural conflicts. In the said stories, gender roles are molded primarily on the basis of a known tradition and as such, despite exposure to different and contemporary cultures, individuals would find it difficult to restructure the roles to which they are accustomed to.

In this paper, the researcher will try to examine how the changes in gender roles are incorporated in the themes of the two novels. To accomplish this, the researcher will explore the gender roles assumed by the novel’s characters through their communal tradition which were passed on to their cultural groups from generation to generation.

The researcher will also present comparisons between the old gender roles and the adopted new ones. In addition to that, the conflicts and struggles faced by the characters in relation to gender role development will be described as well. Through the comparisons and explorations, the relations between the presented gender roles in the themes of the two literary works will be identified.


Traditional practices can require women – particularly mothers – to be martyrs

Women are often regarded as the center of traditional representations. They are often shown as submissive and weak individuals who, because of the societal expectations set upon them, are unable to resist the communal pressures. Women, as shown in literary works, are the most common victims of discriminating traditional practices. They are often faced with the need to endure the roles set against them no matter how oppressive and cruel those roles may seem.

In the case of the two novels, both featured the stories of martyr women – particularly wives – who succumbed to traditional practices and beliefs. In “The Joys of Motherhood”, the central motherly figure and the major character in the story was Nnu Ego. Coming from a rural background, she was the perfect picture of a woman who is totally enveloped by traditional views. She was brought up thinking that she had no duties to herself and to her society. In addition to that, she grew up thinking that her functions were only limited to the domestic roles of child bearing and rearing. To a great degree, it was as her obligations to her family were comparable to enslavement and discrimination.

Moreover, Nnu Ego was taught that as a woman, she had to give herself selflessly to her family. She thought that in order to achieve happiness, respect, and love, she had to be selfless and self-sacrificing. That was why she cannot – no matter how she tried – find happiness outside the realms of her home.

As for the second novel – “Purple Hibiscus”, Beatrice Achike, (Kambili’s mother) played the same frustrating and distressed role as that of Nnu Ego. As a woman who belonged to the Catholic religion that somehow highlights patriarchy, Beatrice presented a maternal figure that was warm and endearing. However, the “softness” in her character is equated to a gender-related weakness as she became a willing victim to her husband’s emotional, psychological, and physical abuses. Just like any “good” wife and mother, she wanted to preserve the solidarity of her family and that was why she chose to endure the sufferings Eugene imposed on her.

Tradition can prompt men to be domineering among women, especially to their wives

In the novels, women were the victims of tragically devastating traditions while their husbands served as the perpetrators of the domestic violence or emotional abuse. Both of the literary works moved around the thematic idea that tradition requires men to be treated as superior to women – or to a greater degree, that women should honor, respect, and serve their husbands to the extent that they are sometimes being treated as the second class gender.

In the first novel, “The Joys of Motherhood”, the authority which dominated the life of Nnu Ego was her husband – Nnaife. Although Nnu Ego was not subjected to physical abuses, she was nonetheless “abused” psychologically and emotionally through the tradition-imposed rights of her husband. First of which was the fact that despite all her efforts to fulfill her role as a wife and apart from the fact that she wanted Nnaife’s whole attention, he took in other women – Adako and Okpo.

The first of these women was Adako, which Nnaife did not willingly select but rather, just inherited from her brother. Nnaife’s “acquisition” of Adako demonstrates clearly that women are merely treated much like any other possession. Wives can be inherited and polygamy is totally considered as a normal practice among men. Such kind of “inheritance” clearly demonstrates that the feelings and thoughts of a wife (in particular, that of Nnu Ego) can be totally disregarded so as to fulfill the principles of tradition. Furthermore, Nnaife demonstrates his extensive privileges associated with manhood through the fact that he “invoked” his rights as a husband and decided to impregnate all of his three wives.

In “Purple Hibiscus”, Eugene fervently believed that as the breadwinner and the head of a Catholic family, he can play the role of a tyrant within his own home. As a wealthy businessman who had strong importance in the society, he granted himself with extreme authority. Using the Catholic religion as justification, he imposed a tragically unconstructive “regime” in the family. Eugene even imposed a schedule for his children.

Moreover, although he exhibited generosity to the society through charity donations, Eugene almost always succumbed to violent outbreaks wherein he subjected his family to severe physical beatings.

Individuals will find it difficult to overcome their traditional gender roles

The two novels revealed that individuals will find it hard to overcome their acquired or “inherited” traditional gender roles.

In the case of Nnu Ego and Nnaife, they were not able to fully adopt the new culture to which they were exposed to through colonialism. Nnu Ego, still didn’t realize any form of fulfillment and self worth as a mother despite the fact that she functioned as the breadwinner of her family during the time when her husband was not able to provide for them. This can be attributed to the fact that she only found the “joys of motherhood” within the confines of her home.

As for Nnaife, he wasn’t able to overcome the fact that the new liberal culture allows women – particularly daughters – to choose the men whom they would want to marry. That was why he decided to kill his daughter’s father in law. Such led him to be imprisoned.

In the second novel, Beatrice herself could not surmount the traditional and stereotypical role that she was accustomed to. This was the reason why she did not attempt to leave her husband despite the sufferings that she had to endure. In the end, the only way that she deemed fitting was still not to leave her family, but instead, to ultimately kill her husband. However, the loss of her husband was something that she couldn’t endure as well. Thus, this resulted to her madness.


Both novels revealed traditional gender roles. In the case of women, they were required to be inferior to men – often acting as the martyrs, and the second class gender. In contrast, traditional gender roles, as depicted in the novels, required men to be domineering among women. To some extent, such even prompted them to treat women as mere material possessions.

The novels also showed that despite the sufferings and the exposure to a much more favorable contemporary gender role, most individuals could not overcome their traditional roles.