As a cultural system that still exists in three out of every four African communities, polygyny dehumanizes women in numerous ways. Polygyny, as represented in Chinua Achebe's historical novels and as it exists in the world, is, however, a multidimensional custom. How, then, can Western feminists respond to Achebe's portrayals of polygyny without projecting a "West is best" ideology onto our discourse and without further objectifying and silencing the real women involved in polygynous relationships? Drawing on the theoretical frameworks of bell hooks and others, I contend that Western feminists can, and should, think and speak about polygyny. The Western feminist agenda must recognize that despite its benefits, polygyny is intrinsically destructive to women's autonomy. One way that we can move toward this goal is by drawing attention to literary representations of polygyny, like Achebe's, that obscure the immediate problems and cultural legacies that result from this system of marriage.
I believe that in our situation the greater danger lies not in remembering but in forgetting, in pretending that slogans are the same as truth; and I believe that Nigeria, always prone to self-deception, stands in great needs of reminders.
--CHINUA ACHEBE, MORNING YET ON CREATION DAY XII
In "Chinua Achebe and the Invention of African Culture," an article in the special issue "Chinua Achebe at Seventy," published in Research in African Literatures in 2001, Simon Gikandi lauds Achebe's novels as the "Ur-texts of our [African] literary tradition" (6). He goes on to extol the "tremendous influence [Achebe's] works have had on the institutions of pedagogy and interpretation and the role his fictions have come to play in the making and unmaking of African worlds" (6). Certainly, with the publication of his first novel, Things Fall Apart (1959), Achebe was almost immediately taken up in literary circles as the father of African literature and has since remained at the center of African literary studies. Furthermore, and perhaps more significantly, Achebe occupies a position of great importance for his African readers. In general, his writing is regarded as having restored a sense of pride to Africa (see Moore; Omoyele; Williams). Early in his career, Achebe seemed to recognize and, most honorably, to take on the difficult responsibilities that came with his privileged position. In his essay "Novelist as Teacher" (1965), Achebe describes his own perception of his role as a prominent African writer: "I would be quite satisfied if my novels (especially the ones I set in the past) did no more than teach my readers that their past--with all its imperfections-was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God's behalf delivered them" (72). In many regards, Achebe has achieved his goal. In his historical novels, Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God (1964), Achebe depicts precolonial Igbo life with great complexity. Although his characters are not without flaws, Achebe portrays their lifestyles and belief systems as worthy of respect. Achebe recalls his African heritage with pride and "teaches" others to do the same. If only for this reason, Gikandi and others are certainly justified in considering Achebe's novels foundational for teachers and scholars of African literature.
As feminist critics have long noted, though, Achebe's novels, especially his early novels, reveal real blind spots when it comes to important gender issues that continue to plague many postcolonial African countries? In his two historical novels, in fact, Achebe consistently side-lines the place of the postcolonial woman in order to focus on postcolonial manhood. Women's lives often serve as little more than fodder for the exploration of masculinity. And because Achebe does hold such a high-profile position in African studies, his gender-determined blind spots demand careful scrutiny. The apparent dismissal of womens issues in Achebe's early novels suggests a "first things first" approach to nationalism, an approach which dictates that Africans deal with national problems before they move on to "less important issues," such as gender politics on local levels. We know, however, despite the immediate attractions of the "first things first" movement, that gender issues are indeed integral to nationalist causes. Certainly, in order for African nationalism to serve all Africans, women's issues must make their way into public discourse and, ultimately, women must take part in the actual formation of African nations. Polygyny, or the marriage of one man to more than one woman at the same time, is one system, still prominent in many African communities, that keeps women from taking part in this important business of nation-building. Ironically, in his historical novels, Achebe seems to dismiss the issue of African polygyny, which I consider an important gender concern for feminists the world over, as a nonissue. (3)
In this essay, I analyze Achebe's portrayal of polygyny in Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God and then illuminate some of the social realities and lasting legacies of this system of marriage. Perhaps more important, I consider the place of the Western feminist critic in relation to the matter of polygyny. How can we discuss African polygyny without discounting its very real benefits for women? Furthermore, how can we talk about polygyny in a productive way, in a way that advances the agenda of African feminism, without projecting a "West is best" ideology onto our discourse and without further silencing the women who are actually involved in polygynous relationships? I propose that the framework of feminist postcolonial theory, specifically bell hooks's conception of "solidarity," can provide us with a useful way of approaching this complex issue and, ultimately, lend us the authority that we need in order to create contexts in which women can envision and pursue alternatives to oppressive polygyny. Moreover, I assert that we can teach Achebe's historical novels in ways that provide our students with meaningful opportunities to think through the implications of Achebe's centrality to the canon and the consequences of his lack of attention to gender concerns in general and to the issue of polygyny in particular.
Polygyny is certainly the preferred type of marriage for the men of the precolonial Igbo villages in both Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God, but it is in the latter novel that we gain the most insight into the negative effects of this marriage custom for Achebe's female characters. Polygyny, in Arrow of God at least, seems to cause perpetual tension between women of the community. In fact, for the female characters in the polygynous households of Achebe's Arrow of God, set in late nineteenth- or early twentieth-century Africa, bickering seems a way of life. Ezeulu, the Chief Priest of his village and the protagonist of Achebe's text, has two wives, Matefi and Ugoye, who squabble incessantly throughout the story. Even in the novel's opening scene, in which Ezeulu and his wives and children observe the new moon, Matefi and Ugoye quarrel over whether the moon appears to have an evil "posture" (2). Their rivalry becomes more and more apparent as the novel progresses. Matefi resents Ugoye because the latter wife is beautiful and young enough to bear children and is thus still attractive to their husband. Her jealousy surfaces mostly in the form of malicious gossip. When Nwafo, Ugoye's son, shows interest in Matefi's cooking, she insinuates that Ugoye starves her children in order to accumulate personal funds for jewelry. She asks her own daughter, "What do you expect a boy to do when his mother cooks soup with locust beans for fish? She saves her money to buy ivory bracelets" (9). In this way, the bitterness between the two women infects every interaction that occurs within Ezeulu's compound.
The competition between the two wives reaches a peak after a physical battle between Oduche, another of Ugoye's sons, and Ojiugo, Matefi's daughter. Matefi sees that Oduche has caused a welt to surface on her daughter's face and takes advantage of the opportunity to publicly humiliate Ugoye. She wails loudly that her daughter has been wounded by the son of her husband's other wife. Ugoye reacts to Matefi's accusations by running into the senior wife's but and shouting, "Let nobody call my name there [...]. I say let nobody mention my name at all" (129). Ezeulu, who has by this time dismissed the battle between his two children as a normal instance of sibling rivalry and of minimal consequence to him, promptly advises both of his wives to shut up. When Ugoye protests again that Matefi has criticized her unfairly, Ezeulu retorts, "And if she did? ... Go and jump on her back if you can" (129). With this response, Ezeulu demonstrates that not only is he accustomed to the bickering between his wives, but that, at least on some level, he takes pleasure in their rivalry. Most of all, though, Ezeulu makes it clear that the relationship between his wives is of little significance to him.
In this way, we begin to see that competition among women is expected, acceptable, and, ultimately, inconsequential in Achebe's polygynous society. Even outside of Ezeulu's immediate family, women of the community pit themselves against each other in a number of scenes. When Oduche and Ojiugo fight, for instance, the crowd of women surrounding them are "immediately divided" (128). Two of the women, long-time rivals, become verbally and physically aggressive toward each other. They "[measure] themselves against each other," and one of them recommends that the other "go and eat shit" before the crowd finally disperses (128). Furthermore, during a spiritual reenactment ceremony at the feast of Pumpkin Leaves, the women "all [struggle] to secure positions in the front" (71). Jealousy between women is apparently even legendary in Achebe's Igbo community, for the one story that Ugoye relates …