‘‘Marriage Is a Private Affair’’ is set in Nigeria, West Africa, in the early 1950s. The story begins in Lagos, the capital city. Nnaemeka, a young man, is visiting his girlfriend, Nene Atang, in her room. The couple has recently become engaged, and Nene asks her fiance´ if he has written to his father to inform him of the engagement.
Nnaemeka says he would prefer to wait until he can see his father in person, when he goes home on leave in six weeks. He tells Nene he is not sure that his father will be pleased with the news. Nene is surprised to hear this, and Nnaemeka tells her that since she has lived in Lagos all her life, she knows nothing of the ways of people who live in distant rural areas. He says his father will object to the marriage because Nene is not from the Ibo tribe. Nene is astonished. She cannot believe that Nnaemeka’s father would oppose the marriage for such a reason. She thought the Ibos were well disposed toward people from other tribes. Nnaemeka confirms that this is the case, but it is different when it comes to marriage. Nene says that his father will surely forgive him, but Nnaemeka insists that it would be better to wait until he can inform his father in person, rather than writing him a letter.
As Nnaemeka walks home that evening, he thinks of ways in which he might persuade his father to drop his certain opposition to the marriage. He is convinced that once his father meets Nene, he will be so charmed by her that he will change his mind. When he gets home, though, he finds a letter waiting for him from his father. In the letter, his father informs his son that he has found him a suitable wife. The young lady’s name is Ugoye Nweke, and she is the eldest daughter of their neighbor. Like Nnaemeka’s family, Ugoye is a Christian, and her father believes she will make a good wife. Nnaemeka’s father concludes by saying that they will begin the negotiations for the marriage when Nnaemeka returns home in December.
Six weeks later, Nnaemeka returns home to his small village, and he and his father, whose name is Okeke, discuss the matter. Nnaemeka tells his father that it will be impossible for him to marry Ugoye, and he asks for his father’s forgiveness. He says he does not love Ugoye. Okeke replies that love is not important; what matters is that she will make a good Christian wife. Nnaemeka then decides he must tell his father the whole truth. He explains that he is engaged to another girl, who is a good Christian and is a schoolteacher in Lagos.
Okeke replies that according to St. Paul in the Bible, women should remain silent; they should certainly not be teachers. When Nnaemeka further explains that Nene is not an Ibo, his father leaves the room without a word. He is annoyed and upset by what he sees as his son’s foolishness.
The next day, Okeke tries, without success, to persuade his son to break off the engagement. Nnaemeka tells him that he will change his mind when he meets Nene, but his father says he will never agree to meet her. After their disagreement, father and son barely speak to each other. Nnaemeka hopes his father will reconsider, but when he returns to Lagos, they are still at odds with each other.
It turns out that never in the history of the Ibos has a man married a woman who did not speak his language. No one has ever heard of such a thing. Some of the men from the village come to Okeke and commiserate with him over his son’s folly. One man quotes a scriptural passage that says sons will rise up against their fathers, while another, more practical man named Madubogwu suggests consulting an herbalist to prescribe medicine that will alter Nnaemeka’s view of the situation, since the young man is obviously not in his right mind. Okeke refuses to consider that, however, citing a case involving a Mrs. Ochuba, who it seems, poisoned an herbalist with his own medicine.
Six months later, when Nnaemeka and Nene are married, Nnaemeka shows his wife a letter he has received from his father. Nnaemeka had sent him a wedding photo, but his father cut it in two, returning the portion containing Nene. He wants nothing to do with either of them.
Nnaemeka holds out hope that his father will relent, but eight years pass and nothing changes. During this time, Okeke writes to his son only three times. On one occasion he refuse to allow his son in his house.
Meanwhile, Nnaemeka and Nene are happily married in Lagos. At first, the Ibo people in the city are deferential to Nene, conscious that she is not of their tribe, but gradually her good nature wins them over and she is able to make friends. News of the couple’s happiness reaches Nnaemeka’s home village, but his father does not learn of it. He refuses to take part in any conversation in which his son is mentioned.
One day, Okeke receives a letter from Nene. She says that her two sons want to see their grandfather, and she asks his permission for Nnaemeka to bring them home for a visit. She promised to stay in Lagos.
Okeke tries to ignore her letter, but he feels the sting of conscience. After a fierce internal battle, he realizes that he cannot refuse to see his grandchildren. That night, he cannot sleep much because he feels remorse at having rejected his son and daughter-in-law for so long.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 30, Chinua Achebe, Published by Gale Group, 2010