As any reader of ‘‘Marriage Is a Private Affair’’ will note, the Nigeria of the early 1950s was in a period of rapid change, some of it occurring too fast for those who adhere to traditional values to understand or accept. The story, one of Achebe’s very earliest efforts, indirectly dramatizes some of the effects of the push toward independence that was sweeping through Nigeria at the time and changing the way people understood their social customs, including those affecting marriage and family.
Nnaemeka, the well-spoken young man who is determined to marry the woman he loves regardless of what his father and his village community think about the matter, might be thought of as a representative of the new rising class of men in Nigeria who were being trained by the British to take over the reins of the country. Finding himself in Lagos as a member of the civil service—his profession is not stated directly, but it seems likely that he holds a government position—he has been exposed to a more cosmopolitan world than his home village and appears to have assimilated some European values which make him insensitive to the traditions in which he was raised.
The small, unnamed village in the story likely has some resemblances to the village in which Achebe himself grew up. This was Ogidi, in southeastern Nigeria, where Achebe was born in 1930. Like the village in ‘‘Marriage Is a Private Affair,’’ Ogidi was an Igbo community, and Achebe’s parents, like many thousands of Igbos, were Christians. The British had first sent missionaries to Ogidi as early as 1892, and Achebe’s father, Isaiah Okafor Achebe, had converted to Christianity sometime early in the twentieth century. He was trained as a catechist (an instructor in religious doctrine), and he founded St. Paul’s Anglican church at Ikenga, Ogidi. Okafor married a Christian convert and raised his children in the faith. He rejected traditional Igbo religion in favor of the teachings of Christianity, although later in his life he softened his stance against what he had earlier condemned as heathen practices. Perhaps something of Achebe’s father entered into the portrait of Okeke, Nnaemeka’s father in ‘‘Marriage Is a Private Affair.’’ Okeke is a devout Christian, and although the story does not center on a conflict between Christianity and the traditional Igbo religion (this was a subject Achebe addressed in ‘‘Dead Man’s Path,’’ which appears in Sacrificial Egg and Other Short Stories ), a small incident in the story does hint at the underlying tension between the Christianity brought to the village by the British and the native healing practices and the beliefs associated with them. As the men of the village discuss the problem of Nnaemeka’s choice of bride, one of the villagers suggests that Nnaemeka should consult an herbalist. This man is confident he knows just what medicine Nnaemeka needs, a herb called amalile, which, it appears, is used by women ‘‘with success to recapture their husbands’ affection when it strays from them.’’ However, Okeke will have none of it. He ‘‘was considerably ahead of his more superstitious neighbours’’ in that respect. In other words, Christianity, in his view, is the modern, progressive belief system, and the native practices are mere superstitions.
In other respects, though, especially regarding the customs surrounding marriage, Okeke is very traditional in his beliefs, especially the notions that Igbos should marry only within their own ethnic group and that marriages should be arranged only with family approval. This is where he and his son part company. Nnaemeka, who was raised in the village, knows very well that his father has these beliefs, as his comments to his fiance´ e early in the story indicate. Perhaps he once shared them himself, or just assumed that that was the way things were always done, but then he went to Lagos. One can imagine the kind of culture shock he must at first have encountered in Nigeria’s largest, most cosmopolitan city. Indeed, Achebe depicted exactly this in his second novel, No Longer at (1960), in which Obi Okonkwo, a young man from a rural area, goes to Lagos in the 1950s to being a career in the civil service. He quickly becomes acquainted with the extremes of luxury and poverty that abound in the great city, as well as the variety of languages spoken there. As Nnaemeka in ‘‘Marriage Is a Private Affair’’ probably felt when he first moved to Lagos, Obi feels a conflict between the lifestyle available in the city, with its entertainments and economic opportunities, and the traditional Igbo life back home in his village. No doubt Nnaemeka, being young and adaptable, soon became accustomed to life in the city, and perhaps he mingled with the Europeans in Ikoyi, the section of Lagos where the Europeans lived. Marrying for love, rather than as part of an arrangement made between families with the good of each family and the community in mind, had long been the way marriage was regarded in the West, even in the early 1950s. No doubt if Nnaemeka had made any British or European friends or acquaintances, they would have regarded an arranged marriage as a quaint throwback to a former era in their own societies. The belief that one should marry for love regardless of the ethnic background of one’s partner seems to have penetrated deeply into the social fabric of Lagos in the 1950s, not only among those with European contacts, if the story is anything to go by. From the way that Nnaemeka’s fiance´ e Nene is characterized, it seems that many, perhaps the majority, of young people in Lagos accepted without question that people should marry without regard to ethnic background. It seems that Nene has never encountered anyone with a belief to the contrary, which is why she reacts with such surprise when Nnaemeka informs her of what his father’s attitude is likely to be. She is incredulous, as if she has been told about the way life is in some distant country.
When the story moves from Lagos to the village and the conflict between father and son, Nnaemeka does not for a moment consider another course of action than the one he has decided upon. Although he speaks respectfully to his father and asks him for forgiveness, he is convinced he is doing the right thing. To give up Nene for a woman he has not even met is unthinkable for him. At this point, the authorial voice is clearly in support of Nnaemeka’s point of view, and it remains so throughout the story. The young author, Achebe, on the cusp of a period of great change in his country, sides with the young man, Nnaemeka, who embodies at least some of that spirit of change. To that purpose, Okeke, the father, is presented as unyielding and dogmatic. When his son first informs him of his plans to marry, Okeke thinks Satan must have got hold of him, and he looks at the situation in terms of rigid absolutes. ‘‘I owe it to you, my son, as a duty to show you what is right and what is wrong,’’ he says, applying moral certainty in what most readers might regard as an inappropriate context. Were ‘‘Marriage Is a Private Affair’’ to be adapted into a one-act play, Okeke would clearly be in the role of the ‘‘blocking’’ figure, the stubborn, usually older character who tries to thwart the inevitable happy ending. He is certainly hard on his son, cutting off virtually all contact with him merely because of his choice of bride. The reader may ask, Is upholding a family and tribal tradition worth cutting oneself off from one’s own son? As the story pits age, custom, and stubbornness against youth, love, and forgiveness, Okeke is rescued from his unreasonableness by the patience and goodwill of the two young people who have been most affected by his behavior. Neither Nnaemeka nor Nene is prepared to condemn Okeke for his beliefs or his actions. Near the beginning of the story, Nene says she expects Okeke to forgive his son, and Nnaemeka, too, even when he has been cut off by his father, retains his kind view of him, expecting him eventually to soften his attitude toward them. It is the refusal on the part of the daughter-in-law to accept the finality of the estrangement, and her belief in the surpassing value of maintaining family connections, that eventually brings about a reconciliation. The father cannot resist the natural desire to become acquainted with his grandchildren. Youth comes to the rescue of age, and Okeke is left to regret his former stubbornness. He has come to realize that blood is thicker than custom and that family is more important than beliefs about how family should be chosen.
Bryan Aubrey, Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 30, Chinua Achebe, Published by Gale Group, 2010