The story centers around the clash between traditional values and a more modern way of conducting one’s affairs. It also suggests the differences between life in the city and life in the country. The theme revolves around three characters: Okeke, who represents the traditional ways; Nene, who embodies the modernity of life in the city; and Nnaemeka, who is caught between the two.
In the small rural village where Okeke lives and where Nnaemeka must have grown up, traditional values are all-important. The Ibo tribe has a well-established way of doing things. They never marry outside their own tribe. No one has ever heard of anything like that happening in the entire history of their people. When news spreads in the village that Nnaemeka wants to marry a woman who is not an Ibo, it is regarded as a cataclysmic event. ‘‘It is the beginning of the end,’’ says one man, who obviously fears that all the values by which the village people have lived, probably for countless generations, are about to be cast aside. In this Christian community, religion is used to explain what is happening. ‘‘Sons shall rise against their fathers,’’ says another man, referring to a passage in the Bible. Nnaemeka’s father believes his son has been tempted by Satan. These are people who live according to custom and religion. They cannot imagine anything different, and Nnaemeka’s actions can be explained only by reference to theology or a belief that he must be sick.
In contrast, people who live in Lagos, the big city, have different values, as represented by Nene. She has been a city girl all her life, and when Nnaemeka first tells her that his father will not approve of their engagement, she does not take him seriously. In the city, old tribal allegiances are not so important. People mix freely with others from many different backgrounds. As the narrator points out about Nene, ‘‘In the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Lagos it had never occurred to her that a person’s tribe could determine whom he married.’’
Another tradition in the village is that marriages are arranged by the families involved rather than the two people who are to be married. While Nnaemeka is in Lagos, his father selects a wife for him—Ugoye Nwake, the eldest daughter of a neighbor. It appears that Nnaemeka has never met this woman, but she is considered suitable by the two families involved, and the families expect to negotiate the details of the match (perhaps involving the payment of a dowry) when Nnaemeka returns in December.
In contrast, people in the city expect to choose their own partners rather than accept an arranged marriage. Nnaemeka and Nene are obviously in love, and they have freely chosen each other as their intended spouse. In the village, though, that does not count for much. In a wryly amusing moment, after Nnaemeka points out that he cannot marry Ugoye Nwake because he does not love her, his father replies, ‘‘Nobody said you did.’’ He continues, ‘‘what one looks for in a wife are a good character and a Christian background.’’
The society depicted in the village is strongly patriarchal; the men are in charge. Okeke tries to arrange with his neighbor for the man’s daughter, Ugoye Nwake, to marry Nnaemeka. Ugoye appears to be given no say in the matter at all. The men assume they will just be able to tell her that she is to marry Nnaemeka, and that will be that.
The men in the village like to retain control by ensuring that the women do not receive too much education. Ugoye’s father, for example, pulled her out of school when he thought she had learned enough to be able to fulfill her duties as a wife. That is all she will ever be required, or permitted, to do. Even her identity as an individual is overshadowed by her father. Nnaemeka refers to her not by her first name but as ‘‘Nwake’s daughter.’’
Okeke holds similar views about the subservient place of women. When he hears that Nene is a schoolteacher, he is angry. The idea that women could be allowed to teach in schools is repellent to him. He justifies this attitude by referring to St. Paul’s New Testament admonition to women, that they should keep silent in church.
Again, there is a contrast between attitudes in the village and in the city. In Lagos, Nene can be a schoolteacher and no one thinks it is remarkable. No doubt there are many female teachers in the city. The difference in attitude also hints at a contrast between two versions of Christianity, one that takes St. Paul’s words literally, the other that has adopted a more liberal, progressive attitude.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 30, Chinua Achebe, Published by Gale Group, 2010