Esi's Contradictory Class/Gender Status

Megan Behrent, Brown University '97

Esi, the protagonist of the novel is in many ways a symbol of the modern, emancipated or liberated woman in that she is educated, financially independent, has a career and is therefore in no way dependent on her husband. She is a statistician with a master's degree and she earns more than her husband. likewise she is fairly sexually liberated and in control of her own reproductive life as can be seen by her decision to have one child and then choose to use contraception without consulting her husband. Compared to the other women in the novel and in Aidoo's previous work, Esi has a high degree of independence freedom and mobility. Yet, Esi's status as a woman in many ways creates conflicts as she is unable to fully exercise her freedom and independence because of the constraints that her gender imposes on her.

Esi's relationship to Oko, her husband, at the beginning of the novel, demonstrates the contradictions of her status. While she is financially independent, earns more money than he and provides the house in which they live through her government job; he nonetheless feels the need to dominate and control her because as a man he feels that it is his right to do so. He resents her independence and that of all of women in positions similar to her as can be seen when he wonders, "Is Esi too an African woman? She not only is, but there are plenty of them around these days ...these days...these days." (p.8). He resents Esi and women like her for not conforming to the traditional role of woman as wife and mother and thus, attempts to dominate her to assert his masculine superiority.

The conflicts between the two come to a fore in the scene of marital rape in the second chapter of the novel, which exemplifies Oko's attempt to dominate his wife. Esi is enraged and yet, she is aware that according to the customs of society this is not a crime but that which he is entitled to. When she realizes that what has occurred was in fact marital rape, "[s]he began to laugh rather uncontrollably" (p.11) due to the realization that the concept does not even exist in Ghanaian society as is exemplified by the fact that there is no indigenous word for it. As she says, "But marital rape? No. The society could not possibly have an indigenous word or phrase for it. Sex is something a husband claims from his wife as a right. Any time. And at his convenience." (p.12). Esi realizes in this scene that despite her independence, she is still constrained by marriage and by her role as a wife whose body belongs to her husband. As a result, she promptly decides to leave Oko (or rather, force him to leave her house) thus demonstrating her independent will and her refusal to conform to the roles prescribed by society for women.

The fact that Esi is able to force Oko to leave her house demonstrates that despite the constraints that are clearly imposed on her through marriage and through societal expectations regarding women's roles, Esi, in fact enjoys a greater sense of independence and freedom than many women in Africa or the West. It must be noted, however, that Esi's ability to assert her independence is contingent on her economic status and is not an option for the majority of women in similar positions. As Nana, her grandmother says to her when she decides to marry Ali, "Leave one man, marry another. Esi, you can. You have got your job. The government gives you a house. You have got your car. You have already got your daughter. You don't even have to prove you are a woman to any man, old or new. You can pick and choose" (106). While Aidoo clearly demonstrates the ability of women to reject the roles imposed on them and assert their independence, it is equally clear that Esi is able to do so because of her position of privilege and because she does not face the material restraints that the majority of women do.

After Esi leaves her marriage with Oko, she falls in love with Ali and decides to enter into a new marriage with him, this time a polygamous one. Once again, however, Esi is dissatisfied and soon realizes that as a second wife, she will never have the same status and importance in Ali's life as does Fusena, his first wife. While there is clearly a criticism of polygamous marriages in this episode it is not so much the practice of polygamy itself that is under attack, but rather Aidoo attempts to show that in contemporary Accra, it can no longer work. This is in part due to the fact that traditional customs have been to a large extent ignored, in that Fusena's permission was never requested and thus, there is no established relationship between the two wives which is important in polygamous family structures. The conflicts that ensue are an example of what Aidoo calls the "contemporary malaise in relationships between men and women. The factors which made polygamous marriages work have been broken down in the urban environment." However, Esi's unhappiness in this marriage as in her previous one is not solely the result of the inability of polygamy to function in a modern urban environment; rather, it serves to illuminate the oppressive nature if the institution of marriage as a whole as in the roles it assigns women. Nana's long speech of advice to Esi in Chapter 14, clearly shows that marriage is not beneficial to women and is in no way related to love but rather is the means by which a women is made the property of her husband thus renouncing her own freedom and independence. As she says,

'My lady Silk, remember a man always gained in stature through any way he chose to associate with a woman. . . . a woman has always been diminished in her association with a man. 'My lady Silk, it was not a question of this type of marriage or that type of marriage . . . it was jut being a wife. It is being a woman. . . . when we were young we were told that people who were condemned to death were granted any wish on the eve of their execution. . . . Anyhow, a young woman on her wedding day was something like that. She was made much of, because that whole ceremony was a funeral of the self that could have been.'(p.106-107)

This indictment of marriage clearly reflects Aidoo's views on the institution as expressed in other essays, for example as she stated in "To be a Woman":

As the very foundation of the family, marriage has maintained a chameleon-like capacity to change its nature in time and space and to serve the ignominious aims of every society : slave-owning, feudal, or modern bourgeois. Throughout history and among all peoples, marriage has made it possible for women to be owned like property, abused and brutalized like serfs, privately corrected and, like children, publicly scolded, overworked, underpaid, and much more thoroughly exploited than the lowest male worker on any payroll. Aidoo is clearly demonstrating through the story of Esi's loves and marriages, that despite societal 'changes' which have allowed women such as Esi to gain a higher economic and social status, and achieve a certain degree of independence, the institution of marriage has not changed in that it still relegates women to a subordinate position.

While Esi may not be economically dependent on Ali, it is nonetheless clear that, he has a much higher degree of mobility and independence. She must wait for him and accept what he offers without demanding that which she actually desires. He gives her expensive gifts, but is unable to fulfill her emotional and psychological needs. She soon begins to see the gifts for what they are, bribes, which he pays her to compensate for his inability to give her that which she actually needs. As she says, "he had brought the car for her, and she understood the gesture as a bribe. A very special bribe. But a bribe all the same -- like all the other things he had been giving her." (p.143). Despite Esi's privileged status, marriage has a detrimental impact on her if not in material terms then, in psychological terms -- it signals a loss of her sense of self her sense of independence, as is pointed to in Opokuya's remark that" there was something slightly lost in Esi's eyes [that] never left her friend's eyes" (136).

[These materials have been adapted from an honors thesis written by Megan Behrent, Brown University, 1997]

Postcolonial Web Africa OV Ghana OV Aidoo OV discourseov