Blessed are the Poor? Tone and Class Conflict

G. Elissa Popoff, '99.5, Brown University English 27

In Chinua Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah, Ken Saro-Wiwa's "Robert and the Dog," Awuor Ayoda's "Workday," and Buchi Emecheta's The Slave Girl class conflicts appear most often and most obviously in the form of master-servant relationships. Many of the characters can be clearly classified as either masters or servants. The frequently problematic nature of these relationships and their consequences for society produces highly charged, even polemical works. The similarity in tone that exists among them is the partially the result of a shared reforming attitude. Like Frank Norris and Upton Sinclair, they aspire to cause change by exposing and shocking.

To achieve this tone, which culminates in one or more shocks, realignments or moments of epiphanic realization, the authors utilize similar literary techniques. Imagery and description are key; however, their exact use varies from narrative to narrative. In "Workday" every detail, no matter how minute, is given in order to create a realistic picture. The buildup of all this quotidiana conveys the true awfulness of Mary's situation, which is the final climactic shcoka and aftertaste of the story. In contrast, "Robert and the Dog," The Slave Girl, and Anthills of the Savannah sparingly supply the reader with details, only doling out those considered most relevant and poignant.

Furthermore, in Anthills of the Savannah style of description varies from narrator to narrator, and in general their descriptions are not as lavish as those found in "Workday." The shocks present in Anthills of the Savannah accrue at the end of the story, after familiarity and identification with the narrators and characters has been achieved. The shock of deaths of characters such as Chris or His Excellency is heightened by their careful placement at the end of the novel and by their very elitism. The Western audience targeted by a postcolonial work written in English naturally identifies more with the elite, whose lives are more comparable to their own, than with the poor masses. Thus Achebe's narrative technique of an elitist perspective cleverly, subtly shocks the reader.

"Robert and the Dog" like The Slave Girl and Anthills of the Savannah, includes only the most critical details, creating vivid, jarring juxtapositions, as exemplified by contrasting the image of Robert's children and their "distended stomachs" with the image of the "brushed and cleaned" dog "who drank good tinned milk." These juxtapositions lead to the stunning denouement bare of superfluous details: "And the dog died." The Slave Girl also judiciously provides details apart from the narration in order to further the polemic; Ojebeta's plea to keep her charms, Okolie's greedy gobbling and subsequent scuttle for the coins Ma Palarda tosses, or the stray calculated aside of the narrator such as "Lucky girl; at least she was able to relieve the heavy pain in her young heart by giving vent to tears. The others could not," accumulate to produce a distinct tone and effect of prolonged horror at Ojebeta's situation. (138)

Postcolonial Web Nigeria OV Saro Wiwa OV Anthills OV Emecheta OV Awuor Ayoda OV