1. Is Esi too an African woman? She not only is, but there are plenty of them around these days. . . these days. . . these days.
Esi’s husband, Oko, has these thoughts in the first few pages of the novel as he watches his wife from bed. In his mind, the fact that the house in which they live is a benefit of her job, not his. This causes him to feel insecure about their relationship and his role as a man in his household. He even wonders if, given her accomplishments and dedication to her career, she can still be considered an African woman. Compared to the women who raised Oko, Esi’s independence is startling and even unthinkable. Nonetheless, Oko answers his own question regarding Esi’s African identity. He knows that she is still an African woman despite gaining independence from the men in her life. There is a strong sense of nostalgia implied in Oko’s thoughts by the series of ellipses surrounding the words “these days.” In part, this is nostalgia for an era in which women were relegated to the household while men were responsible for earning a living. In that bygone era, Oko would not have felt so threatened and emasculated. Immediately following this thought, Oko tells Esi that his friends are beginning to mock him for not being a man, and shortly afterwards, he proceeds to rape her.
2. But Opokuya wasn’t having any of her self-pity. So she countered rather heavily. “Why is life so hard on the non-professional African woman? Eh? Esi, isn’t life even harder for the poor rural and urban African woman?”
In Chapter 6, shortly after Esi and her best friend Opokuya happen to run into each other in a hotel lobby, Esi tells her friend of her decision to divorce her husband Oko. The two women begin to lament the difficulties of being a working woman. Opokuya’s response is not only an answer to Esi’s question about why life is so difficult for the professional African woman, it is also a response by the author of this novel. Aidoo is aware that all of the characters she has chosen to depict are comfortable, well-educated Africans whose lives are troubled by only petty concerns. Opokuya’s response to Esi also reminds the reader of Aidoo’s preface to the novel in which she writes, “Because surely in our environment there are more important things to write about?” Opokuya’s statement does not discredit the worth of writing the novel’s subject matter, but it does remind the reader that this is not the only story that can and should be told. In addition, Opokuya’s statement reminds her friend that their lot in life remains vastly greater than the majority of African women who continue to live poor lives. For those women, the thought of leaving a husband they no longer loved would be all but impossible. They have no rewarding jobs they could complain of, and certainly no new potential love interests who shower them with gifts.
3. Esi was thinking that the whole thing sounded so absolutely lunatic and so ‘contemporary African’ that she would save her sanity probably by not trying to understand it. The only choice left to her was to try and enter into the spirit of it.
After flattering Esi in Chapter 10 with compliments regarding her beauty and intelligence, Ali surprises her by asking for her hand in marriage. He follows this surprise by taking Esi’s hand and slipping a wedding band over it. Esi is astonished that he would do such a thing because wedding bands, when used at all, are supposed to be given only to a man’s first wife. When Esi presses Ali about the purpose and necessity for her to wear a wedding ring, he proudly proclaims that its purpose is to let other men know that she is spoken for. As Esi is well aware, there is something preposterous to Ali’s statement regarding the symbolic intention of a wedding band. Missing from Ali’s perspective is any sense that the wedding band symbolizes commitment and shared love. The only meaning that the wedding band has for Ali is possession. He wants Esi to wear his ring so that no other man will try to take her away from him. For Esi, Ali’s ideas are not only African, they are “contemporary African.” The contemporary nature of Ali’s thoughts lies in his desire to break the tradition of having only one woman wear his ring. Prior to offering Esi his ring, Ali rationalizes both polygamy and the legitimacy of using wedding rings to symbolize marriage. In his willingness to break with tradition, Ali exhibits his unique contemporary African nature, which is riddled with contradictions and complications. She must either blindly accept this fact or reject Ali and his proposal.
4. From the inner room Esi heard them and pain filled her chest. She could never be as close to her mother as her mother was to her grandmother. Never, never, never. And she knew why.
In Chapter 14, after returning home one weekend, Esi overhears her mother and grandmother talking. The two women have been discussing Esi, and their discussion reveals their closeness and similarity in speech and language. Listening to the two women communicate so naturally and easily with one another fills Esi with a deep loneliness. Because of her education, she will always be somewhat separated from these two women. As Esi later notes, the cost of her education has been a high one.
Esi’s disconnection from her mother and grandmother is also significant on a larger, cultural scale. The more educated and westernized Africa becomes, the more likely it is that it will lose touch with certain elements of its rich tradition and history. Each generation will be a little less connected to the past, as Esi herself has become. The loss, of course, is not without its benefits, though. By having access to a wonderful education, Esi has more personal freedom and wealth than either her mother or grandmother had. For Esi, the question remains whether or not the price she has paid for her modernity is too high.
5. Ali phoned regularly to announce his imminent departures. He phoned from the different cities and towns inside and outside the country to which he traveled. He phoned to report his arrivals. In between his travels, he phoned regularly when the telephone lines permitted. He and Esi always had good telephone conversations.
Following the conclusion of Ali and Esi’s wedding and honeymoon phase in Chapter 22, the two lovers begin to see less and less of each other. Their marriage, in which Esi once placed so much hope, has been reduced to a series of phone calls. Ali phones frequently just before he leaves town; in other words, his phone calls are a means for him to say that he is unavailable. If his departure time is quickly approaching, then contacting Esi just before he leaves means that he can avoid having to see her before he leaves.
Like his father, Musa Musa, Ali has made his career by traveling around the world. He can no more settle permanently into one location than he can settle on one—or even two—women. His constant traveling and womanizing seem to be essential elements of his personality: they are so intertwined that they cannot be separated from one another. Ali uses his travel and work to maintain distance from the women in his life, thereby permitting him the space and time to pursue additional women. He has clearly become very adept at maintaining and managing that distance. Ali and Esi may no longer have a strong marriage, but they can still have good phone conversations. Those good phone conversations are all that Esi has left of what she once thought would be an ideal marriage.
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