The characters of Changes live their lives split between two poles. They are modern, well-educated figures who nonetheless try and maintain a strong connection to their traditional cultural roots and values. Esi, the primary figure in the novel, is the best example of the tension between modern and traditional values. She is a remarkably independent woman dedicated to her career as a government official. As such, she has a hard time accepting the traditional roles defined by her culture for a woman. She places a higher value on her career and her own personal fulfillment than on playing the role of a proper wife. This tension leads directly to her divorce with her first husband, Oko, who wants her to be a traditional African wife.
At the same time, Esi is also still clearly attached to the values she learned while growing up. She allows herself to become a second wife to Ali, and she performs all of the necessary rituals that her culture dictates. Like Esi, Ali tries to bridge the gap between the world in which his elders were raised and his own modern lifestyle. The ensuing tension and unofficial divorce that surround his second marriage highlight the limited degree to which traditional values can be upheld in modern times.
The title of the novel, Changes: A Love Story, refers to the numerous personal and cultural transformations that lie at the heart of the narrative. The changes that occur throughout the course of the novel take place both at the character level and at the societal level. At the time of the novel, Ghana had recently achieved its political independence. The country is changing politically, economically, and culturally. Similarly, Esi achieves her own independence from her husband and marriage. Consequently, she becomes free to pursue her own ambitions without a family or a husband to restrict her. In a sense, she has transformed herself into a model of the modern woman: she is not only financially stable but also completely independent. Esi’s new independence is also symbolic of a larger change occurring within African societies. As women like Esi have an increasing number of educational and professional opportunities available to them, their roles both in the home and in society inevitably change. They are no longer simply wives and mothers who are dedicated to their own ambitions.
All of the major characters in the novel are well-educated. Their education is not only the mark of their place in society but also an ironic and elusive symbol that signifies both change and stasis at the same time. The two primary lovers in the novel, Esi and Ali, are also the most highly educated. Esi holds a master’s degree, and Ali has studied in France and England. Upon hearing of Ali’s second marriage, the first question that his wife, Fusena, asks him is whether or not the woman has a university degree. This question highlights the degree to which education symbolizes progress, modernity, and independence for the women of the novel.
For Esi, her education enables her to have a well-paying job that can secure her independence. It is precisely that independence that attracts Ali to her, and it is the same independence that earns Esi the scorn of her first husband’s family. Esi’s education sets her apart from traditional African culture, making her feel alienated from her mother and grandmother, neither of whom can understand her attitudes towards marriage and work. Ali is as educated as Esi, and like her, he struggles to balance the two worlds in which he lives. When Ali proposes to his elders that he take a second wife, they are shocked. For them, Ali’s education has propelled him into a new world that does not allow for such actions.
Throughout the novel, Ali and Esi are constantly traveling the continent and the globe. They are cosmopolitan figures, worldly in their knowledge of life and its variety of opportunities. Esi meets Ali while trying to finalize travel arrangements for work, while Ali has made a life out of traveling and assisting others in doing the same. The constant travel in Ali’s and Esi’s lives serves as a reminder of the degree to which each character is transient. Esi and Ali leave the country, their marriages, and, eventually, each other. From a young age, Ali has been a traveler like his merchant father. He continues this tradition in his profession and in his relationships. He travels from one woman to the next. He treats his wives much the same as he would treat any one of the destinations he frequently visits.
Brief statements that are written to resemble the tone and nature of African proverbs are inserted throughout the narrative. The proverbs serve several important rhetorical functions. They remind the reader of the African context in which the novel is written, and as such, serve as a bridge between African and Western literary traditions. The proverb is a traditional literary device used in African cultures to share wisdom and culture. By incorporating them into her novel, Aidoo is reasserting the value and function of African literary traditions in a genre—the fictional novel—which arose out of Western culture.
Esi and Opokuya’s friendship is the most stable and equitable relationship in the novel. The two women treat each other as equals, and it is evident that they can speak freely and openly to each other in a way that they never do with either one of their husbands. For Esi, her friendship with Opokuya is also the most stable relationship that she has with anyone outside of her family. After leaving Oko and eventually Ali, Opokuya still remains. At the end of the novel, Opokuya’s husband begins to kiss Esi, and in that moment, Esi is reminded of her relationship with Opokuya. The thought is enough to draw her back into reality such that she moves away from Kubi.
The tiny car that Esi uses to get to and from work each day is barely functional. It is so decrepit that upon seeing it, Ali says he will drive Esi home. The car serves as an initial attempt by Ali to enter Esi’s life. At the same time, Esi’s friend Opokuya engages in a daily struggle with her husband over who will control the car that day. In Opokuya’s marriage, the car becomes symbolic of the value placed on women’s work versus that of men. Despite the numerous needs of the house that Opokuya must tend to every day, her husband Kubi inevitably controls the car the majority of the time. When Ali finally buys Esi a car in order to apologize for his absence and placate Esi, he is inadvertently liberating Opokuya from having to depend on her husband.
When Ali proposes to Esi, he offers her a wedding band, a symbol of marriage perhaps original to Western culture that, when incorporated into Ali’s cultural tradition, is only offered to the first wife of a husband. Esi is taken aback by the wedding ring, as is her entire family. By bringing the wedding band into his marriage ceremony, Ali is not only showing his ability to accept and adapt to Western customs, but he is also demonstrating his attempt to incorporate those customs into an African context. The polygamous marriage upon which Ali is about to embark is contrary to the tradition of marriage symbolized by the wedding band that Ali offers Esi. Ali’s decision to take a second wife is both an embrace of traditional African marriages, and a rejection of the standards of Western marriage. As a result, the wedding band that Ali offers Esi becomes a symbolic bridge that unites the two traditions.
Each of the characters in the novel is at least partially defined by his or her career. Esi’s job with the Department of Urban Statistics highlights her rational personality, while Ali’s job at a travel agency reminds the reader of his tendency to move from one woman to the next. Contrary to Esi and Ali are Oko and Opokuya. Both characters work in professions that demand personal sacrifice—Oko as a teacher and Opokuya as a nurse. The fact that each character works in a field that reflects his or her personality demonstrates the substantial role that careers play in defining identity for the new generation.