1. Her love and duty for her children were like her chain of slavery.
This comment, appearing in Chapter 10, summarizes one of the novel’s main themes: that motherhood brings ambiguous joys. While the title of the novel promises a warm portrait of the joys and rewards of motherhood, the novel itself charts a much different course for Nnu Ego and many of the other women who make up her Ibo community. Rather than a self-fulfilling and life-giving role, motherhood and the responsibilities it creates become a form of enslavement. For Nnu Ego, her life, hope, and identity depend on her ability to bear children. In the eyes of society, she has no other primary function and no other means of achieving rank and respect.
Nnu Ego’s struggle is twofold. First, she fears she will face the fate of a barren, cast-off woman when she does not become pregnant after her marriage to her first husband, Amatokwu. Later, when she is blessed with several offspring, she is ill-equipped to feed and clothe them, and the family slides deeper into poverty. Finally, when Oshia, Adim, and Kehinde turn their backs on their familial responsibilities and pursue lives of their own, Nnu Ego questions the point of all the sacrifices and self-denial she has endured, for her children’s sake, through the years.
2. Men here are too busy being white men’s servants to be men. We women mind the home. Not our husbands. Their manhood has been taken away from them. The shame is that they don’t know it.
Cordelia, Ubani’s wife, speaks these words in Chapter 4, and they underscore the blurring of gender roles that many Ibo families face in Lagos. Colonialism and the modern world, with its capitalist-based labor systems, leave their mark on the novel’s male characters and help erode the traditional role of men in twentieth-century West-African society. While the men still see themselves as the heads of their households, the women view their husbands’ evolving economic roles differently. The need to work, specifically in the service of white colonialists, has compromised the men as figures of authority and drained them of their once-unquestioned power as the dominant member of the family. Ubani and Nnaife are diminished in their wives’ eyes by their service to the Meers family, which casts them in a subservient role. In making this statement, Cordelia indicates that she agrees with Nnu Ego, who has little respect for her husband and the pride and delight he takes in laundering Mrs. Meers’s linens and underclothes. Nnu Ego compares the early days of her marriage to Nnaife to being with a middle-aged woman instead of a man. These sentiments echo the novel’s pervading sense that Lagos perverts and permanently alters tradition, robbing the individual of identity or, in this case, manhood.
3. She had been trying to be traditional in a modern urban setting. It was because she wanted to be a woman of Ibuza in a town like Lagos that she lost her child. This time she was going to play according to the new rules.
In Chapter 7, soon after Oshia is born, Nnu Ego reflects on her conduct and actions during Ngozi’s infancy and early death. The pressure of tending to her new child and maintaining her market stall proved to be too much. Nnu Ego feels that the all-encompassing dual roles of mother and provider directly led to her baby’s death, even though these roles were expected of her. Traditionally, Ibuza women were the providers, but in the new world and economic order of Lagos, men have become the family’s sole economic source. Nnu Ego concludes that they are living now in a “white man’s world,” where supporting the family is the man’s duty. With the breakdown of the traditional family order, without an extended clan of parents and grandparents to assist with child rearing, the full burden of child care falls to the mother. Nnu Ego concludes that in order to ensure the health and livelihood of her son, she must embrace the changes her new life in Lagos have forced on her. She forgoes the extra income her selling and trading would bring in to dutifully fulfill what she believes is her greater and more valuable role as mother and nurturer.
4. On her way back to their room, it occurred to Nnu Ego that she was a prisoner, imprisoned by her love for her children, imprisoned in her role as the senior wife.
This description appears in Chapter 11. As an Ibo woman, Nnu Ego can pursue only one life path: she must produce children, preferably boys. As Nnu Ego gets older and becomes more deeply involved in her role as a mother, she sees more clearly the restrictions and limitations of this set course. She also feels she is society’s scapegoat. When the children bring honor or fulfill their duty to their family, they are a reflection on their father. When they tarnish or shame the family name or fail to live up to their responsibility to their parents, the failing is placed squarely on the mother’s shoulders. This double standard saddens Nnu Ego. She is trapped in this role, and her destiny and reputation are commingled with those of her children—no matter what the outcome. This restrictive arrangement extends to the hierarchy of multiple wives, or plural marriage, which is common in West-African society. As the senior wife, Nnu Ego is expected to endure the humiliation when Adaku, Nnaife’s crafty and attractive second wife, arrives in Lagos and becomes part of the Owulum family. Rather than being an object of respect and veneration, Nnu Ego is expected to calmly accept the slights and insults her husband and family visit on her. She is even subjected to the sounds of Nnaife and Adaku having sexual relations in the same room in which she herself sleeps.
5. God, when will you create a woman who will be fulfilled in herself, a full human being, not anybody’s appendage? she prayed desperately.
Nnu Ego poses this question in her prayer in Chapter 15. As an Ibo mother, Nnu Ego is expected to arm her sons for the future, at the expense of her daughters. Society views the girls as having little worth, valuable only for the bride price they will one day fetch when their marriage is arranged. Without the context of marriage and the family, an Ibo woman has neither an identity nor an inherent worth beyond the production of the next generation. However, in the new economic and social order of Lagos, both men’s and women’s roles change. Nnu Ego anticipates the day when individual women will be of prime importance, rather than simply being vehicles that serve and aid the collective at the expense of the self. Nnu Ego views the traditional role of Ibo women as amounting to a qualified or partial life. Rather than lives of sacrifice, Nnu Ego hopes women can achieve lives of satisfaction and self-fulfillment. In Nnu Ego’s world, women are seen as tools, or as appendages that simply extend men’s will. The traditional Ibo family construct demands that women deny or downplay personal fulfillment and self-realization in service to the group-oriented duties they are expected to perform.
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