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Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Nnu Ego and Nnaife, who embody the stereotypical roles of Ibo men and women, represent the traditional thinking of their society and their generation. Yet their world is in flux. The old, formerly unquestioned attitudes have begun to change. Boys do not necessarily serve as their family’s main support. Girls gain respect and power for their skills and education, not just an increased bride price. For the older generation, these changes in perception are often startling and unsettling, as once-solid gender definitions become more fluid. Nnu Ego reacts unfavorably to the fact that her husband is employed washing the personal garments of a woman. She feels such subservience “[robs] him of his manhood.” At the same time, Nnu Ego herself is not untouched by the transformation and blurring of gender roles. While her identity is almost entirely dependent on her status as a mother, she occasionally assumes the traditionally male role of provider and breadwinner to support her family.
Characters in The Joys of Motherhood often have difficulty understanding one another. These communication barriers suggest a world of division and separation, where English, Hausa, Yoruba, Ibo, and the various other native dialects of Nigeria intersect. Mrs. Meers and Nnaife are deeply connected in their relationship as employer and employee, yet language separates them as much as race and class do—they cannot even pronounce each other’s names correctly. When soldiers enter the Yaba compound to evict Nnu Ego and Oshia, the sharp, foreign words they shout at her are as frightening and daunting as the yelps of the snarling dogs. Language divides and alienates individuals as well as families, communities, and the nation as a whole. In the novel, language barriers and lapses in communication suggest a deeper problem infecting Nigerian society: they indicate an inability to connect to and understand the outside world. Even when characters speak the same language, they still fail to fully comprehend one another’s actions and intentions. For example, Nnu Ego has no idea that Oshia does not plan to stop his schooling so he can return to the family and support them.
Nnu Ego’s vision of the world, as well as her literal vision, frequently falter as she loses her illusions in the face of new realities. References to imperfect or unreliable sight abound, particularly in the first half of the novel, when Nnu Ego is most mired in her illusions. When Nnu Ego gets married, her vision of the world is distorted by her unrealistic ideas about motherhood and her duty as a woman. During Nnu Ego’s desperate suicide attempt, Emecheta calls attention to her distorted vision. When Nnu Ego first appears, she is stumbling about, blind with grief, “her eyes unfocused and glazed, looking into vacancy.” Later, Emecheta equates Nnu Ego with the blind Hausa beggar whom she nearly knocks over in her hasty retreat from the site of Ngozi’s death. She runs straight into the man “as if she too was without the use of her eyes.” Nnu Ego’s impaired vision suggests her lack of insight. By the end of the novel, realization settles on her, and, for better or worse, Nnu Ego is finally able to see her life for what it is.
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