Early paperback edition cover
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
|Pages||281 pp (paperback edition)|
|ISBN||0-435-90026-9 (paperback edition)|
Efuru is a novel by Flora Nwapa which was published in 1966 as number 26 in Heinemann's African Writers Series, making it the first book written by a Nigerian woman to be published. The book is about Efuru, an Igbo woman who lives in a small village in colonial West Africa. Throughout the story, Efuru wishes to be a mother, though she is an independent-minded woman and respected for her trading ability. The book is rich in portrayals of the Igbo culture and of different scenarios which have led to its current status as a feminist and cultural work.
The story is set in West African Igbo rural community. The protagonist, Efuru, is a strong and beautiful woman. She is the daughter of Nwashike Ogene, a hero and leader of his tribe. She falls in love with a poor farmer called Adizua and runs away with him, upsetting her people as he did not even perform the traditional wine carrying and pay her bride price. She supports her husband financially and is very loyal to him, which makes her mother-in-law and aunt by marriage very fond of her. At this point, she accepts to be helped around her house by a young girl named Ogea in order to help her parents who are in financial difficulty. However, Adizua soon abandons Efuru and their daughter Ogonim as his own father has done in past. After her daughter dies, Efuru discovers that he has married another woman and had a child with her. Her in-laws try to convince her to stay with him, i.e. remain in waiting in their marital house. Efuru then tries to look for him, but after failing, she leaves his house and goes back to the house of her father who receives her happily as she can care for him better than others. Efuru then meets Gilbert, an educated man in her age group. He asks to marry her and follows traditions by visiting her father, and she accepts. The first year of their marriage is a happy one. However, Efuru is not able to conceive any children, so this begins to cause trouble. She is later chosen by the goddess of the lake, Uhamiri, to be one of her worshipers, Uhamiri being known to offer her worshipers wealth and beauty but few children. Efuru’s second marriage eventually also fails as her husband mistreats her in favor of his second and third wives.
Characters in Efuru
- Efuru – The protagonist. Born into the highly respected Nwashike Family, Efuru is raised solely by her father, Nwashike Ogene. The novel portrays her as a beautiful, kind-hearted, strong-willed, understanding, clever, and relatively more free-spirited female character compared to the other female characters. In certain scenarios, Efuru does not follow the traditions of her people, for example, she marries Adizua although he cannot pay her dowry. However, she undergoes the customary circumcision although it is unsafe and painful. Overall, Efuru does not completely try to rebel against her society’s constructs and mentality but slowly breaks away from what a reader of this century would deem as “anti-feminist” ideas.
- Nwashike Ogene – Efuru's father. He is a highly respected member of their society because of his own father, who fought against the Aros people, and also due to the fact that he was an excellent fisher and farmer, abilities valued among his people, when he was younger. He is praised for being wise and understanding but surprises people with how lenient he is with his daughter when she does not follow traditions. He gives up on trying to bring Efuru home after he is told that she is happy with Adizua and after the marriage falls apart, Nwashike Ogene still lets his daughter return home.
- Adizua – Efuru's first husband. He is portrayed as a lazy, irresponsible character unlike Efuru who is willing to continue her trade after only one month of “feasting”, i.e. eating in order to heal after her circumcision, because of the little money they had. He is deemed unworthy to marry Efuru because of his unknown father who did not achieve anything to bring honor to the family. Within this context, he becomes even less worthy when he eventually elopes with another woman. He does not even return for their daughter’s funeral. Efuru eventually leaves him although it is customary to wait for the return of the wrong-doing husband.
- Ajanapu – Adizua's aunt and Efuru’s aunt-in-law. A sensitive, strong, and talkative mother of seven who acts as a mother-figure to Efuru. Throughout the story, Ajanupu does not hesitate to give advice and a majority of the time her advice is helpful to Efuru. The author comments on how she could be a midwife, which is convincing, because of the clear expertise she shows when it is Efuru’s time to deliver her baby.
- Ossai – Adizua’s mother and Efuru’s mother-in-law. Her quiet and reserved persona is most noticeable when she is with her sister, Ajanupu, showing readers the contrast between the two. Although her son does not follow pre-marital customs, she treats Efuru well.
- Nwosu – Ossai’s cousin. He is known as a great farmer but the flood ruins his harvest, causing him to fall into debt and to beg Efuru to take his daughter, Ogea as a maid and borrow ten pounds. He and his wife have trouble paying back the ten pounds but Efuru's patient character prevents any tension to form among them.
- Nwabata – Ogea’s mother. She is an uneducated, hardworking farmer who works with her husband on their rented plot of land. Her love for her husband and ignorance become apparent when she cried after she heard that her husband needed surgery.
- Ogea – Efuru’s maid, Nwabata and Nwosu’s daughter. She started living and working at Efuru’s house at the age of ten. Ogea helps Efuru take care of Ogonimy, resulting in a deep bond between the characters, which is why Ogea’s reaction to Ogonim’s passing is justified despite how present side-characters at the funeral told her to stop.
- Ogonim – Efuru’s firstborn daughter. A healthy baby girl until the age of two when she becomes ill and dies.
- Gilbert – He is Efuru’s childhood friend and later on her second husband. His Igbo name is Enerberi but it changed to Gilbert after he was baptized. He is one of the few characters to receive an education, although he had to stop at standard five due to a lack of funds .
- Amede – Gilbert’s mother. A neutral and quiet character that happily accepts Efuru as her daughter-in-law.
- Omirima – One of the women who criticizes Gilbert and Efuru’s public displays of affection and points them out to Amede. In fact, she seems to be the main source of gossip in the novel.
- Dr Uzaru – Efuru lived with Dr. Uzaru and his mother until the age of fifteen. He treats Nwosu and Nnona under Efuru’s request.
- Nkoyeni – She is Gilbert friend’s sister whom he knows since childhood. She later becomes his second wife and has a baby boy.
- Nnona – The gate-woman with an infected leg. Efuru helps her by arranging an appointment with Dr.Uzaru. Later, she receives surgery and made a full recovery.
Major themes and motifs
- Importance of children and Love in Igbo marriage – the main requirement of marriage presented in the book is productivity. A woman is considered either adulterous or cursed if she fails to conceive, and even her femininity is questioned. This is why the number of children in a marriage is a measure of its success or failure, as well as a guarantee that the wife will have a say in family matters. However, this does not mean that Igbo marriages are not also partnerships involving mutual love, intimacy and help.
- Enterprising nature of women – Efuru is portrayed as a highly industrious woman, as she not only helps her first husband pay her bride price as well as quit his menial farm job, but is also able to support herself after he leaves her, and throughout the rest of the story. In addition, Nwosu’s wife is shown to be wise when she advises her husband to use their earnings to pay off some of their debt, which he disregards by buying a title and later regrets doing so.
- Spirituality and superstition – The Igbo are shown as a very spiritual people. Everything is explained as the work of the gods; Efuru’s barrenness is a curse, as is the infertility of crops, etc. Moreover, any problem, such as the aforementioned cases, can be fixed by a trip to the dibia, who advises his gift-bearing guests accordingly. Thirdly, when Efuru is chosen by Uhamiri, the goddess of the Lake, as one of her worshipers, her status increases among the villagers as it validates her saintly profile. Similarly superstition governs the behavior of the Igbo as demonstrated by the fear of pregnant women crossing their legs or getting into contact with snails (so that children are not born with excessive saliva), of mothers counting their children…
- Sacrifice – this is a common motif in the story because it seems to be the generator of all movement in the plot. In fact, it is through instructing Efuru to perform sacrifices that the dibia helps her. She then sacrifices all her energy and possessions in order to try to make her marriages work, and later makes many sacrifices to Uhamiri, including her chance to have more children, in order to become one of her worshipers.
- Igbo traditions – The novel is often criticized as being more a representation of Igbo traditions than an actual story being told. Indeed, many aspects of their practices and beliefs are represented informatively. For instance, usually older women (if they are widows or have been abandoned) reside with the family of their son. In addition, polygamy is very common and even necessary if the other wife (or wives) cannot bear children or if she is difficult to handle as Nkoyeni turns out to be. We also learn about the usual occupations of the people such as commerce and fishing, not to mention ceremonies that are considered very important, especially “taking one’s bath” which is a euphemism for female circumcision considered important before pregnancy in order to make a safe birth more likely, and burial, which is shown after the death of Ogonim.
- Gossip – Gossip is very common among Igbo women and seems to be the main method of transmitting information, as it is the way in which Efuru finds out what probably happened to her first husband after he didn’t return. It is also a method of manipulation as Omirima exemplifies by talking about Efuru to her mother-in-law in an attempt to get Adizua a second wife.
- Western influence on traditions – the West is reflected firstly through Christianity in the story, which is seen by some as the root of all problems since it tells the Ibo that their “gods have no power” and so they commit crimes without fear of punishment. Education also shows the impact of Western influence as villagers, even women, are shown to increasingly attend school. Finally, medicine is shown to be replacing dibias as a method of healing, or at least complimenting it as several characters are sent throughout the plot to a hospital by Efuru.
- Feminism – although saying this novel is feminist raises some controversy, feminism is arguably found in this novel. In fact, not only is Efuru allowed to choose her own husbands, rebel against some traditions, such as bringing wine to her father before she marries, and even leave her husbands when they mistreat her, but she is also represented as an industrious and productive woman who becomes a pillar in society through her good deeds. Efuru does not break with tradition but refuses for it to be used as a method of subordinating women.
- “Two men do not live together”: Adizua’s family members use this as an argument when they try to convince him to take a second wife. They are saying that Efuru cannot be considered a woman since she has been unable to give him children.
- “I want to keep my position as his first wife, for it is my right” – this shows how Efuru is very lenient in her marital life and does not mind her husband taking as many wives as he pleases. However, she asserts herself in her right to remain the “first” wife since it's her rightful place by principle and tradition.
Reception and Controversy
The novel Efuru is recognized as a substantial stepping stone in Nigerian literature and in the feminist movement in Nigeria, for it was “the first novel published by a Nigerian woman in English.” As a result, Nwapa was awarded the title “Ogbuefi”, which translates into “killer of cow”. This title is of high importance, for it is usually acquired by men. Furthermore, Nwapa gained even more recognition for her work, as the Nigerian government granted her several prestigious awards after Efuru was released.
After Efuru’s first publication, it received mixed reviews. For instance, Kenyan author Grace Ogot spoke positively of the novel in a review which appeared in the East Africa Journal in 1966, stating that “of the many novels that are coming out of Nigeria, Efuru is one of the few that portrays vividly the woman’s world, giving only peripheral treatment to the affairs of men.” Nwapa’s male counterparts, however, were not as fond of the book. Literary critic Eldred Jones and author Eustace Palmer both represent the opinion of some Nigerian male writers at the time, most of whom criticize Nwapa for focusing on the affairs of women. Later critics of Efuru, however, commend Nwapa for creating an image of female protagonists which is unlike that created by Nigerian male writers. Author Rose Acholonu describes Nwapa and certain other African female writers as “pathfinders”, who were able to “break the seals of silence and invisibility on the female protagonist by the early traditionalist male writers.”  Christine N. Ohale a professor at the department of English, Communications, Media Arts and Theater in Chicago State University mentions that Nwapa’s “efforts to present brand-new, assertive and individualistic females have helped to salvage the lop-sided image that male writers have created”, which is mainly one of passiveness.
Furthermore, critics such as Naana Banyiwe praise the use of dialogue as a stylistic element of the novel; in her discussion of Efuru, Naana Banyiwe-Horne states, “The constant banter of women reveals character as much as it paints a comprehensive, credible, social canvas against which Efuru's life can be assessed.” Many reviewers of the novel agree that the “dialogic style established in Efuru is even more central to the novel’s thematic concerns” Through the dialogue that Nwapa uses, she is able to paint an accurate picture of what life for Igbo women is like. Critics such as Christine Loflin point out that the use of dialogue in Efuru allows a sense of African feminism to emerge, free of Western imposed values. Other critics however, reprimand the excessive use of dialogue, considering the novel too “gossipy”.
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