Some of the themes in Flora Nwapa’s Efuru are the joy of motherhood, obstinacy, love, failed marriage, and clash of cultures.
The above-highlighted themes are discussed below.
The Joy of Motherhood
One of the themes in this story is the joy of motherhood. In fact, one could say it is the subject matter.
The joy of motherhood is the fortune that comes from marriage; hence, it is considered a fruitful one. In a pure African setting, an unproductive marriage is as useless as morning dew.
It is however a bad thing for a woman not to bear a child in her marriage. Not having children is not considered “one of the numerous accidents of nature, rather it is regarded as a failure.” (p. 165)
Hence, the blame is on the woman, as if it were intentional. This is what sets up the conflict in Efuru. Efuru is seen in her first husband’s house, leaving the marriage after her only son dies, and not solely because her husband refuses to come home.
If Ogonim does not die, no matter what trouble Efuru might be going through, she would always consider the fact of having a child in such a marriage.
Efuru’s second marriage also not being productive reveals the biggest catastrophe in this story. The society has a way of despising such a woman. She is called a witch and is afterwards ostracized.
But Efuru’s case is different, only that she faces many foes like Omirima, who later accuses her of adultery out of hatred. Had she given birth to a living child, changing husbands like clothes would have been improbable. Efuru is depressed, and her consoling herself about not being barren shows how desperate she is about being given the title of a mother.
But, thank God, my womb carried a baby for nine months. Thank God I had this baby, and she was a normal baby. It would have been dreadful if I had been denied the joy of motherhood.Efuru (p. 165)
Obviously, it is the pressure from society that makes the urge to have a child so strong.
Africa does not repress the female gender but does not treat her as a “first-class citizen” either. So, failure to give birth to a child is always the woman’s burden. And therefore, it is the duty of the childless wife to quickly look for another wife for her husband to avoid being married to the one who will oppress her with children.
Regardless of the pain women go through during a child’s birth and the nurturing stage, the joy of giving them a motherly title is what matters. For example, Nkoyeni during her child’s delivery can no longer take the pain because she feels it is over, but the moment she is reminded of the doom that accompanies barrenness, she quickly changes her mind and she comports herself instantly.
Many women today would have despised marriage but for having children only.
Flora Nwapa uses Efuru to explicate the major importance of marriage and why it might stop working along the line. She is nonetheless confused about why the women accept worshipping the woman of the lake despite her sterilization.
The story begins with Efuru seeking the joy of motherhood and ends with a note that the women should protest against worshipping someone who has never experienced it.
Theme of Obstinacy
This is too resolute an adherence to your own ideas or desires. The maxim that “obedience is better than sacrifice” goes beyond a mere syntactical arrangement of phrases. The relevance of this is seen in Flora Nwapa’s Efuru.
Virtually all the main female characters suffer for their intractability, refusing to be guided by their parents and family.
Ossai marries a father that everyone forbids and suffers the consequences afterwards. Her sister Ajanupu reminds her of her stubbornness and scolds her afterwards for the upshot, which is miserableness. Ossai also agrees that if she did not marry Adizua’s father, she would not be facing these challenges.
Nwabata’s destitution began when she married a poor peasant, Nwosu, whose marriage to her was never supported by her family. She subsequently regrets her action, even though she still loves Nwosu.
Efuru, too, is driven by her personal desires. She does not care about her father’s or her family’s advice. She runs away with a man, Adizua, refusing to adhere to her family’s advice. The consequences of her action are not quickly revealed because she is loved passionately by both her husband and her mother-in-law, but when Adizua deserts her, she begins thinking of how she refused what her father was initially telling her.
In conclusion, the misfortunes of some of the characters in this story could have been averted if they had adhered to the advice given to them. But their obstinate attitudes push them to the point where the saying “had I known” becomes relevant.
Theme of Love
Love could be seen as a deep feeling for one another beyond sensuality. The power of love cannot be overemphasized. It transcends challenges. Love knows no conformity. It intoxicates and makes the victims unconscious of the norms in society.
This is the reason why Efuru and her first husband, Adizua, marry illegitimately without Adizua paying a dime, not even “a cowrie on her head.” Efuru, who is from a wealthy and renowned family, reduces her laurel by marrying an unknown poor man who struggles to even pay her dowry.
Efuru does not see this as a bad thing, and she is unconscious of her husband’s trespasses until they leave each other and she begins recounting her misdeed.
Gilbert too is blinded by love to see exactly what his people are seeing: that an unproductive marriage is a mere play and that such a man is likened to a snake who slithers across the rock with zero footprints. He does not think relationships have to exist primarily for birth business, as is the stereotypical belief of his people.
Even after he marries two other women, Nkoyeni and Ogea, who later give birth to children, it is still obvious he loves Efuru more than the duo. However, his marriage to Nkoyeni and Ogea is driven by societal pressure. When Gilbert refuses to come home for more than two months at the Great River, he refuses to explain the reason behind it to Nkoyeni, even when it is obvious that she deserves an explanation.
He only explains to Efuru and apologizes, but scolds Nkoyeni, who has a child for him.
Nwabata and Nwosu’s relationship is also strengthened by the power of love, even at the highest provocation of poverty. It does not take a second to settle whatever dispute they have because there is love. When Nwosu goes for a title instead of repaying his debt to Efuru, Nwabata scolds him and promises she would never go with him to borrow money anymore from Efuru. But they are both seen at Efuru’s house the second day begging for more money.
Nwashike Ogene cannot take Efuru’s love for granted. When it is believed that she has committed the greatest sin and he is expected to disown his daughter, Nwashike refuses and establishes a fact: that love transcends war.
Theme of a Failed Marriage
The failure of marriage is not a thing that is rampant in the African setting. The wife must be exceptionally patient to endure all sorts of offensive acts before she can be regarded as an African woman. As a matter of fact, virility is extensively associated with femininity in an African setting.
African women are fundamentally “womanists.” By extension, they are tolerant of what western feminists consider to be androcentric, such as marriage, submissiveness, sensuality, etc.
However, African women are extensively vocal, and their voices are always very important. This means that the women have the choice to either stay in a marriage or not.
Buchi Emecheta, in her book, Feminism With a Small “f”, says,
In essence, the woman has a choice.
Flora Nwapa does not see African women as intrinsically monogamous. She uses Efuru to project her voice. Efuru is seen speculating about what could make Adizua marry a wife outside and refuses to bring her home when she is not a bad woman. It implies that “it is only a bad wife that wants her husband to herself only.”
The failure of Efuru to bear a child is the reason why she decides to leave her marriage to marry Gilbert. And maybe if Adizua had stayed, it would have been unlikely for Efuru to leave.
Having married Gilbert, her problem still persists, and yet she is not willing to leave the marriage until it is crystal clear that there is now a resentment against her fate.
Efuru represents the older generation of African women. The older generation would not leave their marriage no matter what, except if what happens to Efuru befalls their rafters.
Efuru is unlike Nkoyeni, who represents the new generation and, by extension, those affected by the fallout of western influence. Nkoyeni threatens her husband that she is going to leave him when his out-of-wedlock son is brought back home, and she does that subsequently when Gilbert refuses to open up on why he was in the Great River for like two months.
Divorce is not a barrier for Nkoyeni. It is only Efuru that thinks and rethinks about her decision.
In conclusion, a failed marriage is something a pure African woman is afraid of but fatefully involves in if she is left with no option. Failure in marriage makes the woman go mentally delirious.
She is not going to be respected by society, and she is going to be neglected afterwards. Marriage is an intrusive part of a woman’s life. Societal pressure and lots more are exactly what bound the woman in a marriage, even with a brutish man.
A Clash of Cultures
There are two conflicting cultures in this story: Western and African cultures. The intrusion of imperialism into Africa in the 19th century tried to erase some of the African cultures and replace them with Western culture.
A living example of cultural erasure and replacement is Gilbert, who was originally named Eneberi but later got influenced by the western educational system. Another one is the home-made gin that is being despised by the Europeans. They prefer the western alcohol to the home-made gin and arrest anyone caught with this drink.
Most Africans are more comfortable with the modern western civilization, while some are not cool with it at all. Efuru, for example, does not trust any dibia aside from the dead one who made her child’s birth possible. She subsequently relies on modern medical treatment. She even refers people to her doctor, Dr. Uzaru.
When Nwosu is ill and Efuru refers him to her doctor, and the solution calls for a surgical operation, his wife, Nwabata, forgoes it because she feels a surgical operation is deadly. Nwosu later goes for the operation and becomes healthy afterwards. This makes the people trust the western way more than their traditional method of treatment.
Although no culture can survive on its own, Culture and imperialism are two indispensable things in the face of modernization. The former thrived on hybridity, while the latter inspired it.
Years before this story, the people of Nwashike Ogene had contact with the white people and exchanged their people (black slaves) for cannons, hot drinks, and cheap ornaments. However cruel the exchange might be with human trafficking, the beneficiaries of the trade were both parties. The people now use cannons to send information far and wide, and they are also very good war equipment. It is the cannon that they use to send information to the people at the Great River that an important personality is gone, following the dream of Nwosu.
And when Efuru’s illness gets to the point of no return and many dibias cannot successfully treat her, it is the modern medical treatment that cures her in Onicha.
The whites use boats, while the Africans use canoes. The former sees canoes as primitive, and the latter sees the whites as fools because the boats make noise with the engine.
And look at their boats; how can they catch anything in such noisy boats? Fish swim away from them, and besides, they disturb the woman of the lake with their boats.Efuru (p. 202)
The people have restricted their mentality to the belief that anyone who refuses to observe the rules of the woman of the lake will not catch any fish, but if it were actually true, the whites would have gone back to their countries. Today, the boats are embraced by both cultures.