Things Fall Apart
How we cite our quotes:
The only course open to Okonkwo was to flee from the clan. It was a crime against the earth goddess to kill a clansman, and a man who committed it must flee from the land. The crime was of two kinds, male and female. Okonkwo had committed the female, because it had been inadvertent. He could return to the clan after seven years. (13.13)
Even crimes are gendered in Igbo society, with male crimes considered more severe and pre-meditated than female ones. Thus, the punishment for female crimes is less severe than for male ones. It says something about Igbo values for women that a person’s punishment is to be exiled to his motherland.
[Uchendu]: “Can you tell me, Okonkwo, why it is that one of the commonest names we give our children is Nneka, or ‘Mother is Supreme?’ We all know that a man is the head of the family and his wives do his bidding. A child belongs to its father and his family and not to its mother and her family. A man belongs to his fatherland and not to his motherland. And yet we say Nneka – ‘Mother is Supreme.’ Why is that?”
“I do not know the answer,” Okonkwo replied […].
“Then listen to me […]. It’s true that a child belongs to its father. But when a father beats his child, it seeks sympathy in its mother’s hut. A man belongs to his fatherland when things are good and life is sweet. But when there is sorrow and bitterness he finds refuge in his motherland. Your mother is there to protect you. She is buried there. And that is why we say that mother is supreme.” (14.25-32)
The mother figure offers her child something the father never could – unconditional compassion. Uchendu presents fathers as a kind of fair-weather friend. This explains why a man is exiled to his motherland when he has committed a crime; he can expect to find sympathy and forgiveness there. And this is why “Mother is Supreme.” Finally, something nice about women!
Nneka had had four previous pregnancies and childbirths. But each time she had borne twins, and they had been immediately thrown away. Her husband and his family were already becoming highly critical of such a woman and were not unduly perturbed when they found she had fled to join the Christians. It was a good riddance. (17.13)
If a woman can’t successfully bear children, she’s not really worth much. Nneka’s husband and his family don’t even really care that Nneka has run off with the Christians, it saves them the trouble of supporting a woman who can’t pull her own weight by providing children.