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Thematic Preoccupation of Nigerian Literature: A Critical Approach

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Abstract

Nigerian literature takes "matter" from the realities of Nigerian living conditions and value systems in the past and present. In the Nigerian society the writer, be it a novelist, dramatist or poet is a sensitive "questioner" and reformer; as all literature in a way is criticism of the human condition obtainable in the society it mirrors. The writer often cannot help exposing the bad and the ugly in man and society. Thus much of Nigerian literature is a deploration of the harsh and inhuman condition in which the majority of Nigerians live in i.e. poverty, misery, political oppression, economic exploitation, excesses of the affluent, liquidation of humane Nigerian traditional values, and all forms of injustices which seem to be the lot of a large majority in most Nigerian societies.In drama, novel, poetry or short - story, the writer's dialogue with his physical and human environment comes out as a mirror in which his people and society can see what they look like. Every image painted by a skillful artist is expressed or put into writing / print, becomes public property and leaves itself open for evaluation by those who read and understand the language and expression. There is therefore a need to identify the thematic preoccupation of Nigeria literature which is the focus of this paper with a view to identifying their peculiarities with textual references.
http://elr.sciedupress.com English Linguistics Research Vol. 6, No. 3; 2017
Published by Sciedu Press 22 ISSN 1927-6028 E-ISSN 1927-6036
Thematic Preoccupation of Nigerian Literature:
A Critical Approach
Adetuyi, Chris Ajibade1 Ph.D
1 Department of English and Literary Studies, Lead City University, Ibadan, Nigeria
Correspondence: Adetuyi, Chris Ajibade, Ph.D, Department of English and Literary Studies, Lead City University,
Ibadan, Nigeria
Received: June 9, 2017 Accepted: August 29, 2017 Online Published: September 4, 2017
doi:10.5430/elr.v6n3p22 URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.5430/elr.v6n3p22
Abstract
Nigerian literature takes "matter" from the realities of Nigerian living conditions and value systems in the past and
present. In the Nigerian society the writer, be it a novelist, dramatist or poet is a sensitive "questioner" and reformer;
as all literature in a way is criticism of the human condition obtainable in the society it mirrors. The writer often
cannot help exposing the bad and the ugly in man and society. Thus much of Nigerian literature is a deploration of
the harsh and inhuman condition in which the majority of Nigerians live in i.e. poverty, misery, political oppression,
economic exploitation, excesses of the affluent, liquidation of humane Nigerian traditional values, and all forms of
injustices which seem to be the lot of a large majority in most Nigerian societies.
In drama, novel, poetry or short - story, the writer's dialogue with his physical and human environment comes out as
a mirror in which his people and society can see what they look like. Every image painted by a skillful artist is
expressed or put into writing / print, becomes public property and leaves itself open for evaluation by those who read
and understand the language and expression. There is therefore a need to identify the thematic preoccupation of
Nigeria literature which is the focus of this paper with a view to identifying their peculiarities with textual references.
Keywords: Deploration, Language, Thematic, Preoccupation, Nigerian, Literature
1. Introduction
In most Nigerian literature social issues and the way people relate are some of the major subjects, be it in drama,
fiction or poetry. How individuals interact in love, friendship, and their relationships with the larger society are the
sine qua non of literature. People's interaction in society develop the ethics and morality of a society. Politics is
usually integrated into a people's culture and everybody is in one way or the other affected by politics. Political
practices are part of a people's culture. Thus politics forms an important thematic preoccupation for Nigerian writers.
In literature it is important who is writing and in what context the writer is writing. Time and space, history and place
set the context of a literary creation. The history of a society is also essential, as many themes stem from a society's
historical background. Nigerian writers are greatly influenced by their rich oral literature which is essentially didactic.
Most writers make use of the functional didacticism of oral literature, to reflect the culture, history, politics and
society as a whole in their writings. Social issues and the way people relate are also some of the major subjects of
literature be it in drama, fiction or poetry.
Chijoke Uwasomba (2014) in an essay entitled “Helon Habila. Narrating he Dysfunctional Baggade of post-colony”,
argue that “the writer irrespective of his or her ideological persuasion has a duty to discharge to the society and to
self”. The rationale for this, Uwasomba submits, is “because the writer is saddled with social responsibility to
communicate certain social and personal experiences to an audience” (196)
The need to expose the important themes of Nigeria literature written by notable literary grants with Nigerian
consciousness and sympathy (colonial and contemporary era) inform the choice of works at the three genres by the
chosen writers in this paper.
2. Thematic Preoccupations of Nigerian Literature
The major themes in Nigerian literary works and how they affect the people and the society are varied and vast. The
major themes include Reincarnation, Anti-Colonialism, Religion, Tradition, Gender, Feminism, Marriage, Love,
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Morality, After-life (Mortality) and Politics among others.
2.1 Reincarnation
J. P. Clark and Soyinka treat the theme of re -incarnation of the wanderer child in their poem with a similar title
Abiku. In his poem Soyinka treats the theme according to the Yoruba tradition, while Clark treats it as Ogbanje
according to the Igbo belief. Both poets express the traditional African belief in the cyclic nature of life and the
things that affect the space and time of African tradition. The poem "Abiku" is about a child born to die soon who
keeps "coming and going this several seasons". This re-echoes Nigerian belief in reappearance after death.
“Coming and going these several seasons,
Do stay out on the baobab tree
Follow where you please your kindred spirits
If indoors is not enough for you.” (Line 1-4)
In clark’s Abiku, Abiku is being asked to stay away out there ‘on the baobab tree’ (L.2) or go wherever he pleases, ‘if
indoors is not enough’ for him (L.4), rather than the unhealthy practice of coming and going from year to year. The
‘baobab tree’ (L.2) is acknowledged habitat of trees. This belief in re-incarnation and the transmigration of souls by
which a human soul passes into another state or another body at death and returns again into the world is a major
theme of Nigeria Literature. Within the Nigerian context, the relationship between the worlds of the living, the dead
and the unborn is a cyclical one, involving a lot of mutual interaction. The Abiku child seems to move freely
between one plane of existence and another as represented by these metaphysical worlds.
2.2 Morality
Morality is another major thematic preoccupation in Nigerian Literature, In Chinua Achebe's 'Things Fall Apart', and
Morality is seen as having various frameworks. This thematic notion is highlighted in several recapitulations relating
to Okonkwo particularly, to the Igbo people more generally and to the Western colonialists at the end of the novel.
Nowhere is this idea dealt with more directly than in the scene following Okonkwo's death. While burial is necessary,
Okonkwo's own tribesmen cannot bury his body. The code of conduct for the tribe (essentially a moral code) will not
allow it. They are forced to ask the Commissioner and his men to bury the body.
"Why can't you take him down yourselves?' he asked.
'It is against our custom,' said one of the men. [...] His body is evil, and only strangers may touch it. That is why we
ask your people to bring him down, because you are strangers.'"
The moral code that prohibits the tribe from touching Okonkwo's body allows others to touch the body. Morality,
clearly, is determined according to specific contexts. What is wrong for some is acceptable for others (Kannan,
2015).
In Wole Soyinka's The Beatification of Area Boy: A Lagosian Kaleidoscope, the concept of moral decadence is
presented in the ritual/money-making episode where a victim claimed his genital had been collected by the Accused
for rituals, in the quest for wealth. Though, this episode equally x-rays the level of superstition in the society but it is
a common place phenomenon in the present day society. Sanda also identifies these foul politics. This is a form of
satire where Ola Rotimi ridicules the effort of men because women have taken over.
2.3 Politics
In Wole Soyinka’s Trial of Brother Jero, politics appears at an official level, such as the supposed low salary granted
to chume as the local government’s messenger and the Member of the House’s desire for a position of more power,
between the local village and the central government. But it also exists at a more informal level, between each
character attempting to figure out her/his role in a country still negotiating its new independence from Britain. Jero’s
very rise to power was a result of what he called a successful “campaign” against other prophets and their followings,
and as the self-elected leader, or tyrant, of the Brotherhood of Jero, his every action is political, serving to
consolidate his own power.
One of the major themes in Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again by Ola Rotimi is the issue of women in politics.
With the little information and instruction from Lekoja-Brown’s American wife, Sikira an illiterate wife of Lekoja
abandons her husband and takes to politics, which she feels, will loosen her from the grips of oppression and get her
the dividends of democracy and popularity. Surprisingly enough, towards the end of the play she is seen as the
party’s gubernatorial candidate campaigning and canvassing for votes. That men and women are created equal, in
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contemporary Africa, women are gradually finding their feet more and more in politics and this is a welcome
development in world of politics. This is a form of satire where Ola Rotimi ridicules the effort of men because
women have taken over.
Thematically, Wole Soyinka's The Beatification of Area Boy is an example of political oppression, an extended
exposition of alienated and plaintive existence in a postcolonial and post traditional world. In such a world, modern
conditions co-exist with pre-modern, ethnic, and traditional ones.
It is the acquisition of the "Area Boy" traits by the military on the play that first makes the title relevant to the play.
In other words, the "Area Boy" concept has been 'elevated' through the military who themselves are "Area Boys" in
uniform controlling the affairs of a state. The military become a kind of honored and glorified "Area Boys". They are
"Area Boys" in practice, the only difference is that they wear uniforms. The lawlessness of the military is presented
through the words of the military officer to his ADC};
"I ought to have you court-martialed. I ordered you to stay and handle it personally! And you want to take
him to a police station where he will intimidate them and regain his freedom? The fool interfered with my
uniforms. He touched it-do you understand that? He pulled my sleeve; he placed his bloody civilian hands
on my uniform. And all you want to do is take him to the police station? Didn't you hear me say he was to
be given the special treatment?"(Asante-Darko 2000)
2.4 Mortality/After-Life
Wole Soyinka's Death and the King's Horseman's main theme is Mortality focuses on a ritual suicide, therefore
death plays a big role. Soyinka himself has argued that spiritual strugglesincluding Elesin's attempts to carry out
his duty by dyingare at the heart of the play, and judging from what characters like Olunde and Jane Pilkings have
to say, death is a very different animal in British and Yoruba cultures. For the British inhabitants of Oyo, death is to
be feared and avoided, whereas for the Yoruba, it seems like death is less scary and more something to be embraced
as right at certain times. This difference in opinion drives the whole plot.
JANE: Your calm acceptance for instance, can you explain that? It was so unnatural. I don't understand that at all. I
feel a need to understand all I can.
OLUNDE: But you explained it yourself. My medical training perhaps. I have seen death too often. And the soldiers
who returned from the front, hands all the time. (4.147-148) they died on our
When Olunde is calm about the notion that his father has died, Jane can't handle ithis reaction is way too foreign
for her, and she asks him how he could possibly feel this way. He claims it is because he is been working as a doctor
in England during the war, but Jane is cautious about buying that explanation (Adeniran 1994)
2.5 Marriage, Custom & Tradition
In Wedlock of the Gods, Zulu Sofola exploits themes of marriage, custom and tradition.
She upholds the view that marriage is supreme. Thus, Ogwoma is unjustly treated by the male folk by being forced
to marry a man she does not love. Sofola sees this as male chauvinism and Ogwoma vows to break free, not really
out of the cultural inhibition to her marrying the man she loves, but of the world dominated by the male folk.
Ogwoma defies tradition and custom by getting pregnant during a period when she is supposed to be mourning her
late husband. Uloko and Ogwoma's defiance of tradition and custom is the basis for conflict in the play. On the
economic front, it is a rebellion against the tradition of a daughter being the source of wealth. Why is she forced to
marry a man she does not love? Why is it that Uluko could not pay the sum of Four Hundred Pounds demanded as
bride price? These are all economic problems. Sofola decries the high cost of marriage which is determined by the
male folk without the consent of the female folk who are most affected by such actions. The play establishes Uloko
and Ogwoma as rebels against culture and tradition. "The two rebels are dogged, headstrong, and unwavering in their
conviction" (Eni 2009). The characterisation of Uloko and Ogwoma is better identified with modern educated youths.
Their stubbornness is almost too strong for the Ibo communities that spurn them. This stresses the play towards
Romeo and Juliet type of tragedy. These are characters created by Sofola to fight her cause and defend her female
rights. Sofola's writing support enlightened traditional society. She believes in and affirms the value and spirituality
of African traditional life above western conventions. She writes specifically from the point of view of an educated
woman in a male dominated society. She is individualistic in her writings. She neither sides the Marxist, the feminist,
nor the traditionalists. To her, traditionalists are simply reactionary.
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2.6 Religion
In Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, the Igbo gods are mostly manifestations of nature and its elements, which
makes sense because they are an agricultural society that depends on the regularity of seasons and natural
phenomena to survive. They worship fear of vengeance that might wipe out an entire generation. The Igbo ancestors
also take on a divine nature to some extent. Family plays such a central role in Igbo life that the spirits of their
ancestors are consulted for almost every decision and even serve as judges associated with nature and also on
ancestors and somewhat divine contrasts sharply with the single God of Christianity which seems far less directly
relevant to the Igbo lifestyle.
"And in fairness to Umuofia it should be recorded that it never went to war unless its case was clear and just and was
accepted as such by its Oracle - the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves. And there were indeed occasions when the
Oracle had forbidden Umuofia to wage a war. If the clan had disobeyed the Oracle they would surely have been
beaten, because their dreaded agadi-nwayi would never fight what the Ibo call a fight of blame'. (Martin 2015)
The Umuofia are so superstitious that they will not make any big political moves without first consulting the gods via
the Oracle. The implication is that only the gods can judge whether war is appropriate and justified.
Soyinka's Trial of Brother Jero is widely considered a satire of proselytizing faith. Brother Jero's success rests
entirely on the blind faith of his followers, whom he is able to win over easily by offering false and fantastic
prophesies. Thus the virtue in faith alone is called into question, and Christianityat least in the form found with
characters like Brother Jeroscrutinized. Although Brother Jero loses one follower in Chume at the end of the play,
he is able to win over another, the Member of Parliament, just as quickly, speaking to the power of faith in its aim to
fulfill personal hope and desire. Soyinka's play forces the reader to question when belief is and is not justified, and to
consider who has the power to claim and impart knowledge.
2.7 Anti-Colonialism
Thematically, Nigerian poets took it upon themselves to challenge the deliberate misconceptions of Africans by
Europeans. They deliberately took the opposite stance in their poetry and this manifested in poems such Gabriel
Okara's Piano and drums and Wole Soyinka's Telephone Conversation. The contrast between African and Western
cultures are also expressed in Okigbo's Heavensgafe, wherein all negative images are used to describe alien culture
and positive ones to describe the African way of life.
Okara’s Piano and Drums looks at the conflict between the cultures of Africans and Europeans. ‘Piano’ symbolizes
the European culture which the persona sharply contrasts with the first two stanzas. After hearing the captivating and
nostalgic sound of the drums, he hear(s) a washing piano”. “Washing piano” suggest the persona’s dislike for the
European culture. He casts the European culture in a melancholic or sorrowful light.
“……. a washing piano
Solo peaks of complex ways in
Tear-furrowed concerto” (Line 17-19)
This suggests that the foreign culture is boring and unattractive as well as complex and meaningless.
2.8 Gender
The characters Wole Soyinka's The Trials of Brother Jero are bound to their gender roles, with many personality
traits explicitly attributed to a character's sex. Men constantly struggle to steer clear of the temptation of sin posed by
women: Brother Jero himself admits that he has "one weaknesswomen," the basis of the central conflict between
his desired self-image and reality. Chume, too, fights the urge to beat Amope for her constant pestering. Women are
described as "fickle," "the plague," and "daughters of discord." This characterization by Brother Jero and Chume
places blame on women for the burden they place on men and their sinful nature. The women of the play, on the
other hand, feel tied to the will of men and therefore similarly limited. Amope complains that "it is a tough life for a
woman" as she must depend on Chume and what he provides, which she deems insufficient for her needs. This
barrier between men and women causes lapses in understanding and strained relationships. In this way, the theme of
gender drives much of the plot in the play.
"From the moment I looked out of my window this morning, I have been tormented one way or another by the
daughters of discord." (Adedayo 2001)
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This quotation reflects the play's central characterization of women as vexing and malevolent figures. Jero's
statement places blame on the female sex for his personal failures and condemns women to the realm of permanent
sin.
3. Conclusion
Nigerian literature has deep and solid roots in culture and tradition of the African people. The culture provides
literary works with allusions, images, symbols, and a moral ethical imperative. The ethically rich culture has
enhanced the works of the creative writers who see themselves as having the social role of cleansing the society.
New novels, plays, and poems are modeled on folklore forms and techniques. Most writers make use of the
functional didacticism of oral literature, to reflect the culture, history, politics and society as a whole in their writings.
These works demonstrate the affirmation of faith by different generations of Nigerian writers in their cultural
heritage. Nigerian oral tradition of literature has greatly influenced the three genres - drama, prose and poetry.
Nigeria literature, in its real sense has been projected in this paper as a literary work (in three genres) done by
Nigerian writers or Nigerians in diaspora for Nigerian audiences or readers, written or oral and with Nigerian
sympathy or consciousness. The discussed themes are therefore the picture of the real life and manner of time which
it was written.
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