Summary Themes and Characterization in Buchi Emecheta The Joys Of Motherhood

Summary Themes and Characterization in Buchi Emecheta The Joys Of Motherhood

Summary of the Novel

The Joys of Motherhood is a novel that is written by Emecheta in an attempt to treats the socio-cultural and economic challenges that Nigerian women face in an urban setting. It gives and exposes the obstacle a woman goes through when she is unable to bear children in marriage.

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Emecheta in her work of art detail a story of a young Igbo woman who dreams of living a traditional life as a mother of many children. Instead she spends her life in Lagos, Nigerian, watching as traditional values are eroded and destroyed by Western influence. The hope and dream she has toward being the mother of many children turns out to be misplaced and her entire life is simply a struggle for survival with no reward in old age.

The story is based on the background of the sound world war. During on the period of early colonization in Nigeria, Published in 1979, The Joys of Motherhood is Buchi Emecheta’s fifth novel and one at her most popular novel. The novel centered on the role of women in Nigeria Society.

In the novel, Nnu Ego the Protagonist stumbles across the Yaba Compound, almost delusional with grief. She makes her way to the front, heading to cater bridge, intent on throwing herself off in the river. The action shifts to twenty-five years previous to this moment in the village of Ogboli, in the Ibusu homeland, Agbudi, the esteemed local chief, is enamored by the one woman he cannot possess, the beautiful and strong willed Ona.

The story takes us back to Ibuza town, the place of birth of Nnu Ego, Nnu Ego was a beautiful girl and so captured the interest of many men in her village and even beyond. She was married off to Amatokwu in a Laivish wedding ceremony, but the marriage turn sour because she was not bless with an issue after three years Amatokwu takes another wife, Nnu Ego was derided and treated as a barren woman.

Therefore, given her experience in the house Amatokwu, the death of her four-week old son to her new husband, Nnaife, shatters the hope and confidence, which had come with the birth of the boy. She was consoled-by friends and neigbours; Nnu Ego takes in again and gives birth to a boy named Oshiagu.

The Theme of Preference of Male over Female Child

In Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood, Ibuza’s culture values male children more than female ones. A woman who is not able to bear her husband sons to take up the family name is seen to be a failure and her position in her husband’s house is shaky. Emecheta confirms this; “when Adaku had her own baby weeks later, Nnaife was happier because the new wife gave him a son”. (p. 127) Nnaife recognizes the importance of a male child in his family that is why he is very happy that the new wife gives birth to a son.

Due to the great importance placed by culture on male children, mothers become desperate to have male children for their husbands, to regain their position in their homes.  Emecheta describes the penalties on women not able to produce male children. The punishment is to drive such a woman away or replace with another woman also, she is seen as an incomplete women. This is seen through Adaku, Nnaife’s wife who has not been able to produce male children for her husband. Just as one of the chiefs says to Nnu;

“You are the mother of the men, children that made him into a man. If Adaku dies today, her people, not her husband’s will come for her body. It is not so with you” (159).

This is because male children are preferred to female ones and having male children makes Nnu Ego to have respect in her husband’s house.

Female children are not left out of this cultural discrimination. Emecheta in her work shows that more attention is given to males than females. Male children are sent to school to acquire knowledge while the females are sent to hawk, cook and make money for the family. Oshia and Adim, the sons of Nnu Ego are sent to school, while Taiye and Kehinde, the females are made to hawk with their mother.

Nnu Ego and her husband Nnaife do not think of sending their girls to school. If there is any little money, it will be for the growing baby boy Nnamdio. The girls are to hawk and help their mother in the kitchen. Nnu Ego says:

The twins will have to leave and help me in running the house and in my trade… the author continues by saying she would sit by her stall and the twin girls will hawk the foodstuffs from street to street in search of buyers. Adim and Oshia would attend their private lessons” (174).

Nnu Ego gives various excuses to her daughters, about the reason they should concentrate on hawking and not books. The culture of Ibuza is that women should stay at home and satisfy men Nnu Ego says,

“But you are girls! They are boys. You have to sell to put them in a good position in life, so that they will be able to look after the family” (176).

 In the text, The Joys of Motherhood, Emecheta portrays Nnu Ego as a mother who struggles to provide for her children. She directs all attention to her sons; there is no provision for the females to go to school. She says:

All I have is the five pounds Mama Abby advised me to save two years ago. If I use that now, how will Oshia continue his schooling, and what will happen to Adim? Little Nnamdie is growing too. Oh, this war, this war….nobody tells you anything. (163)

Nnu Ego takes her sons as the only ones who can take proper care of her and the family. She encourages her female children to hawk. She believes a woman does not need education to survive in life but men need it more. She asserts:

“a girl needs to master a trade to help her in later life’. The boys, on the other hand, are encouraged to put more time into their school work” (180).

The great importance placed on male children, creates a wide gap between fathers and their female children fear is instilled in the female children by fathers. Cultural practices prescribes that fathers are meant to be feared. Nnaife, Nnu Ego’s husband does not have time for his female children, but spends time with the boys:

Summary Themes and Characterization in Buchi Emecheta The Joys Of Motherhood

For the first time, Nnaife really looked at Kehinde. He had never had much time for his daughters. One planned for and had sleepless nights over boys; girls, on the other hand, were to help in running the house and be disposed of as soon as possible, unless one was asking for trouble (204).

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 Most times, the attention on male children is always wasted, because it is easy to get female children to obey than the male children. Despite the much training and attention, Nnu Ego imposes on her sons, they go out often to make trouble, and the girls are always calm. Emecheta confirms this:

“… for she had never had any trouble with the girls before. It had always been the boys who had caused the headaches, because they would always be members of the Owulun family” (207). 

Emecheta shows that the female children are not given proper education and attention. She portrays them as those who find it difficult to forget the family they come from, even in their husband’s houses. The females, Kehinde and Taiye take care of their mother with the little they have. Oshia and Adim on the other hand travel out without remembering their mother. Nnu Ego cries about this:

“Nnu Ego dried her tears and said primly, oh I haven’t just got daughters, I have a son in Emelike, a boy in grammer school and another who is going to be a farmer” (223).

She has rich sons who cannot take care of her, but can come for her burial ceremony. Nnu Ego and Nnaife’s male children do not come home after all the sacrifices made by their parents for them to be educated and be successful. They forget, Adim only appear after the death of their mother. Emecheta sheds light on this:

“When her children heard of her sudden death, they all, even Oshia came home. They were all sorry she had died before they were in a position to give their mother good life. She had the noisiest and most costly second burial Ibuza had ever seen and a shrine was made in her name, so that her ground children could appeal to her should they be barren” (224).

Summary Themes and Characterization in Buchi Emecheta The Joys Of Motherhood

The Theme of Wife Battering

Wife battering is one of the ways in which their husbands maltreat wives. Men beat women because; women are do not have respects and they are seen to be weaker than men are. Emecheta portrays Nnu Ego’s first marriage as unsuccessful because of her inability to produce children.

Amatokwu, Nnu Ego’s first husband, shows his irresponsibility by beating his wife Nnu Ego. Nnaife confirms this:

Pity your ideal; Amatokwu almost beat you to death because you did not bear him a son”. 

Amatokwu beats his wife, Nnu Ego so mercilessly that, Nnu Ego’s father Agbadi goes to take his daughter.  Agbadi is quoted as saying:

 “Amatokwu, I don’t blame you for beating her so badly …” (35).

Emecheta portrays men who beat their wives as irresponsible men. Agbadi says:

“I don’t think much of people who ill-treat a woman, because she has not yet borne a child” (39).

Amatokwu refuses to care of Nnu Ego who needs much care because of her childlessness. Amatokwu drives his wife away for her childlessness and he says:

“let her go… she is as barren as a desert” (39).

The Theme of Dereliction of Duties

Emecheta portrays Nnaife as one who abandons his duties to his wife, Nnu Ego. Nnaife leaves his family to suffer and goes to join the army, making money, which he uses in marrying more wives. When Nnaife tells his wife that he wants his son, Adim to go to a cheaper school, she reports:

Cheaper? Nnu Ego’s voice still raised, she asks: Is that because you have spent all your army money, the money you were busy making while the children and I were busy suffering? Oh Nnaife, you are a fool” (185).

Nnu Ego struggles to feed the children and send them to school. Nnu Ego chooses her children above anything in the world. Nnaife maltreats Nnu Ego by blaming her for, her children’s misbehavior Nnaife says to himself: …Her children. None of them had so far showed any loyalty to him, their father. God, what was he to do now? Send this woman away. Tell her never to come near him again? “Damn you and your food, Nnu Ego he repeated aloud (205).

When it comes to Nnaife taking up his duties as the father of the house, he refers his children to his wife, Nnu Ego. When the children do good they are his, and when they do bad they are their mother’s Nnu Ego declares: “When the children were good they belonged to the father: when they were bad, they belonged to mother. Every woman knew this: but for Nnaife to keep hurling it in her face at the slightest provocation was very unfair” (206).

Emecheta agrees that the love Nnaife has for Nnu Ego is turned into hate and so he does not want to see her, he says: “he opened his heavy eyes slowly, frowned at seeing Nnu Ego”. Even in his sleep he hates men, thought, brittle-eyed as she watched that frown from hat came and went” (208).

The Theme of Early Marriage and Bride Price

The early marriage and bride price issue is one of the cultural practices affecting female folks. Emecheta in her text: The Joys of Motherhood explains how the cultural practices of Ibuza support giving out female children into marriage at an early age because of the bride price that will be collected in the marriage. Nnu Ego looks forward to getting the bride price of her girls to send the boys to school as advised by Adankwo:

“And if you are ever in a bad patch with the boys’ education, don’t you know that girls grow very quickly, the twins bride price will help out” (160). 

Nnaife is in a hurry to give out his daughter and so, pushes her into early marriage, because of the bride price. Emecheta confirms this: Nnaife quickly approved of this man, knowing that his daughter was striking a good bargain, and he was in a hurry to get as much money as possible from his children before retiring. Thank goodness, he had no older brother, so the whole bride price would come to him (203).

Nnaife chooses a husband for his daughter, not caring about her happiness; he is determined to kill his daughter if she refuses to marry the man of his choice all because of the huge bride price. He says:

“I shall still kill you; no child of mine is marrying a tribe that calls us cannibals” (210).

Nnaife forgets his daughter’s feelings; he cares only about the bride price. He knows that if his daughter marries a Yoruba man, the bride price will not be as much as an Igbo Man; this makes him refuse a Yoruba Man as a son in-law. Nnaife even expected more apart from the bride price because Ibuza’s culture demands that when a wife is found a virgin, girls should be offered to the bride’s family. Agbadi confirms this:

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Agbadi’s heart was full to bursting point when, the second day, the people from Amatokwu’s compound comes to thank him for giving them his precious daughter Nnu Ego. They did so with six full kegs of palm wine. Agbadi smiled contentedly and invited everybody in his own compound to drink. My daughter has been found an unspoiled virgin. Her husband’s people are here to thank us (30.31). 

Nnaife can even go to the extent of killing his in laws to get his daughter’s bride price. Emecheta confirms this:

“Even to the extent of carrying a cutlass … Yes her bride price” (218).

The Theme of Sacrifice to gods

Apart from the sacrifice of soul, Emecheta describes sacrifice to gods in The Joys of Motherhood. In the text, there are instances where female daughters are scarified to gods for worship and service. Ona, Nnu Ego’s mother is dedicated to the services of the gods. Therefore, she cannot marry any man.

Thus, her life is completely sacrificed to pleasing a god. Emecheta highlights this: How else could she behave since she could not marry him? Because her father had no son, she had been dedicated to the gods to produce children in his name, not that of any husband. Oh, torn she was between two men: she had to be loyal to her father, as well as to her lover Agbadi (17-18).

      Obi Umuna, Ona’s father sacrifices the future of his daughter because of his own inability to produce male children. Emecheta comments:

“he (Obi Umuna) had maintained that she must never marry, his daughter was never going to stoop to any man. She was free to have men, however and if she bore a son, he would take her father’s name, thereby rectifying the omission nature had made” (12).

The Theme of Survival of Women without Men

Emecheta displays some women in The Joys of Motherhood, as those who are able to pass through difficulties, at the same time survive those difficulties. Her husband abandons Nnu Ego with children, yet she survives feeds and sends her children to school with her petty business. Adaku also survives without Nnaife. She moves on with her life even without a male child. Nnu Ego asserts:

“yes, I can see you have been busy making money. Look at all your wares, look at your stalls” (160).

A woman should be ready to move on with her life, not waiting and depending on men. A woman can work and earn money to care for herself and her children. Emecheta shows Nnu Ego as a strong mother who struggles to train her children. Emecheta confirms this: “when Nnaife had gone to Fernando at least she had been by herself” (161).

Adaku also realizes that her waiting for Nnaife’s return is of no use, so, she decides to make money to train her girls. She sighed:

“everybody accuses me of making money all the time. What else is there for me to do? I will spend the money I have in giving my girls a good start in life” (168).

Adaku is ready to take care of her female children who are not regarded as children because they are females. She says:

“I am not prepared to stay here and be turned into a mad woman just because I have no sons” (169).

Adaku puts her position aside and decides to train her girls with the little she has.


Nnu Ego

She is the heroine of the novel. The novel revolves around her. She is the product of the love relationship between Nwokocha Agbadi and his mistress, Ona, the only surviving child of Obi Umunna. Amatokwu had first married her but because she could not have a child then Amatokwu ill-treated her and married a second wife who bore children for him. She respects her father’s views on anything. Agbadi promises Amatokwu that his son will marry Nnu Ego without finding out from Nnu Ego.


He is the second husband of Nnu Ego. He is from the Owulum family. His marriage with Nnu Ego proves that Nnu Ego is not barren after all. He is not educated. He left Ibuza for Lagos to serve the white Colonial officers. Our first contact with him in the novel shows that he is a ‘washerman’ to the Meers. The Meers call him ‘a baboon’ (42).

Nwokocha Agbadi

He is a very wealthy local chief, a brave hunter who is known for his oratory. He is amiable and runs after many women. His handsomeness and wealth attract women to him. He believes in the African tradition. In spite of the changes that have cone with Christianity, he holds strongly to polygamy and the keeping of mistress, especially those with rich backgrounds. He abandons his wives for his mistress. It is said that Agbadi ‘would not have minded sending all his wives away just to live with’ (.10) one of his mistresses.


One of the mistresses of Nwokwocha Agbadi. She is said to be ‘a very beautiful young woman who managed to combine stubbornness with arrogance’ (11).The name Ona was given to her by Agbadi when she was a child. Her father Obi Umunna used to take her to wherever he was going to as a child because he saw her as his ornament since he did not have any other child. And at that time Agbadi had jokingly asked: ‘Why don’t you wear her around your neck, like an ona, a priceless jewel?’ (11).


He is the first son of Mr. and Mrs. Nnaife Owulum. Before he was born, Nnu Ego had given birth to a baby boy named Ngozi. Nnu Ego suffers for him to ensure that he goes to school. Nnub Ego goes through thick and thin to make Oshia happy. Oshia attended Hussey College in Warri- a school attended by the children of the rich. He realized early in life the myth that places a man above his female counterpart.


Nnu Ego and Nnaife’s first child. Ngozi dies in infancy, and his death marks a turning point in the novel, prompting Nnu Ego’s suicide attempt. He is a source of guilt and regret, a specter that haunts Nnu Ego for years.


Nnaife’s brother’s wife whom Nnaife inherits when his brother dies. Young, attractive, peaceful, and self-satisfied, Adaku joins the family in Lagos and soon starts a thriving and lucrative business selling in the marketplace. Her wealth and success go unrecognized because she bears no sons, only two daughters. Tired of her role of inferiority, she moves out of the household and threatens to become a prostitute. The name Adaku means “daughter of wealth.”


The eldest wife of Nnaife’s older brother. Tough, strong, wiry, and dependable, Adankwo is in her early forties and a voice of wisdom and reason among the Ibuza women. She advises Nnu Ego to return home to Lagos in order to keep an eye on Adaku. When Nnaife impregnates her with her last child, she refuses to return to Lagos with him and arranges to have Okpo sent instead.


The second living son of Nnu Ego and Nnaife, known as Adim. Observant and intelligent, Adim grows up in the shadow of his older brother. He quickly figures out the entitlement due him as a male and realizes the opportunities denied him as the second oldest. Quick to act, he prevents his father from murdering the Yoruba butcher. Like Oshia, Adim aspires to better things and later leaves Nigeria to pursue his education in Canada. His name means “now I am two” and shows his place in the male hierarchy of the family.

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Nnu Ego’s father. Agbadi is a highly respected local chief known for both his skill at oratory and for his physical prowess. Cold, disrespectful, and cruel to his wives, he is loving and indulgent to his daughter, whom he treats as the embodiment of and last link to his beloved mistress, Ona. He is a constant source of support and a voice of reason in Nnu Ego’s life.


Ubani’s wife. Cordelia is kindhearted and a good friend to Nnu Ego when she makes the initially tough transition to life in Lagos. She is also a source of jealousy and conflict. Nnu Ego resents the easier, more stable life Cordelia seems to have, an attitude that sparks squabbles and petty disagreements between the women. Her name reveals the colonial influence on the region.

Mama Abby

A prosperous Ibo woman and confidant of Nnu Ego’s. Mama Abby earns respectability through the advancement of her son, the intelligent, upwardly mobile Abby. Her husband was a European who had worked in the Nigerian colonial service. He eventually returned to Europe, leaving his family well provided for. She, too, is of a mixed racial background. Slim, ladylike, and an eventual mother figure to Nnu Ego, Mama Abby is considered upper class but likes to live modestly with other Ibos. Many of the men view her as a negative influence and do not want their wives associating with her.

Dr. Meers

Nnaife and Ubani’s employer. Dr. Meers is the chief occupant of the Yaba compound and works at the Forensic Science Laboratory in Taba. The doctor makes little attempt to hide his racist attitudes concerning his African employees, overtly calling Nnaife a “baboon.”

Mrs. Meers

Dr. Meers’s wife. Mrs. Meers, the only white female character in the novel, has gray, sunken eyes, and appears to have been prematurely aged by the climate and her life in West Africa. She believes she is kind to her African staff, chiding her husband for his racist remarks, but at the same time she maintains a haughty and aloof demeanor of social superiority in their presence.

Obi Umunna

Ona’s father. A great chief and doting father, Obi Umunna is particularly protective of his daughter’s honor and freedom. He allows her to have lovers but does not force her to commit to a marriage. He prizes only an elusive male heir, which his daughter never produces. He is ridiculed for not finding a suitable match for his daughter and viewed by some as an ineffective father because of it.


Nnaife’s sixteen-year-old bride. Okpo is sent to Lagos to live with the family when Adankwo refuses to leave Ibuza. Though she is Nnaife’s wife, Okpo has childlike qualities herself. She understands her traditional role as a wife and praises and flatters Nnu Ego for raising such clever and accomplished children.


Nnu Ego’s oldest surviving son, known as Oshia. Medicine men predict Oshiaju will be an intelligent man of infinite resources whose success will provoke jealousy in others. Tender and firm, Oshia physically resembles his father. He aggressively pursues higher education, working in a laboratory in Lagos and eventually winning a scholarship to a university in America. His name means “the bush has refused this,” referencing his health and the long life predicted for him.

Taiwo and Kehinde

Nnu Ego and Nnaife’s oldest twin girls. Kehinde is quieter and more introspective than Taiwo. She radically breaks with tradition by marrying a Yoruba man. Taiwo is the more fun-loving and adaptable twin. She aspires for a dependable husband and stable home life, both of which she finds with the clerk Magnus. He finds his ideal match in uneducated wife content with the more traditional role of bearing and raising children.


Friend of the Owulums. At first, Ubani is a cook in the Meers’s compound. A good provider, he later gets Nnaife a job cutting grass for the railroad. He is a stable presence in the lives of those around him. He is the one who calmly informs Nnaife that his son, Ngozi, has died.

Language and Style

The author uses a third person narrative technique to tell the story. The person is not limited. It is an omnipresent kind of recording consciousness that sees through all the characters and comments from time to time. The essence of the novel is to show the travails of women as daughters, wives and mothers.

Narrative Technique in the Novel

The author uses a third person narrative technique to tell the story, which the personae are not limited. It is an omnipresent kind of recording consciousness that sees through all the character and comments from time to time.  The author makes uses of some literary figure of speech such as;

Tone and Mood

The narrator gives an unbiased account of the events, so the tone is informative yet separated. The mood is one of tenderness and compassion towards Nnu Ego.


There is a large parallel between Nnu Ego and her mother, Ona. They both die feeling alone and apart from their families as well as their tribes, and after devoting their lives to their children, they don’t experience any rewards.


Emecheta uses many symbolism sin the novel for example; Nni Ego’s birth symbolizes male tyranny against women. The two dreams of Nnu Ego about her pregnancies (45,77-79).


This book is titled The Joys of Motherhood, but almost immediately Emecheta begins tracing how motherhood and suffering are inextricably linked. More importantly, the author explores how women are culturally conditioned to believe they are valuable only in conjunction with their children, in turn placing these women in a servant position from which they will not willfully leave because of their biological commitment to their own children.

For Nnu Ego and Ona motherhood is anything but joyful. It’s a constant reminder of their own seeming powerlessness and inferiority within the system. The title of the novel, The Joys of Motherhood is very ironical, the things that should have made Nnu Ego a fulfilled woman turns out to be her undoing. “She did not make many friends as she had been busy building up her joys of a mother” (224)


Right from the beginning of discovering her pregnancy, Nnu Ego fails to experience any of the commonly expected joys of motherhood. In fact, she greets her pregnancy as retributive punishment unfairly doled out to her for the sins of her father. There is no joy in motherhood, unlucky Nnu Ego has struck out with the conventional effects of hormones on maternal emotions:

“She would feel her body, young firm and like that of any other young woman. She knew that soft liquid feeling of motherhood was lacking. `O my chi, why do you have to bring me so low?’”(p.123)

“Her whole body felt the hazy mist in the air, and part of her felt herself brushing against the white master’s washing on the line. This made her whirl round with a jerk, like a puppet reaching the end of its string.” (p.90)

“`Every woman is dissatisfied on first arriving in this town, so why taunt me with it? You didn’t make a very pretty picture when I came, you know.’(p.163)

Nnaife went on laughing; with that mirthless type of laughter, Nnu Ego could never tell whether he was in sympathy with her or mocking her.” (p.201)

Mr. Harrison

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