Gender Discourse in Chika Unigwe's "Night Dancer"

Elaboration 2018 18 Pages

Literature - Africa


Table of Contents



An Overview of Night Dancer
Theoretical Framework: Feminism
The Rise of Feminism in Africa

Determinant(s) of Male/Female Status in the Text
Gender Roles in the Novel
Female Gender Roles
Male Gender Roles

Image of Women in the Text

Image of Men in the Text


Works Cited


From time immemorial, different societies all over the world have roles/statuses assigned to males and females. There are different images as regards men/women. And male/female relationship is conservatively established. All these gender issues are portrayed through the agency of language, discourse. In this essay, Feminist theory is used in studying gender discourse as it appears in Chika Unigwe’s Night Dancer. This work establishes that the society of the text is highly patriarchal. Hence, the female character who breaks this stranglehold of patriarchy faces societal stigma.

Keywords: gender, discourse, feminism, patriarchy, femininity, and inequality


Literature is conveyed through the instrumentality of language which explores universal themes. One of such themes portrayed in literary works is gender. According to Wodak, ‘gender [is] not only being constructed and performed through language but also accomplished, achieved, enacted, and effected by language’ (699). In constructing gender via language, literary works from the classical periods don’t have equal positions for males and females. This is because the societies in those works are patriarchal. The subordination of women in the West is reflected in a lot of literary works.

In African literature as well, female characters are created to fill a subordinate status in the family cum society. For instance, Nwajiaku states that “Most African societies are patriarchal in constitution. This implies a male- dominated social system, where women are only tangential within the scheme” (345). This ‘male-dominated social system’ is prevalent in early male-authored literary works of African literature. For instance, in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, A Man of the People, No Longer at Ease, women are shown as appendages to their husbands. They are expected to be quiet and subdued and their primary concerns are their children.

Even in early female-authored African literary works, the place of women in society is secondary. For instance, in Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood, Nwapa’s Idu and Efuru, ‘the central concern is with the birth of children, and those wives who have not met this goal are pitched, blamed or gossiped about. (Inyama,19). Hence, the heroines are often made to remain faithful to very irresponsible husbands. Because men occupy superior position in African society, Alkali declares that,

traditional Africa was not a haven for African woman…. She had, and still has her life spiked with harmful traditional and social practices strong enough to denigrate womanhood… [She is faced with] unlimited polygamy, incestuous sexual exploitation, arranged marriages, seclusion, infanticide, female circumcision and starvation (4).

The men in those literary works subject women to the above instances of maltreatment because of gender roles prevalent in the patriarchal society.

However, it is not all literary works that portray women in the negative light. For instance, in Ngugi’s novels such as A Grain of Wheat and Petals of Blood, women are positively presented. For instance, in Grain the women mobilize themselves and build a new settlement for themselves when the men are taken away to detention by the colonialists.

In Unigwe’s Night Dancer, we see how gender roles, relationship, expectations, etc. are defined. All the women, except Ezi, accept their gender image/roles.

An Overview of Night Dancer

Mike and his wife, Ezi, live for four years without a child. Mike’s mother and other family members put pressure on Mike to take another wife in order to propagate the family lineage but he stands by his wife and refuses to marry another wife.

Ezi’s friend, Amara, advises her to get a young maid to look after her. According to Amara, her pastor says that the maid will help open Ezi’s womb miraculously. So, Mike and Ezi go to Lokpanta to get Rapu, a thirteen-year-old girl, as a maid.

Together with Rapu, the couple goes back to Kaduna where they live. Rapu is punctilious and dedicated to her duties to the admiration of all and sundry. Ezi finally conceives. By that time, Rapu is growing into a beautiful young woman. One fateful morning, Mike sees Rapus nakedness as her wrapper falls from her body. So, Mike couldn’t overcome his lust for her. He sleeps with her and gets her pregnant.

Ezi later finds out that Mike is responsible for Rapu’s pregnancy and hell is let loose. Ezi gives birth to Mma while Rapu gives birth to Prince. Against the advice of her mother and others, Ezi divorces her husband and Mike has no option but to marry Rapu. Meanwhile, Ezi’s family disowns her for divorcing her husband.

Therefore, Ezi vows to raise her daughter alone, doing all sorts of things, including sleeping with a lot of men. With the money she gets from those men, Ezi is able to get established and take care of her daughter until she graduates. But Mma faces a lot of societal stigma growing up simply because her mother is a divorcee who makes her money through sleeping with men. Hence, when Ezi dies, Mma goes in search of her father in Kaduna so that people, especially her fiancé Obi, w ill change their opinion about her.

Theoretical Framework: Feminism

According to Akani, (296) Feminist novels react to female subjugation and maltreatment in marriage and ultimately project female assertion. Feminist critics have been trying to reconstitute the manner we read literature so as to do justice to female points of views, interest, worth and value (Abrams 95). In terms of the origin of Feminist Criticism, critics will always draw our attention to Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Right of Woman (1792) and Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929)

According to Ezeaku Feminism is a movement which aims at pulling down of all vestiges of women suppression: politically, socially, academically, religiously and otherwise (6). Sometimes the movement is called either Women's Liberation Movement or the Women's Right Movement. The earlier women's struggle, which was first christened “The Woman Question”, was basically a set of questions that begged for answers, one of which was the status of women in the education sector. Okolocha affirms that “the term is a very broad one, which embraces many different definitions, emphases and stances, which are not necessarily opposed to one another” (33). It was with the coming of post-war novelists such as Iris Murdoch, Muriel Spark, Doris Lessing,Margaret Drabble and Beryl Bainbridge that an authentically female literature representing women's experience and her view of life is found.

The Rise of Feminism in Africa

The rise of feminist movements/campaigns in Africa can be traced more to protests on issues of violence against women. The Lagos Women’s Protest of 1909 was against the introduction of water rate; the Aba Women’s Riot of 1929 was basically a fight against the colonial authority; these women rejected the idea of being counted because they give birth to children; and the Abeokwuta women’s protest against colonial taxation in 1949 completed the third leg of the tripod, in terms of the struggle to eliminate violence against women in Africa (Opara 14).

However, Alkali argues that the African feminist reality has no place in the radical feminism of the West whose concept is superiority based on gender as well as the concept of motherhood which some Western feminists see as biological processes (10-11). Ogbazi, reflecting on the distinction between Western and African feminism, posits that the majority of African feminists insist that feminism in the African context is expected to be rooted in the culture of the people (450). The trio of Catherine Acholonu, Molara Ogundipe-Leslie and Mary Modupe Kolawole advance different feminist theories of Motherism, Stiwanism and Africana Womanism respectively as recognized by African sensibilities. Stiwanism (STIWA), which interprets as “Social Transformation Including Women of Africa”, is propounded by Ogundipe – Leslie. She posits that what is needed in Africa is social transformation and it is not question of warring with men but building a harmonious society. Acholonu, in her Motherism ideology, expresses the strong opinion that African feminism is valid for as long as its concern goes beyond gender issues. Modupe Kolawole's feminist's theory of Africana Womanism views feminism as an ideology that is not individualistic but caters for the common needs of the African people in a repressive and oppressive social condition irrespective of gender, class or race. It is an ideology that seeks to situate feminism in African consciousness for the purpose of dealing with the unique experience, struggles, needs and desires of Africana women (Oyebanji 251).

Determinant(s) of Male/Female Status in the Text

The first thing that determines male/female status is whether the society is patriarchal or matriarchal. But the society of the text is patriarchal. This means that the men use socio-cultural tools to keep the women dependent on them.

As a patriarchally-determined society, women are culturally grafted to men as appendages; women’s respect is relevant when she has a husband. So, it is a violation of a socio-cultural norm for a woman to divorce or remain unmarried. In that case, a woman must stay with her husband no matter how he maltreats her. A woman who violates that norm becomes a deviant. For instance, Ezi’s mother and father disown her when she divorces her husband. For Ezi, she can’t stand polygamy. But even Ezi’s best friend, Madam Gold, tells her that there is nothing wrong with polygamy in their society. Hence, Madam Gold concedes, ‘I know my place. What do you think I’d do if my husband took another wife? We women are little people’ (Night, 15). Even Rapu is ready to be a second wife. We are told that, ‘She [Rapu] would not have minded sharing Mike, had expected to, had even prepared herself to defer to Ezi as the senior wife…’ (Night, 202). All the women in the novel, except Ezi subscribe to this patriarchal culture. We hear Ezi telling her daughter, Mma, how other women in the novel frown at her for being a single mother without explanation. Ezi recounts, ‘I told them [her women neighbor] I had no husband. When they raised their eyebrows and asked about the father of my baby, I told them you had no father. You should have seen their faces!’ (Night, 80).

Little as Madam Gold uses it above encapsulates the unequal relationship between male and female in patriarchal society. Hence, Brown observes that women are “culturally relegated to a secondary status relative to men” (11). In this text, a male child is valued more than a female. Two instances prove that: one, Rapu’s father gives her away as a maid and allows his two sons, Eze and Aru, to continue going to school. For Rapu’s father, ‘If the girl [Rapu] did not want to go to school, let her stay home… Let her stay here and learn what she needs to learn. The boys can stay on’ (Night, 133). Secondly, the reason why Rapu is allowed to come back to Mike’s house after delivery is because she gives birth to a baby boy. Even Ezi acknowledges that fact when she says, ‘Every man deserved a son. If Rapu had not given him [Mike] one, there was no way she would have been allowed back in’ (Night, 195). Mike cannot accept Ezi’s demand to chase Rapu and her son away. If Ezi has given birth to a son, the story would have been different. This is a case of ‘sex discrimination through language, and asymmetrical power relations’ (Kendall and Tannen, 641).

Gender Roles in the Novel

Akani sees ‘gender roles as actions, prospects, and demeanour that are believed to be suitable in a particular situation in human societies for the members of either the female or male gender/sex’ (301). They reflect the domestic and work lenses usually attributed to each gender (Copenhaver 83). By domestic lenses, Copenhaver implies the roles that are expected of women in their families and society. In the novel, femininity demands that feminine roles are anchored primarily on the internal affairs of the family, as wife, mother, and manager of the household. On the other hand, by work lenses, Copenhaver implies roles expected of men in the families cum society. Masculinity in the novel demands that men should work assiduously to provide for their families.

Female Gender Roles

To be wife/mother a woman should conceive and give birth to children for her husband. Any woman who fails in this is not held in high esteem in the family as well as the society. Motherhood is the high point of a woman’s life. Her children constitute a tangible testimony of the fact that she is a woman of status and wealth. A woman who fails in child bearing is in trouble. That is the case of Ezi. When Mike wants to marry Ezi, the former’s mother is very fond of the latter. But when the couple lives for four years without a child, Mike’s mother begins to hate Ezi; she advises Mike to marry another wife. Mike’s mother is not the only one who pressures Mike to marry a second wife. We hear Mike’s uncle, Silas, ask him: ‘You don’t care that nothing would be left of your immediate family when you go?’ (Night, 174). For Silas, the essence of a woman is dependent on giving her husband children in order to maintain the family lineage.

Besides, women are expected to be managers of the home as well as caregivers. We hear Mike’s mother recount to Ezi, ‘I kept my husband loyal to me by learning his tastes and adapting my cooking to them’ (Night, 95). Mama Mike does that because she sees that as her role as a woman. Mama Mike even uses her own experience to teach Ezi how to be a good home manager/caregiver thus: “ ‘Anything you want him to stop , any bad habit, this is the time to get him to stop it. Once you are married, he’d not be too eager to give in to you anymore’ ” (Night, 95). Mama Mike believes that if a woman plays her role very well, she might change her husband’s bad behavior. However, when Ezi and Mike get married, the former fails in her duty as a home manager/caregiver. She asks Mike to bring her a maid. Hence Rapu. It is Rapu that begins to perform Ezi’s duty for her. Rapu is the one cooking the food that Mike eats. The narrator tells us that,

Sometimes she [Rapu] felt like the mistress of the home. She had complete dominion over everything that mattered, everything that made one a wife: she cooked, she cleaned. And it was she who Uncle Mike called if she needed anything. She had made herself indispensable. (Night, 165).

Because Ezi leaves her roles as a wife for Rapu, the latter has laid the foundation for her marital disaster. First, Ezi asks Mike to give him a maid. Secondly, she allows the maid to cook and serve Mike. Mike has begun to even give culinary praise to Rapu instead of his wife, Ezi. For instance, when Mike invites many guests into his house, Ezi leaves the enormous cooking work for Rapu. Rapu cooks and entertains the guests satisfactorily. And when one of the men asks Ezi if it [the culinary feat] had been her handiwork, Uncle Mike smiled and said no, the honour must go to Rapu’ (Night, 167). When by a stroke of fate Rapu becomes Mike’s wife, she is a stark contrast of Ezi. ‘Rapu had guarded her home with a ferociousness that her husband had not suspected that she had. When she eventually got a maid, she would not let her cook nor serve Mike’s food. She insisted on doing that herself’ (Night, 204).

Male Gender Roles

Masculinity in the novel entails that a man should work hard to provide for his family. The reason hinges on the fact that a man ought to ‘provide security/stability’ (Copenhaver, 83). A man is the breadwinner of the family. Mike is an epitome of masculinity in the text. He is a successful businessman. He has the best supermarket in Kaduna. We are told, ‘He was not just successful, he was more successful than he had thought was possible. He had exceeded his ambition’ (Night, 170). He is capable of providing for his family; he keeps housewives. For instance, when Ezi wants to be a career woman, Mike dissuades her and assures her, ‘My wife. It’s my duty to work and provide for us…’ (Night, 176). So, a man’s status in the society is dependent on his income-earning capability to provide what his family needs.

Besides, a man is the custodian of continuity in the text. Hence, ‘For a man it has become a sacred duty towards his whole lineage. Failure to immortalize the ancestors is taboo and a shame that a man cannot bear. As a result, childlessness is associated with women, for the alternative is unthinkable’ (Ngcobo 534). What happens between Mike and Ezi has proved that bareness is a woman’s fault in this patriarchal society. Hence, Mama Mike, Uncle Silas and Mike’s friends advise Mike to marry another wife when Ezi is not able to give him a child after four years of their marriage. For them, they don’t believe that Mike might be responsible for Ezi’s bareness. All they know is that Mike owes his ancestors a duty, to procreate. Even though Mike loves Ezi and doesn’t think like others, his childlessness gnaws at him once in a while. When he looks at his wealth, he will regret, ‘If only he could have a child. It was not for lack of trying. He had thrown his energy into it, thrusting his seed into his wife’s womb, but after four years, there was still nothing to show for his troubles’ (Night, 170-71).

Image of Women in the Text

Typical patriarchal society demands that a woman should be subservient, passive, subdued and dependent. A woman should be under her husband hook, line and sinker. Rapu’s behavior is in line with the traditional image of a passive and dependent woman. In her marriage with Mike, Rapu never projects her views. Ue are told that ‘She[Rapu] was adept at reading Mike’s moods. That was how she had avoided quarrels with Mike over the years’ (Night, *05-6). For instance, when Mike and Rapu receive the message that Mma is coming to Kaduna, Rapu is not happy about the coming but she dare not say otherwise. This is because a woman is not expected to be assertive.

As dependent beings, women see marriage as a solid achievement. A woman ought to marry for her to have a respectable image in society. Let’s take a look at Mma! Ironically, other characters think that she goes in search of her father in order to apologize to him on behalf of his late mother. But her ulterior motive is to show the world that she has a father after all. Mma concludes that, ‘If he [her father] had been in her life she would not have had boyfriends date her and then dump her for the more suitable sort [for marriage]. Or have Obi drag his feet about her now’(Night, 14). So Mma believes that the reason for her delay in marriage is because people think that she uill behave like her mother. They believe that, ‘… prostitution, like crime, was hereditary’ (Night, 68).

However, Ezi is a subversive woman who violates the patriarchal image of women. In the first place, she is inordinately ambitious which is uncharacteristic of women. For instance, Madam Gold tells Mma: ‘She [Ezi] was bent on going to the university, succeeding in a man’s world. Did you know that she once svore to your [maternal] grandmother that she would never get married?’ (Night, 10*). When she eventually gets married to Mike, this sense of ‘Woman Almighty’ surfaces in her relationship with him. Rapu observes that the way Ezi talks to Mike is not customary. For Rapu, ‘A woman mustn’t ridicule her husband in front of another. Not even a joke. It seemed this woman’s mother [Ezi’s mother] did not do a very good job of teaching her manners’ (Night, 161).

Ezi’s violation of passive image of women in Africa is seen in the way she divorces her husband because he impregnates another woman, Rapu. Ezi decides to be single-parent, thinking that she uill raise her daughter with decision/handwork. Nobody shares the same subversive view her; her family throws her out; her best friend, Madam Gold, advises her to endure her polygamous marriage. But Ezi stubbornly leaves her husband as Madam Gold tells Mma, ‘Your mother was very stubborn. Very stubborn’ (Night, 11). But choosing to be divorcee in this patriarchal society is not as easy as Ezi thinks! Even her daughter, Mma, is not in support of her when she grous up.

Paradoxically,…women appear to contribute substantially to the victimization of their fellow women’ (Inyama, 19). For instance, other women except Ezi, see nothing wrong with their husbands being polygamous/having extra-marital affairs. It suffices to say that ‘the ideal vife ….is loyal even when [her husband] deserts her for another woman’ (Ngcobo 538). Even Mama Gold tells Mma that it is natural for a man in Mike’s shoes to marry another wife or have extra-marital affair. For Madam Gold, ‘It’s only natural. They would have planted their seeds in many places, hoping that at least one would sprout. Anybody who tells you otherwise is lying’ (Night 1*). Those women who marry/date married men already know that those men have wives at home. Yet they date/marry them. Look at Rapu when is still a maid in Mike’s house! The first day Mike enters Rapu’s room to have sex with her, we are told that ‘…it seemed like destiny when she [Rapu] did not fight him [Mike], but opened up warmly to welcome him as if she had waited her entire life for this’ (Night, 185). Rapu doesn’t resist Mike even when she knows that Mike is married and all of them live in the same house. Even Ezi who finds it impossible to share Mike with Rapu is having sex with other married men after she divorces Mike. For instance, Ezi’s house at ‘Nneni street was a gift from a married man…’(Night, 85). If is averse to sharing her husband in a traditional polygamous home, why does she have affairs with other people’s husbands?

Image of Men in the Text

Men are assertive and independent. We see this in Mike’s character. It is true that he loves Ezi. However, his assertive nature is put to test when he impregnates his maid, Rapu. She gives him a son. Ezi pressures Mike to drive Rapu and her son away. But Mike refuses to take Ezi’s suggestion. He therefore chooses his son over Ezi. As a man, he doesn’t allow his wife to control him. For instance, when Rapu objects to Mma’s coming, Mike overruled her objection. His independent nature is seen in his ability to build a successful business. He provides all the needs of family without anybody’s assistance.

Also, men are not faithful to their wives. It is customary for the married men to keep extra-marital affair. Even Mike fits into this image when she starts sleeping with her maid, Rapu. We hear other men telling Mike, “ ‘Get a girlfriend, get her pregnant and raise the baby’ ”(Night, 170). The men seem to enjoy that customary privilege of cheating on their wives. Hence, as a maid, ‘Rapu was certain that Uncle Mike had a woman outside. All men did but wise women kept their eyes sharp and their tongues warm and they saw and lured their men back home before things go out of control’ (Night, 161). It is this customary privilege that the patriarchal society confers on men to cheat on their wives


The society described in the text is patriarchal. The male and female characters in the novel follow traditional and prescribed gender roles and behaviors. The men are the leaders, and they control the situation. The women are passive and dependent on their husbands. However, the novelist shows that the ‘… stereotypical portrayal of women as silent, passive and docile beings is no longer the order of the day’ (Akani 304). This opinion is expressed using Ezi. She thinks that she can subvert patriarchal-established norms and go unscathed. But she is rather consumed by the patriarchal cum traditional fire. Ezi’s case echoes Ngcobo‘s assertion that, ‘…those women who fail to make it as good wives are treated harshly… [People in this patriarchal society] are merciless against a woman character who fails to [live up to] traditional expectations’ (Ngcobo 539).

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Title: Gender Discourse in Chika Unigwe's "Night Dancer"