The Concubine by Elechi Amadi is an interesting novel replete with several issues bothering on communal life, love, superstition, death, widowhood and fate. All of these have been well-crafted into the main thrust of the story, which makes the novel one of Africa’s masterpieces ever, both in terms of content and form.
In the novel , The Concubine, Elechi Amadi demonstrates an exceptional bond borne out of communal co-existence. Life in Amokachi and the surrounding villages is filled with deep love and respect for one another. Though the inhabitants of these villages are not related by blood, they care about one another and are there for one another in times of anguish and sorrow. When Emenike dies, Ihuoma is not left alone when the raining season starts. Ekwueme and others feel the sense of responsibility to help her thatch her leaking roof. Houses are built so close to one another that one person can overlook the other in case of trouble or any external invasion. This makes it easy for people to be their brothers’ keeper. In short, one villager’s worry or glory is another’s. It is such a near-perfect, beautiful world that characterised the African life before the intrusion of the heartless and mischievous white colonialists. It is what the highly celebrated African literary icon, Chinua Achebe demonstrates in his award-winning and widely translated novel, Things Fall Apart.
Of course, love, being a universal theme, often forms a major concern of most African novels. Little wonder, even Elechi Amadi takes a different view of the subject in the novel, The Concubine. The question that often pops up is, is Elechi Amadi trying to show that love is blind to a convention? Truly, parties in love, especially for the first time, are usually blinded by their own inclination so much that they tend to ignore everything else. This is the case with Ekwueme in the story. Despite his awareness of the position of custom and tradition of the land that a betrothal marriage must be sealed, he goes ahead to propose to Ihuoma, the beautiful widow. The question is, what does true love imply? Must two people in love with each other necessarily get married? Does love between two marriageable opposite sexes always end up in sexual intercourse, in the form of boyfriend and girlfriend or in the form of a married couple? No doubt, EKwueme’s relationship with Ahurole heads for the rock, not because the young man does not enjoy sexual pleasure with her, but because his heart longs for someone else, which is Ihuoma.
Superstition is another theme in the novel. In traditional African life, superstition surrounds individuals like a plague, especially with regard to their health. For example, smallpox is considered extremely ominous. The disease is so dreaded that people dared not call it smallpox. Instead, they call it “the good thing” when referring to it. Also, when a person dies of smallpox, people are forbidden to mourn him. Even during the person’s illness, people must avoid him like plague. That is not all, even some animals are attached to some superstitious belief. For instance, it is believed that a vulture does not perch on anyone’s roof except that it brings a divine message to the household. And after this, people go to consult the oracle on the import of the message and the befitting sacrifices must follow. With all these scenes of superstition in the novel, Amadi seems to be concerned with how much harm people must have brought upon themselves due to ignorance. Due to ignorance in the form of beliefs, lives have been lost, property and resources wasted and bright hope and future dashed.
Also prominent in the novel is the issue of death. Death, the destroyer of desires, is portrayed in different lights in the story. When Emenike dies, because of what many believe to be lock-chest (even though Okachi, Ihuoma’s mother believes Madume caused it), everybody saw the need to bury him the proper way. In short, Ihuoma with almost all the people of Omakachi believe that Emenike was highly honoured, due to the expensive and glamorous burial ceremony for which many people came from far and near. In contrast, Madume’s death is an eye-sore. Therefore, the tradition dictates that he must neither be mourned nor be given a grand second burial. This is because suicide is considered a taboo. In order to prevent his evil corpse from affecting others, his body will have to be disposed of in the deep forest, like an animal. Also noteworthy in relation to death in the story is the idea that, there is no natural death; that one way or another a man’s death must have been caused by either man or a supernatural force. For instance, both Eminike and Madume’s death is linked to the Sea-King who so love and is jealous of, his mysterious wife Ihuoma, he punishes anyone that threatens or loves her with death. Even the fine, admirable character in the story, Ekwueme, is not spared the wrath of the fiery Sea-King.
Closely related to the theme of death is widowhood. Interestingly, this theme is recurrent in many African pieces by prominent authors such as Isidore Okpewho in The Last Duty , Mariama Ba in So Long a Letter , Bayo Adebowale in
Lonely Days among others. In all of them, the maltreatment and psychological trauma the widow goes through in the name of custom and tradition is never left out. This practice is so ingrained in many traditional African cultures that one wonders if being a woman in some parts of Africa is a curse. If not, why should there always be widow’s rites and not widower’s rites? Why on earth must a woman go through pain and suffering because her husband died? Most writers who have so much dwelled on this issue of marriage ask these questions often.
To many, marriage is regarded as the eternal union between a man and a woman sealed by an unconditional love. While many people might agree to this definition, others might ask that the last part “…sealed by an unconditional love” be removed. In any case, these questions usually come to mind any time this issue surfaces: What makes a successful marriage? Is it sex or true love? Must the partner be a virgin? What is the problem with marrying a widow? Children or not, don’t they also have the right to love or to sex? Why must couple quarrel in their first few weeks of wedlock? All of these seem to be Elechi Amadi’s concern in the novel. Ekwueme’s love affair with Ahurole then Ihuoma is reflecting these questions. In short, when we consider Ihuoma’s reluctance to accept Ekwueme’s advances and the latter’s
defilement of the tradition of betrothal, we would realise that neither love nor sexual desire precedes a successful marriage. What happens when two people are “forcefully” made to enter into the marital union is reflected in Ekwueme’s disappointment in himself a few days after marrying his betrothed Ahurole. About this, the narrator observes:
“Ekwueme was annoyed with himself. Before marriage he thought he know all the answers to domestic problems and vowed that when he got married he would never have to call in a third party, not even his parents, to decide anything between him and his wife. He used to despise men who had to beat their wives call in arbitrators to settle disputes every other day. Now that he was one of them, he felt confused.” (page 143)
The indisputable fact that all human beings are bound to their fate is also an important issue in The Concubine. The freer we think we are from our fate the closer we get to it. Whether we like it or not, what will be will be. This moral essence seems to be the major thrust of the story. Just as Odewale in Ola Rotimi’s classic play, The Gods Are Not to Blame cannot escape from the grip of his fate, despite all efforts made to achieve that, Ekwueme’s determination to marry Ihuoma by all means is also to no avail. With this, Elechi Amadi appears to aver that nothing in life is done or undone except that there is a supernatural touch to it.
In conclusion, Elechi Amadi’s The Concubine is a unique novel written in such a way that we as readers see ourselves in it. The struggles, pain, love, hate, death and other issues treated therein are indeed a reflection of our humanity.