by Elechi Amadi
THE LITERARY WORK
A novel set in a remote Nigerian village at an unspecified mythical time; published in English in 1966.
A beautiful, virtuous woman unwittingly brings death and destruction to all men who desire her.
Elechi Amadi was born near Port Harcourt in eastern Nigeria in 1934. Educated at Government College, Umuahia, and University College, Ibadan, Amadi received a degree in mathematics and physics. He taught science and mathematics from 1960 to 1963 in Merchants of Light School, Oba, before joining the Nigerian army. After three years Amadi left the army to teach and begin a writing career. His first novel, The Concubine, received accolades for its vivid depictions of Nigerian village life and remained highly popular in subsequent decades. Amadi went on to write more novels as well as plays and works of nonfiction, including an autobiographical account of his experience in Nigeria’s civil war (Sunset in Biafra, 1979) and a book of his philosophical ideas (Ethics in Nigerian Culture, 1982). Basic to all his works is the concept of life as an ongoing struggle. “There is a rather ironic contradiction between Amadi’s philosophy about man’s insignificance and ultimate impotence in the hands of the gods, and the fact that his characters struggle to the very end, irrespective of obstacles and threats even from the gods,” as demonstrated in The Concubine (Eko, p. 1).
Although Amadi never specifies that the characters in The Concubine are Igbo (or Ibo), they are supposed by critics to belong to Igbo society. The Igbo reside primarily in southeastern Nigeria. Amadi’s fictional term for them is “Erekwi”; a little shuffling of the letters produces “Ikwere,” the ethnic group to which Amadi himself belongs. The Ikwere speak a distinct language within the Igbo language cluster, and they are a riverine people, which helps explain the appearance in their pantheon of a sea-king deity, who enters into the plot of The Concubine.
The traditional Igbo lived in small self-governing villages, each comprised of kin who traced their origins to a mutual ancestor. They did not base their society on a centralized government or supreme political authority, such as a king or chief. Rather the Igbo vested power in the people themselves or in a council of elders. These elders, drawing on the wisdom of the ancestors, settled land disputes and other fractious or crucial matters. There were public forums, too, at which the poor, the rich, and the young, as well as the old could voice opinions before decisions affecting the whole village were made. In the novel the village of Omokachi corresponds closely to this model. It has no single leader; instead the villagers themselves govern their community, giving particular weight to the judgment of the elders. At one point, the protagonist Ihuoma reminds her greedy neighbor Madume that a land dispute between him and her late husband, Emenike, has been decided in Emenike’s favor by the village elders. At another juncture, the domestic disputes of the unhappily married Ekwueme and Ahurole are arbitrated by the elders of Omokachi and of Ahurole’s home village, Omigwe.
Gods and mortals
Polytheism—the worship of many gods—was characteristic of precolonial Igbo society. However, this did not preclude the belief in a supreme deity. Once close to people, the supreme being, Chukwu, was thought to have withdrawn from direct intervention in their affairs.
Igbo mythology is replete with examples illustrating the fact that this supreme being used to be close to individuals, and in fact used to intervene in the affairs of individuals and communities, until it was annoyed by the aberrant behaviour of some individuals, women especially, who transgressed one overriding code or the other…. From all accounts, it appears that the supreme being having decided to abscond from intervention in the day to day activities of human beings decided to vest some of His powers on beings with lesser and localized powers.
(Opata, p. 150)
There was no equivalent of Satan, or the devil, in the precolonial faith. While the Igbo ascribed one evil or another to various deities in the pantheon, no single spirit was thought to embody all evil. Likewise, the precolonial faith did not include a concept of hell.
The traditional Igbo appear to have preoccupied themselves most often with their own guardian spirit. “The supreme being is nominally supposed to be in charge of all things. At the individual level, however, the chi, variously interpreted as the guardian angel or the personal spiritual guardian of every individual, appears to play a more active role in the affairs of any individual” (Opata, p. 150). The belief was that a person’s chi had a direct hand in his or her affairs. Igbo ideas of destiny and free will were bound up with chi. “Each individual,” taught the Igbo, “has a destiny ascribed to his life” and his personal god controls his destiny (Opata, p. 151). The proverb “if one attempts to run in front of one’s chi, the person would run himself to death” alludes to the power of destiny; in order to succeed, one’s objectives for oneself must be aligned with those of one’s own chi. Other proverbs allude to free will, and taken together the two types of proverbs (on destiny and on free will) reflect the duality in Igbo thought. The belief was that everyone had hidden powers, supplied by his or her chi. A person had only to make use of these powers to score achievements in life. In other words, one can affect one’s own destiny, or, as a proverb says, “if a man wills, his personal chi wills also.”
A man and his chi were not thought of as perennially tied together. “There are areas of life in which one must struggle to achieve something by oneself, with or without the active support and collaboration of one’s chi” (Opata, p. 162). It was, however, believed that a man must at all times be on good terms with his chi, so that when called upon, it would come to his support. When someone failed “to mobilise his chi to support a particular undertaking,” the spirit was commonly said to be asleep or away (Opata, p. 163). In the Concubine, Emenike, despite his prowess as a wrestler, suffers serious injuries in a fight with the less skillful Madume, a circumstance attributed to his god’s neglect of him: “a man’s god may be away on a journey on the day of an important fight and that may make all the difference. This was clearly what had happened in the last fight between Madume and Emenike” (Amadi, The Concubine, p. 7). By the end of the novel, however, it becomes clear that more may be going on here. Another supernatural force may have had a hand in the failure—namely, the Sea-King, whom the novel reveals to be the husband of the beautiful, seemingly mortal woman that Emenike has married. Jealous, this sea god bears deadly ill will for his wife’s human husbands, Emenike included.
In Igbo society, when an individual fell victim to an accident or illness for no discernible reason, it was frequently believed that he had offended a god, who then had to be appeased by ritual offerings and sacrifices, often of goats and chickens. This inclination to assuage the supernatural entities manifested itself often in Igbo households. Villagers turned to sacrifice as a way—in fact, the only way—to escape the evil intentions of a given spirit. A priest of the god in question, known as a dibia (“medicine man”), would perform the sacrifice, acting as an intermediary between the human and spirit worlds. It was the duty of the dibia to inform the people when to sacrifice, either as tradition dictated through the year or to meet an individual need. The dibia also specified the type of sacrifice to be made. In the novel, the villagers of Omokachi are grateful for the services of Nwokekoro, priest of Amadioha (god of thunder), and Anyika, a medicine man of considerable reputation. It is Anyika who divines the truth of the beautiful Ihuoma’s origins—that she is the human incarnation of the Sea-King’s wife—and discovers the threat that she unwittingly poses to all her suitors.
Because Igbo society was both male-dominated and patriarchal, gender roles tended to be very traditional. Men supported their families by farming and hunting; they were also expected to contribute to public festivals, honor sacrificial obligations, and defend their communities in times of war. Women led largely but not solely domestic lives, learning to carry out household chores from early childhood. Once women were married, their primary duties included cooking, raising children, and otherwise maintaining an orderly household. They also took part in fieldwork, planting and harvesting crops of their own. Margaret M. Green writes, “Husbands and wives both have crops, the men having chiefly yam and the women having cocoyam and cassava and often a certain amount of yam…. It is the women who provide the lion’s share of the normal family food, buying such extras as salt out of their own money” (Green, p. 170). Women likewise did the lion’s share of buying and selling at the marketplace, with men sponsoring wives and daughters who conducted trade. In The Concubine, the polarization of men and women into gender-specific spheres is readily observable. The male villagers, including Emenike, Madume, and Ekwueme, spend their days farming and hunting while the women cook, clean house, and tend the needs of the men. Adaku, Ekwueme’s mother, waits devotedly upon her husband and son and has trained her daughter, Nkechi, to do the same. Similarly, Ihuoma, Emenike’s wife, is considered a paragon by her village because of her attentiveness to her husband.
Courtship and marriage
Although love might be a factor in an Igbo marriage, it was not necessarily the sole reason for the union. After marriage a woman’s husband attached a value to her along with the other property of his household. In the man’s eyes, the best possible bride was one who could bring him material wealth and bear him healthy children. Each Igbo family inhabited a compound of closely grouped houses, and a new wife had to adjust to living in the compound. Expected to fit into her husband’s family, she became more than his wife. She took her place as a member of his clan, entitled to belong to it and obligated to share in everything that affected it. A bride’s best interests were in adapting to the ways of her new relatives, among whom she would be living.
A man might select his own bride and then acquire his parents’ consent to the match. Otherwise the marriage might be arranged by two families when a woman reached marriageable age (around 16 years old) or when she and her prospective husband were still children. In this case, both sets of parents would conclude the childhood betrothal, then enter into marriage negotiations when the girl reached the appropriate age. An intermediary of the groom’s family would initiate the process, visiting the bride’s family with a present of palm wine. Later, visits between the families ensued, more gifts were exchanged, and a bride price—payment from the man’s to the woman’s family—was agreed upon. Meanwhile, the couple became better acquainted with each other. The girl, in particular, was expected to spend time in what would be her future home with her future family. On her first stay, she remained four Igbo weeks (16 days). While her prospective husband’s family welcomed her, the bride-to-be would also be subject to criticism. Her new family would size her up, so to speak, judging how well she measured up to their standards and how smoothly she would fit into the day-to-day workings of the extended family household.
There was no fixed interval between the time of betrothal and the actual marriage, which was left to the discretion of the families. The final wedding festivities—which included a marriage feast—lasted seven days, at the end of which the bride would be escorted to her new home, at night, by her female companions. In the novel, the marriage preparations of Ekwueme and Ahurole follow just such a pattern. Betrothed when Ekwueme was five years old and Ahurole only eight days old, they have little contact until their parents start marriage negotiations, a circumstance complicated by their living in different villages. Their budding relationship is further strained by Ahurole’s immaturity and Ekwueme’s preference for the widowed Ihuoma, who has refused him. Nonetheless, the young couple attempts to obey the strictures of tradition. Ekwueme dutifully calls on his betrothed, and Ahurole pays an extended visit to her prospective in-laws in Omokachi.
DIVORCE, IGBO STYLE
In Igbo society, dissolving a marriage tended to be less com-I plicated than formulating one, A man could divorce his wife simply by ordering her to leave his compound. If she resisted, he could drive her out. She was entitled to take nothing with her, save her cooking pot and a few personal possessions, which were usually thrown after her in a symbolic gesture of repudiation. Their children remained with her husband. Since the man had paid a bride price, he treated his wife as his possession. But women were not without some rights of their own. They could initiate divorce proceedings in an unsatisfactory or abusive marriage by running away from their husbands. A man who was so abandoned might demand his wife’s return or, if he agreed to the divorce, a refund of what he had paid for her. The bride price, however, was not likely to be refunded unless she remarried, in which case her new husband would reimburse his predecessor. In the novel, the conscience-stricken Ahurole runs away after Ekwueme seemingly goes mad from a love potion she gave him. The marriage is thus dissolved; Ahurole’s embarrassed father even refunds the bride-price.
Pride and polygyny
Among the Igbo, polygyny—the practice of having more than one wife—was not merely an accepted fact but was considered a sign of prestige and prosperity. Igbo men typically showed an interest in acquiring an increasing number of wives until old age discouraged them from doing so. The more wives they had, the higher their social status was in Igbo society. Under native law and custom, however, a man’s first wife enjoyed certain privileges; she was head of the womenfolk in the family compound. Subsequent wives were considered secondary to the first wife or “headwife” in all respects. Igbo women themselves were often proponents of polygyny, because of the added social status their husbands acquired after marrying again. It was humiliating to be a man’s only wife, for such a status intimated that the husband was a poor man. If, on the other hand, one was a first wife in charge of several other women, one gained status with the position. A headwife frequently found the women who later joined her husband’s household to be a source of companionship and domestic assistance. In the novel, Madume schemes to acquire the recently widowed Ihuoma as his second wife. Not only does Madume’s wife, Wolu, refrain from contesting this plan, she even argues that Ihuoma should be appointed first wife over her because Ihuoma is “better than I” (The Concubine, p. 70).
Women took an active role in their relationships with men in other ways too. Especially in the polygynous family with a great many wives, it was not uncommon for a woman to have a discreet affair (concubinage) outside her marriage. This practice figures in The Concubine, whose female protagonist is already married, although for much of the novel she does not know it. As indicated by the events that transpire, she may therefore become the concubine of another male with impunity, but his wife only at his peril. Of course, not all Igbo marriages were polygynous. There were husbands who had only one wife, as Emenike does in the novel. After he dies, his family continues to regard his widow as part of their unit and expects her to take care of her late husband’s property, although his brother steps in as head of her family.
The novel begins with a forest encounter between Emenike, a young man of Omokachi village, and Madume, a fellow villager with whom he has recently quarreled over land. The two men brawl, but their fight ends when Madume throws Emenike on top of a jagged tree stump, knocking him unconscious. Madume flees the scene, while the injured Emenike comes to and limps home.
The day after the brawl it becomes apparent that Emenike’s injuries are very serious. His wife, Ihuoma, a beautiful and virtuous woman, sends for Anyika, the village medicine man, who performs purification rites to banish evil spirits and speed Emenike’s recovery. Meanwhile, Madume lies low, nursing his resentment over the more popular Emenike’s prosperity, envying him both his lands and his wife, whom Madume courted unsuccessfully before her marriage. Nonetheless, Madume hopes no one in Omokachi will hold him responsible should Emenike die.
At first Emenike appears to recover, especially after Nwokekoro, priest of Amadioha, the god of thunder, offers a sacrifice on his behalf. But the young man eventually succumbs to an illness known as “lock-chest,” ostensibly caused by his working too long in the rain. Now a grieving widow with three children, Ihuoma wonders how she will handle all her new responsibilities, which include running Emenike’s farm and looking after the family compound in which she lives. Visits from her mother, Okachi, and a young male neighbor, Ekwueme, however, bring her some consolation. After returning to his own family compound, Ekwueme finds himself thinking wistfully of Ihuoma’s beauty and grace.
A year after Emenike’s death, Ihuoma carries out a final mourning ritual, sacrificing some of her livestock and holding a feast for the villagers in her late husband’s honor. Eight days after this ceremony, Ihuoma lays aside her sackcloth mourning clothes and dresses as she did before. As she regains her looks and spirits, men begin to admire her again. One day, while Ihuoma visits her parents in the neighboring village of Omigwe, her mother suggests that she might remarry and mentions Ekwueme as a possible suitor. But Ihuoma becomes upset and refuses to consider the matter.
Before the rainy season begins, Ihuoma’s brother-in-law, Nnadi, and some of his friends, including Ekwueme, volunteer to thatch her leaky roof. Ihuoma gratefully accepts their help and cooks a large meal for the roofers. Ekwueme lingers after the others have left for the night and tries to speak to Ihuoma of his growing feelings for her, but she seems distant and aloof. Discouraged by her lack of response, a moody Ekwueme returns to his own family compound.
That night he has a strange dream about Emenike, Ihuoma’s dead husband, who tries to drag him across a dark stream. On hearing of the dream, Adaku, Ekwueme’s doting mother, persuades him to visit the medicine man Anyika for a protective charm. Later, despite Ihuoma’s apparent indifference to him, Ekwueme enlists the assistance of Nnenda, one of Ihuoma’s friends, to further his courtship. Adaku, however, grows concerned about her son’s infatuation with Emenike’s widow and decides that it is time for him to marry.
The Igbo, especially the women, responded to the death of a loved one with loud weeping and lamentations. The widow or mother of the newly deceased would often be surrounded by friends and family lest she do herself an injury while deranged with grief. The speedy burial of the deceased—along with some emblems of his life and work, like his favorite tools and weapons—was accompanied by sacrifices and purification rites. A new widow was expected to weep copiously for her dead husband during the four or five days immediately following her loss. She would then move to a secluded house in the family compound, where no man could see or speak to her for three Igbo weeks (12 days). For seven Igbo weeks (28 days), a widow was prohibited from bathing or combing her hair. Her sole occupation during that time was to mourn for her dead. After an unspecified length of time, however, a “second burial” ceremony was held for the deceased. Unlike the original burial, this ritual was far more festive, a feasting rather than a grieving time, the occasion in which the deceased received a celebratory goodbye before leaving for the spirit world. The deceased’s family spared no expense in honoring the memory of the departed—besides feasting, the second burial often featured singing and dancing. In the novel, Emenike’s friends stage a mock-wrestling bout to honor their late comrade’s prowess as a wrestler.
Meanwhile, Madume, Emenike’s greedy neighbor, has also begun to think about Ihuoma again. Although Madume already has a wife and four daughters, he wants to take a second wife in hopes of siring a son. Madume’s wife, Wolu, is not upset by his interest in Ihuoma, whom she admires, but her husband’s indifference to their own children distresses her. Hoping to ingratiate himself with Ihuoma, Madume pays her a visit but cuts his foot badly while he is at hercompound. Beset by vague fears, Madume consults Anyika, who divines that the gods are behind Madume’s injury because they want him to leave Ihuoma alone. Anyika tells Madume to make a series of complicated sacrifices to appease these angry spirits. Madume performs these rites and reluctantly decides to renounce Ihuoma as a prospective second wife. He remains determined, however, to claim the land over which he and Emenike once quarreled. Sneaking over there at night, Madume is surprised by Ihuoma, who orders him to leave her husband’s property alone. Madume lays rough hands on Ihuoma while restraining her and makes her cry. Ihuoma’s friends and neighbors come to her defense, but a defiant Madume insists on claiming what he feels is his. He starts to cut down a huge plantain tree, but seconds later, he is blinded by the venom of a spitting cobra hiding among the leaves. Despite an elaborate sacrifice and the application of various remedies, Madume remains totally blind.
SUICIDE, A TABOO
In the past, certain acts were considered abominations, which I called for elaborate sacrifices and purification rituals. Suicide, an offense committed by Madume in the novel, was one such act. The belief was that no one had the right to reject the gift of life, which came from Chukwu, so suicides were spiritual outcasts. The Igbo subscribed to the existence of two worlds—the human world in which they lived and the spiritual one in which the ancestors dwelled. Suicides were not given decent burials because they were not allowed to return to the world of the ancestors. Neither did they belong in the human world, according to Igbo thought. Instead they were carried into a part of the forest to prevent pollution of the earth and ward off evil spirits.
Although Wolu ministers to her husband devotedly, Madume grows increasingly irrational and angry. Terrified, Wolu and her daughters steal away one night, returning to find that Madume has hanged himself in their absence. The body is cut down and taken to the forest “into which bodies rejected by the earth were thrown” (The Concubine, p. 98).
Ekwueme continues to visit Ihuoma who, despite her growing fondness for the young man, tries not to encourage his pursuit. When Ekwueme finally declares his love and expresses a desire to marry her, Ihuoma reminds him that he has been betrothed since childhood to Ahurole, a young girl from Ihuoma’s own native village of Omigwe. Despite Ekwueme’s protestations, Ihuoma insists that he honor his prior commitment. Meanwhile, Ekwueme’s parents, alarmed about their son’s attentiveness to Ihuoma, decide to accelerate plans for his marriage to Ahurole. Ekwueme informs his parents that he wants to marry Ihuoma instead. His father, Wigwe, tries to dissuade him, reminding him that Ihuoma’s first loyalties belong to her children and Emenike’s property, but Ekwueme remains obdurate. Wigwe and Ekwueme then pay a late-night visit to Ihuoma’s compound, during which Wigwe asks Ihuoma if she will marry his son. Mortified by the sudden proposal, Ihuoma refuses outright. Ekuewme’s betrothal to another, along with the unexpectedness of the proposal, prompt her to reject him. Now convinced that Ihuoma does not reciprocate his feelings, the young man agrees to marry Ahurole.
After six months of negotiations and visits to his bride-to-be in Omigwe, Ekwueme marries Ahurole and brings her to live in Omokachi. The young couple encounters marital difficulties almost immediately. Young and beautiful, Ahurole is prone to moodiness and frequent tearful outbursts. Ekwueme grows impatient with his wife’s capriciousness and wishes she were calmer and more mature, like his mother or Ihuoma. One night, during a quarrel, Ekwueme strikes Ahurole and she runs back to her parents’ house. The couple reunites after elders from both villages arbitrate their dispute, but their reconciliation is short-lived: “[Ekwueme’s] resentment and resignation deepened. He tried to ignore his wife as much as possible. In retaliation she avoided him. They spoke to each other in monosyllables and only on inevitable topics like eating. Gradually the gulf widened between them” (The Concubine, p. 187).
As Ekwueme’s marriage founders, his interest in Ihuoma revives. Unwilling to cause greater problems between Ekwueme and Ahurole, Ihuoma tries again to keep the young man at arm’s length. Nonetheless, Ahurole soon learns of her husband’s attraction to Ihuoma and seeks the advice of her mother, who suggests she purchase a love potion. Ahurole visits Anyika but he refuses to give her what she asks for because in the long run it might harm Ekwueme: “I am sure you have seen active and intelligent men suddenly become passive, stupid and dependent. That is what a love potion can do” (The Concubine, p. 207). Undeterred, Ahurole’s mother goes to a medicine man in the neighboring village of Chiolu and obtains the potion for her daughter. Ahurole hides the drug in Ekwueme’s food; the young man then begins to suffer from a variety of physical complaints, including dysentery, boils, and muscle aches. Although these ailments eventually subside, Ekwueme grows lethargic, then oddly restless and moody, alarming his family. One day he becomes completely irrational and bolts out of the compound. Encountering Ahurole on one of the paths, Ekwueme chases his terrified wife through Omokachi until his fellow villagers catch and restrain him. That night Ekwueme escapes and flees into the forest. The younger men of the village team up to search for him; Ahurole, too ashamed to admit her part in Ekwueme’s madness, runs away.
Meanwhile, Anyika realizes that Ekwueme is suffering from the effects of a love potion and hurries to concoct an antidote. In the morning Ekwueme is still missing but eventually his friends find him, armed with a club, sitting in a tree. The villagers try unsuccessfully to talk him down. Ekwueme suddenly asks for Ihuoma, who is hurriedly summoned. To everyone’s surprise, he listens to reason and descends from the tree at her request.
Back at the compound Ekwueme regains his senses after Ihuoma persuades him to take Anyika’s antidote. Once recovered, he starts visiting Ihuoma frequently, this time with his family’s blessing. Informed of Ahurole’s flight and the impending dissolution of Ekwueme’s marriage, Ihuoma at last admits her love for the young man and agrees to marry him. Anyika, however, opposes the marriage after divining that Ihuoma is the human incarnation of a favorite wife of the Sea-King, “the ruling spirit of the sea” (The Concubine, p. 253). Because of the Sea-King’s jealousy, Ihuoma cannot marry without great harm befalling her mortal husbands. Anyika reveals to Ekwueme’s parents that water-spirits were present at the deaths of Emenike, Ihuoma’s late husband, and Madume, who hoped to make Ihuoma his wife. Terrified for their own son, Adaku and Wigwe relate Anyika’s warning to the young man but he remains determined to wed Ihuoma. Ekwueme also decides not to make Ihuoma aware of her identity for fear that she will back out of their impending marriage.
Although Anyika claims there is no way around the Sea-King’s curse, Ekwueme and Wigwe visit Agwoturumbe, a famous medicine man in the village of Aliji. Agwoturumbe divines the same truths about Ihuoma’s identity, but he believes the Sea-King can be prevented from harming Ekwueme by a powerful sacrifice. Reassured, Ekwueme and his family agree to Agwoturumbe’s plan and begin to make preparations for the sacrifice, which requires, among other things, a brightly colored male lizard. Agwoturumbe comes to Omokachi to conduct the ceremony, while Nwonna, Ihuoma’s young son who prides himself on his archery, is enlisted to catch the lizard. Ekwueme tells the curious Ihuoma an edited version of the truth about her connection to the spirit world, leaving out the fact that her human husbands face grave danger. The young couple looks forward to years of happiness together. But, just before the ceremony, tragedy strikes: an arrow from Nwonna’s bow, targeted at a red lizard on the wall, accidentally hits Ekwueme as he emerges from his room. Despite Agwoturumbe’s ministrations, Ekwueme dies just after midnight.
The mythological and the mundane
Emmanuel Obiechina attributes the success of The Concubine to Amadi’s skillful depictions of a traditional society and its inhabitants, observing, “In this society, human beings are in close contact with the world of gods, spirits, and ancestors. The close interplay of the natural and supernatural, of the physical and the metaphysical, and of the secular and the spiritual provide a strong backdrop to the drama played out by the characters” (Obiechina, p. 50). Fact mingles with spiritual beliefs and customs to create the reality of Amadi’s characters, as evidenced by their account of how different villages came to exist:
Igwe, the founder of Omigwe, was forced to leave Omokachi when one of his babies cut its upper teeth first. This was a terrible omen signifying that Igwe had done something very wrong, though no one seemed to remember exactly the nature of the offence…. Whatever it was, the sacrifices needed for absolution were too involved and costly…. Igwe could not collect these things and to ward off the wrath of the gods the villagers ejected him from the village. But he prospered (some say he performed the sacrifices later) and founded Omigwe.
(The Concubine, p. 18)
Myth and legend are the tools that the inhabitants of Omokachi use to explain their lives. They ascribe unforeseen and mysterious occurrences—such as the death of a neighbor—to the will of the gods, an interpretation frequently borne out by the divination rites of their dibia, Anyika. By making offerings and carrying out sacrifices to appease angry spirits, they restore a sense of order and control to the community.
Another village legend gradually takes shape around Ihuoma, a beautiful, virtuous woman who is the pride of Omokachi but whose life is marred by tragedy. Ihuoma’s mature beauty and distinctive allure seem to possess a magical quality, drawing men irresistibly towards her. One suitor, Ekwueme, declares to his father, “I really cannot help wanting to marry Ihuoma,” as though external forces are partially to blame for his attraction to her (The Concubine, p. 139). However, the inexplicable misfortunes that befall the men who desire Ihuoma—her husband, Emenike; her greedy neighbor, Madume; the lovestruck Ekwueme—soon cast a sinister light upon her charms. After divining Ihuoma’s supernatural origins as the wife of the jealous Sea-King, Anyika remarks, “Look at her… have you seen anyone quite so right in everything, almost perfect. I tell you only a sea goddess—for that is precisely what she is—can be all that” (The Concubine, p. 254). Other villagers are quick to concur with Anyika’s assessment, though Ihuoma protests when told of her link to the spirit world, “I certainly don’t feel like a daughter of the sea” (The Concubine, p. 261). Indeed, Ihuoma becomes a victim of her own myth, when her betrothed, Ekwueme, is killed during preparations for a sacrifice intended to disempower the Sea-King so she can safely remarry. Ekwueme’s death is punishment for his defying the Sea-King’s jealousy by courting Ihuoma.
The accuracy of Amadi’s portrayal of Igbo/Ikwere perspectives on myth and religion is corroborated by other sources. Scholars have commented on the integral nature of mythical beliefs in the daily life of traditional Igbo. Juliet I. Okonkwo observes that “[t]o those who appreciate the potency of [supernatural] forces in traditional societies, [Amadi’s] extensive use of them merely reinforces the authenticity of his presentation” (Okonkwo, p. 151). Ebele Eko, however, notes that Amadi employs a “double perspective” in his writings, depicting the supernatural element meticulously, yet allowing for the possibility of rational explanations for the apparently inexplainable: “[Amadi’s] aim is to draw attention to the integrity, beauty and wisdom of traditional culture, without hiding from the rational modern mind its rigidity, restrictions, limitations and potentials for suppressing and even stagnating originality in some characters” (Eko, p. 8).
Sources and literary context
Although The Concubine takes place in an unspecified area at an indeterminate time, Amadi draws upon the culture and history of his own people to establish the novel’s setting. The inhabitants of Omokachi and its neighboring villages are designated as “Erekwi,” which, as mentioned, is a transposition of “Ikwere,” the ethnic group to which Amadi belongs. The major deities in The Concubine are part of the Ikwere pantheon—Amadiaoha, god of thunder; Ojukwu, god of smallpox; and the jealous Sea-King. The novel also shares a common thread with certain Igbo folktales, in which it is suggested that beautiful women are “a danger to the authority or even the lives of their husbands,” an attitude that “also underlies the Ilu [proverb] ’He who marries a beauty, marries trouble’” (Arndt, p. 205).
Elechi Amadi’s novels have earned him a significant place in Nigerian literature. Along with Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and Camara Laye (see Things Fall Apart, Death and the King’s Horseman , and The Dark Child , all covered in African Literature and Its Times), Amadi has contributed to a literary renaissance that called for a renewed respect for African traditions and culture. Eko writes: “As a reaction to colonialism, early African novelists were not only concerned with recreating life’s ideals for man in the society but they also assumed a definite aggressive posture in defense of African culture against foreign detractors by asserting its wholesomeness, its dignity, and its rights to exist” (Eko, pp. 5-6). Amadi’s major contribution to this literary movement is his vivid recreation of life in traditional African society.
Amadi has intricately woven the minutiae of daily existence of the people among whom his novels are set. More than even Achebe, he is able to evoke authentic village life…. His descriptions of sacrifices, dances, hunting, farming, and even cooking are so woven into the stories as not to obtrude.
(Okonkwo, pp. 150-51)
The Concubine received mostly favorable reviews when it first appeared in 1966. An anonymous reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement praised it as a work of “considerable quality and promise” (Times Literary Supplement, p. 281). Some critics objected to plot contrivances that, they felt, weakened the novel’s artistry. Theo Vincent, writing for Black Orpheus, complained, “Not much artistic quality can be expected from a plot that is entirely worked out by supernatural machinations…. Everything is predictable and the plot seems to jog-trot along under the impulse of a good tale” (Vincent, p. 62). He conceded, however, that “Amadi has a fine ear and eye for details. His descriptions and dialogues are vivid” (Vincent, p. 62). Others found Amadi’s blend of mythology and realism compelling. Richard Mayne, writing for New Statesman, declared the novel to be “a highly sophisticated measured treatment” of a basic theme, “the fatal loves of a woman in an East Nigerian village. Written in a grave and simple style, it … reveals its author … as a fine writer ruminating on a past already turning into legend” (Mayne, p. 389).
—Pamela S. Loy
Arndt, Susan. African Women’s Literature: Orature and Intertextuality. Trans. Isabel Cole. Bayreuth African Studies 48. Bayreuth, Germany: Bayreuth University, 1998.
Amadi, Elechi. The Concubine. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1966.
Basden, G. T. Niger Ibos. London: Frank Cass, 1966.
Eko, Ebele. Elechi Amadi: The Man and His Work. Lagos: Kraft, 1991.
Green, Margaret M. Igbo Village Affairs. London: Frank Cass, 1964.
Mayne, Richard. Review of The Concubine. New Statesman, 18 March 1966, pp. 388-90.
Obiechina, Emmanuel. “Elechi Amadi.” In Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 117. Eds. Bernth Lindfors and Reinhard Sander. Detroit: Gale, 1992.
Okonkwo, Juliet I. “Elechi Amadi.” In Perspectives on Nigerian Literature: 1700 to The Present. Vol. 2. Ed. Yemi Ogunbiyi. Lagos: Guardian Books Nigeria, 1988.
Opata, Damian U. Essays on Igbo World View. Nsukka, Nigeria: AP Express, 1998.
Review of The Concubine, by Elechi Amadi. Times Literary Supplement, 7 April 1966, p. 281.
Vincent, Theo. Review of The Concubine. Black Orpheus 21 (1967): 62-63.