Notes on Buchi Emecheta’s Second Class Citizen

Introduction: Buchi Emecheta’s Second Class Citizen is a novel of identity, class and gender struggle first published in 1974. Its subject matter is the burden of African womanhood in a transformed/modernised society. This theme is realised through the characterisation of Adah, the heroine of the novel, who is seen navigating patriarchal barriers in Nigeria and racism when she relocates to the United Kingdom. The background to the novel can be determined at both personal and collective levels. At the personal level, the novel is an autobiography, as it details Emecheta’s personal experiences growing up as a child in Lagos, Nigeria; her determination to be educated in a society that only valued male education and the abuses she suffered as a wife and a young mother of five children in the hands of her husband, Sylvester Onwordi, culminating in the burning of her manuscript, The Bride Price, an act that led to the end of the marriage. At the collective level, Second Class Citizen is informed by the general experiences of African women in a male-dominated society. The novel illustrates the fact that an individual’s suffering is deepened by the level of vulnerability of the individual in relation to other members of society. The African woman’s burden is heavier in two or three degrees. First, as a woman, second as an African (black) and third as a member of the lower class. These are the major issues raised in the novel as Adah’s experiences as a woman are related to the reader.

Synopsis of the Novel: The novel details Adah’s experiences in a world ruled by men and in favour of men. The story begins in Lagos, Nigeria, where Adah grows up as a child raised by Igbo parents. Male child preference is seen in how Boy is favoured to go to school even though Adah is older than him. Adah’s love for education forces her to take matters into her own hands and her bravery pays off as the authorities order her parents to send her to school. Adah’s educational dreams are threatened with the death of her father, but she is able to win a scholarship that sees her through her secondary school education. Adah is forced to marry Francis out of necessity as she needs male protection in order to continue with her studies at the University of Ibadan. When Adah takes up a position at the American Consulate Library in Lagos, her dreams of travelling to the United Kingdom seems within reach. But it is Francis who gets to live this dream first, at Adah’s expense, literally. She would soon join her husband with her two children, Titi and Vicky. But once in London, things begin to take a tragic trajectory for her. Her marriage begins to crumble as Francis is no longer the man that she expected him to be. Adah also experiences systemic racism in London as all blacks are regarded as second-class citizens. The housing conditions and rules are calibrated to punish blacks. Adah has to work to support her children and her husband who has refused to live up to his responsibilities. Childbearing also proves a dangerous adventure compounded by lack of support and zero affection from her spouse. After her third childbirth, Adah decides that she has to plan her family. Francis raises dust when he finds out about the family planning and the marriage begins to collapse. Even the visit of Mr Okpara cannot save it. When Francis burns Adah’s manuscript, The Bride Price, Adah as had enough. She leaves Francis with her four children; Titi, Vicky, Bubu and Dada. However, it would only take a court-pronounced divorce to keep the leechy and lechery Francis away from the brutalised and traumatised Adah.

Setting: Emecheta’s Second Class Citizen is set in Lagos, Nigeria, and later in London and spans the late 1940s up to the 1960s. For instance, Adah is born during World War II. There are references to Ibuza in Delta State which is the author’s birth place. The author also uses real place names like Pike Street, the Methodist Girls’ School in Lagos, the University Ibadan and the American Consulate Library at Campbell Street. In London, some of the place names that bring the setting of the novel to life are Ashdown Street, Willes Road and Free Royal Hospital.

Point of View: Second Class Citizen is written from the third person narrative viewpoint, but it is done in such a way that it follows Adah all the time through all her experiences in life. The novel also makes use of stream of consciousness, which is an aspect of the third person narrator.  

Language and Style: The novel is written in imaginative English as it is with most postcolonial African novels. It, however, makes use of some Igbo words and expressions for local colour. The dialogue is both entertaining and revealing. As a matter style, the novel thrives on analogy, especially through the use of similes. Other narrative tropes deployed in the novel are allusion, especially biblical, historical and literary allusions, foreshadowing, symbols, paradox and irony, among others.

Plot: Second Class Citizen has a chronological plot structure, as the events unfold from the beginning to the end. The story begins in Nigeria where Adah grows up dreaming of going to school and relocating to the United Kingdom. It ends with Adah’s failed marriage with Francis in the United Kingdom.

Major Characters: The major characters in the novel are Adah Ofili and Francis Obi. Adah Ofili is the heroine and the protagonist of the novel. She is portrayed as a dynamic and round character. She is able to change her class through education and hard work. She refuses to be stereotyped right from childhood as she challenges patriarchal barriers in her society. As a child, she is nicknamed the Igbo tigress after biting Latifu, one of the boys the headmaster asked to hold her down for caning. Another nickname for Adah is ‘touch not’, so named because of her childbearing prowess.  Her father calls her ‘Nne Nna’ which means ‘father’s mother’ and ‘Adah Eze’ which means ‘Princess’, among other names. She is depicted as a hard-working and supportive wife to Francis, though he fails to recognise her contributions. Adah is also depicted as a great mother who loves and defends her children. She bears four children for Francis and is carrying a fifth one as she leaves the marriage due to violence and irresponsibility on the part of Francis. She leaves the marriage mostly in order for her and her children to survive.

Francis Obi is Adah’s husband in the novel. He is depicted as Adah’s antagonist even though she is his wife. Francis is also the villain in the novel. He is depicted as a flat character and an emasculated male figure who lives off his wife’s sweat. This is very un-African as the man is expected traditionally to be the breadwinner of his family. Thus, there is a complete reversal of gender role with the characterisation of Francis in this novel. Francis is also depicted as Adah’s foil. Unlike Adah, Francis does not challenge stereotypes in his life. He accepts his status as a second-class citizen with unparalleled equanimity. He is selective in his beliefs, as he only believes what suits him at a given time. Francis is selfish and egotistical. He thinks only of himself and does not care how his actions will affect his wife and children. He is a violent man who believes in the subordination of the woman. His cruel and sadistic nature leads him burn Adah’s first manuscript and this leads to their separation.

Minor Characters : The minor characters in the novel are Mr Cole, Adah’s parents, Adah’s children, Mrs Konrad, Mr Noble and Sue, Trudy, Miss Stirling, Mr Okpara, Bill, Boy, Dr Hudson, Mr Babalola and Janet, Lawyer Nweze, Mr Barking, Peggy and Fay, among others.

Mr Cole is the kind teacher from Sierra Leone whose class Adah wanders into at the Methodist School in Lagos when Adah sneaked out of the house to go to school, as her parents would not send her to school on their own.

Adahs’s parents are Mr and Mrs Ofili. They are depicted as Christians who still believe in tradition and traditional practices. They have two children, Adah and Boy. Adah’s father was a railway worker and had fought in the great war. He encourages Adah to go to school by sending her to Ladi-Lak, one of the best schools in Lagos at the time. His death affects the welfare of the family as well as Adah’s education. Adah’s mother is a traditional house wife. She is a staunch catholic but she also believes in traditional religious practices as can be seen in her belief in the goddess, Oboshi. She is a seamstress who sews the clothes that the Ibuza women in Lagos wear in welcoming Lawyer Nweze back from the United Kingdom.

Boy is Adah’s only brother. His real name is not known throughout the novel. He is a stock character as he represents male-child preference in the novel. His education is considered top priority. After Pa’s death, the money he leaves behind is kept mainly for Boy’s education. Boy comes to see Adah off when she is leaving for the UK. When Adah’s marriage with Francis hits the rock, Boy is supportive of his sister and encourages her to leave Francis.

Adah’s children are Titi, Vicky, Bubu and Dada. Titi and Dada are girls while Vicky and Bubu are boys. Adah is with another pregnancy as she leaves Francis when their marriage breaks down in London.

Mrs Konrad is Adah’s boss at the North Finchley Library where Adah has been employed as a senior library assistant.

Mr Noble, Adah and Francis’ landlord, is a Nigerian man who lives as a second-class citizen in London. He is married to a white lady by name Sue. Mr Noble is not his original name but the name he is given in London as a reward for his subservience and self-denigration. He is a man who talks down on his race and carries out all sorts of self-demeaning acts to please the whites just for a pint of beer. This will eventually cost him his shoulders when he tries to manually operate a lift to prove to white people how strong Africans are. He uses the compensation money he receives from the railway authorities to purchase a house where Adah and Francis rent after being evicted from their house at Ashdown Street. 

 Trudy is a professional child minder recommended to Adah by Mr Babalola when she needed someone to take care of her children while she is at work. Trudy is not professional in her work as she neglects Adah’s children, letting them play in a filthy part of the house. Adah catches her with a lover while she is supposed to be at work. Her neglect of the children results in Vicky contracting meningitis. Adah fights with Trudy and reports her twice to the children’s officer, Miss Stirling, who offers Adah a nursery place for her children. It is from Trudy that Adah learns that white people could lie and that there were good whites and bad whites just like there were good blacks and bad blacks. Trudy’s license is revoked and she relocates to another part of town. 

Miss Stirling is the children’s officer who offers Adah a nursery place.

Mr Okpara is the Igbo man who meets Adah crying at the park after the family planning incident. He is a student in London just like Francis. But he is a definition of an African male figure. He believes that there is no perfect marriage and that the home is a place to quarrel in. He offers to reconcile Adah with Francis. Francis is not comfortable being told what to do by another man. Hence, he asks Mr Okpara to leave his house and not to interfere in his family. But Mr Okpara’s words are enough to get Francis to find a job and to start taking care of his family.

Bill is Adah’s coworker at the Chalk Farm Library. He is a Canadian who looks down on the English culture and institutions. He was a radio newscaster in Canada but came to England in order to escape his mother’s attempt to force a lady on him. He is widely read. Bill is the one who introduces Adah to African authors and encourages Adah to read and write. When Adah shows her first manuscript to him, Bill is full of praise for the manuscript and opts to introduce the work to publishers. Unfortunately, this manuscript is burnt by Francis.

Dr Hudson is a female doctor who examines Adah during her third pregnancy. She is disappointed that Adah wants to have her baby at home to save cost without realising the danger that she is in. She helps Adah to call the midwives who eventually recommend that she be taken to the hospital where she is delivered of Bubu through a Caesarian section.

Mr Babalola and Janet are the helpful couple that live in the same house with Francis and Adah at Ashdown Street. Mr Babalola came to England to study journalism but could not achieve this dream because of partying and drinking. He became frustrated when his scholarship was stopped. Mr Babalola first met Janet at a phone kiosk sleeping on her feet while pretending to be making a phone call. She was pregnant by a West Indian man and was rejected by her stepfather for not accepting to give her baby out for adoption. Janet’s mother is late. Mr Babalola takes Janet home but first uses her to entertain his Nigerian male friends who wanted to experiment sex with a white woman. Things changed when Mr Babalola fell in love with Janet.

Lawyer Nweze is depicted as the first lawyer from Ibuza trained in the United Kingdom. It is his story that inspires Adah to have the dream of going to the United Kingdom one day.

Mr Barking, Peggy and Fay are Adah’s co-workers at the Chalk Farm Library. Mr Barking is Adah’s boss. He is described as bad-tempered and physically thin. He complains bitterly about his daughter’s choice of marriage partner and is determined to end the union because, according to him, the husband is subjecting his daughter to psychological torture. Mr Barking, however, loves eating the chicken sandwiches his wife makes him.

 Peggy is a 23-year old library assistant who is unhappy about being ghosted by her boyfriend whom she met in Italy during a summer holiday. She is pained all the more because of what she ‘gave’ the Engineering student and she is determined to visit Italy again to give him a piece of her mind; that is if she ever finds him again.

Fay is a 30-year old mulatto who does not like associating with black people. She is engaged to be married to a white man who is studying law at Cambridge University. Ironically, though, while everyone shares their ‘problems’ with their coworkers, Adah does not share hers, leading the others to think that Adah is problem-free.

A Chapter-by-Chapter Analysis of Second Class Citizen

Second Class Citizen is organised in thirteen chapters, with each chapter having its own heading that captures the story that it relates.

Chapter One

Chapter One is entitled ‘Childhood’ and, as the heading implies, it narrates Adah’s childhood experiences in Lagos. The story begins when Adah is just a child of eight. She is full of dreams. Adah was born when the family was expecting a male child, hence her birth was seen as a disappointment to her parents. This raises the theme of male-child preference in the novel. Adah’s birth, it should be noted, coincided with World War II, a time of change and social upheaval. Perhaps, this accounts for Adah’s unusual character in the novel. She is depicted as a character that challenges stereotypes and oppression, which was part of the ethos of the post-war period. It was a period when all oppressed peoples sought and fought to be free. Adah as a child is depicted as mischievous, individualistic and determined.

Second Class Citizen is presented as a recollection or a rememory of past events. Adah recalls how the women of Ibuza were preparing to receive Lawyer Nweze who was coming back to Nigeria after studying abroad. He is said to be the first lawyer from Ibuza. Adah hails from Ibuza but she is currently staying in Lagos with her parents. The reader should note the village-city dialectic in the novel; Ibuza is free and pristine whereas Lagos is corrupt and caged by laws.

The Ibuza women in Lagos are preparing to welcome Lawyer Nweze back to Nigeria after successfully earning a law degree in the United Kingdom. Humour is one of the aspects of language and style in this novel. An instance is seen in the expression, ‘Going to the United Kingdom must surely be like paying God a visit’. A case of onomatopoeia is seen in the word ‘United Kingdom’ being made to sound like a bomb. Lawyer Nweze is held in awe by the people. He is the first man of Ibuza to have a law degree and from a foreign country. The women have to perm their hair to look European in preparation for the reception. This suggests the influence of western culture on Africans, which is a major consequence of colonisation.

 The women also sew uniform which they will wear on the day of Lawyer Nweze’s arrival. Adah’s mother is the one who sews this uniform for the women. Adah’s uniform is sewn from the remnants of other people’s dresses. It is noted that her mother always sews her oversize dresses so that she can wear them for a long time. Her dresses usually fit her only when they are old. But Adah does not get to join the other women to welcome Lawyer Nweze at the wharf, as his arrival falls on a school day.

Adah’s family had intended to give Adah a minimum education; just enough to help her write and count before she learns sewing, just like her mother. Boy, Adah’s younger brother, had started school at Ladi-lak Institute, but Adah is not allowed to start school yet. In fact, it is Adah who takes Boy to school. The theme of colonial education is seen in how the children are not taught Yoruba or any African languages, except English, at Ladi-lak Institute. It is also reported that Adah’s parents stay at Akinwunmi Street in Lagos.

Adah’s love for education compels her to sneak out of the house when her father had left for work when the mother was not watchful enough. She goes to Methodist School where Mr Cole, the huge black Sierra Leonean, teaches. She tells Mr Cole, ‘I came to school – my parents won’t send me!’ Mr Cole is kind enough to welcome Adah into his class and allow her sit with a boy who has craw-craw on the head. He buys ‘boli’ (roast plantain) for Adah after school and encourages her to keep coming to school.

Meanwhile, Adah is missing at home and the police have been called in. Adah’s mother has been charged with child neglect and the father has been called from work. Adah’s mother had been taken to the police station near Sabo Street and forced to drink garri soaked in water as punishment for not being watchful of the child. Pa pleads on Ma’s behalf. Note how he presents the stereotyped image of the woman: ‘. . . women were like that. They sat in the house, ate, gossiped and slept.’ The police advise Ma to sell one of her wrappers to send Adah to school. Even Adah has been socialised to see her gender as inferior. Adah is flogged later that day by her father, but they are mostly gentle strokes to appease the mother.

The theme of reincarnation is raised when the authorial voice reports how Adah’s paternal grandmother promised Adah’s father on her dying bed that she would return as his daughter. Adah is said to look exactly like her paternal grandmother, which explains the name ‘Nne Nnna’, which means ‘father’s mother’. It is also reported that Adah’s parents got married at Christ Church in Lagos.

Is there any significance in Adah being born two months prematurely? Adah attends Methodist Girls’ School, taught mostly by Missionaries. Pa had insisted that Adah should attend Ladi-lak, one of the best schools at the time. But when Pa eventually dies, Boy and Adah would be forced to attend an inferior school.

Ma does not allow Adah to visit the wharf to welcome the new lawyer. She insists that Adah must go to school which she glamoured for and for which she nearly put the whole family into trouble with the authorities. The mother tells her: ‘To school you must go from now until you go grey’. This is an instance of foreshadowing in the novel. The uniform that the women wear to welcome Lawyer Nweze is called ‘Ezidiyi ji de ogoli, omo oba’, which means ‘when a good man holds a woman, she becomes a queen’.

The conflict between tradition and modernity is depicted in the novel. Modernity is described as a complex and complicated phenomenon while traditional life is seen as simple, innocent and straightforward. The narrative voice compares the life of rural and uneducated woman to that of a modern woman like Adah. It is seen in the narration that the joys of civilisation had its own pitfalls.

The grand reception accorded Lawyer Nweze is also reported in the novel. The women are happy as they pose for their pictures to be taken by Europeans. The temporality of these events is placed in the pre-independence days. As reported by Pa, Ibuza men also go to welcome Lawyer Nweze. They note how western culture has affected the man; he is not even able to swallow pounded yam and his meat has to be boiled to a pulp before he can eat it. The only good thing, as noted by Pa, is that Lawyer Nweze did not marry a white woman. Oboshi, the goddess of the biggest river in Ibuza, should be praised for not letting Lawyer Nweze go astray in the choice of a wife.  

Again, it should be noted that the novel is an instance of rememory. These events are being recalled by Adah in the 1970s. Adah finds the superstitious belief of her people laughable, especially the idea that the goddess, Oboshi, would have stricken Lawyer Nweze with leprosy had he brought home a white woman for a wife. The narrator punctures the myth of Oboshi’s invincibility by questioning why the goddess allowed oil explorers to pollute her body of water with impunity, without her retaliating.

Historical allusion is seen in the recollection of the Igbo massacre of 1967 and Oboshi’s helplessness in averting this tragic incident. The narrative voice also claims that there are cases where Ibuza men had married white women without repercussions. It thus appears that Oboshi had been rendered redundant by time and circumstances.

Adah, as a child, likes to be associated with Lawyer Nweze. She even claims to her schoolmates that Lawyer Nweze is her cousin. It is Lawyer Nweze’s story that gives Adah the inspiration to dream of travelling to the United Kingdom one day. There is humour in the idea that Adah’s mother still thought that Jerusalem was at the right hand of God.

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