Symbolism in "Joseph"

Lisa Sachs '93 English 32 (1989)

In his collection of poems entitled A Shuttle in the Crypt (1972), Wole Soyinka expresses strong views about the human condition while commenting upon the political and social realities of modern Nigeria. Soyinka celebrates his own humanity while indicting the military establishment responsible for his arrest and detention. In the second section of his work, Soyinka universalizes his traumatic Nigerian experience by employing four archetypal figures including Joseph, Hamlet, Gulliver, and Ulysses. Soyinka's self-dramatizing and critical voice emerges from behind these masks as he defends himself against false accusations while denouncing the tyrannical federal establishment. In his dramatic monologue "Joseph," Soyinka records the abuses of the violators of his person and of society. Like Soyinka, Joseph embodies a lonely wanderer in search of truth and ideals while coping with the problems of alienation and persecution as a stranger in the situation he finds himself. Thus, Joseph embodies an objective correlative of the poet's state.

In "Joseph," Soyinka relates the story of the imprisonment of the Biblical figure to his own solitary confinement. Soyinka addresses the poem to Mrs. Potiphar, the wife of Joseph's master. He denounces her hypocrisy by denying the charge of sexual harassment which she directs against him. In Genesis, Joseph maintains a strong discipline in resisting the temptations of his master's wife. Mrs. Potiphar unrighteously lays claim to "principles" and "virtue" as represented by the "trophy" and thus, presents herself as the victim instead of the victimizer. In effect, Mrs. Potiphar symbolizes the federal military government which refuses to grant the honest poet a trial or opportunity to defend himself. In the Biblical story, Mrs. Potiphar remains holding the clothes she herself torn, as represented by the "tattered pieces of her masquerade," in order to fabricate evidence for the rape. This "masquerade" signifies the hypocrisy of the establishment which Soyinka attacks.

In the second stanza, Soyinka disassociates himself from the quality of sainthood, stating, "Indeed I was not Joseph, a cursing martyr I." He discredits "the passive valour" and patience of saints in "a time of evil cries" which necessitates aggression and decisive action. Soyinka replaces this "saintly vision" with "hands of truth to tear all painted masks" in order to reveal "the poison" and "sewers of intrigue" which lie beneath the exterior of militarist rule. By addressing the master's wife as "dear Mrs. Potiphar," Soyinka expresses his anti-establishment view with a strong satirical edge. He strongly desires to reveal the woman's sinfulness as represented by her "scarlet pottage of guilt," "grim manure," and "weeds of sick ambition." Soyinka continues to employ metaphor and irony in the third stanza to expose the emptiness of the woman's chastity. He portrays her resting upon "a whitened couch of bones" and "hollowed skulls" in order to discredit her claim to virtue and expose her identity. These negative epithets dramatize the morbidity of Nigeria's violent civil war while denouncing the selfish opportunism of her past.

Like Joseph, Soyinka wanders "in pursuit of truths" and ideals with a fervent hope in his own humanity, for he proclaims that his "dreams of fire will resolve in light." Soyinka rejects the notion of negritude, a literary concept which urges blacks to ignore European aesthetics and honor their own racial values and roots. As an artist committed to social awareness, he merely uses his African heritage as a background in order to express the universality of the individual's struggle with the environment. Thus, his voice of vision exceeds the confines of his prison and boundaries of his homeland to all those victimized by alienation and loneliness in search of truth. The pursuit of ideals inevitably results in the rejection of negative values. Ultimately, Soyinka achieves self-vindication and castigation of the establishment's "sick ambition" while inspiring hope in the questing hero which society arbitrarily imprisons and betrays.

(Source: Daniel G. Marowski and Tanure Ojaide. Contemporary Literary Criticism Vol. 36. Detroit: Gale Research, 1986)

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