In Nervous Conditions, Dangarembgwa uses stereotypes in order to subvert them by providing images of young black women who refuse to consent and succumb to either the bullying tactics of colonialism or the black men. Tambudzayi refuses to give in to her father's logic enjoining her to stay at home like her mother, learning to cook and preparing to reproduce the community through marriage because she will not "cook books and feed them to (her) husband" (15). From the beginning of the novel -- which is actually its end -- Tambudzayi makes it clear that her story is not one of death but "...about my escape and Lucia's; about my mother's and Maiguru's (Big mother's)entrapment; and about Nyasha's rebellion" (p 1).The first of the rebellion is Tambudzayi complaining that when her family has to decide who of the children have to be sent to school, it is the girl-child who has to give way for the brother. When she finally grows maize in order to supplement money for her school-fees, the father, Jeremiah claims that since Tambudzayi is his daughter then the money belongs to him. What we have in Jeremiah is a man who has internalized patriarchal perceptions that women are an extension of male property. This way of treatment women has, so Tambudzayi points out, negative effects on the women lot;
The needs and sensibilities of the women in my family were not considered a priority, or even legitimate.That was why l was in Standard Three in the year Nhamo [the brother] died instead of in Standard Five, as l should have been by that age (p. 12).
The "Nervous Conditions" of Dangarembgwa's novel affects mostly women; the old and the young, the uneducated and the educated.
Maiguru [Babamukuru's wife] is a black woman who has a masters degree just like Babamukuru. To be able to have this qualification under colonial conditions is a success story claiming to reverse colonial perceptions that Africans are congenital simpletons who cannot learn anything. But Maiguru finds out that to acquire a masters certificate is not enough because even when she is earning her own money, traditional Shona culture ensures that she cannot use it the way she wants without consulting Babamukuru. In other words, inspite of her education, Maiguru is still considered answerable to her husband. Which is why even when she protests by walking out on Babamukuru, she is just going "home" to another patriarchy, this time her brother. Which means that the condition of being a woman under colonialism is one of double alienation; the woman is rendered homeless!
Although Tambudzayi admires Maiguru's education, she feels that Maiguru does not fight Babamukuru hard enough to make him change his way of seeing women. As a result, Tambudzayi gravitates towards Nyasha, her cousin who is Maiguru's daughter. Nyasha has received a liberally British type of education which opened her mind to other possibilities of life other than the one suggested by the confines of the hearth.She therefore cannot understand why her father insists that she is not Chido (her brother's) equal. Because Nyasha refuses to conform to society's image of womanhood, Babamukuru condemns her to whoredom. She turns against Babamukuru and punches him on the eye (p 115). Nyasha is aware of the psychological damage inflicted on her by the British type of education; "l am not one of them, but l am not one of you" (p201).This two-ness of Nyasha's experience of being an educated woman in a social environment offering limited choices, irreconciliably dogs her black self. But unlike Tambudzayi with a coherent past experience within which she can root her dreams, aspirations and measure how far she has moved away from the burden of womanhood, Nyasha is not well-equipped to overcome the mentally unsettling Nervous Conditions introduced and maintained by the colonial order on the one hand, and the sexual discrimination explicit in the Shona society on the other. As a result Nyasha loses mental control and contracts anorexia nevosa, a disease associated with stress, vomiting and general bodily weakness.
After Nyasha breaks down, the only remaining woman who can provide Tambudzayi with the much needed spiritual scaffolding is Lucia, her mother's sister who is married to Takesure. Lucia has a raw love for life.She can give her body to the man she likes as and when she feels so.This earns her the apparitions, "whore, " and "witch, " both linguistic signifiers deployed in order to control her sexuality. Lucia is the only woman who can "authoritatively" ask Babamukuru to do what she wants for her. But, the limitation of Lucia's alternative style of life is that she almost always has to depend on Babamukuru's generousity to find something or a job for her. Perhaps, through Lucia, Dangarembgwa raises the important question that the African women's search for a cultural life not choked by traditional customs needs to be complemented by their struggle for economic empowerment. On this score, Nervous Conditions shows deep ideological affinities with Their Eyes Were Watching God (1986), and The Color Purple (1983) both novels which shows deep ideological affinities with African-American women's fiction such as depict female protagonists fighting black men who stifle their creativity.
Nervous Conditions, deals with the problem of the roles which men and women play both in a colonial context and after independence in Southern Africa. The novel raises pertinent issues about the social construction of the identity of the supposed inferiority of women from which they have suffered for a long time. Such a construction is to the benefit of men, both black and white. Although Nervous Conditions does not overtly touch on the postcolonial period in Zimbabwe, the writer's complex analysis of the liberation of the mind implies that there is no facile way of nation-building in Africa in the 1980's and 1990's (F.V Wild, 1993, p338). By the end of the novel Tambudzayi has stood up to narrate her story which is also the story of many other African women who cannot write for many reasons;
Quietly, unobtrusively and extremely fitfully, something in my mind began to assert itself, to question things and refuse to be brainwashed, bringing me to this time when l can set down this story. lt was a long and painful process for me, that process of expansion. It was a process whose events stretched over many years and would fill another volume, but the story I have told here, is my own story, the story of four women whom l loved, and our men, this is how it all began (p 204).
The analysis of the factors that cause various states of nervous conditions is the first and important step towards freedom in Nervous Conditions. It is crucial to underline the fact that for Tambudzayi, to write is to claim a text of one's own and that textuality is an instrument of territorial possession because "the other confers on us an identity that alienates us from ourselves, narrative is crucial to the discovery of our selfhood" (S. Gikandi, p. 72 in Boehmer, 1991).