The Myth of Women and the Reality of Men's Actions

Corey Binns '00, English 27, Brown University, Autumn 1997

A principal function of divine myth is to provide a model for imitative action--actions which take shape in cultural rites. -- Jane Caputi, "The Age of Sex Crime"

Traditional stories and myths shape a culture's gender roles and behaviors. Myths and proverbs concerning women thus guide the ways girls enter womanhood, and myths validate men's oppression of women. In Chinua Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah and Chenjerai Hove's Bones, for example, myths illustrate the actions of women and men; each author attacks a patriarchical myth that idealizes the oppression of women. Achebe emphasizes patriarchy with creation myths and Hove's character creates his own myths: Chisaga, a male character in Bones refers to myths in order to legitimize his actions towards women. Achebe similarly uses myth in Anthills of the Savannah to provide a model for his fictional culture's actions. However, the models developed in Achebe's novel contradict those supported in Bones. Anthills of the Savannah illustrates a culture in which women must save the country from its downfall-- a feat possible only with the recreation of Kangan tradition and myth. Such a dramatic shift in power and action requires new myths and a new basis of models which the culture can imitate.

Myth makes the reader aware of a culture's standards. Thus Hove opens a window into the Shona mythical world which in turn widens our perspective on this culture's justifications of its behaviors. Myth generates excuses for men's sex crimes and women's submission. "'Did a woman not give you pots and other things which make a woman a woman?' he said, trying to hold my hand" (Bones, 92). With myths of kitchen utensils Chisaga has metamorphosed Janifa into a woman. According to Chisaga, women are prepared and shaped for the use of satisfying men's sexual desires. Therefore the myth enables the man to inflict his desires upon the new pot-holding child/woman, Janifa. Telling her that that pots and plates "speak" more than Janifa can understand as a child, Chisaga metamorphosizes his myth in order to explain his desires for Janifa and what he does to her. Shortly after naming Janifa a child, Chisaga declares she is a woman: In one page of the novel, Janifa shifts from being a naive child to an all too aware subject of rape. Chisaga takes little time to teach Janifa -- slamming her into womanhood and piercing into her virginity. With Shona proverbs and mythical references, Chisaga excuses his oppressive behavior. He rationalizes raping Janifa with myths, therefore rationalizing abuse and oppression of women.

In his novel Anthills of the Savannah, Achebe uses creation myths to criticize another form of women's oppression. In his love letter to Beatrice, Ikem refers to creation myths from both the Bible and the oral traditions of his ancestors. Ikem remarks on the similarities of these creation myths and their analogous purpose of denouncing women. According to Ikem, women have been oppressed since the beginning of time; they have been accused with the causing of Man's great fall and shoved onto their "corner pedestal." Ikem therefore would argue that creation myths are not about the beginning of the earth, rather they are the beginnings of men's oppression on women.

Ikem states the "origin of oppression of Woman was based on crude denigration" (89). According to Ikem's rendition of the creation myths, woman causes all evil, as exemplified by her sinful bite of apple in the Garden of Eden. Christian and Yoruba creation myths evolve in order to dilute men's guilt and adapt to changing cultural actions. "The New Testament required a more enlightened, more refined, more loving even, strategy" (89). To comfort men in their oppressing position of power, they adjust their myths, reasoning women to remain silent and subjected.

Like creation myths, the myths in Bones appoint woman as the scapegoat, blaming women as the downfalls of men.

"You are my wife and I will sleep with you now. Do you not know what you and Marita did to make me miserable? I am the tree that never forgets its wounds while the axe sits at home smiling after a day of eating into the tree's flesh." (Hove, 92)

Chisaga describes how the evil pair of Marita and Janifa destroyed him. Although Marita cheats him in their exchange of stolen money for sex, Chisaga makes an unfaithful proposal, inappropriate with or without Marita's consent. The myth depicts woman as the evil antagonistic ax, chopping away at the poor defenseless Chisaga tree. In his essay "The Political Characterization of Chisaga", Rino Zhuwarara writes "Hove succeeds in showing how the Shona proverbs and idiomatic expressions are used by Chisaga in an unconscious way as a mask which obscures the hollowness of the man." ("The Political Characterization of Chisaga, PostColonial Web). Hove and Chisaga produce a myth to describe the inaccurate humbleness of Chisaga and Janifa's witch like behavior. From declaring the young girl Janifa a woman to naming her his wife, Chisaga interchanges his definitions because all women represent liable objects of his subjugation. Chisaga believes that all women he wants are his to have; his desires and actions seem legitimate to him because he calls himself an unforgiving tree, which suffered under the attacks of an ax he calls woman. Not only does he claim Janifa an ax (who was not involved in Marita's foul play), he describes her as "smiling" after this "cruelty" of which she is wrongly accused. Chisaga abuses myth and woman, strengthening man's oppression on women.

Achebe twists and turns mythical history, adapting myths to explain his reversal of gender roles, silencing men by demasculinizing and eradicating men and their oppressiveness. Anthills of the Savannah is a myth; although undeniably similar to Nigeria, its setting, characters and their stories are mythical. At the final Kangan naming ceremony, the largely female community reaches a consensus that a mother should name her child, "What does a man know about a child anyway that he should presume to give it a name" (Achebe, 206). A demasculinization of the Kangan society permits Beatrice, and all women, to flip the hierarchy triangle. In order to dismiss patriarchy and male superiority, Achebe evolves a new system of power through a series of myths. Anthills of the Savannah is a mythical novel, culminating with women as victor. Killing off all the men and recreating mythical history allows Achebe's female characters to rise above the oppressing patriarchy.

Both authors use of myths increases the intensity, believability and impact of their writings; by relating myths to their particular story lines, the authors broaden the view of each culture and its rationalizing of the individual's actions. Hove powerfully depicts abused women, Chisaga's pitiful mythical explanations for his actions give the reader insight into the oppressive man's deliberations. Achebe uses mythical writing to provide an awareness of man's oppression of women; in order to collapse traditional gender roles, Achebe names women as storytellers of their own myths.

Postcolonial Web Zimbabwe OV Chenjerai Hove Overview Anthills of the Savannah Overview