Buchi Emecheta's Second Class Citizen: Novelist Background, Plot Summary, Setting, Themes, Style and Characters

Buchi Emecheta's Second Class Citizen: Novelist Background, Plot Summary, Setting, Themes, Style and Characters

This article discusses the plot summary, setting, themes, style and characters of Buchi Emecheta's Second Class Citizen. It also takes into cognizance the background of the novelist, Buchi Emecheta.
Buchi Emecheta's Second Class Citizen: Novelist Background, Plot Summary, Setting, Themes, Style and Characters

Novelist's Background
Buchi Emecheta is one of Nigeria's most well-known writers. She graduated from the University of London, wrote over twenty novels, plays and short stories, and independently raised her five children.

Buchi Emecheta was born on July 21, 1944, in Lagos, Nigeria. Her parents were Igbos who had left the Igbo town of Ibusa (Igbuzo in Igbo), located in what is now called Delta State. She joined the husband in London (in 1962) where she worked as a librarian.

Second Class Citizen, her first published novel in 1974, is semi autobiographical – it is based on her childhood in Lagos and early life in London with her husband before she divorced him. It also depicts the struggle for women in receiving their education and surviving in a European white society while adapting to different religious beliefs and still following the beliefs of their people.

Plot Summary
Second Class Citizen, which tells the story of Adah Ofili from childhood to her early years in London, opens with a discussion of dreams. The eight-year-old Adah, who was born in Lagos during World War 2, only dreams of going to school since she is not allowed to attend school because she is not a boy.  One day, when her mother is distracted, Adah goes to the Methodist School where her neighbour teaches, and he allows her to learn with them for the day. She returns home meeting a group of policemen in their compound. Her mother is being punished for child neglect, yet Adah is allowed to continue attending school.

Months later, Adah father goes to the hospital but does not return. His demise makes his nuclear family to separate. His wife, Adah's mother, is inherited by his brother. His son, Adah's brother, goes to live with one of his (Adah father's) cousins whereas Adah is sent to live with one of her mother's brothers.

Adah is allowed to remain in school only because she could bring a higher bride price if educated. Suitors come; however, she is not interested in any of them. Instead, fascinated with the possibility of winning a scholarship to secondary school, Adah steals the money for the sitting fee, passes the examination, and wins the scholarship. She attends the Methodist Girls' School and completes the four-year course.

Knowing full well that she will not be allowed to live on her own in the university, Adah marries a student named Francis Obi (who is too poor to pay the bride price) with the hope of being able to attend school and study at her own pace. She births a daughter and begins working for the American Consulate Library. Having had the dream of going to the United Kingdom, she shares it with her husband. They decide to go, but his family, who depends upon her income, approves of his leaving but insists that Adah remain at home and continue to support the family. Her husband's father does not approve of women going to England. At first, Adah is filled with rage, but she controls her anger and comes up with a plan – “Be as cunning as a serpent but as harmless as a dove,” she quoted to herself. Once again, she uses her cleverness to get what she wants. She sends Francis (her husband) off to England to study while she works and sends him money in the meantime.

Adah is known for her perseverance; she does not give up. When her husband writes to her a few months later that he is going to be in England for at least four or five years, she decides it is time to make her move. She convinces her in-laws that it is necessary for her to be in England with her husband, stating that her husband wants her there, which he did say to her in the letter. She soon books herself and her two children first class tickets on a ship to England. As a foreshadowing of all that is to come for her, Adah arrives England, welcomed by cold, rainy and cloudy skies. She is shocked by the greyness but will not give up on her dreams. Adah has arrived in the United Kingdom where she becomes a second class citizen. She is only a first class citizen in Nigeria.

Some of the main points of struggle for Adah are being a black woman in a predominantly white society, learning of the women's right movement during the seventies, the fact that there is birth control available to her, and the struggle to pursue her goal in becoming a writer between four children and a lazy abusive husband.

The novel deals with many different issues and movements and how they all interconnect and relate to one another and also one woman. Just as the reader starts to find hope for Adah, another circumstance arises. And as the story progresses, one wonders how one woman can put up with so much, yet be so strong not only for herself, but also for her children. She neither gives up on them nor her dreams, not even when her first piece of work was burnt by her husband.

As regards the time, the novel is set in post colonial Nigeria. The physical locales of the novel are Nigeria and the United Kingdom as the plot of the novel moves from Nigeria to England, following the developmental process of the protagonist, Adah.

Themes in Buchi Emecheta's Second Class Citizen

1. The Theme of Determination
The determination to succeed against all odds is Adah's watchword. This inbuilt virtue of the protagonist is portrayed right from her childhood in Nigeria to her early life in London. Adah breaks several protocols which seem to stand as barriers between her and her dreams. Even though the society she finds herself makes her believe that it is wrong for the girl child to be well educated, Adah, on several occasions, sneaks into the class of her neighbour (who is a teacher) in order to be lettered. Fascinated with the possibility of winning a scholarship to secondary school, Adah steals the money for the sitting fee, passes the examination and wins the scholarship. She eventually attends the Methodist Girls' School and completes the four-year course. This can be achieved only when one is determined to succeed.

Again, Adah never lets the decision of her in-laws, especially her father-in-law who does not approve of women travelling abroad, stop her from achieving her dream of going to the United Kingdom. She uses her cleverness to calm the situation and do everything possible for herself and two children to meet her husband in London. Even when meets a husband who has changed from good to worst in London, she never hesitates to sign a divorce because she does not want anyone or anything to truncate her chances of surviving in London. This is the spirit of a determined soul. From the beginning of the story to the end, Adah is clad with determination.

2. Gender Inequality
One cannot adequately dissect Buchi Emecheta's Second Class Citizen without paying a courtesy visit to the corridors of gender inequality. Gender inequality is a theme that is loudly projected in the novel. This is not done for a mere fanciful purpose; it is done to show how a typical African society gives too many privileges to men than women. Adah, the protagonist, is not allowed to go school because she is not a boy. At a point, she is allowed to go to school only because she could bring a higher bride price. As a married woman, her in-laws, especially her father-in-law, insist that her husband, Francis Obi, travel to the United Kingdom instead of her. According to them, a woman cannot travel abroad, leaving her husband behind.

3. Frustration
The same society that gives too many privileges to men also adorns them with a taxing responsibility – the responsibility of being the bread winners of their homes. Most men become frustrated when they fail in this task. This is the fate of Francis Obi, Adah's husband, in the novel. Financially, Francis Obi is no match for his wife. But he never allows this to affect his sanity during his stay in Nigeria. However, after waiting for a number of years in the UK without getting a job, he becomes frustrated. His frustration grows into anger, which he always pours on his loving wife through physical abuse.

Although she signs a divorce, Adah understands how demanding her society is and the reactions of those who cannot really cope with its ever increasing demands. In her words: “Francis was not a bad man, just a man who could no longer cope with the over demanding society he found himself” (p. 110). This is a sad reality for most immigrant men or any man who does not have the ability to cope with the failure and setbacks of life. She divorces Francis because he becomes uncontrollably abusive and she does not want anyone or anything to truncate her stay in London. She is a goal getter.

4. Discrimination
Discrimination is the distinct treatment of someone because of their race, sex, culture, attitude etc. Upon moving to the UK with the hope of having a better life, Adah, who is successful and a first class citizen in Nigeria, is instantly demoted to the status of second class. Adah is discriminated by the political superstructure that is tainted by racial prejudices in the UK. Gender discrimination/inequality can as well be discussed under this theme.

Style in Buchi Emecheta's Second Class Citizen
Style is a particular way, pattern, or design in which a work is written. It comprises the language/diction, tone, structure, narrative technique or point of view etc. Some elements of style used in Buchi Emecheta's Second Class Citizen are:

1. Language/Diction
The language of the novel is simple and easy to understand. The sentences and words used are not very complicated. The reader can read the story with ease and understand every bit of it.

2. Point of View/Narrative Technique
The story is told from the third person point of view. The narrator is not presented as a character within the narrative; he is primarily omniscient, internally focalizing on Adah's subjective experiences, emotions and interpretations. As a result, the thoughts and emotions of the other characters are not divulged to the reader. Instead, only their external actions and reactions are described from Adah's subjective point of view.

3. Euphemism
Emecheta has used different euphemistic expressions to cover the harshness of sexual activities in the novel. Below are some examples:

i. “As soon as her husband touches her, she gets a swollen tummy...” (22). By “touch” here, the writer means “sex”, and by “swollen tummy”, she means pregnancy.

ii. “Is it too much for a man to want his wife?” (88). Here, “want” refers to sexual urge.

4. Tone
The tone of the story is melancholic, depicting Adah's struggle within the patriarchal and colonial hegemonic structure. However, the story contains a tinge of hope because of the character of Adah who is determined and optimistic in the face of conflict.

5. The use of Imagery
The novel depicts vivid yet fast-paced description of Adah's experiences through the use of certain words which create such pictures in the minds of readers. Adah's childhood in Nigeria is reflected in the architecture of the house, the setting and the city of Lagos. The imagery of UK such as the ghetto in which Adah stays and its architecture such as the claustrophobic spacing of the house and lack of basic amenities projects a sharp dichotomy to Nigeria, and visually depict her demotion to a second class citizen.

1. Adah 
She is the protagonist of the novel as the story is centred on her experiences and her determination to succeed against all odds. She is a good child, daughter-in-law and loving and caring wife.

2. Francis Obi
He is Adah's caring and loving husband in Nigeria but an abusive husband in the UK due to his inability of the get a job after several years of searching for a job in the UK.

3. Mrs Ofili
She is Adah's mother, the wife of Mr Ofili and a mother-in-law to Francis Obi. She is an Igbo woman.

4. Mr Ofili
Mr Ofili is Adah's father, the husband of Mrs Ofili and a father-in-law to Francis Obi. He is also an Igbo man.

5. Victor
Victor is Adah's sickly son. His mom provides him with the best doctors (from China and India) for him to be medically fine.

6. Mr Cole
Mr Cole is Adah's neighbour who works as a teacher in a Methodist Primary School. Adah always sneaks out of the house to his class just to be lettered. He gives Adah the privilege of learning with his students despite the fact that she does not pay necessary fees.

7. Pa
Pa is Francis Obi's father and Adah's father-in-law.

8. Ma
She is the mother of Francis Obi and a mother-in-law to Adah.