African fiction and its social context. A critical analysis of social realism in Festus Iyayi's works

Doctoral Thesis / Dissertation, 2014

152 Pages, Grade: A



1.0 Background of the Research
1.1 Statement of the Thesis
1.2 Aim and Objectives of the Research
1.3 Scope of the Research
1.4 Significance of the Research
1.5 Conceptual Framework
1.6 Literature Review
1.7 Research Methodology and Plan of Work

2.0 Introduction
2.1 Social Realism in Violence
2.2 Social Realism in The Contract

3.0 Introduction
3.1 Social Realism in Heroes
3.2 Social Realism in Awaiting Court Martial

4.1 Summary
4.2 Conclusion



Foremost, I wish to express my profound gratitude to my supervisors Dr. J.D. Ajala and Prof. J.O. Abah without whose guidance and fatherly advice this work would not have been possible. In the same vein, I wish to convey my unreserved gratitude to the head and all the lecturers of the Department of English, University of Maiduguri for shaping my academic destiny right from undergraduate days. Of particular note is Mr. Hyeladzira Ali Balami, who placed his library at my disposal.

I wish to express appreciations for the kindly gestures of Prof. Bashir Haruna, the Vice Chancellor of Modibbo Adama University of Technology Yola for granting me a full-time study fellowship. Dr. Abdullahi Bashir, Head, Department of Information Technology, Modibbo Adama University of Technology Yola deserves no less appreciation for his encouragements and comradeship.

His Excellency, Hon. Goni-Ali Modu, former speaker of Borno State House of Assembly has always been there for me whenever I run into financial difficulties. I am highly appreciative of his brotherly care.

My indispensable friends, Barr. Stephen Akau, Mallam Gambo Matudi Ika, Mr. Adegoke Abiodun, Mr. Martin James Bwala, Mal. Aliyu Salihu and Miss Saratu S. Balami have played significant roles in the success of this work. I am grateful to them.

Finally, I wish to commend the patience and endurance demonstrated by the members of my family who had to do without my presence virtually throughout the period of my studies.

To every one mentioned here and to those who due to space constraints could not receive mention, I say a big thank you. May the Almighty Allah continue to bless you all.


This work is dedicated to my beloved wife, Aisha, for her courage and understanding demonstrated throughout the trying period. It is also dedicated to my first school teacher, late Mr. Stephen Nggaha, whose wisdom and foresight brought me to the present.


This research examines Iyayi’s use of Social Realism in fiction. Towards this end, the concept of Social Realism and its exponents are identified and discussed and its tenets applied in the assessment of Iyayi’s works. Iyayi’s novels and a collection of short stories are taken one after the other and focused on with the view to locating Iyayi’s works in the continuum of African literature through an identification of similar authors and their works. Festus Iyayi is comparatively younger in the literary circle when compared to old names like Achebe, Ngugi, Mwangi, Ousmane and Armah for instance and sufficient comments and criticisms have not been made on his works. Again, it is observed that a discussion of Iyayi’s works attracts mixed opinions. While some scholars and critics like Amuta (1986) and OgundipeLeslie (1994) for instance describe Iyayi’s works as being accomplished works of Social Realism, Acholonu (1987) on the other hand does not accord his works this status. The paucity of critical comments and the conflict of opinions motivate this research. The thesis therefore examines the use of Social Realism in Iyayi’s works with a view to situating them in the realm of African literature of Social Realism. The outcome indicates that although Iyayi’s earlier works have some artistic flaws, after examining the totality of his works, this thesis shows that Iyayi is a strong Social Realist writer and he can be regarded as one of the major African literary artists of Social Realism.



This research examines the use of Social Realism in Festus Iyayi’s works. Iyayi has published three novels; Violence (1979), The Contract (1982), Heroes (1986) and a collection of short stories, Awaiting Court Martial (1996) all of which have been focused upon. The study examines the use of Social Realism in the selected texts with the view to locating them in the continuum of African fiction through an identification of similar authors and their works. The works of African authors like Chinua Achebe, Meja Mwangi, Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, Sembene Ousmane, Isidore Okpewho, John Munonye, Chukwuemeka Ike and Eddie Iroh share similarities with the works of Iyayi’s in their treatments of social issues affecting their respective societies.

Literature, says Ogunjimi in Obafemi (1994:5) “attempts to depict man and his environment within a creative mode” and, according to him, “the creative imagination and the use of specialized form of communication medium language and style make literature different from all other disciplines.” The depiction of man and his environment in literature, perhaps, is what prompts Aristotle to describe literature as the imitation of life. Seen in this light then, one could say that literary creativity is an attempt at putting literature to the service of mankind. One of the functions of literature is to entertain. But it could also be utilized to effect some social changes. That is to say, literature transcends the boundary of its entertainment value. It utilizes the theatre of entertainment to make some critical comments at social evils with a view to social reform.

Discussing the relationship between the creative writer and his society, Satre (1950:49) observes that whether the writer “…wants to or not and even if he has his eyes on eternal laurels, the writer is speaking to his contemporaries and brothers of his class and race”. This assertion places the creative writer in the position of a mediator between the society and its people.

In the preface to his Studies on the Nigerian Novel, Emenyonu, (1991: vii) says that “The development of modern African Literature as an academic discipline has tended to tread the same paths as African political development.” By this, Emenyonu could be implying that the struggle for political independence was reflected in African literature. Nigerian novelists, especially, have played a significant role in the growth and development of African literature. Among them is Festus Iyayi whose literary works are studied for this research.

While introducing Satre’s What is Literature?, Caute states that “Literature should not be a sedative but an irritant, a catalyst provoking men to change the world in which they live and in so doing to change themselves”(p.x). This implies that literature should be function-oriented and not just to be read for its aesthetic value. This researcher is of the view that Iyayi is one of the Nigerian authors who have embraced the functional role of literature and has utilized the prose form to make his contribution in liberating the common man from the shackles of corruption and poverty in which he has found himself as a result of poor leadership.

In his definition of the novel, Palmer (1986:1), quoting Philip Stevick, the author of The Theory of the Novel, states that

Most critics hold the view that a novel is a coherent unified fictitious prose narrative, with a beginning a middle and an end with the materials deployed in such a way as to give the image of coherence, continuity and wholeness, and with certain tensions and anticipations regarding the central characters carried through the entire length of the work, to be resolved only at the end.

Palmer, (1986) characterizes the short story as a prose form which concentrates on a particular situation or episode and making rather sparing use of dialogue. Iyayi has utilized both prose forms to address Nigeria’s social problems.

Social Realism in literary studies refers to a concept which is deployed by writers. According to Wightman, (2011)

The principal source of the subject matter of Social Realism is made up of problems linked with life, the work, thoughts and actions of the people who are either trying to construct a socialist society or who are struggling for their rights in capitalist, rather than a socialist countries.

The concept places emphasis on the depiction of a given society and its people in the work (Gakwandi, 1977). Iyayi joins his counterparts in the articulation of Social Realism in fiction with the publication of Violence in 1979. Even though Violence is not considered an accomplished work of Social Realism, as subsequent discussion in this thesis will show, there has been gradual growth and maturity in Iyayi’s use of Social Realism in his subsequent literary publications and his works could be located in realm of African fiction.

Iyayi’s Violence is concerned with the treatment of corruption and injustice in Nigeria; its causes, manifestations and effects on the society and its people. The Contract continues the discussion on corruption which is perpetrated through the use of contracts. Heroes interrogates the morality or otherwise behind the Nigerian civil war fought between 1967 and 1970. Awaiting Court Martial is a collection of short stories that crystallizes the themes of the previous novels.

There are areas of similarities in terms of subject matter between Iyayi’s works and the works of other African writers. For instance, Achebe’s No Longer at Ease (1960), A Man of the People (1966) and Anthills of the Savannah (1987) treat corruption in Nigeria in particular and by extension, Africa in general.

Ngugi Wa Thiong'o’s novels deal with problems identifiable with Kenyan society. His Weep Not, Child, (1964) The River Between (1965) and A Grain of Wheat (1967) are specifically concerned with the Mau Mau struggle for independence in Kenya and how the Kenyan people respond to the realities of the time in their individual and collective capacities a theme which reverberates in Mwangi’s earlier novels like Kill Me Quick (1973), Carcase for Hounds (1974) and Taste of Death, (1975). Ngugi’s Petals of Blood (1977) and Devil on the Cross (1982) treat the theme of corruption and disillusionment after Kenyan independence and how the various social classes respond to it. This theme also found expression in Mwangi’s urban novels such as Going Down River Road, (1976) The Bushtrackers, (1979) and The Cockroach Dance, (1979).

Sembene Ousmane’s God’s Bits of Wood (1970) is especially similar to Iyayi’s Violence in its concern with the problems of workers; interpersonal relationships and their relationship with their employers and the struggle for better conditions of service. The Nigerian civil war discussed in Iyayi’s Heroes equally forms the subject matter of other Nigerian authors. John Munonye’s A Wreath for the Maidens, (1973) Chukwuemeka Ike’s Sunset at Dawn (1976) Isidore Okpewho's The Last Duty (1976) and Eddie Iroh’s Toads of War, (1979) for instance, discuss the Nigerian civil war. Even though Iyayi’s works have similarities of subject matter with other African writers, their narrative techniques and approach to the novel form however may not be the same as could be seen in the next chapters of this thesis.


Festus Iyayi is comparatively younger in the literary circle when compared to old names like Achebe, Ekwensi, Soyinka, Ngugi, Mwangi and Armah for instance and sufficient comments and criticisms have not been made on his works. Again, it is observed that a discussion of Iyayi’s literary works attracts mixed opinions. While some scholars and critics like Amuta (1986) and Ogundipe-Leslie (1994), for instance, describe Iyayi’s literary works as being accomplished works of Social Realism, Acholonu, in Emenyonu, ed. (1982:69), on the other hand, dismisses him as an amateur story teller or a political pamphleteer and considers his Violence for instance, as “…a child’s attempt at story telling…” This conflict of opinion and the paucity of critical comments on his works present an interesting research problem. This researcher therefore interrogates Iyayi’s use of Social Realism with a view to situating his works in the realm of African literature of Social Realism.


The aim of this research is to examine the use of Social Realism in Iyayi’s works. The objectives of the study are to:

i. examine the beginning of Iyayi’s use of Social Realism in Violence and The Contract;
ii. discuss the maturity and mastery of the use of Social Realism in Iyayi’s Heroes and Awaiting Court Martial;
iii. demonstrate how there has been improvement in the use of Social Realism from Violence to Awaiting Court Martial.
iv. highlight the literary techniques utilized by the author in developing the themes of Social Realism.
v. assess and situate Iyayi’s work in the realm of African literature.


This research falls within the scope of African literature; specifically the prose. It is limited to the analysis of Iyayi’s Violence, The Contract, Heroes and Awaiting Court Martial, focusing mainly on the assessment of the use of Social Realism in the four texts and situating them in the realm of African literature. The main reason for this delimitation is to enable the researcher to make a comprehensive analysis of the topic.


Social Realism in literature is an important literary concept for its focus on man and his society. Social realist writers depict in their works problems facing their respective societies for the purpose of social reform (Reid 2008). The importance attached to Social Realism in literature perhaps, is what prompts Palmer (1972:129) to assert that

The decolonization of African Literature is already in progress. Novelists are becoming less preoccupied with cultural and sociological matters, and more concerned about exposing the corruption and incompetence which are so widespread in African political and governmental circles.

Palmer, (1972) cites Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born as one of the most successful novels of Social Realism for its portrayal of corruption and injustice in Africa.

Festus Iyayi uses Social Realism in his literary works to expose the problem of corruption and injustice in Nigeria with a view to prompting social reform. Critical conflict of opinions however marks his literary craftsmanship. While some critics consider his literary works as accomplished literature of Social Realism, others do not accord his literary works this status. It is therefore quite significant that a study of this conflict of opinion be carried out. This researcher therefore attaches strong significance to the analysis of the use of Social Realism in Iyayi’s literary works focusing on the foundation, growth, maturity and mastery in Iyayi’s use of Social Realism in literature.


Bressler (1999) defines literary theory as “…the assumptions (conscious or unconscious) that undergird one’s understanding and interpretation of language, the construction of meaning, art, culture, aesthetics, and ideological positions.”(p.6). There are several critical theories that could be applied in the analysis of Iyayi’s literary works. Bressler (1999) cites the following as some of the theories that could be used in the analysis of literary works generally:

THE NEW CRITICISM: this theory is concerned with the interpretation of literature considering its intrinsic quality as more important than the external factors that shape the work.

READER-RESPONSE CRITICISM: reader-response critical theory posits that the interpretation of a literary work depends largely on the perception of the readers.

STRUCTURALISM: structuralism considers the form and structure of a work as being more important than its content.

DECONSTRUCTION: deconstructive criticism emphasizes that a text has an almost infinite number of possible interpretations; that is to say, the interpretation of the work is as creative as the text being studied.

PSYCHOANALYSIS: psychoanalytic approach to literary interpretation emphasizes the utilization of both intrinsic and extrinsic factors and mythological materials found in the work in order to arrive at the meaning of the work.

FEMINISM: when applying feminism in evaluating a literary text, the analyst is expected to focus his attention on whether or not the text equates the roles of women with those of men.

SOCIAL REALISM: this concept is concerned with the depiction of an existing society but with difference from the other theories. Iyayi depicts the Nigerian society in his literary works in line with the emphasis of Social Realism. Therefore a more extensive discussion will be made on it than the preceding theories.


Social Realism in literature is a literary concept that emphasizes the depiction of a given society and its people within the creative mode. In discussing Social Realism, several operational terms may come up in our lexical items and they need to be explained and clarified. For instance, terms like Realism, Naturalism, Marxism, Psychological Realism and Social Realism are related terms with slight differences as could be seen in the following analysis.


Wimsatt and Brooks, (1957: 456 – 458) have this to say of realism:

…If we may use the term broadly to mean a reaction against a number of things that were thought in the mid 19th century to be unreal, not only Gothic romance, picaresque adventure, and allegorical fantasy but classic composure and conservative morality – realism as an aesthetic norm comes into view not only for literary but for pictorial art at about the same time, in the exhibition by Courbet of 1855 and the publication of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary in 1856.

Gustave Courbet was a French painter while Gustave Flaubert was a French novelist and literary critic, as related by Wimsatt and Brooks. Flaubert’s theory of realism, they say, concerns itself with the professional procedures of a novelist. They say, Flaubert “conceived a scientific detachment, a coolness and care in the observation of materials”. This suggests that a novelist depicting realism in his creative works as exemplified by Flaubert should avoid emotional involvement in the fictional elements he relates and present his story to reflect the reality.

Coming to realism in pictorial art, Wimsatt and Brooks quote Courbet’s friend Castagnary as saying:

The painter of our own time lives our own life, with our own habits and our own ideas. He will take the feelings he gets from the look of things in our society, and give them back to us in pictures where we recognize our selves and our own surroundings. It will not do to lose sight of the fact that we ourselves are both the subject and the object of art: art is the expression of ourselves for our own sake.

Castagnary’s account of Courbet’s artistic painting implies the creation of the environment, in which the artist lives, without embellishments. In other words, realism in art means painting life as it is. Courbet’s critics are said to have described his art as a “scrupulous imitation of nature”.

Inspired by Courbet’s realism in art, other French scholars and artists developed this theory into what is to be known later as naturalism. The greatest exponent of naturalism is said to be Emile Zola, a French writer. Literary realism and naturalism, say Wimsatt and Brooks, constituted an aesthetic centered in the prose novel, which was the literary genre most directly dedicated to social problems of the 19th century. The thrust of the naturalist novelist is to provide a truthful picture of nature as seen through the eye of the artist.

Brockett (1964:288) also asserts that naturalism is an offshoot of realism and he acknowledges Emile Zola as the founding father of naturalism. For according to Brockett,

By 1850 a conscious movement toward realism in art was emerging. It developed first in France, and by 1860 had proclaimed the following precepts: the playwright should strive for a truthful depiction of a real world; since he may know the real world only through direct observation, he should write about the society around him; he should strive to be as objective as possible.

In other words, Brockett believes that realism in literature implies the depiction of the society as it actually exists. The artist observes what is happening around him and reproduces what he has observed. This new trend in theatre and art, as reported by Brockett, had made playwrights and novelists in France to turn to themes, which were not previously treated in the theatre or novels.

Naturalism, to Zola, in Dukore (ed) (1974:695-705),

…is a return to nature, it is this operation which the savants performed on the day when they decided to get out from study of bodies and phenomena to build on experiments, and to proceed by analysis. Naturalism in letters is equally the return to nature and to man, direct observation, exact anatomy, the acceptance and depiction of what is. The task was the same for the writer as for the savant. One and the other replaced abstractions by realities, empirical formulas by rigorous analysis. Thus, no more abstract characters in books, no more lying inventions, no more of the absolute; but real characters, the true history of each one, the story of daily life.

The concept of naturalism as developed by Zola constitutes a revolt against romanticism. Romanticism places emphasis on intuition as a guide towards learning the ultimate truth. Zola sees the Romantic Movement as a generation of what he describes as “over excited dreamers”. Although Zola traces the idea of naturalism to the beginning of writing when Aristotle and his contemporaries wrote on natural subjects, he acknowledges Gustave Flaubert’s publication of Madam Bovary as his source of inspiration where the concept takes a concrete term. Zola again says:

Whether M. Gustave Flaubert intended it or not, he had brought to naturalism the only strength which was lacking to it, that of that perfect and imperishable style which keeps works alive. From that time the formula was firmly established. There was nothing for the new comers to do but to walk in this broad path of truth aided by art.


In America, according to Wimsatt and Brooks, “the idea of socially activist literature appears during the first decades of the 20th century”. Upton Sinclair’s Mammonart (1924) is cited as an example of works of Social Realism. Sinclair’s Mammonart, according to Wimsatt and brooks, depicts the pessimism and decay of the American middle class.

Also writing on realism and naturalism, Madden (2008) says that the school of realism was developed in France in the 1850s, and from there it spread to other countries including America. “The guiding principle of the realist writers,” according to Madden, “was the exact depiction of human behavior.” He cites Flaubert’s Madam Bovary as the first realist novel. On naturalism, Madden says that Emile Zola

… was the leader of the school of naturalism, a literary genre that developed from realism. Naturalistic writers believed that human behavior is determined by hereditary instincts, emotions, and environment rather than by personal intentions, plans, or designs. Therefore, people do not have free will that is, they are not free to make whatever choices they want.

Reid (2008) is more specific than Madden (2008) about the emphasis of works of Social Realism in America. Reid states that novels of Social Realism emphasize “the everyday” and through detailed description recreate “specific locations, incidents, and social classes” while naturalism, which is an offshoot of realism, is “an extreme form of realism” in the sense that “Naturalism had an outlook often bleaker than that of realism, and it added a dimension of predetermined fate that rendered human will ultimately powerless”.

Social Realism, on the other hand, says Reid, is concerned with the truthful depiction of society and its people unlike the relativity of truth inherent in Romanticism. Social Realist writers in America, as part of their conceptual tenet, according to Reid,

… looked at working conditions, often for the purpose of social reform. In 1906 Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, a novel that exposed the unsanitary and miserable working conditions in the stockyards of Chicago, Illinois. The book led to an investigation by the federal government and the subsequent passage of pure food laws.


Wimsatt and Brooks (1957) again report that writers of realism in Russia received inspiration from the works of Vissarion Belinsky, a Russian writer who lived between 1811 and 1848, and the writing of Belinsky’s disciples who wrote after Belinsky’s death. Wimsatt and Brooks say “Marxist critics of the 20th century have looked back to Belinsky with reverence” (P. 460). Russian literary critics who applied Karl Marx’s socio-economic ideology to bear on the preoccupation of literary artists are those referred to as Marxist critics.

Accordingly, the Russian Marxist critics focused their attention on the idea of realism and its relevance to society when reviewing Belinsky’s works and those of Belinsky’s disciples. “These critics”, say Wimsatt and Brooks, “Were on the look out for empirical reality, for the moment in history, for social and national needs, and corresponding responsibilities in literature” (P.460). And Twentieth Century critical movements in Russia consider that for literature to be relevant, at all, it must represent and express the national spirit. This movement could be considered as a complete break away from the concept of “art for art’s sake”. To the Russian critics of the 20th century, any literature that does not articulate the needs and aspirations of the society and its people is considered decadent.

Dobrolyubov, one of Belinsky’s disciples, is said to be the originator of a literary movement responsible for encouraging writers to assume independence in what they wrote about, so long as they represent the societal history and its evolution in their writings. The idea, being to give society a social focus. The freedom of creative writing encouraged by Dobrolyubov’s literary movement is said to have led to the gradual development of realism, leading to the concept of Social Realism in literary criticism in Russia. Leo Tolstoy is credited for championing the movement for its development. Summing up the discussion on the Russian school of realism, Wimsatt and Brooks submit;

Seen as a demand on the character of literature itself, Marxist criticism prescribes the broad picture of social reality, the novel of sound views, the social documents, the party-line mimesis, the blue print for social planning (P. 470).

From the summation of Wimsatt and Brooks, one can derive that the Russian school of realism considers the credibility of a literary work in terms of its social functions. In this regard, Russian realism and Marxist realism could be considered to mean the same thing. “The first major branch of Marxism to appear outside Russia was that developed by Hungarian Georg Lukacs” (Bressler, 1999:215).

According to Lukacs in Michael Hoffman and Patrick Murphy (Eds) (1988), literature should be utilized as a potent tool for the liberation of the oppressed from his oppressor and that the literary artist has the responsibility of showing the way forward. Lukacs argues that literature should depict a revolutionary social change and this can be done by the means of realism. It is through the use of realism in literature that the writer could create man as a private individual and man as a member of the society. He maintains that

True great realism thus depicts man and society as complete entities, instead of showing merely one or the other of their aspects. Measured by this criterion, artistic trends determined by their exclusive introspection or exclusive extraversion equally impoverish and distort reality. Thus realism means a three-dimensionality, an all-roundness, that endows with independent life characters and human relationships (p.207).

On the role of the writer in emancipating his people, Lukacs states that

The practical road to a solution for the writer lies in an ardent love of the people, a deep hatred of the people’s enemies and the people’s own errors, the inexorable uncovering of truth and reality, together with an unshakable faith in the march of mankind and their own people towards a better future. There is to-day in the world a general desire for a literature which could penetrate with its beam deep into the tangled jungle of our time. A good realist literature could play the leading part, hitherto always denied to it, in the democratic rebirth of nations (p.216-217).

Lukacs’ analysis is an affirmation of the functional orientation and tenets of literature; specifically the literature of Social Realism.

Wightman, (2011) differentiates between Socialist Realism and Social Realism. According to Wightman,

Socialist Realism is the school of realist art that had as its end, the furtherance of goals of socialism/communism. It held that successful art should depict and glorify the proletariat’s struggle towards social progress. Socialist Realism became the officially approved form of art of the Soviet Union. Since all means of production belongs to the state, so did art (as it was a powerful means of propaganda). The tendencies towards Socialist Realism began in the late 19th century. Maxim Gorky's novel Mother is considered to be the first true work of Socialist Realism (p.1).

Social Realism, on the other hand, says Wightman, “is not an official art and so allows subjectivity. It was originally an artistic movement that depicts the daily struggles of the working class”.


Three traditions are identified by Gakwandi (1977) in the development of the African novel. The first tradition is that which consists of those novels which, through the selection of facts and details from ordinary life, produce the picture of a world that resembles an existing one. He says “This tradition is normally referred to as realism.”

The second tradition consists of novels which project idealistic and distorted values and which result is the creation of a world we do not know. This tradition, he refers to as “romance or caricature, depending on whether human possibilities are expanded or reduced” (P.126).

The third category of African novels, in Gakwandi's classification, is that which he describes as fusing both realism and romanticism together in its attempt to express man’s relationship with the universe. This category of novels is referred to as “metaphysical.” This suggests that some of the events and situations in the story are beyond the physical and therefore abstract or unrealistic.

The three traditions, according to Gakwandi, are difficult to separate because they often overlap even in a single work of art. In his view, the only distinction that separates realism from the other two traditions is emphasis. While the non-realist traditions emphasize aesthetic principles, in the realist tenet, the highest emphasis is placed on the observation in terms of known facts. Gakwandi further distinguishes two types of realisms:

…the first type concerns itself primarily with the behaviour of man, the individual being treated as an autonomous entity. The second type takes the whole breadth of society as its subject matter and examines how the customs, conventions, social institutions and individuals inter-relate. The first type is what has come to be known as psychological realism, the second as Social Realism. (P.126).

Since this study is concerned with Social Realism, our discussion would focus more on this aspect of realism. Expatiating on the salient features of Social Realist literary works, Gakwandi again says:

Social Realism should offer a clear and graspable conception of the relationship between individuals and their society. The nineteenth century novel in Europe often shows individuals being oppressed by rigid social norms. This oppression is most acutely felt by sensitive individuals whom we meet as central characters in Middle March, Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary to mention but a few (P. 127).

“In novels which portray contemporary experience,” he adds, “criticism of society tends to dwell on the very absence of norms which can provide the individual with a basis for good conduct” (p.127).

The problem of corruption and injustice could be said to be a universal phenomenon with a significant concentration in Africa. This may have informed Gakwandi’s call to African writers to give concerted efforts in concretizing the concept of Social Realism in their literary works. He cites Oyono’s House Boy and Beti’s Mission to Kala as novels exemplifying works of Social Realism where individuals struggle against erroneous social norms in order to create an atmosphere of good conduct.

On African novelists who focus their criticism on absence of models of good conduct, Gakwandi cites Achebe as a good example and refers to Chief M.A. Nanga in A Man of the People as one of the evil geniuses who take advantage of the lack of community will to satisfy their private and animal desires. In other words, individuals like Chief M. A. Nanga have been able to perpetrate such social anathema because the society has remained docile in the face of tyranny, dictatorship and corruption.

The African novel, according to Gakwandi “…has become the principal literary vehicle for analyzing and commenting upon contemporary life in Africa” and that Social Realism has been the principal tool by which this has been done (p.129). Since Iyayi uses Social Realism in his literary works, the salient features of works of Social Realism as highlighted in the foregoing analysis would be used as criteria in analyzing the use of Social Realism in Iyayi’s literary works.


From the foregoing discussion on Social Realism, it could be deduced that the concept of realism in literature had existed since the days of Aristotle when plays and stories were written. However, it received concretization in the 19th century exhibition of Gustave Courbet’s painting in 1855 and the publication of Gustave Flaubert’s novel, Madam Bovary, in 1856.

Courbet’s pictures are said to have depicted an existing or real world while Flaubert’s novel is said to be a complete departure from earlier works which depicted romantic, fantastic or imaginary world outside the one we live in. While earlier literary works are said to have portrayed a romantic or imaginary world outside the one we live in, Flaubert’s novel on the other hand, is said to have depicted a society which was real with characters resembling real people in the society. Flaubert’s readers are said to have described his work as being close to nature.

Using Flaubert’s Madam Bovary as a springboard, Emile Zola launched his concept of naturalism which is another way of describing works of art that are realistic and therefore close to nature. From all indications, the difference between realism and naturalism lies in their outlook. “Naturalism had an outlook often bleaker than that of realism, and [naturalism has] added a dimension of predetermined fate that rendered human will ultimately powerless” (Reid 2008). This makes realism more relevant to literary history than naturalism for realism essentially has a more positive outlook than the fatalism inherent in naturalism.

In Russia as reported by Wimsatt and Brooks, realism in literature received inspiration from the works of Vissarion Belinsky in the mid 19th century and the works of his disciples who wrote after Belinsky’s death. Having been inspired by the works of Belinsky and his disciples, later Russian writers focused their attentions on how realism in literary works could apply to the society and its people. The concept of Social Realism then came into use. Leo Tolstoy has been acknowledged as the greatest champion of this movement.

Twentieth century critics who embraced the socio-political philosophy of Karl Marx took Belinsky’s realism and married them with Marx’s ideology. This brought about the concept of Marxist realism in literary studies in Russia. It could be said that Marxism in literary studies today is a fusion between realism and the ideas of Karl Marx: as regards to how the structure of society ought to be. We can therefore define Marxist realism in literature as realism based on Marx’s socialist vision. Georg Lukacs, a Hungarian writer is said to be the first scholar to develop the school of Marxism outside Russia.

Wightman differentiates between Socialist Realism and Social Realism. Socialist Realism, according to him, refers to an official Soviet school of art that promotes the goals of socialism/communism while Social Realism on the other hand, is not an official school but an artistic movement that depicts the daily struggle of the working class.

The African novel of Social Realism, as asserted by Gakwandi, takes its tradition from its European ancestors. According to him, the writings of Gustave Flaubert gave inspiration to African writers of the literature of realism. He then differentiates between two types of realisms: psychological realism, which is mainly concerned with the study of an individual’s behaviour, and Social Realism which takes the whole breadth of the society to examine how its customs and social institutions affect the individual and groups.

It could therefore be summed up that Social Realism in literature refers to an artistic movement which is focused on depicting problems of life as it affects workers and the poor in a given society for the purpose of social reform. In its depiction of a given society, social relationships are encapsulated.


Wightman, (2011) believes that

The principal source of the subject matter of Social Realism is made up of problems linked with life, the work, thoughts and actions of the people who are either trying to construct a socialist society or who are struggling for their rights in capitalist, rather than socialist countries.

Wightman considers it as a tenet that literature of Social Realism portrays the people as a great organized force; the creative and moving force of history. This literature, according to Wightman, depicts the broad masses as those that play the decisive role in historical events.

Akingbe et al, (2011) concur with Wightman, (2011) by adding that literature of Social Realism should delineate the flaws and shortcomings of current social and political process and explicitly advocate their replacement. In other words, literature of Social Realism advocates the overthrow of capitalist system to be replaced with socialism.

N’guessan, (2014) also considers as one of the tenets that a literary work of Social Realism concerns itself with the reorganization of the proletariat for functional solidarity. He defines the term proletariat by borrowing from Fairburn’s (2009) expression to refer to a “social stratum made up of illiterates” who do manual labour and petty jobs for wages.

Marx and Engels (1969) define proletariat to mean

A class in society which lives entirely from the sale of its labour and does not draw profit from any kind of capital; whose weal and woe, whose life and death, whose sole existence depends on the demand for labour – hence, on the changing state of business, on the vagaries of unbridled competition.

In concretizing the tenets of Social Realism, says N'guessan, (2014) it is a demand on the part of the writer to inculcate in the literary work emphasis on resistance to temptation and the spirit of forgiveness. N'guessan believes that revolution is seen by rulers as harbinger of woes and would do anything to quash it by bribing its leaders. It is therefore necessary for the character of the hero of literature of Social Realism to be endowed with the will to resist temptation for the sake of the revolution. Characters in works of Social Realism should be depicted as human beings with the ability to cope with painful situation and be able to forgive one another at the end of the story.

Bressler, (1999) considers the expression of ideology as one of the tenets of Social Realism. He believes that the study of literature and the study of society are intricately bound and that such a relationship demands that a Marxist approach to a text deal with more than the conventional literary themes and style. Marxism, Bressler adds,

… must move beyond these literary elements to uncover the author’s world and his or her worldview. By placing the text in its historical context and by analyzing the author’s view of life, Marxist critics arrive at one of their chief concerns: ideology. It is the ideology expressed by the author, as evidenced through his or her fictional world, and how this ideology interacts with the reader’s personal ideology that interest these critics.

Bressler contends that the author should depict in the literary work, how the present capitalist system undermines the aspirations of the working class and how the working class could liberate themselves from such oppression. The Marxist critic therefore begins the textual analysis by examining the history and the culture of the times reflected in the text and then investigates how the author either correctly or incorrectly depicts this historical period. Such an analysis, says Bressler, (1999) “…will lead to action, social change, revolution and the rise of socialism”.

Booth, (1983) outlines the procedures of actualizing the tenets of Social Realism in fiction to include the following:

i. Works o f Social Realism should depict man and his society.
ii. The relationships between man and his fellow man and between man and his society should be emphasized.
iii. Emphasis should be placed in the text on reflecting the realities of the world outside the literary work.
iv. Characters and situations in the work should be true to life.
v. In the realistic tradition, stories are demonstrated rather than told.
vi. Scenes and situations should be described with dramatic vividness.
vii. There must be full realization of the subject matter.

In the interrogation of the use of Social Realism in Iyayi’s literary works in this thesis, attention is focused on answering questions like these:

(i) Does Iyayi treat socially realistic themes in accordance with the tenets of Social Realism?
(ii) How does he present the themes?
(iii) Have there been progressive advancements in his use of Social Realism from Violence to Awaiting Court Martial?
(iv) How close do the works approximate the world outside them?
(v) Are his characters well sketched in accordance with the procedures of actualizing the tenets of Social Realism?
(vi) Are there points of convergence or divergence between Iyayi’s works and those of other African writers?


In this literature review, concentration is placed on highlighting the focus of other scholars on Iyayi’s literary works with the view to establishing the uniqueness of this thesis. Even though Festus Iyayi is comparatively younger in the literary world when compared to old names like Achebe, Ngugi, Ekwensi and Soyinka for instance, critics have made some significant comments on his works. It is however pertinent to say that most of the critical comments have little or nothing to do with the interrogation of the use of Social Realism in Iyayi’s works. It is worthwhile to examine these comments and see how they differ from the focus of this thesis.

For instance, Acholonu, in Emenyonu (Ed) (1987), compares the narrative technique in Okpewho’s The Last Duty and Iyayi’s Violence. In the opening paragraph of her article, she makes this observation:

Like Iyayi’s Violence, Isidore Okpewho’s The Last Duty tells the story of people caught up in violence, physical and psychological, concrete and abstract. Like that novel too, Okpewho’s novel reviews the life of a young woman who must compromise her womanhood in order to keep body and soul together. But the similarity ends there. Whereas Okpewho’s novel [ The Last Duty ]exhibits a mature and analytical mind, Iyayi’s novel [ Violence ] smacks of a child’s attempt at story-telling and the novel exposes the inexperience and immaturity of the writer. (p.69)

She proceeds to describe Okpewho’s novel as having demonstrated a completely new narrative method by presenting the characters in the novel to speak of their experiences without a narrator. This, to her, makes Okpewho’s work a unique one. On Iyayi’s Violence, however, she is of the opinion that “… there is not a single character in the novel that can be identified as a person, they are all types.” (p.72).

Describing Iyayi’s handling of character, theme, plot and language as very immature and ingenious; she dismisses his Violence as Iyayi’s autobiography and concludes that

One can easily recognize the personality of the author hiding under the mask of his beloved but poor couple. His sympathy with them is not incidental, but rather biographical. Idemudia is even said to have gone to school for a short while. Thus the author justifies his semi-literacy. (p.72).

As can be evident from Acholonu’s criticism of Iyayi’s Violence, and Okpewho’s The Last Duty, her main concern in the novels of Iyayi and Okpewho relates to the narrative technique; in other words she is mainly concerned with the aesthetic qualities of the two novels and less with the analysis of Social Realism in them. This thesis takes a different approach in examining Iyayi’s literary works.

In a review of Iyayi’s Violence, Ogundipe-Leslie, (1981) asserts that Violence is the first Nigerian proletarian novel. Ogundipe-Leslie, Nigerian Marxist feminist, defines the word “proletarian” in Marxian terms to refer to what she describes as “productive workers” who are wage earners and whose labour produce wealth upon which the society depends. OgundipeLeslie has classified and described Violence as the first Nigerian proletarian novel.

Ogundipe-Leslie (1994:94-97) has again re-examined Iyayi’s Violence in her Recreating Ourselves: African Women and Critical Transformation where she describes the novel as being

…humanistic in its concern with the human degradation of working people like Idemudia, Adisa and the Jimoh family, by its concern with unemployment and poverty. It is historically optimistic not in obviously stating that there will be social change, but in his tender and sensitive depiction of the relationship between the worker and his wife.

She proceeds to examine the portrayal of the female characters in the novel to see if it accords with her perception of feminism. Her main interest in the novel is to see if Iyayi has produced a work of Marxist literature with feminist sensitivity. Even though OgundipeLeslie’s analysis of Violence is an affirmation of Iyayi’s treatment of the themes of Social Realism, her scholarship does not focus on the use of Social Realism in the novel.

Another critic worth mentioning is Amuta (1986:156-157), whose thin essay on Violence is a critical analysis of Iyayi’s characterization in the novel. Expressing his satisfaction with Iyayi’s characterization, he says, “It is to Iyayi’s artistic credit that his proletarian characters do not simply accept fatalistically their plight.” Even though Amuta’s analysis of Violence, like that of Ogundipe-Leslie, considers the novel as a work of Social Realism but its focus has little to do with the interrogation of the use of Social Realism in it.

Criticism of a more serious note is done by Emenyonu (1991). In his Studies on the Nigerian Novel, he devotes a chapter to the comparison of the socialist vision in Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah and Iyayi’s Heroes. He says,

Chinua Achebe and Festus Iyayi have little in common as writers. They have different approaches to the novel as an art form. Their thematic and moral preoccupations are in different directions. Their concepts of the role of the writer in his society also vary. Their perceptions of the structure of their societies are equally different. The methods in bringing about changes in the societies of their novels are in no way related. But in their military novels, namely Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah (1987) and Festus Iyayi’s Heroes (1986) they have a meeting point (p. 106).

On Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah, he observes that the novel is a scathing attack on military dictatorships in Africa. He is of the view that the military have transformed themselves into power hungry despots after forcefully taking over power. Their motivation, according to him, has always been to enrich themselves through corrupt means. By so doing, they stratify the society into the upper rich, the middle class and the downtrodden masses. In their attempts to protect their stolen loot and to preserve the social order which their corrupt leadership has created, they are always prepared to plunge the country into civil wars as diversionary tactics.

Coming to Iyayi’s Heroes, Emenyonu categorically asserts that the novel is specifically based on the Nigerian civil war, which is the by-product of greed, insensitivity and power-drunkenness. The ordinary soldiers in the novel, contends Emenyonu, suffer criminal neglect in the hands of their commanding officers. He submits that

Iyayi presents a totally new perspective of the war from other writers. The story does not depict any support overt or covert on the part of the novelist to any of the warring factions. Iyayi manifests very clearly that class consciousness is at the root of many ills in the society whether in a military or a civilian regime. (P.113-114).

There is no doubt that Emenyonu has made a significant appraisal of the social visions of the texts cited, more so Iyayi’s Heroes. However, there is a marked difference between his work and the focus of this thesis. While Emenyonu is concerned with the socialist vision in Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah and Iyayi’s Heroes, this thesis takes Iyayi’s literary works to examine the articulation of Social Realism in the texts.

In his unpublished M. A. dissertation entitled “Social Criticism in Festus Iyayi’s Violence, The Contract and Heroes”, submitted to the Department of English, University of Maiduguri, Kah, (1991) takes a look at the thematic preoccupations of the three novels. He sees Violence as a novel that exposes the harsh realities of life as experienced by the under privileged in contrast to the opulence, greed, abuse of office and the moral bankruptcy of the ruling class in the Nigerian society.

The Contract, according to him, examines the tragedy of a young man who comes back home from his studies abroad and discovers that corruption has eaten up the country. In his attempt to impose his own ideology on the existing order, he is gunned down by his own father, the latter mistaking his son for a thief.

Heroes, on the other hand, says Kah, deals with the Nigerian civil war, where the greed and corruption of the ruling class is manifested. Through the reportorial notes of the journalist, Osime Iyere, the reader gets to know that the war is not fought on ideological divide: rather, it is a war created and sustained for the acquisitive interests of few individuals at the helm of affairs. Making his submission, Kah says that Iyayi’s novels


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African fiction and its social context. A critical analysis of social realism in Festus Iyayi's works
University of Nigeria  (University of Maiduguri-Nigeria)
ENG 899: Thesis
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african, festus, iyayi
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Abdullahi Haruna (Author), 2014, African fiction and its social context. A critical analysis of social realism in Festus Iyayi's works, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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