Table of Contents
Social Realism and its Tenets
Deployment of Social Realism in Violence
Summary and Conclusion
This study interrogates the deployment of Social Realism in Festus Iyayi’s Violence (1979) . While some scholars hail Iyayi’s Violence as an accomplished novel of Social Realism, others do not accord the novel this status. This critical conflict of opinion presents an interesting subject of study. This paper examines whether or not Violence should be considered accomplished in accordance with the popular beliefs about works of Social Realism. Towards this end, the concept of Social Realism and its tenets are discussed and applied in the assessment of Iyayi’s Violence. The weaknesses and strengths of Iyayi's deployment of the concept in the novel are thereby identified and discussed. The paper thus concludes that although Iyayi’s Violence is significant in its treatment of corruption and injustice in society, the novel has some significant flaws in handling the techniques of Social Realism.
This paper interrogates the deployment of Social Realism in Festus Iyayi’s Violence. In the novel Iyayi attempts to use the concept of Social Realism to expose the problem of corruption and injustice in Nigeria, with a view to prompting social reform. Conflict of critical opinions however surrounds the novel. While critics like Ogundipe-Leslie, (1994) and Amuta, (1986), for instance, consider Violence as an accomplished novel of Social Realism, Acholonu, (1987) on the other hand, says that Violence “… smacks of a child’s attempt at story-telling and the novel exposes the inexperience and immaturity of the writer” (p.69). This conflict of critical opinions and the fact that all views on the novel either vilify or uphold it without interrogating the use of Social Realism in it presents an interesting subject of study. It is against this background that the use of Social Realism in Iyayi’s Violence is critically interrogated in this study.
Social Realism and its Tenets
Lukacs in Michael Hoffman and Patrick Murphy (Eds.) (1988), states that 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 desired direction. Lukacs argues that literature should depict a revolutionary social change and this can be done by the means of Social Realism. It is through the use of realism in literature, according to Lukacs, that the writer could create man as a private individual and a member of the society. “Thus realism means a three-dimensionality, an all-roundness, that endows with independent life characters and human relationships” (p.207).
Further highlighting the specific role of the writer in the emancipation of 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 unshakeable 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 submits that political and social liberation from oppressive forces cannot be completely realized if the thinking of the great masses is still bedeviled by reactionary ideas which prevent them from seeing clearly. This difficulty, says Lukacs, puts a heavy responsibility on the literary artist.
Wightman, (2011), says that Social Realism which is a concept deployed by writers, was originally, an artistic movement that depicts the daily struggles of the working class. Wightman asserts 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 a socialist country (p.1).
Wightman differentiates between Social Realism and Socialist Realism. While Social Realism is not an official art and so allows subjectivity, he argues, Socialist Realism on the other hand “is the school of realist art that had as its end, the furtherance of goals of socialism/communism”. Socialist Realism, he says, is an officially approved form of art of the Soviet Union. The focus of this study is on Social Realism.
Novels of Social Realism, says Reid, (2008), emphasize “the everyday” and through detailed descriptions, recreate “specific locations, incidents and social classes”. As part of their conceptual tenet, says Reid, Social Realist writers in America, “looked at working conditions, often for the purpose of social reform”.
Akingbe et al, (2011) expatiate on the tenets of Social Realism. They say that literary works 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), is emphatic that 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 says 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.
Gakwandi, (1977) sheds more light on the subject matter of Social Realism when he asserts that a novel of Social Realism “takes the whole breadth of society as its subject matter and examines how the customs, conventions, social institutions and individuals inter-relate”. The criticism of society, in that type of novels, says Gakwandi, tends to focus on the very absence of norms which can provide the individual with a basis for good conduct (p.127).
In the Social Realist tradition, contends Booth, (1983), the relationships between man and his fellow man and between man and his society is emphasized. Emphasis is also placed in the text on reflecting the realities of the world outside the literary work. Booth submits that in the Social Realist narrative, stories are demonstrated rather than told and that characters and situations should be true to life.
The scholars reviewed provide the theoretical framework upon which works of Social Realism are constructed. Therefore, in the interrogation of Iyayi’s use of Social Realism in Violence, this study utilizes the highlighted tenets of Social Realism as tools for evaluating whether or not to accord Iyayi’s Violence the status of accomplishment.
Iyayi’s Violence examines the contradictions inherent in Nigerian socio-political life. Specifically, the novel is concerned with the treatment of corruption and injustice in the distribution of national resources. The story in Violence is meant to depict how corruption and injustice is perpetrated by Nigerian political and institutional leaders against the common man. Through the creation of characters and situations in Violence, Iyayi tells the story of a society where corruption appears to reward while patriotism seems to be punitive and self-sacrifice, with a call for social reorientation. Towards this aim, Iyayi, in the novel, juxtaposes the families of Obofun and Queen on one hand with that of Idemudia and Adisa on the other, to illustrate the cause and effect relationship of corruption and injustice. Critical opinions differ on whether or not Violence is an accomplished novel of Social Realism.
Acholonu, in Emenyonu (Ed) (1987), for instance, compares the narrative techniques of Okpewho's The Last Duty and Iyayi's Violence. While describing Okpewho’s The Last Duty on one hand as a novel that exhibits a mature and analytical mind in its demonstration of a completely new narrative method by presenting characters in the novel to speak of their own experiences without a narrator, Acholonu, on the other hand, dismisses Iyayi’s Violence as a novel that smacks of a child’s attempt at story-telling. According to Acholonu, “… there is not a single character in the novel that can be identified as a person, they are all types” (p.72).
Ogundipe-Leslie (1994:94-97) describes Iyayi’s Violence as the first Nigerian proletarian novel. In her view, the novel is
… 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.
Amuta (1986:156-157) is concerned with the characterization in Iyayi’s Violence. In his analysis, Amuta expresses his satisfaction with the novel’s characterization where he says, “It is to Iyayi’s artistic credit that his proletarian characters do not simply accept fatalistically their plight”.
de Ville (2008) upholds the status accorded to Violence by Ogundipe-Leslie and Amuta. de Ville defines the concept of violence in terms of physical abuse which Iyayi, according to de Ville, has redefined to mean “… a continual, demoralizing structure that eliminates hope, pride, self-esteem, health and the ability to live independently” (p.2).
Ikeme (2004) also upholds the view that the novel is an accomplished work of Social Realism when she describes Violence as a discourse on gender and violence in Africa. According to Ikeme, even though physical violence is represented in the novel, the story in Violence “mainly exposes one to the psychological violence of poverty that renders a man powerless and desperate” (p.1). While commenting on Idemudia’s inability to protect and provide for his family, Ikeme blames the government depicted in the novel for allowing such a situation to prevail. Ikeme observes that this aspect of the story
… is so moving and will surely haunt every man with some pride into hard work without relent. That a man could go to the length of selling his own blood to provide for his family is a new experience for me and I got that from this novel (p.1).
Killam and Rowe (2000) are emphatic that Violence is an accomplished novel of Social Realism and that Iyayi is one of the politically committed African novelists of note. They contend that Iyayi’s novels including Violence
… can be situated within the framework of class struggle. His protagonists, representatives of the working class, begin as innocent individuals but become more informed and politically conscious as they are exploited along class lines, and ultimately they champion the cause of the victimized (p.1).
From the critical comments of the scholars discussed, it is apparent that all views on the novel either uphold or vilify it without interrogating the literary concept deployed in it. This study therefore provides the necessary missing link by examining the use of Social Realism in the novel.
Deployment of Social Realism in Violence
Literary critics and scholars like Ogundipe-Leslie, Amuta and others who hail Festus Iyayi’s Violence as being an accomplished work of Social Realism could be too generous with their praises. The literary quality of the novel does not justify the description. To describe Violence as an accomplished work of social realism is to overlook some vital narrative techniques necessary for a good novel of Social Realism. The thematic development of Violence, as this study shows, is characterized by certain artistic weaknesses.
Artistic flaw is exhibited in the development of characters and situations in the novel. The portrayal of the relationships between the principal characters and their society in the novel has not been artistically developed enough to bring out the ideological bent of a novel espousing the tenets of Social Realism. The portrayal of the relationship between Obofun and Queen for example, falls short of the expectations of novels of Social Realism as highlighted in Gakwandi, (1977). Obofun and Queen, in the novel, appear to be unconventional in their marital relationship.
Queen engages in extramarital sex with several other men with the knowledge of her husband. Even though Queen’s unfaithfulness worries him, Obofun does not take any measures aimed at arresting the ugly situation. Instead, Obofun too, follows Queen’s example with other women. The two do not show any sign of emotional attachment - a conventional expectation of a married couple - to each other. The evidence of marriage exists only in so far as they have children between them. And Obofun is not so certain of the paternity of the children. Readers of the novel learn of this from Obofun himself. In a moment of sober reflection, Obofun describes his wife as a “Beautiful bitch” that indulges in sexual relationship with all his friends and he follows up the description with a rhetorical question “How can I be sure the children are mine?” (p.200). The only true relationship that seems to bind the two is that of running their businesses. On the several occasions readers meet the couple at home, their interactions and discussions have always hinged on their business. They appear to be more of business partners than of a married couple. This type of marital relationship calls for authorial disapproval; but this is lacking in Iyayi’s Violence.
There is lack of clarity of moral standpoint on the part of Iyayi in the portrayal of the Obofun- Queen relationship. Iyayi does not adequately clarify his position on the relationship between Obofun and Queen. Even if Iyayi’s intention is to depict the relationship between Obofun and Queen as resulting from a capitalist economy where morality is sacrificed on the altar of primitive accumulation of wealth, readers would naturally want to see the demonstration of Iyayi’s critical attitude towards such type of relationship and social system. Iyayi’s poor artistic handling of the relationship between Obofun and Queen in Violence is evidence suggestive of his immaturity in the use of Social Realism in fiction.
There is artistic failure on the part of the author in the development of character profiles of Idemudia and Adisa and the portrayal of their relationship. Through the use of a linear plot narrative, readers of Violence are taken to Obofun’s house on several occasions where they are treated to the rot that characterizes the life of the family. In so doing, Iyayi seems to attach little importance to Idemudia’s social setting. Iyayi should have artistically enabled the narrator of the story to keep us regularly in touch with the Idemudia family and with the help of detailed descriptions of their relationship, enlarge our appreciation of their condition and treat us to the illustration of their moral superiority.
It is not artistically realistic therefore that as important as this couple is to the overall thematic preoccupation of the novel, it is only twice throughout the story that readers come across them interacting in their residential home. The first time the couple is seen at home is at the beginning of the story where they are engaged in a violent scuffle with no rational or convincing reason given for the fight. Readers are to see them at home the second and last time at the end of the story where Idemudia threatens to kill Adisa for succumbing to Obofun's seduction.
There is visibly nothing in the relationship between Idemudia and Adisa to suggest that they are a happily married couple. Conventionally, married couples could be happy together without necessarily being rich. There is no single occasion in their relationship where they are seen engaged in or giving the impression of exchanging pleasantries or sharing jokes; a common salient feature of marriage. The portrayal of the relationship existing between Idemudia and Adisa does not appear to reflect normal marital relationships. Since Social Realism in literature implies social direction, it is vital that Iyayi portrays the couple in an interesting position and activities that could inspire the desired social direction.