Review | Obinna Udenwe Explores Marital Infidelity in African Households | By Udo Okoronkwo-Chukwu
January 29, 2016
“Bedfellows,” a short story by Obinna Udenwe, tells a fascinating tale about a woman named Agnes whose unfaithfulness leads to the break-up of her marriage. After her husband leaves for Tanzania on a volunteer mission, Agnes begins an affair with a doctor.
Agnes’ son who witnesses the illicit affair is also the narrator of the story. A striking aspect of the story is that it leaves the reader with a deep sense of resentment towards the narrator. The initial feeling of the reader is that the story is told by a helpless child. It is not until the part where he describes his first meeting with his mother’s lover that one pauses to assimilate the information and realizes that he is not a child after all. The enormity of this revelation changes the reader’s judgement towards the end. The story presents the situation where a grown man stands by and watches another man defile his father’s marital bed.
There are moments when the narrator should have done something to stop the affair. Dr. Adams should not have been allowed to sleep with the mother repeatedly in the family house. During telephone conversations with his father, he hides the relationship, indirectly aligning with his mother to perfect her deceit. Instead of confronting her and telling his father, he finds solace in the retribution of the gods. In his insular way he forgets that the gods expect him to protect his father’s interest. The height of his impotence is the part where he learns of his mother’s pregnancy. He exhibit his usual child-like character, retreat to the room and lock the door. Again, like a child he throws tantrums in his room by dumping his food in the trash, sleeping on the floor, ‘got mad’ with himself and wondered’ if he ‘were a coward’. His inaction at this point emboldens Dr Adams to assume rights in his father’s house.
Appraising ‘‘Bedfellows’’ is like eavesdropping on a man who contends with his weakness. His voice conveys shades of contempt, shame, regret and compassion. The obvious explanation to his strange behavior is the supposition that he suffers from Oedipus complex. This favorite trope in literature was first developed by Sigmund Freud as a psychoanalytical theory to describe a boy’s obsession with his mother. A child shifts his physical object of love to his mother who he desires at 3-5 years and dislikes his father to the point of wishing to kill him. It is pertinent to note that the child’s obsession for the mother’s attention may be sexual or a mere need for close intimacy. Freud further posits that the child’s acknowledgment of the father as the stronger of the two resolves the Oedipus complex. Furthermore, the realization that the mother desires more than just the child hastens the progress for his independence.
The narrator must have heaved a sigh of relief when his father left for Tanzania on volunteer mission. Nevertheless, he encounters another competitor and a more challenging one. The truth that his mother has affections for another man arouses his sense of judgment on his own maturity. The story is replete with inferences of the narrator’s childish behavior. It exposes their bond. His mother’s decision to move in with her lover and his father’s decree set the course for his independence. His compassion made him visit her while in her lover’s home. But when she moves out of her lover’s house and invites him to share her flat, he realizes it is time to cut her off. Cutting the telephone line symbolizes his freedom. The awareness that he will have men other than his father to contend with reinforced his decision.
Undoubtedly, Obinna Udenwe’s ‘‘Bedfellows’’ is an exploration into society’s oldest institution and the idea of what is normal. It offers a closer look into one of Nigerian society’s taboos—marital infidelity on the part of women. The representation of infidelity in marriage by a woman becomes a parody of the customs and beliefs that guarantee masculine liberty in the institution. While adultery by men is condoned in Nigeria, it is an unpardonable sin when committed by women. In a sense, Agnes is a rebel who subverts the subsisting acceptable system of life. As an openly adulterous woman, she challenges her society’s sensibility by her flagrant display of the affair. She completely dislocates the latent sexual category that defines the role of women in her society.
Therefore, in ‘‘Bedfellows’’ Udenwe raises significant questions such as—has society’s partial stand on adultery made any impact? Is the story a figment of the writer’s imagination or a representation of real life conditions? Is it possible that women are spurning these expectations and joining the men in the freedom to cheat?
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