In his play The Lion and the Jewel, Soyinka expresses his opinions about society through his characters, as many authors do in their writing. One of the characters, Baroka, frequently seeks to take more wives despite his age and subjects his current wives to humiliating tasks such as plucking his armpit hairs and tickling his feet as a way of showing his power over them. Through the characterization of Baroka and the attitudes of other characters in the play, Soyinka explores the idea that a man needs to show dominance over women to be considered a man by society.
Despite his age and already having a larger number of wives, Baroka is still seeking to take another wife, specifically a young one. This is most likely because he wants to exert the image that he is still desirable and his sexual ability has not been diminished with age. It is very important for Baroka to maintain this image, and this is why he is still persistent to take Sidi as a wife, even after she clearly refuses several times. Image is very important to Baroka, and his existing image had been tainted by the photograph of him by a latrine. Sidi, however, is young and has the image of the most beautiful woman in the village due to the pictures of her in the magazine.
Bakora believes that making the most beautiful woman in the village his wife is the perfect way to elevate his image. While he is seducing her, he tells her “the truth of this, old wine thrives best in a new bottle.” (p. 1185) The old wine is a metaphor for himself and the new bottle is Sidi. He seeks the new bottle to enhance himself. He will not stand to be seen as less than a woman, to have his position as a man and a leader diminished. This is why in the end, he resorts to physical force to get Sidi to marry him when all else fails. By tradition, she is bound to marry the man she loses her virginity to, and Baroka exploits this. The fact that Baroka ultimately used tradition to exploit her also implies that much of the twisted notion that a man must exercise dominance over a woman to be powerful stems from tradition.
Baroka also asserts his power by taking advantage of his wives and forcing them to do humiliating tasks for his pleasure. While the things he makes them do are not brutal or violent, it asserts the fact that they are below him and he holds the power in the relationship. They must pluck his armpit hairs and tickle his feet, although he never does something for their pleasure in return. In regards to them performing these tasks, he uses such statements as “…thou Sadiku, thy plainly unadorned hands encase a sweet sensuality which age will not destroy.
Beyond a doubt Sadiku, thou art the queen of them all.”(p. 1172) This statement, while in his mind possibly meant to praise, is actually quite demeaning. These statements reduce his wives simply to objects of pleasure for him. This shows how by making a woman his wife, Baroka ultimately restricts the balance of power in the relationship, with himself permanently at the top, and his wives permanently at the bottom. They are not his partners in equal, nor do they assist him in making important decisions. They are simply there to pleasure him and maintain his status. Women are self-enhancing tools for Baroka, merely useful accessories. This is no different from wearing expensive rings to show off and raise one’s status.
It is not only Baroka’s thoughts and actions that assert the idea that a man needs to show dominance over women to be considered a man by society, but also those of other people in the play. When Sidi learns from Sadiku that Baroka is supposedly no longer fertile, they both view it as him having lost his power. This is demonstrated by a line Sadiku aims at Lakunle when he witnesses them celebrating Baroka’s supposed downfall. “You a man? Is Baroka no more a man than you? And if he is no longer a man, than what are you?” (p 1170)
This shows how the idea that a man needs to show dominance to have power is ingrained in the people of the village, just as gender roles and are ingrained in our society today. The fact that women react exactly in this way to a man’s loss of virility in The Lion and the Jewel shows that Baroka’s fears that he will lose the respect of the village if he does not constantly verify himself are justified. He is getting older and less attractive, so he feels the need to constantly prove his power.
In conclusion, Baroka’s character represents a man who is trying to verify his power and maintain his image with age in the way his society deems appropriate. Gender roles are present in all societies, and although they vary somewhat from one society to another, it is never a good thing to have cookie cutter expectations that all men or all women are expected to fit into. It is extremely harmful psychologically for people to always measure themselves to a standard of an ideal, when in reality few can be a perfect example.
This also brings up the question, why are gender roles present in the first place? Why is there a set way a man should act or a woman should act? I believe that these standards originate from tradition. Polygamy is the tradition of the Yoruban people in The Lion and the Jewel, so naturally one may be inclined to use the number of wives a man has as a way to measure him. Likewise, in Christianity, gender roles stem from the story of Adam and Eve in the Bible. Soyinka’s The Lion and The Jewel portrays a character who commits many misdoings, but in the end he is simply trying to fit with his society and tradition.