Ownership is a notion in Lola Shoneyin’s The Secret Lives of the Four Wives that helps to form the identities of the novel’s five main characters. Ownership determines the social status and reputation of each character; it is what shapes their lifestyles, both physically and characteristically. The very idea of ownership which I speak of is not limited to simply the material possessions owned by the story’s characters. Of course, the traditional notions of ownership pertaining to property and worldly assets remain applicable to both Baba Segi and his first wife, Iya Segi.
Baba Segi’s life is governed by allotting his time and attention properly amongst the four of them. His attention to the traditional notions of property and ownership though family and having multitudes of children make him systematic and unbending in his actions and, as a result, a less compassionate person through his rash decision making. This is exemplified in the case when he is quick to assault Bolanle upon hearing the other wives’ accusations of her practicing juju in the home (p. 65). Consumed by his rage and attention to the other wives, despite not knowing for certain that what they say is the truth, he is quickly consumed by his rage far before he has any thoughts of remorse or worry after the event has transpired.
Iya Segi, while consumed by monetary gain and ambition, reverses the idea of her traditional gender role as a woman who cannot possess her own money. She is sinister, yet logical in her pursuits. Rather than actually own the money she makes, because she cannot, she owns the ambition which drives her character. Consumed by her ambitions, her obsession with money makes her selfish and unforgiving; she becomes relentless in alienating those who are not with her (Iya Tope and Bolanle).
The remaining three characters can thus be distinguished from the materialist obsession through the other qualities that they essentially own. Iya Femi’s ownership is conniving; she possesses confidence and traditionally valuable qualities as a wife. Yet, she is consumed, as in the case of Iya Segi and her ambition, by her confidence as it leads to vengeance and coldness. She often sides with Iya Segi in her relentless maltreatment of Bolanle, and is thus likewise consumed by her own traits of ownership. Iya Tope’s sense of ownership wavers throughout the story. After marrying Baba Segi, while she is young, she learns to own her sexuality, but it consequentially, through the power of lust, consumes her. After some time, however, she comes to a distinct point of shame when she sees her weak child. She makes a change, deciding she “could not believe I had neglected the children who bought me the easy life I lived” (p. 97); it is here in the stages of overcoming her lust that Iya Tope sits in the story; she is neither cold from her ownership of the self, nor sympathetic to all as Bolanle is.
Bolanle’s case is clear in terms of self-ownership—she is no stranger to abandoning the materiality of the world, and only wishes to bear children to feel complete, both as a wife and an educated woman. Constantly seeking to better her entire family despite being a powerless woman in her society, Bolanle’s case is the embodiment of this novel’s flip-flopping of the essential notion of ownership. Shoneyin’s story reverses the reader’s understanding of property as the definition of ownership in modern-day Nigeria. The women in this culture define themselves, and in the more unfortunate of cases, become defined in character, by the elements of the world around them which they seek to control.