The characters of The Trials of Brother Jero are bound to their gender roles, with many personality traits explicitly attributed to a character’s sex. Men constantly struggle to steer clear of the temptation of sin posed by women: Brother Jero himself admits that he has “one weakness—women,” the basis of the central conflict between his desired self-image and reality. Chume, too, fights the urge to beat Amope for her constant pestering. Women are described as “fickle,” “the plague," and “daughters of discord." This characterization by Brother Jero and Chume places blame on women for the burden they place on men and their sinful nature. The women of the play, on the other hand, feel tied to the will of men and therefore similarly limited. Amope complains that “it is a tough life for a woman” as she must depend on Chume and what he provides, which she deems insufficient for her needs. This barrier between men and women causes lapses in understanding and strained relationships. In this way, the theme of gender drives much of the plot in the play.
Faith and Religion
Soyinka's play is widely considered a satire of proselytizing faith. Brother Jero’s success rests entirely on the blind faith of his followers, whom he is able to win over easily by offering false and fantastic prophesies. Thus the virtue in faith alone is called into question, and Christianity—at least in the form found with characters like Brother Jero—scrutinized. Although Brother Jero loses one follower in Chume at the end of the play, he is able to win over another, the Member of Parliament, just as quickly, speaking to the power of faith in its aim to fulfill personal hope and desire. Soyinka’s play forces the reader to question when belief is and is not justified, and to consider who has the power to claim and impart knowledge.
The influence of social status is also a driving force in the play: Brother Jero's false prophethood is driven by a desire to elevate himself to a nearly divine status in his community. Yet just as this drives his willing deceit of others, it influences the willingness of others to be deceived. Brother Jero in fact plays on the same desires in others to elevate his own status: Chume relies on Jero's prophecy that he will become a Chief Clerk, while the Member of the House is seduced by the power that will come with Jero's prophecy of his becoming Minister for War. In this way, the quest for increased social status and the privileges it brings influences every character in the play, regardless of their current social standing.
The role of communication in theater, and especially in Soyinka's play, is important, as Soyinka pays special attention to its influence in power dynamics. One of Amope’s most powerful characteristics is her ability to insult even while speaking indirectly around the subject, whereas Jero's lofty and elegant wording is integral to his perception of himself as superior to those he converts. Similarly, Chume expresses his confusion and emotion through a change in his speech, relying on pidgin during moments of tension and excitement. Each character's words are carefully chosen, as words misunderstood or misinterpreted push the play forward.
Soyinka is not only poking fun at religion but also criticizing politics; often, as the play reveals, there is a large overlap between the two. Politics appears at an official level, such as the supposed low salary granted to Chume as the local government's messenger and the Member of the House's desire for a position of more power, between the local village and the central government. But it also exists at a more informal level, between each character attempting to figure out her/his role in a country still negotiating its new independence from Britain. Jero's very rise to power was a result of what he called a successful "campaign" against other prophets and their followings, and as the self-elected leader, or tyrant, of the Brotherhood of Jero, his every action is political, serving to consolidate his own power.
Financial vs. Intrinsic Value
The assignment of value to peoples, professions, and goods is central to The Trials of Brother Jero. While religion ordinarily serves to hold value in itself, Jero uses his Brotherhood as a tool to achieve power. Rather than valuing his followers as people and ends in themselves, Jero assigns value as if they were goods to be traded and swapped. This is demonstrated when, following his loss of Chume's faith, Jero attempts to convert the Member, as if balancing his books. In doing so, Jero commodifies religion, turning toward a system that understands only financial gains. Through his actions, Soyinka seems to be asking his audience how we should properly value each other and our lives, in a world where people focus increasingly on making financial gains.
Individual vs. Community
The ever-present and observant crowd is quite prominent throughout the play, watching scenes of provocation and fighting, such as Amope's fight with Chume. The tension between the needs of the individual and the community is apparent in Amope's firmly held belief that everyone wishes her ill and that she can only rely on herself. Chume is first empowered by his interaction with an eager crowd, stepping in to take over Jero's sermon: Once the crowd believes Chume's words, he believes them as well. But even as the individual finds strength in the support of the community, he or she struggles to find strength in its absence. Chume seems to become even more incensed as the crowd watching his attack on Amope questions his actions, as he breaks from society's expectations and understanding of what is rational to pursue Jero. The pressure of an always-alert crowd also plagues Jero, who constantly thinks to inform and share secrets with the play's audience, as if asking for their approval.
The Trials of Brother Jero Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Trials of Brother Jero is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
For much of the story Chume must bear Amope's unhappy and self-righteous, attitude to her world. Although set free of lies and finally independent, Chume's final fate speaks to the power of social dynamics and their restrictions.