This is the main theme of the play. Using Marxist ideology, Ngugi reveals the tensions in post-colonial Kenya in regards to the worker/peasant population and the elite Kenyans. The latter work with Europeans, bringing back uncomfortable associations of the country's colonial past. They are greedy, ignorant, and unconcerned with the masses of people; they embrace Western religion and philosophy and move far from their origins. The working class cannot survive for very much longer and by the end of the text prepares to mount another revolution -this time for economic parity, not independence. Ngugi's characters, especially Gĩcaamba, offer convincing accounts of why this struggle is necessary and pure.
Modernity vs. Tradition
Besides the theme of class struggle, one of modernity vs. tradition is immediately apparent. This is seen in the relationship between Wangeci, Kĩgũũnda, and their daughter. Gathoni is a modern woman, one who wants to buy things and choose when she wants to marry. Her parents decry this and associate it with an encroachment of Western values. They cannot conceive of her making choices in this respect, and perhaps more minor but equally important, are frustrated with her lack of manners and work ethic. The play is slightly more sympathetic to the parents (and, by extension, tradition) by not giving Gathoni many words or thoughts of her own outside of petulant ones.
The play has a rather mixed agenda on gender. Gĩcaamba pays lip service to the idea that gender equality must be an important component of their revolution and they must appreciate women's contributions. On the other hand, the play reinforces a traditional gender hierarchy. The female characters are mostly silent, and when they do talk, it is either about frivolous things or it reveals their ignorance about the importance of this fight. Gathoni, a character who might augur a new, modern and equal woman, is given short shrift. The family and the home, where men and women's roles are largely ossified, is the focus.
Traditional Kenyan culture is viewed in contrast to Western culture; the latter is seen as alien and found wanting. It would be reductive to call this a novel about "culture clash," but the term is nevertheless useful. Kĩgũũnda and his ilk decry the influx of Western ideas, particularly regarding religion, marriage, the value of work and land, etc. Kĩoi and the other Kenyan elite prefer to distance themselves from their own culture and embrace those of the West, mostly because it allows them to get ahead. The contrast between the two marriage ceremonies offers the most instructive look at how Ngugi depicts Kenyan culture as more authentic and meaningful and Western culture as soulless at its worst and alien at its best.
The class struggle takes place in the context of an earlier political struggle in which Kenya fought a revolution of independence against the British colonial government. Ngugi calls explicit attention to this earlier struggle, valorizing the achievements of the Mau Mau, celebrating their ethos and philosophy, and suggesting that his characters adopt the same principled unity to wage this battle against Kenyan elites and their foreign friends who have taken over their economy and opened the doors to Western values, systems, and philosophies.
Marriage and Family
Marriage and family are given primacy in the play, as the title suggests. Ngugi has a more traditional view of marriage than other late 20th century writers. The focus is on the home and on a solid marriage rooted in companionship and the ability to care for one another. He excoriates the Western conception of marriage, which Njooki characterizes as property marrying property. His depictions of the two marriages (Gĩcaamba and Njooki's, and the Christian one proposed by Kĩoi for Wangeci and Kĩgũũnda) elevate the former and criticize the latter. He also seems ambivalent about having a too-emotional, laissez-faire attitude about the institution, as seen in Gathoni's viewpoint. The play begins and ends in the home, with traditional Kenyan views on family and marriage taken prominence.
The theme of religion is couched in other themes, such as class struggle. This is because religion is a tool of the oppressors, and is a flash point for debates about traditional vs. outsider culture and values. The play is not explicitly anti-religion, but Gĩcaamba in particular lays out how the Kenyan churches often argued against independence and capitulated to Western influences. He decries all of the Western churches opening throughout their villages. He also spends a great deal of time explaining how religion is an opiate, is the "alcohol of the soul" because it encourages people to think not about their earthly struggles but about their future in heaven; this precludes criticism and uprising, and allows people like Kĩoi to flourish and fatten while the poor do their best to ignore their woes or conclude that they are God-given.
I Will Marry When I Want Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for I Will Marry When I Want is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.