Nervous Conditions

Nervous Conditions Essay Questions

  1. 1

    How does Maiguru embody the struggle of her gender, even as an educated woman?

    Maiguru stands out among the women in her family because she is educated. In fact, she is as educated as her husband, holding a Master's Degree from England. When Tambu demonstrates surprise to learn this fact, Maiguru becomes bitter and says, "When I was in England I glimpsed for a little while the things I could have been, the things I could have done if - if - if things were - different - But there was Babawa Chido and the children and the family. And does anyone realise, does anyone appreciate, what sacrifices were made? As for me, no one even thinks about the things I gave up."

    Finally, Maiguru is inspired by Lucia and stands up for herself against Babamukuru. She thinks that Tambu is being punished too harshly for not attending her parents' wedding, as Lucia has pointed out, and when her husband disagrees with her, she continues the fight. Eventually, she tells him she is unhappy; when he reacts by telling her to go somewhere where she will be happy, then, she does. Her leaving is a demonstration of her independence; she has seen Lucia stand up for herself and decides to do the same.

    When she returns five days later, she is refreshed having discovered that she could leave. She no longer dotes on Babamukuru and her smiles have become more frequent and "less mechanical." Nyasha is disappointed that her mother has not become "what she might have been with the right kind of exposure!" She sees her mother as having lost most of her opportunities because of her loyalty to Babamukuru.

    Babamukuru is shocked when Maiguru decides to speak up for why Tambu should go to the convent school when she is offered a scholarship. Maiguru points out that when she herself was being educated in South Africa, "People were prejudiced against educated women. Prejudiced. That's why they said we weren't decent. That was in the fifties. Now we are into the seventies. I am disappointed that people still believe the same things." This motion to speak up for Tambu's education demonstrates a change in Maiguru's character after she comes back from her time away. Now she feels compelled to stand up to Babamukuru in a way she never could before.

  2. 2

    How does Englishness divide mothers from daughters in Nervous Conditions?

    Maiguru acknowledges the Englishness of her children when she sees Tambu's negative reaction to the way Nyasha speaks to her mother. She explains, "They're too Anglicised... they picked up all these disrespectful ways in England, and it's taking them time to learn how to behave at home again." Nyasha's attitude toward her parents is at odds with Tambu's own respect for her aunt and uncle.

    Ma'Shingayi's anxiety concerning the idea of Englishness is revealed when she asks her daughter, "What will I, your mother say to you when you come home a stranger full of white ways and ideas? It will be English, English all the time." In the last interaction in the novel, she blames Nyasha's bulimia on "Englishness," warning Tambu that, "The problem is the Englishness, so you just be careful!" This opinion is not necessarily untrue, since there is a certain tension evident between the Shona culture and the white missionaries' culture and expectations. But Ma'Shingayi's determination to stave off Englishness, as she sees it, is an untenable solution.

  3. 3

    In what ways does the repression of women manifest itself to Tambu as a child?

    After her brother's death, Tambu is suddenly able to receive a Western education. While Nhamo is going to school, he makes his female relatives carry his luggage when he returns home. Tambu knows that "he did not need help, that he only wanted to demonstrate to us and himself that he had the power, the authority to make us do things for him." From the first chapter of the book, Tambu states that "the needs and sensibilities of the women in my family were not considered a priority, or even legitimate."

    The issue of gender is constantly at the forefront for Tambu. Before the welcome dinner, she must carry a water dish for her relatives to wash their hands in. The water is cleanest at the beginning, of course, so the elder men begin. This type of ritual demonstrates on a daily basis the ways in which the men have power over the women. The women must eat in the kitchen, after preparing the meal for the men; they have to eat what is left over after the men take what they want.

    Tambu's association of menstruation with dirtiness alludes to the disdain for her own gender that has been drilled into her her whole life. The absence of dirt in Maiguru's living room makes her think about menstruation as a type of dirt: "I knew that the fact of menstruation was a shamefully unclean secret that should not be allowed to contaminate immaculate male ears by indiscreet reference to this type of dirt in their presence." This characterization of menstruation as inherently dirty and offensive reveals a deep misogyny in the Shona culture. In contrast, Nyasha uses tampons without shame and shows Tambu how.

    The stigma of women behaving unchastely is clear in Babamukuru's reprimanding of Nyasha for staying out too late talking to Andy. He yells at her for being indecent, and scolds Chido because "you let your sister behave like a whore without saying anything." He hits his daughter to "teach her a lesson," but she is obstinate and hits him right back in the eye, saying, "I told you not to hit me." Tambu thinks "how dreadfully familiar" the fight is, with Babamukuru "condemning Nyasha to whoredom, making her a victim of her femaleness."

  4. 4

    How does Tambu perceive race throughout the novel?

    The central moral issue of the novel is the question of how black families can negotiate a postcolonial education and "freedom" with Shona traditions and oppressions.

    Nyasha is disliked by her classmates because "she thinks she is white." The racial tension works both ways; whites seem to look down on blacks, or at least feel bad for them in a disparaging way, while blacks at the mission school disdain those who act in a way they think of as "white."

    The difference Tambu perceives between black and white people is evident in the very beginning of Chapter 6. Now that she lives at the mission, she sees many more white people than ever before. Sarcasm is evident in the tone of the narration as she looks back on the way she and the other black people viewed the white missionaries: "We treated them like minor deities. With the self-satisfied dignity that came naturally to white people in those days, they accepted this improving disguise."

    The problem of race is clear in Chapter 10 when Tambu arrives at the convent to find that her sleeping quarters are cramped in with "the African" students. The nuns at Sacred Heart are not immune to this type of segregation. Likewise, there are no black psychiatrists for Nyasha to see in Salisbury concerning her eating disorder. The first white psychiatrist they bring her to suggests that because she is black, she cannot possibly suffer from what they describe. He suggests that she is merely acting out, and that she needs to be disciplined. This understanding that whites and blacks suffer from different mental ailments is evidence of a racial divide in the culture.

  5. 5

    Describe how education is viewed by the Shona people of Tambu's homestead.

    Tambu describes her uncle's gesture to pay for Nhamo's education as "oceanic," since it would "lift our branch of the family out of the squalor in which we were living."

    The theme of education and its importance to the people of Tambu's village who live in poverty is evident from the beginning. Jeremiah, Tambu's father, makes a ridiculous show about how indebted they are to Babamukuru upon his return. Babamukuru suggests education as a solution to the family's financial woes, and insists that Nhamo go to live with him at the mission school.

    The other women see Maiguru as different not just because she is wealthy, but because she is educated. During her tirade, Ma'Shingayi accuses, "She did tell us, didn't she, what she thinks, and did anyone say anything! No. Why not? Because Maiguru is educated. That's why you all kept quiet." There is a divide between the women, although they are all victims of male superiority, because Maiguru is educated and the others are "just poor and ignorant," as Ma'Shingayi puts it.

  6. 6

    Which characters become self-conscious of their poverty? When and how?

    After his education at the mission, Nhamo begins to be embarrassed by the poverty of his immediate family. The poverty that is so closely tied to race is evident in this chapter. Babamukuru is an anomaly because he has not "cringed under the weight of his poverty. Boldly, Babamukuru had defied it." Tambu sees this as breaking "the evil wizard's spell" through hard work and education. This also frees Babamukuru from having to bully women, since he has earned respect through his actions rather than by virtue of his gender.

    Tambu is very aware that she is leaving behind her poverty when she moves to the mission. Her appearance marks her as a peasant: "tight faded frock... broad-toed feet that had grown thick-skinned through daily contact with the ground in all weathers... corrugated black callouses on my knees, the scales on my skin that were due to lack of oil, the short, dull tufts of malnourished hair." She sees herself as leaving this "person," this identity, behind. She is humiliated when she does not know how to operate the light switch in her cousin's bedroom; Nyasha picks up on her ignorance and kindly shows her how.

    The theme of poverty arises as Tambu returns to her old home, having been living at the mission in much better conditions. Now she sees the squalor of the caving-in roof and filthy latrine, and cleans it herself with Nyasha's help. Ma'Shingayi is clearly resentful of being seen this way; she is acutely aware of her daughter's judgment and accuses her of it during her tirade.

  7. 7

    Throughout the novel, Tambu's nervous condition develops. Describe how this happens.

    Beginning in Chapter 4, Tambu's neurosis is clear. She has anxiety about her identity and what it means to be educated, and she worries constantly about the changes in her life. She becomes embarrassed at herself for underestimating Babamukuru's wealth and for not believing Nhamo's stories about the way their uncle and cousins lived. She acknowledges it herself when she learns that she is to share a bedroom with Nyasha: "From what I had seen of my cousin, I was intrigued and fascinated with one part of my mind, the adventurous, explorative part. But this was a very small part. Most of me sought order. Most of me was concrete and categorical."

    Tambu's own nervous condition is apparent at the student Christmas party she attends with Nyasha and Chido. She explains, "When the surroundings were new and unfamiliar, the awareness was painful and made me behave very strangely. At times like that I wanted so badly to disappear that for practical purposes I ceased to exist... I do not know how I came to be like that." Because of this intense social anxiety, Tambu dreads the Christmas dance.

    Tambu's nervous condition manifests clearly in her reaction to her parents' wedding. "Whenever I thought about it... I suffered a horrible crawling over my skin, my chest contracted to a breathless tension and even my bowels threatened to let me know their opinion." She is angry and resentful of Babamukuru for insisting that this embarrassing event take place. But she is generally anxious about many other things; "deep in the less accessible areas of my mind, although outwardly I would have hotly denied it, I was ashamed of what to me was a pervasive and enervating vagueness."

    In addition, she becomes anxious about her inability to speak up for herself and her family regarding the wedding, which she sees as a joke, of which her family is the butt. She worries that she is weak and lets "guilt, so many razorsharp edges of it, slice away at me. My mother had been right: I was unnatural; I would not listen to my own parents, but I would listen to Babamukuru even when he told me to laugh at my parents. There was something unnatural about me."

  8. 8

    Nyasha has financial stability because of her parents' education, but she develops a nervous condition because of a feeling that she is out of control of her own life. How does that occur over the course of the novel?

    Nyasha suffers from an eating disorder. At first, she won't eat at all. This disorder is foreshadowed at Tambu's first dinner at the mission, when Nyasha storms off to her room. Her father tells her to come back and eat her food, but she insists that she is full, refusing to eat. This is in part to bother her mother, who has spent a long time cooking and preparing the meal, but in part because she doesn't want to eat the dinner at all.

    Nyasha's nervous condition is revealed to Tambu in Chapter 6, when she uses studying for her Form Two exams as an excuse to not eat. Tambu notices that "She was looking drawn and had lost so much of her appetite that it showed all over her body in the way the bones crept to the surface, but she did not seem to notice." Tambu doesn't understand the root of the problem and blames it on over-studying.

    Nyasha's eating disorder morphs into bulimia by Chapter 9. When Tambu returns to the mission house, she realizes that Nyasha is throwing up dinner in the bathroom. When she asks her if she is ill, Nyasha confesses to forcing herself to throw up but says, "Don't ask me why. I don't know." In a letter she writes to Tambu at the convent school, she reveals her anxiety about the social aspects of her life, confessing that she is "embarking on a diet to discipline my body and occupy my mind." Three months later, Tambu returns to the mission to find her coping with her anxieties by starving herself to death; she is "pathetic to see."

  9. 9

    How is the Shona idea of male superiority embedded in Tambu's mind?

    Tambu's gender is at first a restriction for her education, as well. Nhamo rubs her face in the fact that he is to receive an education at the mission school while she must stay at the family farm with Jeremiah, pointing out the obvious: "Why are you jealous anyway? Did you ever hear of a girl being taken away to school?" As a narrator, Tambu concludes that her brother was "sincere in his bigotry. But in those days I took a rosy view of male nature," so she assumed he was just saying hurtful things to bother her.

    Tambu the narrator (as opposed to Tambu the character in the time when the story takes place) realizes that, while the women listen to the meeting of the patriarchy, "what was needed in that kitchen was a combination of Maiguru's detachment and Lucia's direction." But the problem was that the women have been conditioned to understand themselves a certain way, as "images that were really no more than reflections... it was frightening now to even begin to think that, the very facts which set them apart as a group, as women, as a certain kind of person, were only myths; frightening to acknowledge that generations of threat and assault and neglect had battered these myths into the extreme, dividing reality they faced."

  10. 10

    Ma'Shingayi, Tambu's mother, is the most disadvantaged female character in the novel. She suffers from racial, gender, and financial repression. How does she deal with this situation?

    Ma'Shingayi suffers from is depression. This condition is hinted at in the beginning of the novel, when she reacts negatively to Tambu's going away to the mission school. Rather than feel proud of her daughter, she becomes angry and withdrawn. When Tambu returns for Christmas, she finds her mother bedridden although she seems perfectly healthy, physically. Ma'Shingayi has reacted by withdrawing to her bedroom and staying there, immobilized by depression, to the situation between Takesure, Jeremiah, and Lucia at her homestead.

    After learning that her daughter, Tambu, will be sent to a convent school around white people, she becomes anxious about Tambu's looming "Englishness." She won't eat, bathe, or take care of her baby until Lucia comes to the homestead and forces her to.