Olunde: The Exiled Son Returns

Olunde is a very interesting character in his position between the Yoruban and European cultures and, admirably, Soyinka doesn’t stereotype him as the son who leaves his homeland to become cultured and worldly and then returns with snobbery towards his native people, or as the son who returns to triumphantly save the day and realize that he always belonged among his native people and never should have left. Olunde’s identity is much more complex than that and his allegiance to the Yoruban culture is not easily classified. He has become more informed about English culture, though with mixed feelings, shown when he tells Jane, “I have spent four years among your people. I discovered that you have no respect for that which you do not understand” (50), but also, “I found your people quite admirable in many ways” (50). Yet, he has not ignored the traditions of his own culture, as he has returned home for his father’s funeral and the personal ritual he must perform at it.

His middle-ground feelings are also shown in his reaction to Jane’s costume of ancestral clothing. Although he finds Jane’s “good cause” demeaning, pointing out that it is a desecration, he does not take personal offense or get upset as Amusa did earlier, showing his simultaneous respect for, and distance from, Yoruban culture. Furthermore, his calm and rational manner distinguishes him from both the Yorubans and the Europeans. He speaks mildly and with composure, never raising his voice, even when Jane screams at him. His words and demeanour are simple and direct, demonstrating his difference from the lyrical riddles, singing and dancing of Elesin.

However, Olunde still has great reverence for the Yoruban culture he left, evident in his defense of it to Jane (53-54) and most of all in his suicide. This ultimate sacrifice shows the huge value that he held for their rituals and the horseman’s symbolic death. As Iyoloja states, “Because he could not bear to let honour fly out of doors, he stopped it with his life” (75). This initially suggests that his death was a sacrifice to save the honour of the Yoruban people, but it seems more likely that he could not bear to live with the shame of his father’s failure to preserve their honour. As the ritualized death must be performed at an exact time and by the present horseman, his death could do little to atone for Elesin’s failure. And so, despite his separation from his native people, it seems that he would rather die than live with the disgrace that his father has brought to them.

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