June Chun'94 (English 82, 1990)
Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart portrays
Africa, particularly the Ibo society, right before the arrival of the whiteman. Things Fall Apart analyzes the destruction of African culture by the appearance of the whiteman in terms of the destruction of the bonds between individuals and their society. Achebe, who teaches us a great deal about Ibo society and translates Ibo myth and proverbs, also explains the role of women in pre-colonial Africa.
In Things Fall Apart, the reader follows the trials and tribulations of Okonkwo, a tragic hero whose tragic flaw includes the fact that, "his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and weakness." (16) For Okonkwo, his father Unoka embodied the epitome of failure and weakness. Okonkwo was taunted as a child by other children when they called Unoka Agbala. Agbala could either mean a man who had taken no title or "woman". Okonkwo hated anything weak or fail, and his descriptions of his tribe and the members of his family show that in Ibo society anything strong was likened to man and anything weak to woman. Because Nwoye, his son by his first wife, reminds Okonkwo of his father Unoka he describes him as woman like. After hearing of Nwoye's conversion to the Christianity, Okonkwo ponders how he, "a flaming fire could have begotten a son like Nwoye, degenerate and effeminate" (143)? On the other hand, his daughter Ezinma "should have been a boy." (61) He favoured her the most out of all of his children, yet "if Ezinma had been a boy (he) would have been happier." (63) After killing Ikemefuna Okonkwo, who cannot understand why he is so distraught, asks himself, "when did you become a shivering old woman?" (62) When his tribe looks as if they are not going to fight against the intruding missionaries, Okonkwo remembers the "days when men were men." (184)
In keeping with the Ibo view of female nature, the tribe allowed wife beating. The novel describes two instances when Okonkwo beat his second wife. Once when she did not come home to make his meal. He beat her severely and was punished but only because he beat her during the week of Peace. He beat her again when she referred to him as one of those "guns that never shot". When a severe case of wife beating comes before the Egwugwu, he found in favour of the wife..., but at the end of the trial a man wondered "why such a trifle should come before the Egwugwu." (89)
Achebe shows that the Ibo nonetheless assign important roles to women. For instance, women painted the houses of the Egwugwu (84). Furthermore, the first wife of a man in the Ibo society is paid some respect. This deference is illustrated by the palm wine ceremony at Nwakibie's Obi. Anasi, Nwakibie's first wife, had not yet arrived and "the others [other wives] could not drink before her." (22) The importance of woman's role appears when Okonkwo is exiled to his motherland. His uncle, Uchendu, noticing Okonkwo's distress, eloquently explains how Okonkwo should view his exile: "A man belongs to his fatherland when things are good and life is sweet but when there is sorrow and bitterness he finds refuge in his motherland." A man has both joy and sorrow in his life and when the bad times come his "mother" is always there to comfort him. Thus comes the saying "Mother is Supreme."
Achebe uses language, which he sees as a writer's best resource, to expose and combat the propaganda, generated by African politicians to manipulate their own people. Faced with his people's growing inferiority complex and his leader's disregard for the truth, the African writer cannot turn his back on his culture. Achebe believes, "A writer has a responsibility to try and stop [these damaging trends] because unless our culture begins to take itself seriously it will never...get off the ground." He states his mission in his essay "The novelist as teacher": "Here is an adequate revolution for me to espouse...to help my society regain belief in itself and to put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self-abasement. And it is the best sense of that word. Here, I think, my aims and the deepest aspirations of society meet."
The ways in which Achebe transforms language to achieve his particular ends distinguishes his writing from the writing of other English language novelists. To convey the flavour of traditional Nigeria, Achebe translates Ibo proverbs into English and weaves them into his stories.
To engender an appreciation for African culture in these unfamiliar with it, Achebe alters English to reflect native Nigerian languages in use. "Without seriously distorting the nature of the English," observes Eustace Palmer in "The growth of the African Novel." Achebe deliberately "introduces the rhythms, speech patterns, idioms, and other verbal nuances of Ibo...the effect of this is that while everyone who knows English will be able to understand the work and find few signs of awkwardness, the reader also has a sense, not just of black men using English, but of black Africans speaking and living in a genuinely black African living situation."
Since the 1950's, Nigeria has witnessed "the flourishing of a new literature which has drawn sustenance from both traditional oral literature and from the present and rapidly changing society", writes Margaret Laurence in her book Long Drums and Cannons: Nigerians Dramatists and Novelists, "Thirty years ago Chinua Achebe was one of the founders of this new literature, and over the years many critics have come to consider him the finest of the Nigerian novelists. His achievement, however, has not been limited to his continent. He is considered by many to be one of the best novelists now writing in English language."
Unlike some African writers struggling for acceptance among contemporary English language novelists, Achebe has been able to avoid imitating the trends in English literature. Rejecting the European notion "that art should be accountable to no one, and [needs] to justify itself to nobody," as he puts it in his book of essays, "Morning yet on creation day." Achebe has embraced instead the idea at the heart of the African oral traditional: that "art is, and always was at the service of man. Our ancestors created their myths and told their story for a human purpose." For this reason, Achebe believes that "any good novel should have a message, should have a purpose."
Achebe's feel for the African context has influenced his aesthetic of the novel as well as the technical aspects of his work. As Bruce King comments in introduction to Nigerian literature, Achebe was the first Nigerian writer to successfully transmute the conventions of the novel, European art from, into African literature. In an Achebe novel, King notes, "European character study is subordinated to the portrayl of Communal life, European economy of form is replaced by an aesthetic appropriate to the rhythms of traditions tribal life."
Chinua Achebe's Things Fail Apart
Although he has also written poetry, short stories, and essays—both literary and political Chinua Achebe is best known for his novels. Considering these novels, Antony Daniels writes in Spector, "In spare prose of great elegance, without any technical distraction, he has been able to illuminate two emotionally irreconcilable facets of modern African life the humiliations visited on Africans by colonialism, and the utter moral worthlessness of what replaced colonial rule." Set in this historical context, Achebe's novels develop the theme of "traditional verses change," and offer, as Palmer observes, A powerful presentation of the beauty, strength, and validity of traditional life and values and the disruptiveness of change." Even so, the author does not appeal for a return to the ways of the part. Palmer notes that, "While deploring the imperialists brutality and condescention, [Achebe] seems to suggest that change is inevitable and wise men ... reconcile themselves to an accommodating change. It is the diehards who resist and are destroyed in the process."
Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God focus on Nigeria's early experience with colonialism, from first contact with the British to widespread British administration. "Chinua Achebe creates in these two novels a coherent picture of coherence being lost of the tragic consequences of the African-European collision," offers Robert Mc Dowell in a special issue of studies in black literature dedicated to Achebe's work. "There is an artistic unity of all things in these books which is rare anywhere in modern English fiction."
Things Fall Apart, Achebe's first novel, was published in 1958 in the midst of the Nigerian renaissance. It tells the story of an Ibo village of the late 1800's and one of his great men, Okonkwo, who has achieved much in his life. He is a champion wrestler, wealthy farmer, a husband to three wives, a title-holder among his people, and a member of the select Egwugwu whose members impersonate ancestral spirits at tribal rituals. "The most impressive achievement of Things Fall Apart..." maintains David Carroll in his book Chinua Achebe, is the vivid picture it provides of Ibo society at the end of the nineteenth century.
The order is disrupted, however, with the appearance of the white man in Africa and with the introduction of his religion. "The conflict of the novel, vested in Okonkwo, derives from the series of crushing blows which are levelled at traditional values by an alien and more powerful culture causing, in the end, the traditional society to fall apart," observes G.D. Killam. Okonkwo is unable to adopt to the changes that accompany colonialism. In the end, in frustration, he kills an African employed by the British, and then commits suicide, a sin against the tradition to which he had long clung. Achebe achieves a balance in relating the tragic consequences of the clash of two cultures. Killam notes that, "In showing Ibo society before and after the coming of the white man he avoids the temptation to present the past as idealized and the present as ugly and unsatisfactory."