A look at “Things Fall Apart” Through Multiple Perspectives
“The Study of English literature will serve to emancipate us. . . from the notions and habits that are peculiar to our age.” (F.D. Maurice as cited in Theory before Theory, 13)
It is not often that people explore the world with the intent of learning from the people and places they visit. While Phil Paradise’s artwork clearly shows a man interested in learning from the places he travelled. His art depicts the honest reality of the different lives of different people around the world. Since I don’t have the opportunity to travel the world I am attempting to learn from the international community through my family’s experiences and authors of diverse cultures so that my poetry can be not just informed but also of value. I’m reading Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart because my grandmother was a British colonist in Nigeria who lived in the same town as Chinua Achebe and had some contact with him. This gives me a connection to the colonial empire which inspired Achebe’s novel and, through his work a connection to the mind of Achebe. Unfortunately my grandmother passed away so I can’t really ask her any more about her encounters with the author of this great work however she and I did have one notable conversation about him while I was in high school, a dialogue which I didn’t think too much of at the time but is now one of the memories I wish I remembered with greater clarity. What I do recall was that I was spending an afternoon at my grandma’s house after one of the last days of the spring semester in either my freshman or sophomore year of high school. I’d received my reading list for the summer which consisted of about 10 books from which we had to select several to read during the vacation. My grandma had an MA in literature and a large book collection so I was hoping she had some of the books on the list so I could borrow them and not have to purchase my own. Things Fall Apart was the first choice on the list and while she said she didn’t have that it she remembered meeting the author while she lived in Africa. Intrigued I asked how she met him. She described to me that he had spent some time in the village where she and my grandfather had lived and worked. (I believe it was a town outside of Lagos Nigeria). I asked if she liked the book and the author and she said that she thought he was an extremely intelligent writer but that the book, under appreciated what she thought the British government had done for Africans. At the time I didn’t think much of this but today those words are quite significant to me as work following in the vein of Edward Said’s “Orientalism” has exposed that colonial governments were in fact repressive and stymied the development of cultures around the globe.
“Things Fall Apart” is also thought to have played an important role in exposing this now nearly universally accepted realization. Knowing this and having heard my grandmothers words I think I come in with a rather complicated relationship to the historical context surrounding this text however, I am hoping to engage with Thing’s Fall Apart with an open mind and on my own terms and despite my presenting what I took away from the book in this essay I hope that other readers will also form their own views.
For readers interested in learning about the structural components of the novel, Achebe’s prose is not particularly descriptive but a great deal of depth lies below the language–I see his writing as, in a sense, in the vein of Ernest Hemingway’s “Iceberg theory” in that it appears clear and simplistic but hides a great deal of meaning below the surface. The novel is also characterized by realism and an underdeveloped plot. Achebe focuses more on the minutiae of daily life, rejecting tradition and writing a story focused more deeply on the psychology of societies and characters than on the grandeur of the storyline.
“Okonkwo’s return to his native land was not as memorable as he had wished. Umuofia did not appear to have taken any special notice of the warrior’s return. The clan had undergone such profound change during his exile that it was barely recognizable. The new religion and government and the trading stores were very much in the people’s eyes and minds. There were still many who saw these new institutions as evil, but even they talked and thought about little else, and certainly not about Okonkwo’s return” (Things Fall Apart, 64)
The narrative follows Okonkwo, a traditionalist tribesman of the Igbo clan who in the novel experiences a tragic fall from grace in his society. His misfortune begins with a violent outburst during the week of peace– an action for which he is punished by the elders of Umofia. This is followed by a series of accidents which further decrease Okonkwo’s social stature. By the end of the novel Okonkwo is not particularly important in his village which is now under the control of the British. In one last ditch effort to regain his manhood Okonkwo kills a British emissary, however he is not rewarded by his tribesmen. Okonkwo hangs himself suggesting that the era of traditional Igbo culture has come to an end.
“And in a clear unemotional voice he told Umuofia how their daughter had gone to market at Mbaino and had been killed. That woman, said Ezeugo, was the wife of Ogbuefi Udo, and he pointed to a man who sat near him with a bowed head. The crowd then shouted with anger and thirst for blood.” (Achebe, 4)
Given these technical features of the narrative I think its important to shift to the cultural significance of Achebe’s work as given my background, I took that to be more substantial than the narrative. To start with, Although Achebe is critical of British colonists in the novel he does not describe a purely nostalgic view of Igbo culture either. Instead he paints both cultures and the individuals in then culture as flawed and ever changing. For instance Okonkwo himself is unable to realize his flaws and the flaws of the Igbo culture’s devaluation of femininity. The critic Peter Scanlon remarked that Okonkwo “Thing’s Fall Apart” (Okonkwo sees “his own self worth and masculinity [as] strongly interrelated “ (Thing’s Fall Apart On Masculinity 1). As we see in the block quote above Igbo women in the novel take on only passive role, are interchangeable, and only valuable as property. In this instance the value of the murdered woman is only proportional to her value as a “wife of Ogbuefi Udo.” Okonkwo also treats his wives as commodities and they “live. . . in perpetual fear of his fiery temper” (Things Fall Apart 5) which is not kept in check by his community.
Chinua Achebe noted in a 2008 interview with PBS that the primary purposes of his book was, first of all, to write the story of his own people but also to address “a moment in history when one culture was in contact, conflict, and conversation with another culture.” The first component of his mission is embodied both by Achebe’s realistic characterization of Igbo culture and the effects of British missionaries in Africa but the second component is attained by the epigraph to Things Fall Apart, a passage from W.B Yeates “The Second Coming.”
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things Fall Apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
–W. B. Yeats, “The Second Coming”
By choosing an english poet to open his novel and in fact titling the novel after a passage in that poet’s work, Achebe accomplishes a number of feats. First, by drawing on a poem which describes the emptiness and destruction in post WWI Europe he alludes to the collapse of African society which accompanies the arrival British colonialism. Second, by drawing from the work of a British poet, Achebe in some sense, creates a conversation between cultures which subverts thelenses through which each culture sees the world. To frame this notion we might draw from the work of the theorist Kenneth Burke who argues that language and stories, insofar as they reflect the world also function as terministic screens which can also select and deflect our reality. Achebe’s bringing together of both the traditions of the Igbo and the actions of the British allows as readers to transcend the terministic screens which obscure the assumptions made in each culture.
Achebe’s inclusion of the darker side of Igbo culture and of British imperialism in his novel was bold. I take the inclusion to imply that Achebe saw the subversion the monolithic image of Africa created by colonialism as done away with not just by romanticizing one’s own marginalized culture but rather by exposing it as a culture in itself which shares the flaws, strengths and structures common to other societies.This portrayal of African society as varied was a pioneering venture as english literature had been unable to characterize the particulars of the African continent and succeeded only described it as (to quote James Conrad) the “Heart of Darkness.” Given this achievement by Achebe we might say that his novel epitomizes the goal of english literature as described by F.D. Maurice in that it subverts the common conceptions of multiple cultures which are particular to an age. In terms of my relationship to this text, I see it as an incredibly poignant social criticism. To my grandmother, given her historical context it signified the problems within Africa which she thought could be solved by British colonization and the “civilizing” of Africa, but for native Africans the book served as a critique of the society which was bearing down on them and demonizing their cultures a. For us, reading the Achebe in the post colonial era the novel can function as a tool to engross ourselves in the world views of two cultures and to build our society with better understanding of the past to inform our decisions
If you are intrigued by Achebe’s novel and want to learn more about African thinkers I’d recommend a following up “Thing’s Fall Apart” with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Americanah.” Or, if you want to learn more about post colonial theory more generally I’d suggest Edward Said’s “Orientalism” which I referenced earlier and Albert Memmi’s “The Colonizer and the Colonized.” This last recommendation is a out there, I’d also recommend reading “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” for a contemporary look at the innovation coming out of the African continent more generally.