Chinua Achebe: Things Fall Apart essay

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Achebe has become very much a figure in Western literary circles, one of the main authors to be added to the literary curriculum in the name of multiculturalism. Things Fall Apart is probably the African novel told by Europeans. Chinua Achebe is one of the people every one in African Studies wants to have an opinion about. He has played a key role in shaping African Literature. Chinua Achebe’s recording of some 27 and 129 ilu or Igbo proverbs in Things Fall Apart motivated by the need to preserve the residual ‘glory of Igbo oratory’.  Ione such proverb is used early in Things Fall Apart: ‘Our elder’s say that the sun will shine on those who stand before it shines on those who kneel under them’, which is directly traceable to an original Igbo ilu. Taking their cue from Achebe, the Nigerian troika of Afrocentric critics – Chinweizu, Jemie, and Madubike – was later to identify the essential basis of inspiration, form, and decisive behavior of African literature as oratoria as opposed to literature, as these were the star-crossed lovers of two rival families.

The recent publication of a collection of essays on Chinua Achebe edited by Bernth Lindfors and Catherine Innes and entitled Critical Perspectives on Achebe clearly demonstrates two main points: the accomplishment artistry of the author who now justifiably occupies a central position in African letters and the dominance of his first novel Things Fall Apart in the Achebe canon.  If, however, their is now general agreement about the quality of the novel, opinion is much more divided about the status of its hero Okonkwo and about attitudes towards him. On the one hand are those critics like Killam and the present writer who regard Okonkwo as essentially a product of his society in fact, while on the other hand there are those critics who see Okonkwo as deviating from those norms and being essentially out of step with his society. Solomon Iyasere is most typical of this latter view. In his easy he suggests that the present writer in presenting Okonkwo as the embodiment of his society transforms him from champion to victim, and he goes on to suggest further that far from being an embodiment of the values of his society has only a very limited understanding of those values.

Where his society is surprisingly flexible Okonkwo is utterly inflexible; where his society is able to accommodate the lazy and unsuccessful Okonkwo has no patience with them; where his society respects age Okonkwo shows scant regard for age; where his society is notated for its discreet blending of the masculine and feminine principles Okonkwo is openly contemptuous of all things feminine. Iyasere unwittingly transforms Okonkwo into a villain with few redeeming features, instead of the truly tragic hero with a blend of great tragedy, surely, is that the hero possesses certain excellent qualities which arouse the reader’s admiration, but he simultaneously possesses certain weakness which render him incapable of dealing successfully with the forces and circumstances he is confronted with. It is these which lead to his downfall, but the reader’s sympathy is never totally alienated from him because he continues to be aware of those excellent qualities. The tragic hero is never completely villain or completely victim and his tragedy is always brought about by a combination of his own personal inadequacies and external circumstances. Okonkwo is precisely such a tragic hero. It is clear that Okonkwo’s admirable qualities, such as courage, fearlessness, determination, industry, energy, perseverance, resilience and tribal pride are either qualities he shares with his society or have been produced in him by the need to respond to the demands of that society. Okonkwo accepts most of his society’s major attitudes such as its concern for rank land prestige, its reverence for courage, bravery and success in war or wrestling, and its premium on material and social prosperity. In discussion with Obierika about the law which forbids men of title to climb palm trees Okonkwo can say quite categorically that “the law of the land must be obeyed” and all his actions are determined by this conviction. Even when he breaks the week of peace and unwittingly infringes the law, he accepts that he is wrong and the law is right, and he submits to his punishment.

Okonkwo does not deviate from his society’s norms and it is inaccurate to say that he has only a limited understanding of them; rather it is the intelligent Obierika who constantly questions his society’s values; it is he who suggests that the law forbidding men of little to climb palm trees is a bad law; it is he who questions the throwing of twins into the evil forest and the banishing of a man for seven years from his fatherland for accidentally killing a kinsman. Okonkwo never does; and yet no one has accused Obierika of deviating from his society norms.  Needless to say, Achebe’s artistic output, by number and earned laurels, echo this well enough. Ironically, this genius whose works have constituted objects of uncountable literary researches, seems lamentably to be a victim or erroneous perception, by some critics, of his position vis-à-vis certain issues. Significant to this study is that Achebe is labeled by some feminist critics as a chauvinist more or less insensitive to the lot of the African woman. 

Achebe is vituperated along with Cyprian Ekwensi, Wole Soyinka and some others for a sexist approach, painting women as helpless, dependent, disparaged beings destined in Ogunyemi’s words “to carry foofoo and soup to men dealing with important matters. Ama Ata Aidoo accuses Achebe of cavalier attitude to women in his work. Aidoo castigates him for allowing his protagonist, Okonkwo, to batter his wives while his other wives hover around whimpering, “Okonkwo it is enough . . .” (4). It becomes pertinent to ask if these critics or interpreters are interpreting rightly Achebe’s view of the African woman in his works, and specifically Things Fall Apart.  Is Achebe’s style deceptive in this novel? Is Okonkwo’s view of womanhood mistaken for Achebe’s?  Is Achebe’s depiction of the social reality of that ancient time Vis-à-vis societal view of the African Woman taken to be his own personal views in Things Fall Apart? 

In conclusion, it is tempting to read Things Falls Apart as the voice from the inside for a number of reasons. The novel itself encourages this reading, with its detailed documentation of cultural practices, its fluid incorporation of native words and phrases, and its juxtaposition of the principal narrative perspective with the reductive and distorted view of outsiders like the District Commissioner. By construing his narrative as combating the misinformed representations of colonial writers, Achebe has contributed to the impression of the book’s documentary realism.

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