Author: Clare Connors
Date: Nov. 2010
From:The English Review(Vol. 21, Issue 2)
Publisher: Philip Allan Updates
Document Type: Article
Length: 2,131 words
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It's hard to read Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart(1958) without experiencing strong feelings--of empathy, interest, anxietyand ultimately anger. As we engage with this powerful and moving account of aculture and a way of life on the brink of destruction, we find ourselvesidentifying with the Ibo people whose story Achebe tells and whosecivilisation he describes to us. We are made to feel for and with theselate-nineteenth-century West African characters who live in what ishistorically (and for many of us also geographically) a far-distant culture.And so, as we watch their way of life and identity coming under threat by thearrival of colonising white Europeans, we share the fear, bafflement andoutrage of the novel's main protagonist, Okonkwo, and his family andfriends, and feel their horror as they experience their clan 'breakingup and falling apart' (133).
It is a testament to Achebe's craft that he is able to promptthese feelings in readers who live years and, probably, miles from the worldhe describes, and whose own identities are very different from those of thenovel's characters. But this artistic feat might prompt us to someanalytical reflections, which can further enrich our reading of the novel.How does Achebe make us identify with his characters? How does he conveytheir identities to us? And what, indeed, do we mean when we talk about'identity' and 'character' in the first place? These arethe questions I am going to explore in this article.
Narration and identification
Things Fall Apart is a novel about identity at two levels: aboutpersonal identity and about cultural identity. And its treatment of the twois intertwined. As we learn about Okonkwo, the warrior, wrestler, father,husband, and titled clansman whose story drives the movement of the plot, welearn too about his community, and its traditions, conventions, cultural andfamilial life and codes. From the very opening sentence of thebook--'Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and evenbeyond' (3)--Achebe's protagonist is situated in relation to theplace and the culture in which he lives. His 'fame', derived fromhis triumph aged 18 in a wrestling match over the renowned 'Amalinze thecat', is, the narrator suggests, the result of 'solid personalachievements', but it has also become part of the cultural memory of hisclan, growing 'like a bush-fire in the harmattan' (3). The personaland the social are bound up with one another. Moreover, by broadcastingOkonkwo's fame to us as readers, the narration makes us part of thecommunity described, hungry for the latest news of one of the village'smost famous figures.
The sense that the reader is brought into the life of the Ibo clandepicted is also fostered by the novel's narrative voice. The thirdperson omniscient narrator of Things Fall Apart seems to imagine that thenovel's readers will not be familiar with the world he describes. Thenovel was, after all, first published by an English press, William Heinemann,and is therefore pitched in the first instance at Western, primarily British,readers. For this reason, the narrator often explains aspects of Ibo cultureto us, as though he is an anthropologist. So, for example, whenOkwondo's second wife Ekwefi, is hailed by a voice 'from one of theother huts', she replies 'Is that me?' And the narrator goeson to comment: 'that was the way people answered calls from outside.They never answered yes for fear it might be an evil spirit calling'(30). Here the narrator explains a cultural custom to the imagined Westernreaders, mediating and translating for us, to allow us to understand it.
We see what initially seems to be a similarly explanatory account,when the narrator tells us that 'Among the Ibo the art of conversationis regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words areeaten' (6). Once again the voice here appears to describe,sympathetically but as though from outside and to an outsider, theconversational customs of the Ibo. On the other hand, this comment itselftakes on a proverbial quality with its pithy metaphor--likening proverbs topalm-oil. Furthermore, the metaphor itself derives from one of the crucialingredients of Ibo cooking. Here, then, the narrative voice both identifiesitself with, and stands slightly apart from, what it describes. And, asreaders, we therefore both learn about and experience for ourselves thetexture and style of Ibo speech. We don't just learn that the Ibo peopleuse proverbs--we learn this through reading a proverbial phrase ourselves.
The novel's very language also enacts this simultaneousdistance and intimacy from what it is describing. The narrative voice weavesIbo words into the English in which he tells his story. These terms areusually glossed for us, though at times we have to infer their meaning fromthe context. So, we learn that a chi is a personal god, the ilo is thevillage green or playground, and the egwugu are the ancestral masked spiritsof the clan, or masqueraders who impersonate them. By peppering his Englishwith the Ibo spoken by his characters, the narrator brings us closer to them,while also marking out the differences between us, demonstrating the ways inwhich we need particular, local words to describe particular practices.
In a number of ways, then, the narration of Things Fall Apart atonce explains aspects of Ibo identity to readers, and induces them toidentify with Ibo culture. But what about the more specific identities of themembers of the clan? We are introduced to them through a close focus on thenovel's central character, Okonkwo. And what we learn about him can tellus about his individual character and also suggest certain idea notion ofcharacter and identity.
Character and identity
As the novel commences, we learn about Okonkwo's lowlybeginnings, as the son of a poor and unsuccessful father; about the way hehas earned fame through his wrestling feats; and about the dedication andhard work that have allowed him to rise 'from great poverty andmisfortune to be one of the lords of the clan' (20). We also learn abouthis relationship to others--in particular to his father. The narrator tellsus that he 'was ruled by one passion--to hate everything that his fatherUnoka had loved. One of those things was gentleness and another wasidleness' (11). We can see here the outlines of a particular approach toidentity, which might help us as we consider the treatment of identity in thenovel as a whole.
Okonkwo, Achebe suggests, defines himself against others, and interms of what he is not. His desire for success and self-assertion is suchthat he cannot cherish the qualities of what is not the same as himself.Okonkwo's approach to identity is, we might suggest, both hierarchicaland oppositional. We can see this also in his approach to his three wives.Adopting his point of view, the narrator writes that 'no matter howprosperous a man was, if he was unable to rule his women and his children(and especially his women) he was not really a man' (38). Okonkwodefines himself against his father, then, but also in relationship to hiswomen-folk who, in a patriarchal manner, he must be able to 'rule'.
If personal identity is thought about here in its relationship to,and difference from, others, it is also discussed in other ways in the novel.Near the start of the novel the narrator writes of Okonkwo that his fame andsuccess were not down to luck:
At the most, one could say that his chi or personal god was good. But the Ibo people have a proverb that when a man says yes his chi says yes also. Okonkwo said yes very strongly; so his chi agreed (20).
Here we have a philosophical reflection on what makes a characteror a personality what it is. It is not, the narrator suggests, a question offate, destiny, or accidents, but a matter of choice and willpower. The Ibopeople believe that each person has a 'personal god' who watchesover their destiny, but that the individual has the power to change theirfate, by making the right decisions.
However, as the story follows its tragic course, and Okonkwo isobliged to spend seven years in 'exile' with his mother'sclan, having accidentally killed a man, his view of the relationship betweencharacter and destiny alters. Writing from Okonkwo's point of view, thenarrator says:
Clearly his personal god or chi was not made for great things. A man could not rise beyond the destiny of his chi. The saying of the elders was not true--that if a man said yea his chi also affirmed. Here was a man whose chi said nay despite his own affirmation (96).
Okonkwo comes to the realisation that his own life and destiny arenot solely within his control. His fate is in part determined by accidentsand bad luck, and is also in the hands of other people. It is not solely aquestion of his own choice and actions. The proud, violent Okonkwo learns,then, a humbling lesson as his story runs its tragic course. In order tosurvive in exile, he is dependent on the kindness and help of others. He istaken in by his mother's kinsmen, given land and seed-yams by them. Hisown crops are tended in his home village of Umuofia by his friend Obieriko.Okonkwo is compelled to revise his own initial understanding of identityitself. Having begun by setting himself up as being different from, andbetter than, his father, and other men in his clan, he comes to realise thathis own life is intertwined with that of other people.
Okonkwo's realisation that his identity is bound up with thatof his clan emerges as that cultural identity comes under threat. Things FallApart is set during the period of the so-called 'Scramble forAfrica', when Europeans began to colonise parts of Africa, imposingtheir own laws, customs and religion on local people. During Okonkwo'sexile, he hears increasingly alarming news of the arrival of white men, andof their 'abominable religion' (122). On his return to Umuofia, hefinds that the white missionary church has come to the village and 'ledmany astray' (127), including his son Nwoye. Along with the church comesan imposed system of government, and a court 'where the DistrictCommissioner judged cases in ignorance' (127).
The Ibo people are initially happy to coexist with the white men.Theirs is shown to be a tolerant culture: as Uchendu says, 'The worldhas no end, and what is good among one people is an abomination withothers' (103). Unlike the warlike Okonkwo, his people as a whole areprepared to live and let live, acknowledging that different people havedifferent practices and cultural identities. But this open and accommodatingapproach to different identities is not shared by the majority of thecolonising white men. Of the zealous missionary the Reverend James Smith, whoreplaces the more benign Mr Brown, the narrator writes:
He saw things as black and white. And black was evil. He saw the world as a battlefield in which the children of light were locked in mortal conflict with the sons of darkness. (134)
In a stark reversal, the hierarchical either/or model of identitywhich Okonkwo espouses at the start of the novel, and is compelled to revise,is now imposed on his whole people. The white missionaries and tradespeopleacknowledge no truth or way of life other than their own. And so, as theyimpose their customs and rules on the village of Umuofia and itssurroundings, all that is distinctive about the Ibo way of life isdemolished. As readers we have come to share in, and partially to understand,that way of life. But the colonisers achieve no such understanding. Okonkwois driven to despair and ultimately suicide as his culture falls apart. Buthis story, which has engrossed us throughout the entire novel, is viewed bythe District Commissioner as something that will merely furnish a'reasonable paragraph' in his book The Pacification of thePrimitive Tribes of the Lower Niger (152). The irony is vicious.
Things Fall Apart offers us, then, a bald account of the violencesof colonialism, and of the destruction of cultural identities which itproduced. But it also shows us aspects of the workings of identity andculture which are more generally applicable. It suggests that identity mightbe established through 'black and white' either/or hierarchies, butalso, through the story of Okonkwo, that such a model of identity cannothold, and that our lives are always intertwined with others. In a world inwhich we still live with the legacy of nineteenth-century colonialism, and inwhich resources and land are becoming increasingly scarce, the novel'sthinking about identity has much to teach us still today.
Achebe, C. (2001) Things Fall Apart, Penguin Classics.
Relevant articles in past issues of THE ENGLISH REVIEW are listedbelow. Ask your teacher if your school subscribes to The English ReviewOnline Archive.
Spittles, B. (1995) 'Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apartreconsidered', Vol. 6, No. 1
AQA(A) Language and literature
Clare Connors is a lecturer in English literature at theUniversity of East Anglia, and is the author of Literary Theory: ABeginner's Guide (2010).
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