Achebe, Chinua [chin'wä ächA'bA]
Achebe, Chinua [chin'wä ächA'bA]
Achebe, Chinua , 1930–,
Nigerian writer, b. Albert Chinualumogu Achebe. A graduate of University College
at Ibadan (1953), Achebe, who writes in English, is one of Africa's most acclaimed
writers. His early novels, including Things Fall Apart (1958)—probably the
most widely read book by a black African writer—and No Longer at Ease (1960),
describe poignantly the effects of European colonialism on Igbo society, Nigeria,
and newly independent African nations. He served as a diplomat (1966–68) for
Biafra during the Nigerian civil war and later wrote two volumes of poetry,
Beware, Soul Brother (1971) and Christmas in Biafra (1973), and one of literary
essays, Morning Yet on Creation Day (1975), about the war. He taught at the
Univ. of Nigeria, Nsukka (1976–81), and was founding editor (1971) of the
influential journal Okike. He returned to the novel form with Anthills of
the Savannah (1987). Achebe has lived in the United States since 1990. [http://www.infoplease.com/ce6/people/A0802312.html]
Things Fall Apart
Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart portrays Africa, particularly the Ibo society, right before the arrival of Europeans. Things Fall Apart analyzes the destruction of African culture by the appearance of the white man 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.
A Conflicted Life
In Things Fall Apart, the reader follows the life of Okonkwo, a man with a tragic flaw in 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." When Okonkwo learned that the word for a man without a title in Ibo is the same word that means "woman," he was crushed because to him that meant that his father (who had no title) was basically a woman. That's when Okonkwo became obsessed with social status and because of that obsession, he would do anything to protect his image as a strong man in his village. Okonkwo hated anything weak or frail, 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. “Okonkwo's fame rested on solid personal achievement” through his wrestling prowess (3) and so, because Nwoye, his son by his first wife, reminds Okonkwo of his father Unoka he describes him as woman-like. He saw masculinity in terms of violence and courage.
Let us remember that Okonkwo's culture is achievement-oriented. Achebe makes the following remark about Okonkwo's society:
Age was respected among his people, but achievement was revered. As the elders said, if a child washed his hands he could eat with kings. Okonkwo had clearly washed his hands and so he ate with kings and elders (6).
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 favored 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)
- Describe Okonkwo, the protagonist of Things Fall Apart. If we consider him as an Igbo hero: How does he work to achieve greatness as defined by his morals and culture?
- How does he differ from Western heroes with whom you are more familiar with?
- How does the (negative) example of his father shape Okonkwo’s character and actions?
- What do the early descriptions of Okonkwo’s success and Unoka’s failure tell us about Igbo society? How does one succeed in this cultural context?
A discussion of the oral tradition as presented by Achebe is made by Cora Agatucci of Central Oregon Community College, (http://cocc.edu/cagatucci/classes/num211/airstory.num). It is as follows:
- King, do not eat [it], do not eat!Sala [the audience responds]
- King, if you eat it
- You will weep for the abomination
- Where Danda [white ant] installs king
- Where Uzuzu [Dust] danced to the drums
Sala [the audience responds]
Even with the English translation, this story does not make sense to a reader unfamiliar with the culture and nuances of the language.Agatucci presents a line-by-line interpretation as follows:
Agatucci goes on to explain that African proverbs and stories draw upon the collective wisdom of oral peoples, express their "structures of meaning, feeling, thought and expression" and thus serve important social and ethical features. One cannot study African literatures without studying the particular cultures and oratures on which Africans draw for their structures and plots, rhythms and styles, images and metaphors.
- Chapter 9 Achebe offers the story of the mosquito, one of several West African tales that explain why these insects buzz irritatingly in people's ears. Can you think of any similar folktales told in your culture? What is the moral of the fable of the tortoise told in Ch. 11?
- Describe the setting (time, place, culture) of the novel. Try to apply what you have learned from reading about Igbo Culture and History. Read carefully how Achebe presents the details of everyday village behavior in Umuofia, the values and beliefs of the Igbo people, and the importance of ritual, ceremony, social hierarchy, and personal achievement in Igbo culture.
- How is social life organized?
- What are the important celebrations?
- What is the role of war, of religion, and of the arts?
- What is the role of the individual in relation to the community of Umuofia?
- Compare /contrast Igbo customs, perspectives, beliefs, and values to those of your own culture. Note the means of exchange--cowry shells threaded on strings—common in many African cultures. "The villages' distance from the sea makes cowries sufficiently rare to serve as money."
Philosophy, Culture and the Role of Women and Family
Chi---Since Igbo people did not construct a rigid and closed argued system of thought to explain the universe and the place of man in it, preferring the metaphor of myth and poetry, anyone seeking insight into their world must seek it along their way. Achebe has explained the Igbo concept of “chi” in an essay: each individual has a chi, a “spirit being” parallel to his physical being. Thus, the concept of “chi” also entails a necessary duality in the world – “wherever something stands, something else will stand beside it.” The importance of “chi” is also demonstrated by the frequency with which it appears as an element in Nigerian names, and in its incorporation into the name of the supreme god, Chukwu (= “Chi Ukwo,” or “Great Chi”). Wrestling is an apt identity for Okonkwo right from the beginning; he is destroyed finally when he takes on too strong of an opponent – his own chi.
In keeping with the Ibo view of female nature, the tribe allowed wife beating. The novel describes two instances when Okonkwo beats 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 favor of the wife, but at the end of the trial a man wondered "why such a trifle should come before the egwugwu." (89). Okonkwo disrupted the Week of Peace by beating his wife. For violating the sacred holiday, he was forced to pay a penalty. Although Okonkwo knew that he was in error and regretted his act against the gods, he did not show his regret to the villagers because he did not want to appear weak. But his pride made his neighbors believe that he no longer revered the gods and that his success had gone to his head.
Achebe shows that the Ibo nonetheless assign important roles to women. For instance, women painted the houses of the egwugwu (84). Women in Things Fall Apart are the primary educators of children. Through story telling and behavior, they educate and socialize the children, inspiring in them curiosity about social values, relationships, and the human condition. The stories the women tell also develop the artistic consciousness of the children, in addition to entertaining them.
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."
- Examine family life and living arrangements in Okonkwo’s home. Describe Okonkwo’s relationships to his wives and children, especially to Ekwefi, Ezinma, and Nwoye. What differing roles and functions do men and women have in Igbo society? Compare/contrast the advantages and disadvantages of this social structure to family arrangements in the U.S.
- Consider the marriage customs of the Igbo depicted in Things Fall Apart. Bride-price or bridewealth is the converse of dowry. Common in many African cultures, it involves the bridegroom's family paying substantial wealth in cash or goods for the privilege of marrying a young woman... Young women were considered marriageable in their mid-teens. Why do you think this attitude arose? It is worth noting that European women commonly married between 15 and 18 in earlier times. There is nothing uniquely African about these attitudes. What is suggested about the value of women in such a system? Compare Igbo marriage customs to the U.S.: what are the advantages and disadvantages of each system? In Ch. 12, how is the importance of family emphasized in the Uri ceremony, when the bridewealth is paid?
After three years, the village has decided to kill Ikemefuna, in response to an oracle, and they are telling Okonkwo to stay out of it. This is a central act in the “tragedy” of Okonkwo.
- What does it tell us about the society?
- Is there something “wrong” with a society that will kill an innocent boy for no apparent reason?
Some commentators suggest that the gut reaction to see Ikemefuna’s death as a cruel and unjust act prevents is from recognizing that Ibo morality is based on the good of the community, not of the individual – the death of this person can prevent war between the villages and thus avert many other deaths. The society is built on different principles than our own – does that make it wrong, or just different?
“A man’s life from birth to death was a series of transition rites which brought him nearer and nearer to his ancestors.” It is here, in the context of such a transition, that something happens “without parallel in the tradition of Umuofia”: the explosion of Okonkwo’s home-made gun, which kills Ezeudu’s 16-year-old son. This is a crime against the earth goddess, even though it was an accident, and Okonkwo must therefore flee; he is banished for seven years, part of a traditional cleansing. Obierika “was a man who thought about things” and questions the tradition that so punishes a man for what happens accidentally. This leads him also to question the sacrifice of twin children, which he himself had had to do. Okonkwo goes to live with his mother’s clan in another village.
Several times in Things Fall Apart we are told about how social customs and values had been falling apart as a result of developments within the society itself. We see Ogbuefi Ezeudu, the oldest man in Okonkwo's village, complaining "that the punishment for breaking the Peace of Ani had become very mild in their clan" (23). Similarly, when Okonkwo is in exile, we see another old man, Uchendu, complaining about how Okonkwo's generation had abandoned some of the old ways (96).
There are many people
who think that pre-colonial African societies were static with everybody following
the tradition without any opposition. That is a false view. As we see in Things
Fall Apart, those societies had internal tensions and dynamism such which
made them change and develop.
Obierika visits Okonkwo with news of the white men - the destruction of Abame. It heralds that a new day is arriving, coupled with an illustration of the white colonizers’ response to offenses: one white man is killed by the village, so the entire village is massacred by the whites. Tribal customs are disregarded and outlawed, prisons are built, and clans are thrown into confusion. Men lose their manliness and their very lives. “… Our clan can no longer act like one. He [the white man] has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.” The first to arrive were the missionaries, who appear to the village outcasts as having a superior faith. Then came the army and the government. “. . . apart from the church, the white men had also brought a government.” Note the enforcement of the new laws comes from the kotma, and that obeying the traditional law (e.g., in disposing of twin births) causes an offense against the white man’s law. Here we see that the white government is already in place, already supplanting the traditions of Umuofia; as Obierika says, “It is already too late.” There is a specific discussion about customs - the white man does not understand them, but says that their customs are bad, and some of their own brothers agree. The disintegration of the culture becomes complete when Okonkwo hangs himself and the Commissioner appropriates that fact for material for his book, The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.
The power of the language in Things Fall Apart stays strong even to the very end where we see theDistrict Commissioner reducing Okonkwo’s life to the size of a "reasonable paragraph." Chinua Achebe’srepeats a great proverb that goes "until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt willalways glorify the hunter." He knows the danger of Africans not having their own stories and so he has created this story to remember a type of time and place that might otherwise be forgotten.Review Questions
- How do Europeans intevene in the lifeworld of traditional Igbo society? (HINT: Tale of tortoise and the birds—Tortoise: Colonial power; Birds: Colonized populations subject to maniplulation)
- How has Umuofia changed over the seven years while Okonkwo has been in exile?
- What function do the kotma, or court messengers, serve in the new society? Contrast the white man’s law and system of justice with that of traditional Umuofia society.