The South African Igbo tribe of Umuofia, as depicted in Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart,” (1958) encompasses layer upon complex layer of social order. From birth to death, every aspect of Umuofian culture is defined by an intricate balance of ritual, which is transmitted through oral tradition. Protaganist Okonkwo, appears to uphold the ways of his ancestors, and to represent the elite of his culture. It would seem as though the invasion of the colonialist empire is responsible for the disfigurement of Okonkwo’s life. Upon closer consideration, however, one finds that it is Okonkwo’s polarized concepts of masculinity and femininity that are disfigured, and that he has never represented the balanced wisdom of his ancestors at all. Thus, as Achebe’s juxtaposition of Okonkwo’s rigid perspective and Umuofia’s adaptive reality expands, the reader follows Okonkwo and his falsely gendered world’s descent into chaos. “Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond” (2860). The first sentence of the novel brings Okonkwo’s narration directly into an insider perspective. This helps to establish a fair and extensively emic view of Umuofian culture. In this way readers can not only observe an inclusive outline of music and dance, law and justice, and religious ritual, but also understand the practicality behind values such as tribal unity, brotherly hospitality, and ancestor veneration. Each of these values represents an aspect of Igbo culture integral to preserving the order of their world. Without any one of them, the Igbo people would become prone to collapse into ‘mere anarchy’. One significant emic account in Chapter One depicts the highly developed and elevated art of oration as only an insider can: through proverb. “Among the Igbo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten” (2862). Throughout the novel, ancestral wisdom is shown to be passed on in proverbs, fables and stories. To the Igbo oral tradition, the power of the story becomes the very medium through which culture is transmitted- just as palm oil is needed for the sustenance of an Igbo person. Thus it can be stated that in the story of “Things Fall Apart”, stories not only represent order, but are necessary to maintain it. What is the wisdom which moves his ‘Chi’ to do as he does? One should not mistake Okonkwo’s gruff exterior for his true feelings. On the contrary, the reader’s privileged vantage position reveals many paradoxical inward emotions. Achebe repeatedly frames Okonkwo’s thoughts with the condition, ‘inwardly’. His ‘slight stammer’ reveals much more of his Chi than his father’s skillful oration ever would. All of this contradiction drives the reader to investigate the truth of Okonkwo. To understand a man’s Chi, one must understand where his story begins. Just as Okonkwo’s fall is framed within the context of Umuofia, so is the story of his father, Unoka, framed within Okonkwo’s chronicle. The reader first objectively learns that Okonkwo’s father was a creative and loving man, with a great potential for happiness. In the context of the Igbo culture, however, he floundered; he was considered a failure. And so Unoka retained his passion for beauty and joy, but became familiar with sadness and pain. Through it all, the man never let the scorn of others control his behaviour: Unoka literally takes his flute to his ignominious grave. Okonkwo’s pride makes him vulnerable where his father was not. He vividly remembers a playmate call his father a name, bringing shame upon Okonkwo. This passage hints at not only the psychological origin, but the cultural relevance behind Okonkwo’s Chi. Okonkwo’s pride makes him susceptible to succumb to his great consuming fear of rejection and contempt. And so, turns his fear into a motivation: to become all that his father is not, and reject his father’s most treasured values. There is another story, however, which is spectacularly ignored by Okonkwo, and often overlooked by the reader as well. Only once, in the ninth chapter, is his mother elevated from the background of the story. Some nights after the abominable killing of Ikemefuna, Okonkwo is swatting mosquitoes by his ear as he tries to sleep, and he remembers a fable his mother used to tell. “Mosquito, she had said, had asked Ear to marry him, whereupon she fell to the floor in uncontrollable laughter. ‘How much longer do you think you will live?’ She asked. ‘You are already a skeleton. ’ Mosquito went away humiliated, and anytime he passed her way he told Ear that he was still alive” (2892).Okonkwo’s repression of his mother’s story does not diminish its significance or meaning. The ear, a symbol of creative power, femininity and of listening, causes shame in Mosquito with her rejection. By pointing out his mortality, Ear pierces to the very heart of Mosquito’s fear. Ear will always live and be included as long as there are stories to tell and to hear. The story blends listening and life-force into a female representation while impressing on the reader Mosquito’s solitude and mortality. Although the mosquito lives on, he buzzes away in shame, all too aware of his fragility and loneliness. Okonkwo believes his own escape from the fate of Mosquito can be navigated in the forceful manipulation of the Igbo relationship between achievement, age, and respect. “As the elders said, if a child washed his hands he could eat with kings. Okonkwo had clearly washed his hands so he ate with kings and elders” (2863). Okonkwo’s need to wash his hands of shame for his father is tremendous. In his desperateness Okonkwo sees past the storytelling power and wisdom of the elders. He assumes real authority to rest in those with achievement: kings. So while proverb stands true on its own, Okonkwo takes it a step further in internalizing it with the notion that “among these people a man was judged according to his worth and not according to the worth of his father” (2863). The outsider’s scope of this phrase objectifies the truth of its content, but also does not reflect the wisdom of Igbo elders. Clearly, to be included in the Igbo life, one must be familiar with the customs, traditions, and culture, all passed down in the oral tradition of storytelling. Despite the overwhelming significance of this fact to Okonkwo, he is already driven by fear of the story of his father, and so he rejects his mother’s lore. “But it was as silly as all women’s stories,” (2863) he thinks. The dramatic irony is painful. Even his son, Nwoye, recognizes the value of storytelling. Okonkwo moves away from his own mother, and continuously shows the world his virility with all of his achievements. Still, “He felt like a drunken giant walking with the limbs of a mosquito” (2887). On he buzzes, reminding the ear that he is still alive. Umuofian culture uses several measurements for the worth of a man: wrestling, farming, and battle. Each task is integral to the community in its own way. Farming provides security in sustenance for family units. Wrestling brings the community together in competitive entertainment. Battle protects that which matters most: the community’s wombs. In each area, men are provided equal opportunity to improve the community, and to be rewarded with wealth and honor. Both ability and will play central roles in all three tasks. A man’s worth, therefore, rests on his physical prowess, predilection to violence, hard work and determination in Igbo culture. Okonkwo strives for all of these characteristics as though his life depends on it- and the reader finds him amassing many wives, expensive titles, a great deal of land, and a full barn early in life. Such a successful man has no time for listening to foolish stories: he makes his own luck and his own wisdom. “Okonkwo both loathes the memory of his father and represses the lore of his mother” (188). It is simple enough for Okonkwo to shape his behaviour around what his father is not, and be rewarded for this behaviour by his culture. However, without any specific personal examples with which to form a framework of the male and the female, Okonkwo must resort to cultural context to develop his identity: washing his hands to dine with kings. “In the process he distorts both the masculine and the feminine by keeping them rigidly apart and by the ferocity of his war on the ‘feminine’. (188)1 In Okonkwo’s determined hatred of his father’s ways, he abolishes those traits which would allow him an understanding of the feminine. Okonkwo’s concept of women in general is controverted several times by impressions of individual female characteristics, such as his willful daughter, Ekwezi. “‘She should have been a boy,’ he thought as he looked at his ten-year old daughter” (2893). The contradictions can be so open that even he must acknowledge the irony. If Umuofian culture both spites Unoka while rewarding Okonkwo, while providing him with the framework for his skewed perspective, then Igbo culture itself must have inherently patriarchal elements. Culturally tolerated wife-beating and unequal opportunities for the sexes are only two examples. Achebe does bring criticism with the novel written to open minds and undo stereotypes. Besides shedding light on the Igbo’s patriarchal features, he focuses on those customs which are founded in fear and insecurity. Into the Evil Forest go inauspicious twins to die, people infested with ‘evil’ diseases and the unknown magic of deceased medicine men: they are all offerings to the ‘heart of darkness’ that is the Evil Forest. The undeniable presence of these customs, however, does not rule out all other aspects of Igbo culture. To simplify an entire culture into black and white terms of morality is to fall into the trap of Okonkwo. As mentioned before, however, Igbo cultures rests on a fine balance. Many examples of feminine aspects in culture are overlooked by Okonkwo but not the discerning reader. During Okonkwo’s lingering shame for his father, he relates a story of the powerful priestess known as Agbala. “She was full of the power of her god, and she was greatly feared” (2866). Women can obtain such a high status, and are actually integral to the workings of the society. Chapter five relates that it is women who are the chief domestic architects. Okonkwo again ignores feminine power in the concept of bride-price, illustrated in chapter eight and again in fourteen. A young man must pay for the privilege of marrying a young woman, and virgins are considered especially valuable. Okonkwo does not understand or accept the importance of women or their contribution to Igbo society. He screens all ‘womanly’ feelings of love, hope, joy and empathy from being communicated outwardly, but also fails to understand what he believes to be foolish feminine wisdom. Thus, Okonkwo only hears part of the story of his culture. He fails to notice the message of the egugwu’s judgement of Uzowulul, the man whose wife ran away because of his beatings. Okonkwo fails to understand the significance of the powerful figure Ndulue considering his wife as a kind of equal. Consequently, even before the catalystic arrival of the colonialist empire, Okonkwo was doomed to fall apart, excluded from his culture – ironically, to share the fate of his father. Although he fails to listen, Okonkwo is not without his own story. His story begins in shame of his father’s exclusion and builds into a consuming fear. While this fear accumulates into contempt for his father’s ways, it also prevents him from heeding the lore of his mother – thereby distorting the true wisdom of his ancestors into prejudice and stereotype. Ironically, that which shapes Okonkwo – fear, contempt and a stereotypic frame of reference- is strongly paralleled in the pattern of colonizers such as the district commissioner, who callously remarks on Okonkwo’s suicide. Thus, Achebe has forged together a tale of hope and tragedy in “Things Fall Apart.” By falling apart, Okonkwo shows that Umuofia actually embraces the female and the male to become whole. Empathy, hope and joy are abound in the Igbo culture and in this story for those who are willing and able to hear them. Works Cited and ConsultedAchebe, Chinua. “Things Fall Apart. The Norton Anthology of World Literature: The Twentieth Century Volume F. Eds. Sarah Lawall and Maynard Mack. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002. 2860-2948. Cobham, Rhonda. “Problems of Gender and History in the Teaching of Things Fall Apart. ” Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart: A Casebook. Ed. Isidore Okpewho. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. 12-20. Jeyifo, Biodun. Okonkwo and His Mother: Things Fall Apart and Issues of Gender in the Constitution of African Postcolonial Discourse, Callaloo. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993. Scheub, Harold. ‘When a Man Fails Alone. ’ ” Présence Africaine 74. 2 (1970): 61–89. On Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Rev. and rpt. As “When a Man Fails Alone: A Man and His Chi in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. ” Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. A Casebook. Ed. Isidore Okpewho. New York: Oxford UP, 2003. 95–122.
“The white man is very clever…He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.” Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart is a prime example of African literature that demonstrates the clash between cultures and peoples that occurred across the African continent as a consequence of European colonialism. The novel is set in the 1890’s in the lower region of Nigeria and creatively paints a picture of the complex social institutions and traditions of Ibo culture prior to its contact with Europeans. The consequences of this contact are quickly revealed as Achebe artistically introduces the reader to the changes that have taken place on various levels among the Ibo people indigenous to the region. The author’s choice of the title “Things Fall Apart” was not simply a creative decision but a message on the book’s cover alluding to the changes that take place in the novel—a culture and people quite literally fall apart because of their contact with white European missionaries and colonialists during the late nineteenth century. The way in which Achebe has constructed his novel demonstrates the motivation behind his work and his desire to create an accurate representation of one of many indigenous ethnic groups in Africa. His novel not only adds to the richness of pre-colonial and colonial African history by shattering the stereotypical European portraits of Africans, but does so while being careful not to stereotype what one would deem the typical white European colonialist. His writing denies any declaration of a socially backward indigenous group of Africans and instead gives a voice to the indigenous Africans that have been underrepresented and exploited by colonialism. When choosing how he would represent white European colonialists and missionaries, he quite intelligently decided to offer various depictions of the white man, such as the benevolent Mr. Brown, the zealous Reverend Smith, and the ruthless District Commissioner. Achebe mindfully introduces and develops the protagonist of the novel, Okonkwo, as well as the Umuofia clan that he belongs to in the lower region of Nigeria. He describes Okonkwo’s village, Iguedo, and conveys his full understanding of its culture, its people, and its traditions. On the first page of the novel one learns that in this village men earn their social status through physical triumphs, that the spirit world and nature are highly respected, and that instruments and song are integral parts of the culture. His choice of vocabulary adds to the fullness of every description and his decision to integrate words from the Igbo language into the narrative, for example agbala and iyi-uwa, allow him to capture the rhythm of the language while achieving a great level of cultural revitalization. The message that Achebe has intended to send to the audience of his novel is that “things fall apart” for the people of Nigeria under British colonial rule, but it is imperative that one read and analyze the accounts in the novel to fully understand what it is that falls apart. He captures both the European and the African perspectives on colonial expansion and race relations and shows how family values, norms, religion, justice, and gender roles are among the many “things” that fall apart upon European contact. When Okonkwo returns to Umuofia from seven years of exile with his family, he is struck by the profound change that his clan has undergone and by the fact that his people take no special notice of their warrior’s return. “The new religion and government and the trading stores were very much in people’s eyes and minds. There were many who saw these new institutions as evil, but even they talked and thought about little else, and certainly not about Okonkwo’s return…Okonkwo was deeply grieved. And it was not just personal grief. He mourned for the clan, which he saw breaking and falling apart, and he mourned for the warlike men of Umuofia, who had so unaccountably become like soft women (pp. 182-183).” From the moment he returned, Okonkwo noticed that the white man had changed his world by imposing on his people a new religion—Christianity. In addition, he noticed the new European form of government—with a strict judiciary system and administrators like the District Commissioner, and new institutions for trade and agriculture—such as stores stocked with European goods and new rules to control production and trade. Both white and black missionaries had brought with them a new religion that spoke of the Holy Trinity and of one God who had a son without ever having a wife. These missionaries spoke through an interpreter, sang traditional hymns, and accused the African people of worshiping false gods. “The white man…told them about this new God, the Creator of all the world and all the men and women. He told them that they worshipped false gods, gods of wood and stone. He told them that…Evil men and all the heathen who in their blindness bowed to wood and stone were thrown into a fire that burned like palm oil. But good men who worshipped the true God lived forever in His happy kingdom (p.145).” The Ibo people did not understand how they were to be expected to believe that the gods they had worshiped all their lives, the same gods that had dictated the prosperity of their harvest and childbearing each year simply did not exist. They feared that if they left their gods and followed the God of the white man that their gods would rein over them with the deepest wrath. “These men must be mad, they [the people of Umuofia] said to themselves. How else could they say that Ani and Amadiora were harmless? And Idemili and Ogwugwu too? (p.146)” Before the foreign ideals proposed by Christianity were implemented and even accepted by many people in Umuofia, the original polytheistic religion, largely based upon rituals, the consultation of oracles, ancestral spirits, and the commanding god Chukwu, acted as one of the major stepping stones into the Ibo society. Unlike the original polytheistic religion that dominated Okonkwo’s village, Christianity presented the opportunity for men of a lower status to be treated equal to those men of even the highest status, for under the white man’s God, all men were equal. How can one be expected to throw away years of worship and an entire religious culture at the request of another man? This imposition of a new religion is a prime example of how the Ibo culture disintegrated. Once religious changes began to take place, it became obvious to the Ibo people that that was not the only change that would occur in Umuofia. The imposition of a new form of government under the British colonialists in Nigeria would disrupt the original highly patriarchal and collective political system that had been developed by the ancestors of the Ibo people. As Achebe demonstrates, decisions were not made by a chief or by any individual but rather were decided by a counsel of male elders. Religious leaders were also called upon to settle debates. After the arrival of the British colonialists, this traditional political system slowly began to deteriorate. The British government started intervening in disputes among the ethnic groups rather than allowing the Ibo to settle issues in a traditional manner. For someone who has not studied pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial African history, Things Fall Apart would still be a great representation of how a specific indigenous African society functioned prior to European contact, as well as provide an accurate reflection on the effects of the colonialism in the late 1800’s. However, the novel would prove a more useful and meaningful example through the eyes of an African historian or an individual who has been properly educated about African history. It is important to note that by the 1890’s, West Africa had already had centuries of contact with Europeans. For someone with little knowledge of African history, Achebe’s novel might be taken as an example of the standard imposition of colonialism in Africa. This could be problematic in a way that an audience uneducated about pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial African history might overlook the complex history of European colonial rule in Africa. Such an audience may not understand that colonialism began well into the 1500’s and the Achebe’s novel is merely a response to earlier colonial accounts in Africa and its effects on certain indigenous cultures that had yet to be crushed by the hand of imperialism. Things Fall Apart may appear to be a rich narrative based on an indigenous group in Nigeria in the 1890’s, but to an African historian it is a political commentary on the outcomes of European colonial rule. It is instead an account of the time period after the Europeans had secured their position in Africa. It does give accurate insight into the culture of colonialism but neglects to tell its reader that this has been a process—a process that took years and touched upon the many facets of culture including religion, politics, and economics. Chinua Achebe’s novel is a creative and effective portrayal of the clash that occurred between two extremely different cultures and civilizations in lower Nigeria in the late 1800’s. The author’s attention to detail and sensitivity to cultural revitalization are key in his presentation of the Ibo people of Umuofia. The book accurately expresses the outcomes and the realities of European colonialism and clearly demonstrates that after the imposition of British rule in Nigeria “Things Fall Apart.”
When the Europeans arrived in Nigeria to harvest ivory and spread their religious ideals, many Africans were exploited and their cultures were irreversibly changed. Two novels, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad and Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, provide accounts of how the white man impacted Africa. Yet whether the novels actually complement each other is questionable. Conrad’s work has been labeled “racist” by Chinua and contains some elements, such as language and perspective, that allow it to be open to interpretation. Though suggestions of racism do exist in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, further analyzation shows that it does depict some sympathy towards the Africans. It particularly shows African dignity and culture through contrast with the brutality of the Europeans, making the book a complement to Things Fall Apart. In both works, the authors show the humanity of African culture through the actions and traditions of the Nigerians. Conrad, for example, emphasizes the amount of control exhibited by the locals, particularly through Marlow’s reactions and observations. Though he says he “would just as soon have expected restraint from a hyena prowling amongst the corpses of a battlefield” than from the “natives,” Marlow admires the strong will possessed by the starving cannibals on the boat. He says, “it’s really easier to face bereavement, dishonour, and the perdition of one’s soul-than this kind of prolonged hunger.” Though the comparison of a person to a hyena is crude, the respect conveyed in these lines show that Conrad does acknowledge the honorable traits possessed by the Nigerians. Achebe’s novel goes beyond mere acknowledgement, however. Instead, it gives an in-depth look at the culture of the Nigerians by following the life of Okonkwo, a respected member of the Umuofia tribe. The narrator remains objective throughout the piece and describes customs performed by the tribe that may be viewed as either positive or negative by the reader. This point of view provides a different prospective than Conrad, who exclusively views events from a European standpoint. One example of the traditions in Achebe’s novel is the sacred week of peace held between the harvest and the planting. When Okonkwo breaks the peace by beating his wife, he is forced to give a sacrifice to the earth goddess. Previously, we discover, the punishment was to be dragged through the village until death, but this practice was discontinued because it broke the peace it was meant to protect. Though this custom may seem barbaric, it shows the importance of justice and peace to the society, contrasting Conrad’s depictions of “grotesque” and “horrid” behavior. Rather, Achebe shows that there was a type of government in place that was respected and obeyed. A strong sense of ancestry and family ties is also evident. When the white man threatens the tribe, Okiko, a speaker, says that those who remain to protect the old ways “have remained true to their fathers.” Furthermore, when Okonkwo’s son Nwoye joins the Christian missionaries, Okonkwo is not only angry, but worried that his spirit will never be respected by his descendents after his death. This connection to other human beings, though essential to Umuofia, is never alluded to by Conrad. Achebe continues to show the depth of the emotions experienced by the natives, especially those felt by Okonkwo. By giving the history of his father, one is able to clearly discern the motives that drove Okonkwo to become the proud and hardworking individual described in the novel. This personal background gives extra insight into the reasoning behind his emotions and makes his “savage” personality seem more humane. The capacity for emotion is further emphasized by the strong connection he feels with the rest of the tribe. Shortly before his death, “Okonkwo was deeply grieved. And it was not just a personal grief. He mourned for the clan, which he saw breaking up and falling apart.” Okonkwo was not a mindless brute, but a human being with emotions, attitudes, and motivations. These concise observations provide far more insight into the humanity of the Nigerians than Conrad provides. In Heart of Darkness, none of the Africans are given a name and their perspectives and opinions are not acknowledged or speculated on. The deepest connection any European feels is from Marlow, who feels a “claim of distant kinship” to the helmsman of the boat. He also engages in a few friendly deeds, such as sharing a biscuit with a dying local, but there are no close relationships with any of the natives. Conrad’s redemption is in how starkly he describes the exploitation of the Africans. When Marlow arrives at the Congo, he meets an accountant who is unconcerned with the well-being of the native people around him. When working, he comments that the groaning of a dying man are distracting and that “when one has got to make correct entries, one comes to hate these savages Â¾ hate them to the death.” By showing the callousness of the explorers, Conrad suggests that the European settlers contained as much primitiveness as the “prehistoric” men they oppressed. But despite the dark portrayal of the whites in Conrad’s novel, Things Fall Apart provides a clearer picture of how the Europeans truly affected the culture of Nigeria through the use of two different missionaries: Mr. Brown and Mr. Smith. When the church comes, they bring a government and belief system radically different from those in place in Umuofia. Though Mr. Brown’s approach to evangelism was relatively unobtrusive, Mr. Smith shows how much influence and power the Europeans were able to have over the Africans by actively working to change the traditions and beliefs of the Nigerians. When Okonkwo leads the revolt against the missionaries, he is placed into their prison and he breaks down. Though he has great respect for the laws and traditions of Umuofia, he commits suicide, one of the most disrespected crimes. This extreme act shows how great of an impact the white men had on an individual as well as the tribe as a whole. Though Okonkwo took his own life, his friend, Obierka, places the ultimate blame on the Europeans. “That man was one of the greatest men in Umuofia,” he states. “You drove him to kill himself, and now he will be buried like a dog.” By using a native to put the responsibility of the death on the missionaries, Chinua provides a more powerful account of Europeans coming to Africa than Conrad. Thus, though Heart of Darkness does convey some parallel ideas of the European influence in Africa, it lacks the force contained by Things Fall Apart. Conrad attempts to show the savage nature inherent in the whites, but uses language that could still be interpreted as racist and does not offer any thoughts from the locals affected by the settlers. Chinua, on the other hand, utilizes point of view to focus on the individual and the tribe in times of change and provides a more extensive background of the Nigerian culture before the arrival of the Christians. Heart of Darkness and Things Fall Apart complement each other in theme, but Chinua’s work is more effective in conveying its ideas and contains less ambiguity.
In the novel Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe uses Okonkwo’s story to elaborate a deeper, more comprehensive understanding of the cultural values of African tribes. Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart as a rebuttal to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Thus, Achebe uses the book to contrast European perception of African culture with reality. The novel particularly uses the conflicts of Okonkwo, its tragic hero, to symbolize African culture. Furthermore, Things Fall Apart stresses the importance of nature in African culture, and it gives detailed and elaborate accounts of the native political and economic systems in Umuofia prior to European involvement. Because Achebe’s goal is to increase global comprehension of African culture, he uses a tragic hero in his novel. Tragic heroes usually have higher moral standards than regular heroes. This evokes a deeper sympathy in the reader when the character suffers. Traditionally noble by birth, a tragic hero is fully responsible for his or her own fate, but is ultimately condemned by a tragic flaw of judgment. This irreversible misjudgment causes the hero to fall from his high standing, and lead to his death. Okonkwo is an ideal example of the tragic hero. For example, he faces death with a deep sense of personal responsibility, and a high sense of honor. Furthermore, although Okonkwo is not noted as a noble from birth, the opening lines of the book suggest that he is not an ordinary man. Achebe writes, “Okonkwo was well known throughout nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievement. As a young man of eighteen he had brought great honor to his village by throwing Amalinze the Cat. Amalinze was the great wrestler who for seven years was unbeaten, from Umuofia to Mbaino. He was called that cat because his back never touched the ground.” From the first paragraph, the reader is under the impression that Okonkwo is a strong and powerful man. Indeed, Okonkwo grows up to become a successful farmer, well respected throughout the village. In contrast with the fact that both the other villagers and the readers sympathize with Okonkwo, his tragic flaw begins to become clear. Okonkwo’s tragic flaw is his obsessively masculine attitude. His life is dominated by the fear of being perceived as weak or feminine. For example, when he is walking Ikemefuna back home, and Okonkwo’s clansmen attack the boy, Ikemefuna runs back to him for help. Rather than help his beloved friend, Okonkwo murders Ikemefuna. Okonkwo’s lapse in judgment is due to his tragic flaw. Okonkwo is horror stricken for several days about what happened, but refuses to change his violent ways. To avoid being seen as weak, he continues to make detrimental decisions with irreversible consequences. As the novel continues, Okonkwo’s fear grows so large that he can no longer control it. Right after he strikes down the messenger in the end of the novel, he hears a voice ask, “Why did he do it?” Okonkwo realizes that he acts alone. No one else will go to war with him. Yet, even though he knows that no one is with him, he stays true to his beliefs. If he did not kill that messenger, then he would be submitting to the English. He also realizes that no one expected him to kill the messenger; rather, it was his own fear that motivated him. Okonkwo understands that with this new English culture, his entire lifestyle would be destroyed. He would no longer be able to gain power and influence through economic success, thus making him a frivolous degenerate, like his father. His decision to hang himself, therefore, is the most masculine decision that he can make. It shows that he will go to any length to prove his fearlessness. At the same time, it allows him to be at peace, knowing that he lived his life true to the values that he believed in. Thus, as with all tragic heroes, Okonkwo accepts the necessity of his death and kills himself. The death of Okonkwo is the most important event in the book, and the portrayal of him as a tragic hero amplifies the emotions of the reader. Sympathy for Okonkwo also provokes a loathing hatred for the Commissioner. The commissioner in the last few lines of the novel reflects on Okonkwo’s death, and in contemplation of including him in his book, he says, “One could almost write a whole chapter on him. Perhaps not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph, at any rate. There was much else to include, and one must be firm in cutting out details. He had already chosen the title of the book, after much thought: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.” (208-209)The commissioner, therefore, does not understand the African culture at all. His word choice infers his condescending attitude toward, and disrespect of, tribal African culture. The excerpt is a direct attack on The Heart of Darkness, as Achebe uses the Commissioner to show a situation similar to one in which Conrad would have been. The Commissioner complacently thinks that he understands the true African culture. In reality, his perspective is skewed, influenced by British misconception. This misconception underlines why the general European population believed, falsely, that Africa was a worthless indigenous continent. To help destroy these false preconceptions, Achebe focuses on his use of language. First, Achebe originally wrote the book in English, rather than relying on translation; he specifically wanted to share the indigenous African lifestyle with the British and European community. Prior to Achebe’s novel, the only influential books written about Africa were by European authors, who did not understand the African culture. Achebe’s own background, as someone who studied at a missionary college, also helped him breach the gap of misconception. He knew how to accurately depict the positive cultural values of Africa, in a way that the British would appreciate and be able to understand. The second linguistic aspect of Things Fall Apart that allows it to communicate African culture so well is Achebe’s word choice. Achebe describes his characters actions with desciptive adjectives that are symbolic of the animal community. For example, when describing Okonkwo, Achebe writes, “When he walked his heels hardly touched the ground and he seemed to walk on springs, as if he was going to pounce on somebody.” (4) This is a common example of how Achebe uses animal qualities to describe his characters. The significance of this is that nature and animals are very important to the Umuofia culture. For example, in the Ibo religion, a complex faith rooted in African tradition, villagers pray to the rain god during a drought. In sum, therefore, Acheve has successfully depicted African society, and provided the world with an accurate account of the importance of African culture. Achebe did not create African culture. Thousands of years of tradition did that. It is through Achebe’s writings, however, that he has released African culture for the entire world to value and appreciate.
Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart explores the struggle between old traditions within the Igbo community as well as Christianity and “the second coming” it brings forth. While on the surface, it appears the novel narrows its focus to a single character, Okonkwo and his inner battles, one can read deeper into the text and find an array of assorted conflicts in the realm of human vs. human, human vs. nature, human vs. society, and society vs. society. This paper shall focus on the labyrinth of human vs. human and human vs. society in the framework of the role of women in Igbo society and how men assign and dictate these roles. I will also briefly explain the importance of women in terms of motherhood and wifedom. Most essays on the rights women in Igbo society site the role of widows in Igbo society as well as the respect given to the first wife as proof that while this society is not an ideal situation for women, it is hardly the misogynist society that some make it out to be. I passionately disagree. It is obvious to me that to the characters in Things Fall Apart, women are “things” to be exploited, abused and to serve as second-class citizens to the rank of male privilege. The theme of misogyny runs rampant throughout the text, whether it is exposed by the absence of women in the text, the abuses women suffer at the hands of men, or the subtle ways in which society dictates and reinforces these negative statuses and images of women. Throughout the text women are virtually invisible and live their lives on the sidelines; it is clear from a close reading that women are to be not seen nor heard. As one critic describes, “it is an andocentric world where the man is everything and the woman nothing” (Mezu 2). A clear instance of this is the case of Okonkwo’s mother. While the presence of his father, although negative, is prevalent in much of the novel, the presence of his mother is all but nonexistent. To my knowledge, his (unnamed) mother shows up only once in the text, three days after his participation in the ritual murder of Ikemefuna, his “adopted” son (Jeyifo 3). For the first time in three nights, Okonkwo slept. He woke up once in the middle of the night and his mind went back to the past three days without making him feel uneasy. He began to wonder why he felt uneasy at all. It was like a man wondering in broad daylight why a dream had appeared so terrible to him at night. He stretched himself and scratched his thigh where a mosquito had bitten him as he slept. Another one was wailing near his right ear. He slapped the ear and hoped he had killed it. Why do they always go for one’s ears? When he was a child his mother had told him a story about it. But it was as silly as all women’s stories. Mosquito, she had said, had asked Ear to marry him, whereupon she fell on the floor in uncontrollable laughter. ‘How much longer do you think you will live?, she asked. ‘You are already a skeleton.’ Mosquito went away humiliated, and anytime he passed her way he told Ear that he was still alive (Achebe 53). This could have been a critical turning point in the text pre-shadowed by what we were told earlier in the novel by Okonkwo’s uncle Uchedu, “but when there is sorrow and bitterness, he [man] finds refuge in his motherland” (Achebe 95). At this point when Okonkwo needs the spirit and wisdom of his mother the most, he casts it away as “silly women’s stories” and easily suppresses the memory of his mother. An additional obvious instance of the invisibility of women is a communal ceremony in which the narrator confesses, “it was clear from the way the crowd stood or sat that the ceremony was for men. There were many women, but they looked on from the fringe like outsiders” (Achebe 62). This seems to be a habitual theme in the novel as women are regularly presented as wives and mothers, busy with the work of the household as men took on the more significant responsibilities of politics and society. As one critic remarks of this phenomenon “for centuries, African women languished on the fringe of their universe-neglected, exploited, degenerated, and indeed made to feel like outsiders” (Mezu 2). The abuse Igbo women suffered at the hands of the men who supposedly loved them was horrendous, although not as removed from American culture as we’d like to assume. Wife beating was a common, if not celebrated, practice. The ultimate show of masculinity was to keep your woman in line, which was shown through mental and physical abuse. Although little is made of it, the novel shows abundant instances of wife beating. The novel takes us to two illustrations of Okonkwo beating his wives. The first occurred when Okonkwo’s first wife did not return from a friends home early enough to cook his afternoon meal. “And when she returned he beat her heavily. In his anger he had forgotten that it was the Week of Peace. His first two wives ran out in great alarm pleading with him that it was the sacred week. But Okonkwo was not the man to stop beating somebody half-way through, not even for fear of a goddess” (Achebe 21). While Okonkwo was punished by way of paying with “one she-goat, one hen, a length of cloth and a hundred cowries” (Achebe 22) it was because he beat her during the Week of Peace, not because of the actual act of physical violence. A second instance of wife-beating transpired when his second wife cut leaves off a banana tree to wrap food (Achebe 27). The nature of womans’ place in this instance is clear. The women, in fear, stay out of Okonkwo’s way and allow him to physically abuse his wife as if it were a normal part of a husbands’ relationship with his wife. And to the people of Igbo society, it was. As Achebe explains to us, “neither of the other wives dared to interfere beyond an occasional and tentative ‘it is enough Okonkwo,’ pleaded from a reasonable distance” (Achebe 27). Gender lines in Igbo society are strictly drawn, and the Igbo community consistently reinforces this. To be a man is to be violent and strong, showing any emotion is a sign of weakness or is considered to be a “female” trait. In Igbo society all that is good is considered masculine and all that is bad is thought of as feminine. This is shown through uses of both language and agriculture. The language of the Igbo people is inherently sexist in nature. Okonkwo demonstrates this to the reader in his great fear of becoming “womanly” and following the lead of a powerless father. As one literary critic put it, “Okonkwo was ruled by one passion-to hate everything his father Unoka had loved” (Sengova 7). To be thought of womanly is to be thought of as worthless, powerless; traits Okonkwo is terrified of exhibiting. After the accidental murder of Ikemefuna, he flees to his mother’s town, which is called Mbanta or “small town”. This is in direct contrast to his clan Umuofia or “children of the forest” which is perceived as rugged, violent, wild (Mezu 4). Agbala was a word used for either a man who had taken no title or a “woman” (Chun 1). The chauvinistic, systematic language of the Igbo people reinforces their cultural belief in the subservience of women. Even the agricultural system of the Igbo people supported the sex-typed gender roles. The main crop is the yam and is “synonymous with virility” (Mezu 2). We are told that “yam stood for manliness, and he who could feed his family on yams from one harvest to another was a very great man indeed” (Achebe 24). The female crop is the smaller crops of the coco yam and the cassava and have much less importance to the tribe. Once again it is reinforced that to be manly is to be supreme and that women are worthless and undesirable in comparison. What women are esteemed for in this society (not surprisingly) is for their mere biology, their potential as mates and mothers. Men in Igbo society use women for their own gain and appear to care little about them, women are seen as property of the man and the more possessions he acquires, the more powerful he becomes. While some argue that this is an important custom to notice because women are a large part of what makes up a mans’ power, I believe it is irrelevant because the woman does not have equal access to, nor is she allowed to share in this power. One critic makes special notice of the importance of motherhood in Igbo society and defends its’ significance as “joys and tribulations of their motherhoodÖto represent some of the most meaningful cultural aspects of existence in Igbo communities” (Osei-Nyame 7). While the joys of motherhood and wifedom are boundless, ones entire state of being, conscious and happiness cannot and must not come solely from the titles of wife and mother. While many may argue that the underlying role of woman in Igbo communities is vastly important and appreciated subtly the text of Things Fall Apart seems to dispute and contradict that theory at many times. While the text faintly shows us the significance of women (women painted the houses of the egwugwu and the first wife is given great respect) it time and time again slammed in the readers face instances of cruelty, inequality, subservience all which can not be written off simply because of a few minor instances where women are even treated as humans instead of animals or slaves. All in all the women of Things Fall Apart are treated with such enormous disrespect and disgust and the reader cannot help but be sickened and saddened by not only the reality of women in Africa but of Achebe’s portrayal of it. Works Cited Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1958. Chun, June. “The Role of Women in Things Fall Apart” 1990 October 1999 Jeyifo, Biodun. “Okonkwo and his Mother: ‘Things Fall Apart’ and Issues of Gender in the Constitution of African Postcolonial Discourse” Callaloo Fall 1993 Mezu, Rose Ure. “Women in Achebe’s World” Spring/Summer 1995. October 1999 Osei-Nyame, Kwadwo. “Chinua Achebe Writing Culture: Representations of Gender and Tyranny in Things Fall Apart” Research in African Literatures Summer 1999. Sengovaa, Joko. “Native Identity and Alienation in Richard Wright’s Native Son and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart: A Cross Cultural Analysis” The Mississippi Quarterly Spring 1997.
Perhaps one of the most influential elements of literature, a setting may potentially dictate the plotline of a story, establishing culture, tradition, and a backstory. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart sees an African world that largely revolves around the geographical location of Nigeria; this agricultural society serves as the vast foundation for a polytheistic religion and a reverence for the land itself. Not only are the values of the community of Umuofia meaningfully constructed upon this locational guideline, but the very essence of the protagonist, Okonkwo, and his unparalleled mindset, originates from this venerable attitude. In turn, the author himself, Chinua Achebe, brilliantly shares a traditional culture that is inherently dependent on the land itself, and how it inevitably leads to a clash of civilization where things truly “Fall Apart”.
Chinua Achebe attempts, and succeeds, to share a unique African culture that is inevitably and blatantly based on an agricultural society. Within this culture, the great value of yams, palm oil, and the kola nut are demonstrated as forms of wealth. In the first chapter of the book, Okonkwo is described as, “still young[,] but he had won fame as the greatest wrestler in the nine villages. He was a wealthy farmer and had two barns full of yams, and had just married his third wife” (Achebe 3), which shows that his wealth is accompanied by his status as a farmer, and the amount of yams he possesses. Thus, the high social standing of an individual is dictated by the amount of land he possesses, and the fruitfulness of his agricultural labor. Because the weather and climate serves as a key defining factor in one’s economic prosperity, a polytheistic religion revolving around the elements of nature prevails as well. A fear of the gods of nature are instilled within the members of this community, ultimately affecting the very meaning of life: to please the gods for one’s own welfare. This strength of culture and value results in the creation of the protagonist, whose very ambitions would be rendered obsolete and worthless without the underlying culture that is made possible by this land.
From the onset of the novel, Okonkwo establishes himself as a man of uncontested strength. He strives to the fullest to become the very opposite of what his father once was: a man who was a “failure” in Okonkwo’s eyes. What constitutes as “failure”? In the context of this novel, Okonkwo’s father is poor and lacks the wealth that is measured in yams. This very wealth is only made possible by the ability of the land to produce yams. When Unoka, Okonkwo’s father, consulted a priestess back in the day, he mourns of his misery, “I also kill a cock at the shrine of Ifejioku, the god of yams. I clear the bush and set fire to it when it is dry. I sow the yams when the first rain has fallen, and stake them when the young tendrils appear […] when a man is at peace with his gods and his ancestors, his harvest will be good or bad according to the strength of his arm” (Achebe 6). The display of sacrifice towards the god of yams shows the omnipresence of their religion. Moreover, the Umuofian community avoids angering the gods at all costs and makes their fear blatant. When Okonkwo beats his wife during the Week of Peace, he is reprimanded, but not for the assumed reasons of his abuse. Okonkwo is forced to repent, to prevent his wrongdoing in spurring the gods to unleash their wrath on the community as a whole. This demonstrates a seemingly interconnected nature of each and every individual for the welfare of the whole tribe, in efforts to preserve the very essence of the land and the life that reaps benefit and wealth from it.
Thus a clashing of two vastly different cultures leads to the inevitable downfall of Umuofia when the Christian missionaries make their long-lived and vastly detrimental impact on an already thriving society. Without the origin of an agricultural society, the European missionaries do not understand the greatness of a culture that is established upon foreign roots, as demonstrated by an interaction between Reverend Smith and Oberieka. The Christian missionary is unable to understand this polytheistic religion and ways of life; had he been brought up in this physical environment, he would not have disregarded and demeaned the spiritual essence of nature as foolish. Thus it is noted that as Umuofia is located in Nigeria, the missionaries originate from Europe. The outcomes of these contrasting settings are on opposite sides of the spectrum. Achebe’s very intent is founded upon the greatness of a culture that is ultimately destroyed by foreign powers who are unable to initiate any form of cultural diffusion. He details on this potent destruction, and how it destroys Okonkwo’s spirit and character at the end, rendering him hopeless and to his untimely death. This country setting of yams and gods of nature ultimately sets a unique warrior culture that Achebe effectively shares, justly glorifying a unique African community that is faithful at no ends to its very origins.
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe is a novel full of individuals, within a tribe, as they deal with the frequently tragic and disappointing events of their lives. Okonkwo, the protagonist, and his son, Nwoye, are two of these individuals who must learn to cope with these difficulties and heartaches. The murder of Ikemefuna, the adopted son of Okonkwo, is a pivotal event in Things Fall Apart and the use of repression by both Okonkwo and Nwoye provides us with a better understanding of the characterization of Okonkwo through desperate yearning for masculinity and Nwoye through his desire to alienate himself his father and their tribe.
Okonkwo constantly felt an unconscious fear of failure and weakness stemming from an anxiety that he would become like his father Unoka. One of the first things that we learn about Okonkwo is that “he had no patience with unsuccessful men. He had had no patience with his father” (Achebe 4). His father, “Unoka…was a failure. He was poor and his wife and children had barely enough to eat” (Achebe 5). As Okonkwo grew older, he wanted nothing more than to be successful and masculine, the exact opposite of his father. “His whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness…and so Okonkwo was ruled by one passion—to hate everything that his father Unoka had loved” (Achebe 10). According to Peter Barry, “All of Freud’s work depends upon the notion of the unconscious, which is the part of the mind beyond consciousness which nevertheless has a strong influence upon our actions” (Barry 96). Despite the fact that Okonkwo is not consciously aware that all of his actions stem from a fear of becoming like his father, these fears drive him in his continual search for validation of his masculinity. Linked with this idea of the unconscious is that of repression, “which is the ‘forgetting’ or ignoring of unresolved conflicts…or traumatic past events, so that they are forced out of conscious awareness and into the realm of the unconscious” (Barry 97). The unresolved conflict that Okonkwo has with his father as well as the trauma and humiliation of growing up in poverty with an effeminate father have taken their toll on Okonkwo’s psyche, and we can see its effects throughout the novel. Okonkwo was especially affected by the presence of Ikemefuna within the tribe. Ikemefuna is a young man from a neighboring tribe that is sent to live in Umuofia and then cared for by Okonkwo. He lives with them for three years and becomes an integral part of their family and community. “He was by nature a very lively boy and he gradually became popular in Okonkwo’s household, especially with the children. Okonkwo’s son, Nwoye, who was two years younger, became quite inseparable from him because he seemed to know everything… Okonkwo never showed any emotion openly, unless it
Okonkwo was especially affected by the presence of Ikemefuna within the tribe. Ikemefuna is a young man from a neighboring tribe that is sent to live in Umuofia and then cared for by Okonkwo. He lives with them for three years and becomes an integral part of their family and community. “He was by nature a very lively boy and he gradually became popular in Okonkwo’s household, especially with the children. Okonkwo’s son, Nwoye, who was two years younger, became quite inseparable from him because he seemed to know everything… Okonkwo never showed any emotion openly, unless it be the emotion of anger. To show affection was a sign of weakness; the only thing worth demonstrating was strength” (Achebe 18). Ikemefuna comes to represent the type of son that Okonkwo would like to have, a younger version of himself because he sees many masculine traits in him that would make him strong and powerful. However, at the same time, he also possesses some of the traits that remind Okonkwo of his father, Unoka. Both Unoka and Ikemefuna “had an endless stock of folk tales” (Achebe 20). Ikemefuna’s blending of both what can be seen as masculine and feminine traits make him the ideal character, someone that Okonkwo, unconsciously, wishes to be like.
After three years the tribe decides to kill Ikemefuna. Okonkwo is warned by an elder of Umuofia that he should not join in the murder because Ikemefuna saw him as a father. However, when the moment comes and Ikemefuna is struck down, he cries out, which then drives Okonkwo “dazed with fear, [to draw] his matchet and cut him down” (Achebe 38). F. Abiola Irele states that “We are told that he is ‘dazed’ with fear at the moment of the boy’s appeal to him, but it is fear that has been bred in his unreflecting mind by the image of his father…Indeed, for Okonkwo to be reminded anew of his father’s image by Ikemefuna’s artistic endowments and lively temperament is to be impelled toward a violent act of repression” (Irele 471). This can also be considered sublimation, another theory belonging to Freud. The repression of his feelings towards his father and those that are more feminine, drove him to sublimate his feelings by lashing out to the other extreme—acting in intense masculinity instead of seeking a balance. This longing for masculinity is an important part of the characterization of Okonkwo.
The murder of Ikemefuna not only allows us to see more into the character of Okonkwo, but also the character of his son, Nwoye and his desire to separate himself from his father and their tribe. F. Abiola Irele says that “the killing of Ikemefuna represents a pivotal episode in the novel not only as a reflection of Okonkwo’s disturbed mental state but in its reverberation throughout the novel as a result of its effect upon his son, Nwoye. It marks the beginning of the boys disaffection toward his father and ultimately his alienation from the community that Okonkwo has come to represent for him…Ikemefuna has come to embody for Nwoye the poetry of the tribal society, which is erased for him forever by the young boy’s ritual killing, an act against nature in which his father participates” (Irele 471). The killing of Ikemefuna marks for Nwoye, a sudden change in his life. In the novel it is described that “something seemed to give way inside him, like the snapping of a bow” (Achebe 38). Like Irele says, this is the moment where Nwoye begins to drift further away from his father and the culture that he believes would have condoned the murder of a young boy that he looked to as an older brother. Without the example of Ikemefuna, Okonkwo sees Nwoye as weak and effeminate. He tells his friend Obierika, “I have done my best to make Nwoye grow into a man, but there is too much of his mother in him” (Achebe 40). Both Okonkwo and Obierika then acknowledge that he has too much of his grandfather in him. This is another reminder to Okonkwo of his father, who to him is the embodiment of weakness and failure. This leads to both repression and sublimation on the part of Okonkwo and Nwoye.
When the white Christian missionaries come into the tribe and begin to convert people, Nwoye is one that joins him. This essentially becomes an act of sublimation and rebellion for Nwoye, a way to turn his back on his father and the culture that betrayed him when it sanctioned the death of Ikemefuna. His repression essentially drives him away from the culture he has known his whole life and he sublimates by joining group that is completely opposite of what his father values. As part of his Christian conversion he changes his name to Isaac. Irele asserts that “the particular name [Nwoye] takes suggests an import beyond its immediate meaning of individual salvation, for the name Isaac recalls the biblical story of the patriarch Abraham and his substitution of an animal for the sacrifice of his son, an act that inaugurates a new dispensation in which we are made to understand that fathers are no longer required to sacrifice their sons to a demanding and vengeful deity. Nwoye’s adoption of this name in effect enacts a symbolic reversal of the killing of Ikemefuna” (Irele 472).
Ultimately Okonkwo and Nwoye’s experiences with Ikemefuna drive them to repress and sublimate their feelings by alienating them from each other when Okonkwo seeks extreme masculinity and Nwoye seeks a separation from the family and tribe that he feels have betrayed him. These methods they use to cope serve as rhetorical methods for characterizing Okonkwo and his son Nwoye as well as revealing the means that they use in dealing with the tragic and conflicting events of their lives.
In the novel Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe introduces the ideas of maturity/reputation, respect, and communication as Umuofian cultural values. The success of its citizens when it comes to their social standing is dependent on their abilities to be able to display all three of these traits. The biggest example, Okonkwo, portrays how he exemplified the proverbs and of how they functioned as stepping stones in his achievement as a powerful leader with many titles in the clan. Through maturity, you learn respect, through respect you learn the value of communication and its substantial role in the society. Being that social standing is earned instead of inherited, the need to display these traits becomes increasingly evident.
Accomplishments of strength and power are essential in order to display maturity for the hierarchical structure of the Umuofian society. An example of this is when the men are referring to Okonkwo, they use the proverb “If a child washes his hands he can eat with kings” (5). This proverb relates to Okonkwo in a way that is undeniable, the stigma of his father’s unruly life is not something that the members of the Umuofia clan will hold against him. Instead, he is treated by the manifestations of his ability to be hardworking and have the maturity to rise to greatness even against the odds. His drive is what leads villagers to think that he deserves a spot in one of the highest positions in this society. The displays of hyper-masculine accomplishments (i.e.: winning a wrestling match) correlates in the Umuofia society to a man being mature enough to eat with elders. This somewhat easy rise to the top of the social standings is one of the reasons as to why Okonkwo’s downfall and decline in reputation was so rapid. The minute he wasn’t able to display maturity and rationality and he was questioned and disregarded for his inability to give respect.
Respect is another factor that plays a vital role in the social standing of the Umuofian society. As of such when Okonkwo is addressing Nwakibie, he states that “a man who pays respect to the great paves the way for his own greatness” (16). Okonkwo has gone to Nwakibie to ask for yam-seeds in order to be able to gain a livelihood and change the fortune he had been left from his father. His actions and the proverb used express how citizens were aware that their social standings are aided by their ability to give respect to others. When Okonkwo goes to Nwakibie, he is not simply asking for a favor- instead he is acknowledging Nwakibie’s success and is asking him to entrust him with the same yams that brought him fruitfulness. Okonkwo, whose life begins as the son of a debtor, understands that in order for him to be able to create his own achievements, he must be able to give respect and learn from the other men of great power. His use of the proverb when meeting with Nwakibie displays how valued respect and communication are when attempting to climb the social ranks of the Umuofia clan.
Communication is expected in Umuofian society where social standing plays a large role in their way of life. In chapter one Unoka addresses Okoye, saying “Among the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten” (4). Okoye appears in Unoka’s hut asking for the cowries he owes him, but as the situation differs Unoka begins to explain to Okoye why he cannot pay him the money he owes. Unoka creates symbolism by using a wall to represent his debts to men. Unoka addresses Okoye saying that he will pay the biggest debt first before he begins to repay the smaller ones. In using the proverb, he expresses how the palm-oil with which words are eaten symbolizes that what you communicate to others should be something dignified, which can only be done through the inclusion of proverbs. Being able to pile up more debts should seem to reveal Unoka’s lack of a social standing, but by contrary he is able to communicate to others that he is able to pay off those debts. It is his ability in the art of conversation that allows for others to continue to loan to Unoka, regardless of the outcome. This trait, however, is something that Okonkwo is unable to master, and as of such, his climb to the top of the social ladder is hindered. This ability signifies that those who know how to communicate rise up in their social standing much more easily than those that lack this talent.
Chinua Achebe impressively portrays the values of the Umuofian society in the portrayal of Okonkwo. His success and lack thereof when climbing the societal ladder is aided (and hindered) by his ability to be mature, respectful, and communicative. In doing so, the journey becomes not only a study of his character but of the values of the tribe. The novel investigates how these traits influenced not only the personalities of the characters but also influenced the way they’re perceived by others.
Tradition and change are as much at war as the people are in Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart. The events that define this war are centered on and around the main character, Okonkwo, who finds himself unable to adapt to the changes taking place in his society. His refusal to change, contrasted with his society’s willingness to change, is both a personal and broader tragedy. The theme of tradition versus change in Things Fall Apart is used to highlight the tragedy of both Okonkwo’s isolation and his society’s dissipation.
Tradition is integral to the society in which Things Fall Apart is set. Okonkwo lives with his family in the Umuofia clan, one of nine collective villages that uphold the same set of beliefs and traditions. Their lives revolve around their belief in ancestral spirits, called egwugwu, and multiple gods that demand sacrifices and strict rituals in exchange for their guidance and prosperity. Many customs define everyday life, such as the kola nut and palm-wine which are presented when receiving company, and the language spoken that conveys thoughtfulness and respect. An interaction involving Okonkwo’s father, Unoka, and a man whom he owed money to depicts the importance of language to their society: “Among the Igbo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten” (Achebe 4). They do not value simple language, but rhetorical and formal language that, while it may be inefficient, is a custom that shows sophistication and respect. The metaphor of words for food is especially important because it implies that language and communication are as necessary to life as food. Furthermore, it implies that these customs and everyday aspects of their culture are necessary to their life in that they establish communal morality through which individuals can connect and grow as a society.
In addition to these habitual customs are commandments that determine one’s place in society and coordinate a set of checks and balances. Achebe illustrates the importance of this system through Okonkwo’s beating of his wife, Ojiugo, during peace week. The week of peace is a sacred part of Igbo culture in which the people must live without violence of any sort for a week in order to receive a blessing for their crops from Ani, one of their gods. The priest of the earth goddess, Ezeani, tells him that “the evil you have done can ruin the whole clan” (Achebe 30) and he must repent and pay a fine for his sins. One of the more adverse functions of the Igbu customs is the separation of the osu from the rest of society. An osu is “a person dedicated to a god, a thing set apart—a taboo forever, and his children after him. He could neither marry nor be married by the free-born. He was in fact an outcast, living in a special area of the village…wherever he went he carried with him the mark of his forbidden caste—long, tangled and dirty hair” (156). The osu are at the bottom of the social order, while the council of elders are at the top and sit in judgment of society. Every aspect of life is defined by tradition, from social classes to spoken language. The Igbo people have been living by these customs for generations and they provide structure and regulation for each individual. As is often the case, though, the severe nature of such beliefs creates gaps between the individual and the group.
These gaps are what allow the colonizers to swarm in and convert so many of the Igbo people to the new religion. When Christianity comes, it thrives specifically because it capitalizes on the weaknesses of society. The osu rush to the new religion because it welcomes them as equals, as well as many other individuals deprived by tradition. In Joseph McLaren’s essay “Things Fall Apart: Cultural and Historical Context,” he explains that “Achebe uses the Umuofians’ abandonment of the twins, which was a general practice among the real-life Igbo, and their sacrifice of Ikemefuna, a demonstration of reciprocal justice perhaps, to show Igbo culture’s vulnerability or susceptibility to Christian conversion.” (8). While the elders and members with good standing in the civilization were not tempted by Christian freedoms, the individuals that were destitute and oppressed by it were immediately drawn to such freedom. The outcasts had lost all respect in their village, either by their own doing or by bad luck, and they saw the new religion as an escape from their shame and humiliation.
Eventually, even Okonkwo’s own son, Nwoye, joins the Christians. Nwoye was never a sufficient son by Okonkwo standards; he acted too much like a woman, which reminded Okonkwo of his lazy father, and because of this Okonkwo was especially tough on Nwoye. Okonkwo “had no patience with unsuccessful men” (Achebe 2) and it is clear that Okonkwo has scared Nwoye into submission because Nwoye’s attraction to Christianity initially comes from the songs that depict “brothers who lived in darkness and in fear, ignorant of the love of God” (153). Just like the ostracized members of the clan, Okonkwo’s own son abandons his family and faith to convert to Christianity in order to gain his own freedom. After Nwoye’s betrayal of the clan, Okonkwo exclaims that “you all have seen the great abomination of your brother. I will only have a son who is a man, who will hold his head up among my people. If any of you prefers to be a woman, let him follow Nwoye” (172). Okonkwo is so disappointed in his son that he denies Nwoye as a son and degrades him to the role of a woman.
Just as Okonkwo loses his son to the new religion, Igbu people, as well as their traditions, are being lost to it in the same way. Uchendu, Okonkwo’s uncle who shelters him when he moves to Mbanta, claims that “It’s true that a child belongs to its father. But when a father beats his child, it seeks sympathy in its mother’s hut. 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. Your mother is there to protect you.” (116-7). Uchendu’s aphorism is representative of the Igbu civilization losing members to the colonizers. The Igbu are the fatherland and the colonizers are the motherland, while the child is representative of the individuals in society that seek the freedom and security of the new religion. Not only is this revelation reflective of the loss of Igbu tradition, but also the reason for it. The Igbu, especially Okonkwo, refuse to doubt any of their beliefs to the extent that they believed the converts to be “the excrement of the clan, and the new faith was a mad dog that had come to eat it up” (124). Unfortunately, this refusal to change only strengthens the temptation of the freedom the colonizers offer and hastens the tragic loss of Igbu culture.
The loss of Igbu culture is seen predominantly through Okonkwo’s point of view, which serves to highlight its tragic aspects. Okonkwo’s father was not an upstanding member of his clan, nor was he very successful, which led Okonkwo to do everything in his power to become an honorable and hardworking man. Despite his best efforts, though, even Okonkwo does not live up to all of the standards set for him. He beats his wife during a time of peace and takes part in the killing of Ikemefuma despite Ogbuefi’s warning. In Matthew Bolton’s essay “’You Must Not Stand in One Place’: Reading Things Fall Apart in Multiple Contexts,” he asserts that “like Oedipus and other tragic heroes of the Athenian playwrights, Okonkwo is a flawed man. Yet he is destroyed not so much by these flaws as by broad and impersonal forces of history. He has the misfortune to subscribe wholeheartedly to Igbo culture at a time when this culture was being dismantled and abandoned” (4). Okonkwo’s character is tragic on both a personal level and a broader, thematic level. His personal tragedies are mostly due to his overly ambitious compulsion to become a leader of his clan, which often backfires and leads him into trouble. One such minor tragedy is the result of Okonkwo’s participation in Ikemefuma’s death. Ogbuefi warned Okonkwo not to serve any blows to Ikemefuma, but he struck him anyway in order to prove his manliness. Later, at Ogbuefi’s funeral, Okonkwo’s gun accidentally goes off and kills Ogbuefi’s son, which can be seen as Okonkwo’s punishment for striking Ikemefuma. This accident is a minor tragedy in itself because not only was Ogbuefi’s innocent son killed, but also Okonkwo must spend 7 years in banishment. This punishment is especially cruel for Okonkwo because “his life had been ruled by a great passion – to become one of the lords of the clan” (Achebe 114) and his punishment removes him from his clan.
Okonkwo’s character also presents the broad tragedy that the novel encapsulates: the loss of Igbo culture to Christian colonization. While Okonkwo was laboring away in attempt to gain authority and respect in his clan, the lowest of his clan were gradually converting. He is blinded by his devotion and cannot see that the members of his clan no longer feel the same dedication to their beliefs. It is not until he is the sole rebel against the colonizers that he realizes that his tribe is lost, and his consequential suicide is his final tragic act. In the Igbo belief, “it is an abomination for a man to take his own life. It is an offense against the Earth, and a man who commits it will not be buried by his clansmen. His body is evil, and only strangers may touch it” (Achebe 178). Okonkwo realizes that his clan is converting, but he will not join them, so he commits suicide. His suicide is tragic not just because it goes against Igbo beliefs, but because it embodies the complete loss of these beliefs. Okonkwo is devoted to tradition and customs and would never willingly go against them, which suggests that his suicide represents his own loss of faith as well as the end of his culture. Bolton insists that “in his prime, Okonkwo embodied the ideals of Ibo culture, and his death serves not to restore the values of his culture but to hasten their own demise” (4). Okonkwo’s character illustrates personal tragedy in his own misfortunes and eventual loss of beliefs and also finalizes the extensive tragedy of the conversion of his civilization to Christianity.
The conflict between tradition and change is a common theme in societies as they grow and encounter the rest of the world. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is illustrates this by the introduction of Christian colonizers to the Igbo society and the eventual decimation of Igbo culture. The traditional beliefs and customs that provide order for the Igbo people are contrasted by the Christian ideal of freedom. The conflict between the two cultures culminates a tragedy on a personal and cultural level, portrayed through Okonkwo’s loss of faith and the destruction of the Igbo people.
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor, 1994. Print.
Bolton, Matthew J. “You Must Not Stand In One Place”: Reading Things Fall Apart In Multiple Contexts.” Critical Insights: Things Fall Apart (2010): 69-84. Literary Reference Center. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.
McLaren, Joseph. “Things Fall Apart: Cultural And Historical Context.” Critical Insights: Things Fall Apart (2010): 19-32. Literary Reference Center. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.
The presence of sexism, both individual and institutional, runs rampant in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. It is the most constant theme in the story, more intrinsic in the plotline than even racism, and certainly more deep-rooted. The dominance of the male gender becomes apparent in the first few pages. The fact that men are allowed to keep multiple wives is the first sign of a sexually biased culture (2860). The book in its entirety gives no inkling that women are allowed to be involved anything other than a monogamous relationship, and there is no reason to assume it. Indeed, women are generally treated more like a commodity than as partners. In the second chapter there is conflict between local villages and it is resolved by the weaker village giving a boy and a girl to the stronger. The boy virtually becomes an adopted child and the girl is wedded to a tribesman. Her desires are of no consequence and her virginity is one of the terms of the resolution, making it plain where her value lies to the Igbo people (2864-2865). Another intimation of the cheapening of females’ human worth is present in a line describing Okonkwo’s feelings during the New Yam Festival: “He trembled with the desire to conquer and subdue. It was like the desire for a woman” (2878). A later scene shows this dynamic in greater detail: “She was about sixteen and just right for marriage. Her suitor and his relative surveyed her young body with expert eyes as if to assure themselves that she was beautiful and ripe” (2890). Following this exhibition, she retreats to her mother’s hut to help her cook. The mother’s admonishment illustrates a corporeal parallel for a woman’s position in the Igbo tradition when she tells her daughter, “You grew your ears for decoration, not for hearing” (2891). It is the physical appearance and practical reproductive functionality of a woman that gives her value. In general, no knowledge beyond what is needed for housekeeping and child-rearing is deemed suitable for a woman.But Achebe also exposes us to a few female functions that are authoritative, and almost revered, amongst the Igbo people. For instance, they upheld beliefs in feminine divinities like Ani, the earth goddess, who “played a greater role in the life of the people than any other deity”, as “the ultimate judge of morality and conduct” (2875). Also, Agbala (the Oracle) who has one of the loftiest positions in the culture, is only corresponded with through women. During the story of Things Fall Apart, this woman is a priestess named Chielo (2921).There are a few indirect ways Achebe implies the inferiority of a woman’s status; one is in a brief delineation of the primary Igbo crops. Yams, he writes, are “the king of crops … a man’s crop.” Other crops like cassava and beans were “women’s crops” and a footnote deems them “low-status” (2869). Giving background on Okonkwo’s father also serves as more than a reason for Okonkwo’s severe demeanor, if we read between the lines. The description of the deceased Unoka informs us that his wife and children lived poorly, and often starved, because of his indiscretion (2861). We gain further insight into the Igbo culture as Achebe tells us of Okonkwo’s notion of his father; he associates Unoka with weakness, and weakness is a trait the Igbo associate with femininity. The link between the two concepts is not only implied, but is quite literal. The word that means woman, agbala, is also the term the Igbo use for a man without status or achievements (2864).One of the biggest manifestations of sexism in the Igbo culture is the violence targeted against women. Okonkwo is a particularly brutal husband, beating his wives and children, even finding excuses to beat those close to him. He is fuming from the current atmosphere of idleness and takes it out on one of his wives by way of a beating (2876). In another instance, he pounds on his youngest wife, Ojiugo, because she left her hut without cooking dinner (2872)! This is more indicatory of Okonkwo’s vicious vendetta upon his own tenderness (and any other attributes he deems womanly) than a violent mentality inherent in the culture (2865). While Okonkwo may be especially cruel to his women, the whole community seems to have an almost apathetic attitude towards the mental well-being of its women. Okonkwo is rebuked and punished for one particular case of domestic violence, but the only problem with his action seems to be his violation of the Week of Peace. He is told, “The earth goddess whom you have insulted may refuse to give us her increase, and we shall all perish” (2873). But, while seemingly uncaring, the Igbo attitude is not neglectful.In a courtroom scene there is a dispute between a woman and her abusive husband being settled. The trial is contingent upon the wife’s experiences with her husband, but her word is not even heard—her brothers speak for her. Then, one of the court officials (a village elder) expresses his puzzlement as to why “such a trifle should come before the egwugwu” (2900-2901). It is a common Igbo sentiment that women, as a possession of men, can be beaten into subservience. Such was the position of women in the Igbo culture. The status of women as a step (or two, or three) below men is a widespread occurrence, and is as old as history. Some communities exist in matriarchal form, but such societies are far less common and one must ask why. Perhaps the physical build of males that lend them power, or a different manner of thinking, or perhaps sexism favored men arbitrarily, and the tradition became engrained. In all likelihood the reasons are numerous, but whatever the case, the sex bias is now engrained in our civilization and many others around the world. At this point, it is far more advantageous to envision what true equality might look like, and the path that can lead us there.