Message vs. Style in Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe
“The message is more important than the style”. I totally disagree with this statement in the context of Things Fall Apart as I believe that in this particular work, the message is of equivalent importance to the style; to have a particular writing style whose sole purpose is found in informing readers as to the purpose to the message, and then to NOT have a message, would be useless, whereas having a message to tell readers, WITHOUT such a writing style as is necessary to allow them to absorb the purpose, would again be useless- therefore the message and writing styles are equally important in this story, as one cannot do without the other.
In this case, the central message of Things Fall Apart, that African culture is complex, can only be absorbed by readers if Achebe’s writing style, which incorporates the use of dialogue, conflict, proverbs, diction and setting, allows them to develop such recognition of cultural complexity- the author cannot merely instruct the reader to believe that the culture is indeed complex, and still expect the reader to believe as such without question.
Firstly, Achebe makes ample use of dialogue as a component of his writing style to carry forth the message of a culturally complex society. For example, Okonkwo’s conversation with Obierika as to the Oracle’s desires in Chapter Eight introduces significant cultural elements to the readers. Okonkwo argues that his participation in the murder of Ikemefuna was justified, but Obierika contends otherwise, declaring that Okonkwo’s actions are of the kind for which the earth goddess, Ani, “wipes out whole families”. In the conflict between their different views we see the strong influence exerted by their religion on each person, and also acquire recognition of significant religious elements, namely the Oracle and the earth goddess. That Okonkwo and Obierika should have differing opinions about the Oracle’s religious intentions indicates the presence of complex perceptions of the same religion.
This complexity in religious perceptions then implicitly suggests to readers an inherent complexity in the religion itself, for without such complexity differing religious perceptions would not occur. Religion is a core component of culture, as clearly the culture of a society must not contradict the religious views held by that same society, and having a complex religion as a component of culture in turn suggests that the culture of the society must be complex as well. Dialogue thus serves to carry forth Achebe’s message that African culture is complex. At the same time, in the suggestions of complex culture found in dialogue, we see how Achebe’s style of writing encourages readers to gradually reach a perception of his central message on their own, which is important in that the readers must themselves perceive such cultural complexity through development of their own thoughts on the issue- exactly as Achebe intended.
To have a dialogue without any inherent message would also make such dialogue purposeless, as Achebe could not possibly describe an overarching purpose to that conversation. This shows how dialogue as a component of the writing style gives such a writing style an importance equal to that of the message; without dialogue being employed as such, readers cannot acquire knowledge of the message, whereas if there was no message, then dialogue would have no purpose. Dialogue as a component of the writing style thus creates a situation where the style is of equal importance to the message.
Secondly, traditional African proverbs, a significant element of Achebe’s writing style, are used to highlight cultural complexity. An example would be Okonkwo’s declaring that “a child’s fingers are not scalded by a piece of hot yam which its mother puts into its palm” in defence of his participating in the murder of Ikemefuna. He argues that he did as such due to the Oracle declaring that Ikemefuna would have to be killed. That proverbs can be casually used in dialogue to illustrate various points, such as the above proverb serving as a defence for one’s actions, is an indication of a highly-developed language. A society’s culture is based upon its language, for language serves as the primary medium of communication between humans in a society, and as such readers recognize that language is an important component of culture, therefore having a highly-developed language would thus suggest that society is culturally complex.
Proverbs being thus used in Achebe’s writing style have therefore led to the subtle formation of such a suggestion to readers, which in turn allows readers to follow through on that suggestion, and thereby reach the conclusion that African culture is complex is nature- this being the exact message which Achebe is trying to bring across to readers. Proverbs being a component of Achebe’s writing style, we can see how they contribute to the carrying the message of cultural complexity across. However, such a writing style also finds its primary purpose in carrying a message; therefore without such a message of cultural complexity, the proverbs would lose their meaning. In this sense, we can safely state that the writing style, through its encompassing the use of proverbs, is of equal importance to the message.
Thirdly, Achebe’s choice of diction also plays a very large role in his writing style. Throughout the story, the narrator refers to the housing for Okonkwo’s wives as Obi, court messengers as Kotma, and characters use traditional welcomes such as Nno. That such traditional African words should appear throughout the story, interspersed with all the English words, gives readers the impression that such words cannot be simply translated into English. This then suggests to us that language in the society must be very highly developed, for such words do not have a counterpart in the English language, despite the vast vocabulary of the latter. Indeed, I had to refer to the glossary in the book for the English translations of such words.
When readers make such inferences, they cannot help but come to the conclusion that the Africans cannot be culturally primitive- to have such a highly-developed language must in turn suggest a highly developed culture, which is exactly the message Achebe is trying to bring across. Thus Achebe’s choice of diction greatly aids his writing style in carrying the message across to readers, who realize from such implicit suggestions the central message of this work. Indeed, if Achebe did not wish to have a message of cultural complexity, it is plausible that such traditional African words would not appear. Thus we can see how the success in carrying the message across is highly dependent on the writing style, and the shaping of the writing style itself is highly dependent on the type of message being carried across; the message and the style are equally important.
Lastly, Achebe’s description of the various settings in which events take place play a part in shaping his particular writing style. The setting of Ezeudu’s funeral in Chapter Thirteen is an example of how the setting as a component of Achebe’s writing style serves to carry forth the message of cultural complexity. Ezeudu’s funeral was a “warrior’s funeral”, and now and then an “ancestral spirit”, or “egwugwu”, would appear “from the underworld”. From the description of this setting, readers are able to more readily appreciate the complexities of traditional African culture; that their culture incorporates a strong, pagan belief in the existence of supernatural beings, the “egwugwu”, and a similar belief in the existence of an underworld.
This places emphasis on a major religious component in their culture. Ezeudu’s funeral being considered as a “warrior’s funeral” also allows us to acquire insights into the importance of a particular social class, the warrior class, in their society. The setting has thus contributed to readers being able to recognize two major components in African culture, the former being religion, the latter being a social component. That these two different components should become so elaborately intertwined in this one ceremony is evidence of a complex culture.
The reader, in reviewing the description of the setting, thereby acquires knowledge of the central message of cultural complexity which Achebe is trying to bring across, without Achebe having to explicitly declare as such; this clearly shows how Achebe’s writing style of placing information from which readers have to make their own inferences has led to our understanding the message of the novel. Without such a description of the setting, readers might not have been able to absorb this message. On the other hand, without a message, the description of the setting would be useless, as the purpose of such a writing style would be to enlighten readers as to a particular message the author wishes to convey. Therefore I believe that writing style and the message are of equal importance.
In conclusion, I believe that the writing style and the message are of equal importance, as the former serves as the vehicle for the latter, whereas the latter exists to give the former purpose. Neither can do without the other, and therefore their interdependence lends them equal importance.
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