Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

22 Sept 2011

(Novel)Things Fall Apart by: Chinua Achebe

(Reaction) Africa, as told by Africa by: Jose Angelo Singson

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Things Fall Apart is set in Umuofia - one of a fictional group of nine villages in Nigeria, inhabited by the Igbo ethnic group. The novel is divided into two main parts. Part 1 or book 1 chronicles the struggles of the main character Okonkwo between himself and his rise to prominence in his community. Part 2/book 2 narrates the arrival of Caucasian missionaries and how the main character struggles with the societal changes brought about by these new comers.

Although the novel is set in Africa it reads every bit like a Shakespearian tragedy. The lead character, Okonkwo, possesses a terrible hubris shaped by the many difficulties that he faced and overcame as he was growing up but possesses many admirable traits such as being a good provider for his family and village as valiant warrior of his clan, quick to come to its defense during times of war.

There are many themes and motifs that are featured and explored in the novel but I will only focus on three: 1.) change 2.) clash of cultures and 3.) notions of success and failure.

It is ironic that the most constant theme throughout the book is change and the conflicts that it unavoidably causes. The village's traditions change radically throughout the book and the one most deeply affected by these changes is Okonkwo.

There is no such thing as a stagnant culture. Change is continual and inevitable, and flexibility is a must for successful acclimatization. However, because Okonkwo cannot accept, or rather refuses to accept the changes that happen all around him, he cannot adapt. He often finds himself, despite his martial prowess and wealth, a victim of circumstances larger and more powerful than himself. Nothing solidifies this point more clearly than the scene where the people of Umuofia refused to join Okonkwo as he struck down the white man (the messenger/emissary) towards the end of the novel.

He is literally dumbstruck by the realization that the village and culture that he had known and loved had come to adapt the ways of the Caucasian missionaries. If one looks into the matter further, it would seem that Okonkwo is not so much bothered by the changes, but rather the idea of losing everything he had built up: his wealth, his titles, the renown he had earned as a wrestler, etc. as a result of those changes. He fears that all these would be forgotten and perhaps, delving into this stream of thought a bit more, he fears that he may no longer have the strength or drive to re-establish these things he values so much.

His mania for these things (wealth, respect, combat expertise) is completely understandable. He had invested so much time and energy into building up his image and personal fortune. Okonkwo's refusal to accept to cultural change culminates in his suicide. This last, desperate act may be interpreted as an attempt to show to the people of Umuofia the results of a clash between cultures and maybe even as a means for the Igbo culture to be preserved.

As his father's failures goaded Okonkwo to strive for a high standing within Igbo culture and society, Okonkwo's suicide goads Obierika and the village men to confront and re-evaluate the long held custom of not burying a man that has committed suicide and perform the necessary rituals for this mode of death. This analysis is further supported by Obierika's comment of Okonkwo as a great man driven to kill himself, most likely as the outcome of the loss of or rather the abandonment of tradition. Through his killing of the messenger and resultant suicide Okonkwo continues the internal struggle between change and tradition.

Nearly without fail, when cultures come into contact with each other, viewpoints concerning superiority and inferiority often come to a head. Due to limited and biased world views, the results are invariably myopic and; as proven time and again through history, destructive.

When new cultures and religions meet the original, there is more often than not a struggle for ascendancy. The Christians and Okonkwo's people, for example, have an extremely limited comprehension of each other and have a very difficult time of understanding and accepting each other's differences in customs and beliefs. This lack of understanding resulted in violence as well as the destruction of a local church, Okonkwo's death as well as that of the messenger.

The clash of cultures in Book 2 shows an almost complete reversal of norms. Women that bore twins, men that disliked bloodshed, people born as living sacrifices to certain deities were individuals labeled as pariahs that found acceptance and a new sense of value with the Caucasian missionaries. Old taboos and restrictions no longer weighed these social outcasts down, and eventually formed a community of their own that over time grew in number and influence. This reversal of values was another matter that drove Okonkwo further down the spiral.

The concept of success and failure or rather, the assignment of value is another widely featured theme in the novel. This too is subject to change. Book 1 features a heavy emphasis on the concept of success equated with physical strength, proficiency in war, and of course material wealth. These traits are even used to determine gender roles/characteristics. Men, by Igbo standards, are expected to be strong, enduring, canny in combat and able to provide for multiple wives and families. This leads to Okonkwo's personal all-consuming ambition to avoid a life riddled with failures like his father, Unoka. This in turn leads to his high rank and affluence in the community. He fanatically strives to avoid failure. This almost insane zeal that he applies to his climb to success is fueled not just by a desire to become wealthy but also a desire to be acknowledged as valuable and by default, acknowledged as a male without question.

The idea/concept of failure draws a parallel with the notion of change in Umuofia and a shift in what is deemed valuable in their culture. Failure, therefore by Okonkwo's reckoning, is societal reform. This explains Okonkwo's extreme and at times unpredictable action against anything foreign or not masculine by Igbo standards.

The novel ends a bit abruptly with a remark from the Caucasian military officer about making notes on how to more effectively subjugate the people groups they would encounter during their conquest. This open-ended conclusion gives the reader a sense that this is only the beginning of a long series of changes that are yet to occur.

Review:

When you say Africathe images that are formed in the mind is still of steamy jungles, wide open savannas, and of savage tribes. This image and idea of Africa has been all but cemented by Hollywood. King Kong, Tarzan, King Solomon's Mines, The African Queen, and Heart of Darkness. All of these films, TV series and books have romanticized Africa and its peoples as a wild, backward place in need of modernization and salvation from itself.

I must admit that prior to having read Things Fall Apart that I've never really read any other novel about Africa written by an actual African. All were written by outsiders looking in and the cultural biases that each had about the nation had naturally been carried over as a result.

Through Achebe's clever and economical use of the English language, he successfully demonstrates and confirms Africa's diverse and unique culture. He incorporates traditional Igbo words (e.g. egwugwu, or the spirits of the ancestor's of Nigerian tribes), folktales, and maxims into English sentences and succeeds in proving that African languages aren't incomprehensible. However, they are often too rich in meaning for a word-per-word translation into English.

Additionally, the author is successful in verifying that each of the continent's languages are unique, as Mr. Brown's African translator is ridiculed after his misinterpretation of an Igbo word.

Much has been written and said about this well-loved novel by the equally well-loved Chinua Achebe and the praise is well-earned. This book is a wonderful read. Despite the themes being deeply profound it is written in a straightforward, earthy manner that only serves to make the message of the novel hit home all the more clearly.

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