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Things Fall Apart ()


Brothers Judd Top 100 of the 20th Century: Novels (55)

    William Butler Yeats: The Second Coming (1921)

    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    Surely some revelation is at hand;
    Surely the Second Coming is at hand;
    The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
    When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
    Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
    Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
    The darkness drops again; but now I know
    That twenty centuries
    of stony sleep
    Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Though Chinua Achebe's great novel derives it's title from William Butler Yeats's classic poem The Second Coming, it actually tells the story of a First Coming.  Where Yeats was concerned with the end days of the two millennia long Christian Era in the West, Achebe's novel tells the story of the first contacts between Ibo villagers in Nigeria (Biafra) and white European missionaries and colonial administrators in the 1890's, of the coming of the Christian Era to Africa.

The central character Okonkwo, is the driven son of a ne'er-do-well father.  He is admired within the clan for his physical prowess, particularly in wrestling, and for his willingness to work hard, but he is a brutal, rigidly stubborn and emotionally isolated man:

    Okonkwo ruled his household with a heavy hand.  His wives, especially the youngest, lived in
    perpetual fear of his fiery temper, as so did his little children.  Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo
    was not a cruel man.  But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of
    weakness.  It was deeper and more intimate than the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic,
    the fear of the forest, and of the forces of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw.  Okonkwo's
    fear was greater than these.  It was not external but lay deep within himself.  It was the fear of
    himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father.  Even as a little boy he had resented his
    father's failure and weakness, and even now he still remembered how he had suffered when a
    playmate told him that his father was agbala.  That was how Okonkwo first came to know that
    agbala was not only another name for woman, it could also mean a man who had taken no title.
    And so Okonkwo was ruled by one passion--to hate everything that his father Unoka had loved.
    One of those things was gentleness and another was idleness.

So Okonkwo's life is dedicated to wresting a living from the ground and earning honor and a title in the clan, but he is bedeviled by bad luck, in the form of almost yearly bouts of crop killing weather, and his own bad temper frequently puts him crossways with tribal customs.  When he accidentally kills another man at a festival, he ends up being exiled to his mother's clan for seven years.  It is while he is living in this village, Mbanta, that he first comes in contact with Christian missionaries.  To the villagers great surprise, the missionaries are not struck down by the Ibo gods and to the people's further shock, they begin to recruit church members from along the margins of Ibo society.  But even the initial converts protest to their native church leader, Mr. Kiaga, when he begins accepting the tribe's outcasts, the osu:

    "You do not understand," the convert maintained.  "You are our teacher, and you can teach us the
    things of the new faith.  But this is a matter which we know."  And he told him what an osu was.

    He was a person dedicated to a god, a thing apart--a taboo for ever, 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, close to the Great Shrine.  Wherever he went he carried with him the mark of
    his forbidden caste--long, tangled and dirty hair.  A razor was taboo to him.  An osu could not
    attend an assembly of the free-born, and they, in turn, could not shelter under his roof.  He could
    not take any of the four titles of the clan, and when he died he was buried with his kind in the Evil
    Forest.  How could such a man be a follower of Christ?

    "He needs Christ more than you and I," said Mr. Kiaga.

This simple message of inclusion and Christian love, preached by Kiaga and by the white missionary Mr. Brown, proves extremely powerful and attractive.  Okonkwo's own son, Nwoye, with whom he has had a very difficult relationship, converts too, which infuriates Okonkwo.  Then, his seven year exile at an end, Okonkwo returns to his own village only to find that the whites have also made inroads there.  He wants to fight them, but his old friend Obierika asks:

    How do you think we can fight when our own brothers have turned against us?  The white man is
    very clever.  He came quietly and peaceably with his religion.  We were amused at his foolishness
    and allowed him to stay.  Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one.
    He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.

Then, even as the tension builds, with Okonkwo and other traditionalists recognizing that their treasured way of life is passing, the gently effective Mr. Brown is replaced by The Reverend James Smith, a much more hidebound man:

    He saw things as black and white.  And black was evil.  He saw the world as a battlefield in which
    the children of light were locked in mortal conflict with the sons of darkness.

In keeping with this spirit of confrontation, some of the church's more "over-zealous converts" begin to provoke the other villagers.  In a final whirl of events, a native ceremony is disrupted, the Christian church is destroyed, Okonkwo kills a messenger sent by the colonial government, and when the District Commissioner arrives to arrest him, Okonkwo is found to have hanged himself.  In the story's final paragraph the Commissioner muses about how he will describe the incident in his memoirs, The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.

It appears from a quick surf through the web that most of the criticism of this novel treats it as a story about conflict between the generations (Okonkwo & his father, Okonkwo & his son) or as an anti-colonial polemic.  It seems obvious however that it is really a Christian allegory, with Okonkwo in the role of Christ.

Early on in the book, Achebe rather clearly signals his intention:

    Among the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with
    which words are eaten.

He tells his story in a style that seems imitative of Ibo fashion.  The narrative is conversational, almost as if it were being told in oral form rather than written.  It is repetitive, often a new chapter begins by recounting what has gone before, as if the narrator were getting us caught up from one storytelling session to the next.  It is liberally sprinkled with Ibo vocabulary, so that it gives the feel of native speech.  And, by the end of the book, it is apparent that the whole tale can be read as a parable.

Okonkwo passes through many of the same stages that Man goes through in the Bible.  He rebels against the Father, is forced to earn a living by main labor, is exiled, and finally ends his life in a faux crucifixion.  All of these parallels are fairly self-evident.  But extend the analogy and what is the meaning of Okonkwo's sacrifice?  Presumably, Achebe is making the point that those who adhere most fiercely to the ancient gods and the old traditions, those who live their lives in the grip of fear, must clear out of the way to make room for the coming of a new God and a new Way.

This is not to suggest that Achebe does not honor and value Ibo culture.  In many ways the book is an attempt to preserve a written record of their traditions.  There are numerous scenes involving rituals, religious rites, tribal politics, and village traditions.  However, Achebe is quite honest about the primitive nature of that culture and makes no effort to gloss over just how difficult their lives were.  They feared the unseen:

    Darkness held a vague terror for these people, even the bravest among them.  Children were
    warned not to whistle at night for fear of evil spirits.

They faced catastrophic child mortality rates:

    Ekwefi had suffered a good deal in her life.  She had borne ten children and nine of them had died
    in infancy, usually before the age of three.

They were homicidally superstitious, committing infanticide against twin babies--twins being considered bad luck--and, at the command of the tribe's Oracle,  murdering a young boy from another tribe who lived with Okonkwo for several years.  But most of all, Achebe depicts their lives as static and stagnant from generation to generation:

    The land of the living was not far removed from the domain of the ancestors.  There was coming
    and going between them, especially at festivals and also when an old man died, because an old man
    was very close to the ancestors.  A man's life from birth to death was a series of transition rites
    which brought him nearer and nearer to his ancestors.

There was no sense of progress to their existence, no development, no forward momentum.  So, while Okonkwo is a tragic figure, representing the impending loss of tribal traditions and the passing of a richly textured way of life, it is the symbolic sacrifice of reactionaries like Okonkwo, and the casting off of the backward looking views they cling to, which will make Western style progress possible and will finally allow the Ibo to escape from a life of bare subsistence governed by fear and superstition.

This is a wonderful novel, full of universal figures, themes and lessons.  It balances an abiding respect for Ibo tradition with a realization that their future depended on Western ideas.  The real tragedy is that Yeats's Second Coming swamped Africa's First Coming.  Within fifty years from the time of this story the Christian Era was at an end and the white man gone, as nation after nation in Africa reverted to native rule, mostly in the form of brutal dictatorship, often Marxist and frequently Tribal.  Would that the leaders of Africa had been blessed with the vision of Chinua Achebe and the discretion to see that though many aspects of colonialism were objectionable and many of the colonialists personally repellent, there were other aspects of Western culture with much to offer.  I'm really surprised that Achebe has not won a Nobel prize.  What greater contribution can a novelist make than to help preserve the best of his own culture and convey it to the world, while at the same time showing his own people what they can learn from other cultures?

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A+)

  

Websites:

Chinua Achebe Links:

    -INTERVIEW: Out of Africa: Chinua Achebe, father of modern African literature, has long argued that Joseph Conrad was a racist. (Caryl Phillips, February 22, 2003, The Guardian)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Chinua Achebe & Things Fall Apart (Cora Agatucci, Culture(s) & Literature(s) of Africa, Central Oregon Community College)(includes Study Guide)
    -Who is Chinua Achebe?
    -Chinua Achebe: Things Fall Apart (Addison Public Library, Readers' Corner)
    -Kingwood College Library:  THINGS FALL APART  By Chinua Achebe
    -LINKS: ComL 100: Resources for students  Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart
    -Internet Resources: Chinua Achebe & Things Fall Apart (Bill Barrett)
    -Chinua Achebe: Things Fall Apart Study Guide
    -STUDY GUIDE: Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart
    -ONLINE STUDY GUIDE: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (SparkNote by Selena Ward)
 

GENERAL
    -African Studies Center (University of Pennsylvania)
    -The Imperial Archive Project
    -ESSAY: The Arts of Africa  (K. ANTHONY APPIAH, NY Review of Books)
    -LECTURE: Africa and Africans in Conrad's Heart of Darkness : A Lawrence University Freshman Studies Lecture (given by: Candice Bradley, Associate Professor of Anthropology)

Comments:

This review is absolutely offensive trash. If any students come across it, please be aware that the reviewer of this wonderful book has willfully misinterpreted to fit a very narrow-minded world-view that has much more in common with the Commissioner, viewing the dead body of Okonkwo, than it does with anything that Achebe would have wanted the reader to come away with.

- Arthur

- Jan-29-2006, 22:34

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I can't help but see this review as somewhat insulting. “Progress,” in Western terminology, is often code for dominance—the unfortunate by-product of the Enlightenment thought is the notion that the secrets of the natural world may, though the practice of reason, be unraveled and thus controlled. To say that the Igbo society had no “progress” or “forward momentum” relies upon an assumption that progress is an inherently positive thing. And yet if we look to our own “progressive” society, we can see that technological progress, for instance, leads to increasing isolation and alienation among its members. Sure, it’s progress, but at what cost? That is not to say that the Igbos did not benefit from increased commerce and the introduction of hospitals (but even the usefulness of hospitals may be in doubt, as the methods of Western medicine have helped to spread AIDS far and wide in Africa—unsterilized needles, etc.), or that the people who existed on the margins of the society did not benefit from inclusion in the church, but if we look at the society as an organic whole—and one that was extraordinarily flexible—we will see that “progress” in the Western sense served not to advance the society, but rather to rip it apart. Moreover, the notion that the society has no “development” is ridiculous. Do traditions just spring from the culture fully formed? Do the democratic (and aristocratic) principles in the society materialize out of thin air?

As you point out, Okonkwo is at fault precisely because he is reactionary—his culture is flexible (notice how they do not immediately expel the white missionaries), but he is not. There are many other examples, however, of characters in the culture who are NOT reactionary, and those who question its values. Obierka, for instance, who openly questions certain practices, and Nwoye. It is unlikely that Nwoye would have joined the church if he had not had such a problematic relationship with his father, who questions nothing in his society, but accepts all its traditions and values in their entirety. You sound as if you think the culture is entirely stagnant, but how can that be, if others consistently question its values? And the life is far from one of “bare subsistence”—there are many families who have what we would call wealth, even if it’s not in the parlance of Western wealth. Wealth itself may be measured in the familial and communal bonds in the society, a standard that we as Westerners cannot match. In fact, by these standards, we are quite poor.

Finally, are we not ourselves governed by fear? Fear of violence, fear of terrorism, fear of sickness, fear of poverty, fear of a wrathful God? Science may have purged us of many superstitions, but they still exist, and the level of fear in this society would have been perhaps unimaginable to a pre-colonial Igbo society.

The future of Igbo society did not “depend upon Western ideas”—rather, despite the few boons it brought them, it was the Western notion and practice of “progress” that helped to destroy it.

- Selma

- Apr-27-2004, 12:42

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Hey! This is wonderful. you did a fabolous job. I am in tenth grade and we just finish reading this book and you made some of the same connections that we did. Good Job and keep up the good work

- Aja

- Nov-08-2003, 18:42

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this was a great essay on the book and connected with Yeats, too! My English class (Lit 12) read this book in preperation for our Lit AP exam and we also compared the two together. I really enjoyed reading your ideas. Thanks!

- Heather

- May-05-2003, 02:33

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