Things Fall Apart

Chinua Achebe's 1961 book is a narrative that follows the life of an Igbo tribe on the very cusp of the time when the wave of colonization washed over Africa. Set in Nigeria, the book follows the story of Okonkwo, the son of a ne'er do well, who is determined not to end up a failure like his father, but wants to follow tradition and rise in rank within the tribe. But just as the title predicts, Okonkwo's plans for a perfect life go astray. Change is inevitable, and even the best laid plans go astray. In the turbulent time setting, Okonkwo is doomed to lose the traditions he cherishes as his society slowly falls apart.

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...

(From Yeats'"The Second Coming" .)

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  Dialogues

With Agatha Moudios's Son

My classmate Sarah has discussed the dialogue between Things Fall Apart and Agatha Moudios's son.

As a reply to Heart of Darkness

"By situating itself in opposition to the depiction of relationships between Africa and Europe in such texts as Heart of Darkness or Mister Johnson, Things Fall Apart opens a complex literary dialogue that challenges not only the content of such texts, but also the fundamental rationalist, individualist and historicist assumption upon which those texts are constructed." (Booker, 76)

If you've ever read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, you can see why Achebe calls it racist. The surprising thing was that he was one of the first critics to do so. Why hadn't anyone seen it before? Who knows? (Perhaps it was an overdose of academia...) He describes so many things in terms of black and white, good and bad, and switches them around artfully until by the end of the novella, you can't bear either either adjective. Nearly everything is described in those terms: not a thing escapes Conrad's lack of adjectives. But it goes much deeper than that. To call something racist just by a lack of descriptive ability, or carrying a metaphor too far would be on shaky grounds. But Conrad does much worse; he describes Kurtz' mistress as "..savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent...She stood looking at us without a stir and like the wilderness itself..." It's no wonder that Achebe picks out this passage in his essay. Also offensive is when the narrator compares a native who was helping navigate the boat to a "dog in breeches." There is no end to the ways this is an irritating passage. Conrad's portrayal of the Africans as savage and uncivilized is part of what prompted Achebe to write his eloquent novel. His depiction of the highly civilized cultures and traditions of the Igbo nation were a reply to Conrad's ignorant (but well meaning?) false portrayal. (For more on this, like the Achebe essay and commentary on it, see the links section below.)

 

 

  Notes

About Things Fall Apart

The two narrative voices
Many critics see Things Fall Apart as a book with two narrators, one that adheres to tradition, and another with more modern views.
In his essay, Wright plays off Neil McEwan's idea of the two narrative voices: the traditional/communal which dominates the first 2/3 of the book, and the individual/ modern which takes over the last third
He claims that Okonkwo's stubborn resistance and deep need to wipe out his father's memory "…are out of harmony with a society which is renowned for its talent for social compromise and which judges a man according to his own worth , not that of his father." (Wright, 78)
Okonkwo resists change so much that he can't even accept it in others. Wright claims that to the rest of his people, Okonkwo's recklessness and fanaticism is embarrassing. This is not as evident in the first 2/3 of the book, but in the modern narrator's voice, it becomes clearer how out of touch Okonkwo really is.

Or maybe as just one narrator....
But not everyone sees the book as narrated by two distinct voices. It can also be seen as having a single narrator, whose tone changes and adapts over time. This would be a reflection of the Umofian society's gradual change and adaptation in order to survive. "The detached yet tolerant tone of the narrator creates this perspective, and acts as a most effective mediator between the individual and the community, between the present and the past." (Carroll, 33) In fact, Carroll points out that "…when the narrator begins to delve into the single mind we anticipate with foreboding an unpleasant turn of events." (Carroll, 34)

The use of the phrase "great man"
At his death, Obierika calls Okonkwo " one of the greatest men in Umofia" (Things Fall Apart, 208). Wright claims this is a phrase used in "this particular African society" to describe someone like a tragic hero, "…who is most unlike his community but who, through his great strength and his ability to do more than it has ever asked of him, and set examples it does not require, belatedly becomes its representative"(Wright, 79). Is Okonkwo completely unlike his community? While he certainly fits the other qualifications of a "great man," Okonkwo only seems to be unlike the community at the end, once everyone has adapted and changed.

Okonkwo and the end of tradition
So how is Okonkwo related to the end of traditional Umofian society? Booker sees Okonkwo as a visual representation of the standards of success in Ibo life. He is prosperous, he is one of the egwugwu, no one compared him to his shiftless father; he has everything he wants at first. But things start to change when Ikemefuma was killed. Up until that point, following the traditions of his society has only improved Okonkwo's situation. When the choice comes to kill Ikemefuma, the shortcomings in tradition start coming through. "…Okonkwo can be seen as testing the limits of his society's integrity and exposing its real failure to provide for humane and compassionate feelings." (Wright, 79) He adheres so strictly to the rules that his example points out to others the flaws in the system. If the system was complete, then Okonkwo's stubborn, inflexible observation of the rules would not have led to his downfall. Wright also claims that Okonkwo's death was inevitable because through his inflexibility he was the clog in the wheel of progress. "If things fall apart is first a story of the disintegration of a traditional African society, it is also the personal tragedy of a single individual , whose life falls apart in the midst of that same process." (Booker, 69)
But does Okonkwo fall because he represents the values of a culture that is disappearing, or because he deviates from that society's' norms? Umofian society is very flexible; they compare their actions to those of their neighbors, always questioning and adapting. But Okonkwo does not adapt at all. In fact, he is so adverse to changing that he cannot even accept it in anyone else. And as for his strict adherence to tradition, that is not quite true. Sure, he does follow the order to kill Ikemefuma-even when he is given a loophole to escape through, pointed out by Obierika-but he also disrupts the Week of Peace and Achebe writes that "…Okonkwo was not the man to stop beating somebody half-way through, not even for fear of a goddess" (Things Fall Apart, 30). In that scene, he is following his own stubborn will, and not tradition. He kills Ikemefuma not because the system is flawed, but because he does not want to appear weak like his father.

Okonkwo as a Historical Figure
One of the requirements of "civilization" is that a nation must have a history. But Umofia seems to lack one. Gikanki suggest that the beginning of Things Fall Apart is an "imaginary response to the problems of genealogy and cultural identity that have haunted igbo culture…" (Gikanki, 29) The book sets up Okonkwo as surrogate founding father, with the story about throwing the Cat in a wrestling tournament, and other aspects of Okonkwo's history as the same as those of the Umofian nation. This is possible because he seems to draw his identity from the traditions and laws of Umofia. It is when he is separated from these values and sent to his mother's land that marks the end of his way of life. "In general terms, Okonkwo acquires his heroic and tragic status by becoming alienated from the very values he espouses and uses to engender himself." (Gikanki, 39)

Okonkwo's tragic flaws
Umofia is a nation that definitely treasures loquacity. In a setting like this, Okonkwo's stammer is a tragic flaw. It is not seen in the book much; never does Achebe quote a passage when Okonkwo sputters out his words. One of the reasons for this may be that Okonkwo uses aggression to replace his lack of speech (Carroll, 40). This flaw sets him apart from the traditions he embodies; he can participate, but he cannot find the joy of being verbose like his compatriots. Another tragic flaw is Okonkwo's stubborn inflexibility.
"As Achebe presents this growing success, he insinuates the cause of future conflict: Okonkwo's inflexible will is bringing him success in a society remarkable for its flexibility." (Carroll, 40) His rigidity leads to his participation in the death of Ikemefuma. This incident is seen by many as a turning point in novel, the beginning of the end. It "initiates a series of catastrophes which end with his death" (Carroll, 44). This action may have been legally correct, but it was morally wrong. From that point on, all of Okonkwo's decisions lead to disaster, even at the end when his decision to kill the messenger leads him to kill himself, something so abhorrent to his nation that they cannot bury him. Despite Okonkwo's best efforts, he is further separated from his nation until "…the embodiment of traditional law has become the outcast of the tribe" (Carroll, 58).

Society falling apart as Yeats predicts
Yeats said that societies don't collapse on their own; there must be outside pressures as well as internal conflict before they collapse. Like Yeats predicts, Umofian society is undone from within first, and then collapses under forces from without. Wright notes that Umofian tradition's cruelty to minorities furthers its collapse. The people it casts aside are the ones who first join the church. Wright also calls the Ibo sense of justice are arbitrary and inadequate. The conflicts between the modern and traditional, individual and community are highlighted in Obierika's conflict of loyalties: personal/tribal, human/ religious, particularly when he fathers twins but then has to leave them in the evil forest, comforting Okonkwo then having to destroy his house. The question of loyalties, and irreconcilable differences between public and private needs, are made more painful because one person is frequently asked to do both conflicting things. This inner, personal conflict grew into an external, community conflict. "From every indication it destroyed total unity among the people and they could no longer fight a common enemy as before" (Emenyonu, 87). One of the factors to play on the weakness of Umofian society was the missionaries. Christianity didn't take over through militarism or force, "but by responding clearly to a need so deeply felt that it haws not been clearly formulated." (Carroll, 53)

Or not falling apart....
"The dual vision of Things Fall Apart is evidence, at least at the narrative level, of things not falling apart."(Wright, 76) Wright concludes that the title of Things Fall Apart is misleading, because Umofia does not actually fall apart. It does not stand with Okonkwo and resist change with war, but adapts in order to survive. Carroll points out that the Umofians are always probing the logic of what they do and why, comparing with other villages, and the past. The only thing that falls apart is Okonkwo's life, because he refuses to adapt. The world does not end; it merely changes, and the Umofians change with it.

The culture clash
"…Things Fall apart is indeed a classic study of cross-cultural misunderstanding and the consequences to the rest of humanity, when a belligerent culture or civilization, out of sheer arrogance and ethnocentrism, takes it upon itself to invade another culture, another civilization." (Emenyonu, 84) One of the things pointed out is that Umofia had no kings or chiefs but had a highly democratic and efficient government. This is something the invaders did not see; Western sensibilities insist that each nation needs a leader, at least one person to take charge and prevent anarchy. The courts used the white man's justice: either a flogging or hanging: both senselessly brutal in Umofian eyes. The main reason for the culture clash is lack of social interaction and understanding between the cultures. And the misunderstanding did not end at the end of the novel; the colonizers are the ones who recorded the history, so, as the saying goes, "…Until the lions produce their own historian, the story of the hunt will glorify only the hunter" (Achebe, Home and Exile 73). African history is unique; "History has not treated the whole world the same way, and we would be foolish not to realize how we are in a peculiar situation as Africans. Our history has not been the history of England." (Jussawalla, 76). The cultural misunderstanding led to a false history, with characters written from the hopes and fears of a people whose uniformed accounts are prevalent even today. "Achebe has made it clear that his principle purpose in the book was to give African readers a realistic depiction of their precolonial past, free of the distortions and stereotypes imposed in European accounts." (Booker, 65)

Umofia as Athenian
Many critics note that Umofian society is similar to ancient Greek civilization. Some point out that Greece was influenced by Africa, and that the democratic system in place in African society predated that of Greece. The colonizers may not have recognized it, but the readers of Achebe's book can see the oft-honored ways of Athens. This endears the Umofian nation to Western readers, by making it more familiar and even culturally superior to the British invaders. But there is one major problem with that idea. "By circumscribing Achebe's book within European aesthetic traditions, such readings are in danger of perpetuating precisely the colonialist gestures that the book is designed to surmount." (Booker, 66) Western readers may be alienated by an unfamiliar society, but to cater to Western tastes, to Booker, is evidence of intellectual colonization.

Semiotics and Colonization
Gikandi claims that the semiotic codes in book (like breaking kola nuts, etc.) are intended to provide cultural background to the characters, warms that they should not be regarded merely as local color. They are included in the book to represent societal values, not exotic quirks. "After all, the most obvious sign of the destruction of Igbo culture and its authority is the repression of Igbo voices at the end of the novel when colonialism imposes its grammatology and henceforth represents the African as a subject with neither a voice nor a logos." (Gikanki, 33) The most profound and effective way to take control of someone is to control their speech. A language is not just a way to talk with another person; it reflects cultural information as well, it is the embodiment of the speakers' point of view. "When Umofia's scheme of meanings is colonized, the function of its culture is rapidly eroded." (Gikanki, 35) Another thing pointed out is the 'semiotics of the yam.' According to Gikani, the yams represent three things: manhood, prosperity, and control in society. Whenever they are mentioned, or used, they are always as one of these three signs.

About Chinua Achebe

General Statistics
Born in 1930 in Ogidi
Full name: Albert Chinualumogu Achebe.
Father: Christian evangelist and teacher
Education: in the colonial system, received a BA in 1953
Studied broadcasting with the BBC
1958: Things Fall Apart published, first book
1966 Man of the people published: first book set in post colonial Nigeria
Became highly involved in Nigerian politics
Achebe has written nearly 300 books about himself and his writing

Chinua as a post-colonial writer
"Achebe is aware that the acquisition of a speaking voice betrays his involvement with the process of destruction he records; that he can celebrate the value of Ibo culture only with he language tools acquired in the act of destroying it" (Wright, 77). Many critics agree on this point, that for Achebe, "To write is to reconcile oneself to a past foreclosed by the experience of colonialism; it is an archaeological gesture that seeks to recover the historicity of Igbo life and culture" (Gikanki, 25). Postcolonial writers are faced with the irony of using the tools of their destruction to recreate a foreclosed past, and also to reconcile themselves to it as well. "Achebe is aware that in gaining the voice to speak he reveals his involvement with the destruction which he records." (Gikanki, 49)


Achebe and the 20th century Ibgo society

"Achebe recalls that his parents looked down upon the "heathens" in their community who did not espouse Christianity, but he eventually came to wonder if "it isn't they who should have been looking down on us for our apostasy"…which mirrors the hybrid experience of the twentieth-century Igbo society as a whole…" (Booker, 80). Achebe is able to so completely record and create Igbo society because he has faced the general problems on a personal level. He has felt and lived in the questions colonialism brings up, and is able to use them to his advantage in recreating an unbiased past. "Achebe's advantage is that he is able to use with economy and confidence rituals and conventions each of which symbolizes the society his is describing." (Carroll, 34)

The politics and writing
When asked about his 21-year gap between Man of the People and Anthills of the Savannah, Achebe replied, "Well, it was a long period, but it was not a period of silence. The novel is not the only form of expression I have" (Jussawalla, 64). It seems like any post colonial writer becomes enmeshed in politics at one point or another, whether or not they intend to be involved. They become labeled as the Voice of the People, and have the role of activist thrust upon them. Here are some of Chinua Achebe's views on political topics:
*Achebe has noted that "It was not the intention of the British to practice their system in the colonies. They practiced a colonial system, a totalitarian system, whether in Africa or India or wherever." (Jussawalla, 66)
*He also said that, "I am so democratic that I will fight to the death to let my opponent have his say." (Jussawalla, 67).
* "(A leader alienated from his community" is perhaps the greatest evil, the worst consequence of colonization….One can see how the creation of a ruler who had no responsibility to his people came about as a consequence of the colonial system." (Jussawalla, 69)
*About his "British Protected Person" passport, Achebe has said, "That was an arrogant lie because I never did ask anyone to protect me. And to protect someone without his request or consent is like the proverbial handshake that goes beyond the elbow and begins to look like kidnapping" (Achebe, Home and Exile 103).


The Role of the Writer
Achebe has also spoken about his ideas on the role of a writer. Each writer has their own philosophy on what it means to be a writer, and their place in society. The following are quotes and ideas from Achebe on his views on writing, and the motivations and responsibilities involved.
* "It's not really for the novelist to say, "This is what you must to be saved."" (Jussawalla, 67)
* "Why, why, why are people so frightened of letting things that happen in real life happen in literature?" (Jussawalla, 73)
* "It is important that the storyteller tells the story the way he sees it, not the way the emperor wants it to be told." (Jussawalla, 81)
* "For me there are three reasons for becoming a writer. The first is that you have an overpowering urge to tell a story. The second, that you have the intimations of a unique story waiting to come out. And the third, which you learn in the process of becoming, is that you consider the whole project worth the trouble-I have sometimes called in terms of imprisonment-you will have to endure to bring it to fruition." (Achebe, Home and Exile 39)
* "But overwhelmed or merely undermined, literature is always badly served when an author's artistic insight yields place to stereotype and malice." (Achebe, Home and Exile 41)
*one of the tools of colonization is storytelling: make a more palatable story, justify their actions (Achebe, Home and Exile 60)
*On Elspeth Huxley: 'She was engaged in spinning stories to validate the transfer of African lands to white settlers. To put it rather brutally, she was engaged in forging fake title deeds." (Achebe, Home and Exile 68)

The influence of Mister Johnson
When the college class Achebe was in rebelled against the book, Mister Johnson, it deeply affected his ideas more than he realized at the time. "Here was a whole class of young Nigerian students, among the brightest of their generation, united in their view of a book of English fiction in complete opposition to their English teacher, who was moreover backed by the authority of metropolitan critical judgment" (Achebe, Home and Exile 23). But as much as this was a turning point for Achebe, he notes that "What Mister Johnson did for me was not to change my course in life and turn me from something else into a writer; I was born that way. But it did open my eyes to the fact that my home was under attack and that my home was note merely a house or a town…." (Achebe, Home and Exile 38)

General Quotes from Achebe
And at the end of this section of notes, are some general quotes from Achebe. I include them because I feel they express Achebe's personality. Because, after all, after all of the hats Achebe has worn, as respected writer, post-colonial spokesman, political activist and Nobel Prize winner, he is still a person, as we all are.
*About Naipal referring to Africans as monkeys and brutes: "He doesn't pull his punches, does he?" (Achebe, Home and Exile 89)
* "We don't all have to be run over by a car before we know that it is dangerous to stand in the middle of the road." (Jussawalla, 68)
* "I think what makes the ethos, climate, atmosphere in Things Fall apart appear more is that we are not familiar with it." (Jussawalla, 71)
* "…don't the environment and the character balance each other all the way?" (Jussawalla, 70)
* "There's always that possibility of things having a funny side." (Jussawalla, 73)
* "I'm so certain that self-righteousness is the worst possible thing that could happen to us." (Jussawalla, 73)


  Links

***Want to see what Achebe was writing about? Visit "The Development of Empire: Narratives of Colonialism and Resistance in British Literature"'s full text version of "Heart of Darkness " by Joeseph Conrad. This was set up by the lovely people at the University of Texas at Austin. Don't forget to visit their class site as well, which has lots of great postcolonial information and useful links!

**The Experience of Colonial Administrators as Portrayed in Colonial Fiction: Mister Johnson This site has a summary and commentary on teh book that Achebe rebelled against. Come here and see why!

**Also from the wonderful people in english 316 in Austin, this essay talks about Achebe's essay about Joeseph Conrad, "Heart of Darkness" and racism.

***Educeth's "The English Page" focused on Chinua Achebe and "Things Fall Apart" This link has lots of fun stuff, from facts about Chinua Achebe, to teaching ideas for "Things Fall Apart," even sound clips of Chinua himself. Also has links to excerpts from "Another africa", written by achebe, which has a bit on Conrad and "Heart of Darkness," and also has some pictures!

**This is another class site, this time from Central Oregon Community College. This page focuses on Chinua Achebe, as part of a larger series called "African Authors". It has lots of info on everything Chinua related. It's also a good place to go if you want to research the topic of African Authors.

***This leads to a decent resource for all topics related to Chinua Achebe, his writings, themes, Africa...the and list goes on! This leads to a page with a table with these topics and more.

**Books and Writer's Chinua Achebe page. A biographical essay about achebe, a bibliography of some of his writings, and a few links. Short but sweet.

**Chinua Achebe: the Things Fall Apart Study Guide. This has the full version of the Yeat's poem, the second coming, complete with notes, and chapter-by-chapter summaries of the book. Very good resource to help struggling students!

 

  Teaching

Ideas to consider:

Compare the Narrative voice in Things Fall Apart to the voice in Golding's Lord of the Flies. Both novels are narrated for most of the book in a voice that gets taken over by an outside voice at the end (the District Commisioner in Things Fall Apart and the Captain in Lord of the Flies. (Carroll, 59)). Why does the writer use this sturcure? How does it effect the ending? How would the ending be different if the narrator had not changed?

 

  Citations

 

Achebe, Chinua Home and Exile Oxford: Oxford University Press 2000

Achebe, Chinua Things Fall Apart New York Anchor Press 1994

Booker, M. Keith The African Novel in English: An Introduction Portsmouth: Heinemann 19??

Carroll, David Chinua Achebe 2nd ed. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1980

Egar, Emmanual Edame The Rhetorical Implications of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart Lanham: University Press of America 2000

Emenyonu, Ernest N. "Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart; A Classic Study in Colonial Diplomatic Tactlessness" in Chinua Achebe: A Celebration Oxford: Heinemann 1991

Ezenwa-Ohaeto Chinua Achebe: A Biography Oxford: James Currey 1997

Gikanki, Simon Reading Chinua Achebe: Language and Ideology in Fiction, London: James Currey

Jussawalla, Feroza and Dasenbrock, Reed Way "Chinua Achebe" in Interviews with Writers of the Post-Colonial World Jackson and London: University Press of Mississippi 1992

Lindfors, Bernth (ed.) Conversations with Chinua Achebe Jackson: University Press of Mississippi 1997

Ogbaa, Kalu Understanding Things Fall Apart: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents Westport: Greenwood Press 1999

Stock, A. G. "Yeats and Achebe" in Critical Perspectives on Chinua Achebe : Three Continents Press

Wright, Derek "Things Standing Together: a Retrospect on Things Fall Apart" in Chinua Achebe: A Celebration Oxford: Heinemann 1991

 

Colonial & Postcolonial Literary Dialogues

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