Negotiating Culture in Things Fall Apart

Colonialism justifies its excesses by formulating narratives of the colonized, or the native, as “the other”: the primitive, cultureless, violent, and mute or nonsense babbling beast, waiting to be rescued by modern civilization. During the colonial period, literature perpetuated this image of the native: whether it is Bertha Mason in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre or the “half-caste”, a Judas figure who betrays the protagonist of Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, the native was rendered as monstrous, intellectually inferior and emotionally childish. The period after colonialism saw writers of colonies writing back against such portrayals of the native, overturning Western stereotypes, and defining the individual self and the community in their own terms. This saw the production of a lot of fresh literature, adaptations of western works and a new branch of study, Postcolonialism, which saw the breaking away from canonical literature and a re-thinking of many Eurocentric works of literature.

The African colonial situation was doubly oppressing because it was combined with racism. Though the situation in each country was different, the Scramble for Africa, which was formalized in the infamous Berlin Conference in 1884-5, saw the systematic suppression of the linguistic and cultural diversity of Africa. The effect of the arbitrary division of the continent and years of colonial suppression eroded Africa to such an extent that by the time each of its constituent countries had gained independence, “the realm had acquired a legacy of political fragmentation that could neither be eliminated nor made to operate satisfactorily” (Rosenberg). Literature portrayed the African as the antithesis of the European. Africa represented the darkness that the Victorian, civilized Englishman suppressed in his mother country. This image of the continent and its people narrated colonialism as a classic adventure story: the white man’s burden to civilize the uncouth masses of a dark continent. So when Chinua Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart in 1958, it was a canon-breaking, epoch-making novel, which inspired many writers to redefine the African and the African experience. It resulted in a proliferation of voices, each having a unique story to say, and each contributing to the breakdown of the dominant European narrative.

Any African writer will face tremendous challenges when composing a work that seeks to represent his culture. The subversion of the dominant European colonial discourse is just one of these. The constant temptation to idealize the native community and glorify African characters must be avoided. At the same time, the European should not be demonized for postcolonial literature to rise higher than the petty motives of colonial literature. The politics of language is a topic that has been hotly debated by many African writers: the choice of the African writer to write in English or in his native language is considered as nothing less than a political statement. The form of the novel also owes its roots to western literature. African literature is mainly oral. The way the African writer is able to manipulate a western form to suit a particular non-western condition is something he or she has to navigate carefully. The work must be accessible to any reader, while at the same time, not depriving it of its indigenous flavour. Then, there is the overarching question of representing the postcolonial experience: the African experience has irrevocably changed after colonization. Its culture has been forever changed, and the individual has undergone substantial changes. When an African writer strives to represent his or her culture, there is the great responsibility of providing justice to his or her representation of this changing African experience, as it contributes to the contemporary discourse on Africa.

During his years in college, Achebe encountered a lot of canonical literature which portrayed the African as a primitive, wild, grunting animal, such as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson, as well as works of non-fiction like Hegel’s The Philosophy of History, which asserted that the notion of universal mankind has to be discarded because the Negro represents man in his natural and untamed self, and any attempt to understand him should disregard questions of morality and emotions. Achebe realized that the African can only be accurately represented by another African: “…the story we had to tell could not be told for us by anyone else no matter how gifted or well intentioned” (Achebe 1988, 25), and he decided to “write back”. Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is phenomenal not just because it was one of the first of its kind attempts, but because it is able to overcome each of these difficulties that an African writer faces. Through this paper, I would like to show how Achebe negotiates these issues and faithfully represents the Ibo culture through an analysis of the structure of the novel, the way he addresses the cultural tension between the European and the African by his depiction of Christianity and Ibo religion, and by viewing Okonkwo and the other characters of the novel as representatives of Ibo culture.

Achebe has come under criticism from his contemporaries for writing in English, especially from Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who feels that language was the “most powerful vehicle” through which the colonialist “power fascinated and held the soul prisoner” (Thiong’o 265), and thus, English contributed to a break in the harmony with the language of indigenous culture. He goes on to argue how language was used to perpetuate colonial domination: “language and literature were taking us further and further from ourselves to other selves, from our world to other worlds” (Thiong’o 266). Achebe counters this attack by arguing that the assertion that only an African language can express the African sensibility ignores the reality of the “linguistic plurality of modern African states” (Achebe 1989, 271). While this argument may be problematic to some, Achebe is able to transcend the barrier of a foreign language as a mode of indigenous cultural expression in Things Fall Apart, as well as adapt the form of the novel to suit the culture he is representing.

The title and epigraph of the novel is taken from W. B. Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming”. Achebe invokes Yeats’ view of the historical process, in which the end of one epoch signifies the beginning of another. There is a sense of breakdown in both works, and Achebe also alludes to Yeats’ position as an anti-colonist. However, by placing Yeats’ lines in a completely different context, the very framework of the poem is questioned as he transpositions “the centre” from Europe to Africa, questioning centuries of an established notion of Europe as the centre of the universe. It also inverts the notion of the white man’s burden by showing how the arrival of the European caused a cataclysmic change in the self-sufficient and culturally rich Ibo society. He does something similar by borrowing Tennyson’s phrase from “In Memoriam”, “red in tooth and claw” (Achebe 2012, 12), using it the way he did: to describe nature’s savagery. Achebe’s writing is a combination of both references to English literature and Ibo myths to emphasize the common thread of emotions and experiences that connect both diverse cultures. Achebe is also in a particular position because the hybrid nature of the postcolonial can be expressed only through a creation of an indigenous narrative while also situating it in the paradigm of English literature so as to not render it obscure.

The novel form is also manipulated to emphasize the African setting and content. The fact that conversation is regarded very highly among the Ibo people is established in the first chapter itself, coupled with the practice of “circling round the subject and then hitting it finally” (Achebe 2012, 6). Part One of the novel uses these “circumlocutory rhetorical techniques…that are an integral part of the oral culture that is being represented” (Whittaker & Msiska 30) to replicate oral African tradition. The story doesn’t progress in linear time, but is instead, slowly unveiled, going back and forth in time. The culture and practices of the community is meticulously detailed before the plot picks up pace, and is thus rendered central to the narrative. With the arrival of the white man and his “chirographic culture, the narrative loses much of its circularity” (Whittaker and Msiska 30). The narrative itself is structured in such a way so as to symbolize the sudden anarchy loosed upon the Ibo world: a part of the culture symbolically dies, probably pointing to the later establishment of missionary schools and the primacy of the written word. Ibo orality influences the prose of the novel with the incorporation of Ibo sayings, expressions and descriptive words, like “the lizard that jumped from the high iroko tree to the ground said he would praise himself if no one else did” and “you can tell a ripe corn by its look” (Achebe 2012, 20). These usages discard English expression to establish Ibo language as sufficient in its ability to provide expression to universal tendencies, while also being able to render the Ibo emotion in a way that English cannot. Achebe also weaves in traditional songs and folk tales into the narrative, like Nwoye’s mother’s story about the quarrel between the earth and the sky, and the song sung by the musician after the bride arrives during Obierika’s daughter’s marriage ceremony. This is a counter-narrative to the European presumption that Africa had no literature of its own. Traditional folk tales had been passed down from generation to generation, teaching the community its most treasured values, and songs changed with season and style. Achebe shows the Ibo community as rich in literature and culture, just that their literature is different from the European’s because it is oral and follows a different structure and style.

Achebe is considered to be twice removed from native culture because of his Eurocentric education and Christian upbringing, and has been accused of not being able authentically represent Africa because he has been Anglicized. However, his position helps him to impartially depict certain situations impartially. His narrative technique is also a combination of an involved insider and a detached outsider: there is a juxtaposition of an acceptance of myth as legend as well as use of phrases like “these people” and “among the Ibo” (Achebe 2012, 9 and 6). His position allows him to represent the cultural tension between the European and the Ibo in terms of conflicting religions. Missionary activities were one of the first measures undertaken by the colonizer to subjugate the native. Christianity was proclaimed as the one true religion, and the white man’s burden to rescue the colonized from their heathen practices led to a disturbance of the endemic order of things. Things Fall Apart also shows the degradation of Ibo society through the arrival of Christian missionaries. A major part of the novel is spent in descriptions of religious rituals and beliefs. According to Raisa Simola, who wrote World Views in Chinua Achebe’s Works (1995), “The Igbos recognize three kinds of reality…the physical, the spiritual and the abstract” (Morrison 45). Their worldview is in direct contrast to the European idea of the dichotomy of body and mind, the physical and the spiritual. Translating between “these radically different cultures” is difficult, as Simola observes; words like “God and spirit in English” do not have “precise corresponding Igbo” words (Morrison 44). The native religion is presented as sophisticated and ritualistic. There is no single supreme God, but different gods based on the economic activities of the Ibos and the elements of nature. The egwugwu shows the connection between the spirit and body, the dead and alive and reality and role-play that recurs throughout the narrative about the Ibos. Theirs is a world in which different realities exist together, and even the unseen is taken as a part of their concrete existence. The funeral of Ezeudu is an occasion of performance and celebration, commemorating the idea that the dead never truly depart from the world of the living. Achebe represents the Igbo religion in all its complexities, not leaving out its dark side, like abandoning twins in the Evil Forest and killing Ikemefuna to fulfil the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves.

It is precisely the complex and layered nature of Igbo religion that prevents an accommodation with Christianity. The missionaries who arrive are not able to comprehend the religion at all or concede that it has any virtues to offer. Even Mr. Brown, the moderate missionary, is closed to anything that he can learn from the religion. For a conversation on an equal wavelength to be possible, Akunna has to improvise a notion of a supreme God by calling Chukwu the God of gods, when, in strict terms, no such concept exists among the people. Achebe also takes into consideration the fact that missionary activities and religious domination were only heralding the economic and political dominance that would be established later. Formal education was imparted to Christian converts, and they were also given jobs with the newly rising administration. The intermingling of trade, religion and English education transformed the culture of the Ibos. The error with the Ibos was that they failed to realize the powerful connection that religion always has with economics and politics. With an acceptance of Christianity, the erosion of their culture and the establishment of new systems of trade and administration are inevitable.

The final way which I will analyze Achebe’s depiction of culture is through an analysis of the Ibo characters in the novel as embodiments of their culture. For this, Okonkwo will be positioned in opposition to the other characters of the text, to show that Okonkwo is not an accurate and complete representation of the Ibo culture. Rather, it is characters like Ikemefuna and Obierika who truly embody all that Umofia values.  Okonkwo is both a product of his society and its values. Desperate to live down the legacy of his unsuccessful father, he rules his famiy with a “heavy hand” (Achebe 2012, 12) and farmed yams, which had been culturally reified as a symbol of manliness: “yam, the king of crops, was a man’s crop” (Achebe 2012, 21). However, Okonkwo only embodies the male values of his society. His success is measured in the male realms of farming yams, wrestling, warfare, having multiple wives and great wealth. The assertion in the beginning of the novel that he was a man who is destined to be great is a “result of his conformity to his society’s ideals of masculinity and patriarchal hegemony” (Whittaker and Msiska 8). The idea that Okonkwo is the heroic embodiment of the community’s ideals becomes problematic as the novel progresses. While Umofia is a society which is dominated by male hegemony and patriarchal institutions, the “female principle in the metaphysical, ontological and cosmological systems” (Whittaker and Msiska 10) that govern culture is elaborately documented by Achebe. Okonkwo is unable to communicate verbally in a society which values conversation. He is posited in opposition to his father and his son, Unoka and Nwoye, because they rebel against the rigid notion of masculinity he embodies. His beating of his wife during the Week of Peace and his constant association which sometimes leaps out of the boundaries accepted by Ibo society is proof that Okonkwo is not an accurate embodiment of the culture, but a hyper-representative of its male principle, as well as its anxieties and insecurities. His tragic flaw is that he is unable to reconcile with the female principle that Ibo culture values and reveres.

It is characters like Ikemefuna, Obierika and Ogbuefi Ezeudu who symbolize the harmonious co-existence of both the male and female principle, which is central to Ibo culture. Ikemefuna is the son that Okonkwo always desired: he works hard and is an inspiration to Nwoye. The hours Okonkwo spent with Ikemefuna and Nwoye after a day of work was a brief, content and idyllic time. His death symbolizes the eternal suppression of the female principle in Okonkwo. Ogbuefi Ezeudu advises Okonkwo to not accompany those going to kill Ikemefuna: “that boy calls you father.Do not bear a hand in his death” (Achebe 2012 51). Obierika repeatedly appears as a foil to Oknonkwo’s excesses at crucial junctures of the novel. Okonkwo’s rage and violence only serves to highlight Obierika’s moderation. When Ikemefuna is killed, Obierika remarks, “if the Oracle said that my son should be killed I would neither dispute it nor be the one to do it” (Achebe 2012, 61).

Things Fall Apart ends in tragedy, with the death of traditional culture under emerging colonialism. Okonkwo’s suicide shows the death of a culture, as well as the replacement of one male principle with another. The violent pacification undertaken by the British to colonize Nigeria results in the suppression of the female as well as the male principles of Ibo, and the implementation of aggressive male oppression. Achebe ends the novel with a mention of the book the District Commissioner plans to write, “The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger” and his contemplation of whether he should write a “whole chapter” or a “reasonable paragraph” on Okonwko (Achebe 2012, 187). Achebe shows the effective silencing of the “primitive tribes” for the years that colonialism would hold an iron grip over the continent. But it also refers to the vocabulary that would enable Achebe to write Things Fall Apart. The greatest tragedy of Things Fall Apart is that with the silencing of the native, the language of the colonizer is needed to write back to ideas of the colonial world. The culture that Achebe represents is lost forever.

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. 23rd ed. New Delhi: Allied Publishers, 2012. Print.

—. Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays 1965-1987. Oxford: Heinemann, 1988. Print.

—“The Politics of Language”. From ‘Politics and Politicians of Language in African Literature’. Ed. Killam, Doug. FILLM Proceedings. Guleph, Ontario: University of Guleph, 1989. Print.

Morrison, Jago. The Fiction of Chinua Achebe. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Print.

Rosenberg, Matt. “Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 to Divide Africa: The Colonization of the Continent by European Powers”. About Education. <http://geography.about.com/cs/politicalgeog/a/berlinconferenc.htm>. Web.

Thiong’o, Ngugi wa. “The Language of African Literature”. Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. London: James Currey, 1981. Print.

Whittaker, David and Msiska, Mpalive-Hangson. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Oxon: Routledge, 2007. Print.

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