Achebe, Chinua 1930–
Achebe, a prize-winning Nigerian novelist, is best known for Things Fall Apart. His essentially political novels evoke traditional African culture in taut, balanced English prose. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
Achebe is critical of the Europeanizing of Africa, and of missionaries who fail to leaven their teachings with an understanding of Africanism.
Achebe's first novel, Things Fall Apart (London, 1958), derives its title from Yeats's poem, "The Second Coming," and conveys the dilemma of a man—an artist by virtue of his use of tradition as a fixed way of life—in conflict with the change that is revising his society. The action is placed in the Ibo village of Umuofia after the arrival of the white man at the beginning of the twentieth century. Written in three parts, the novel creates an idyllic picture of pre-Christian tribal life….
[This] novel is remarkable for its insights into traditional situations. The elements are familiar: a mythical village; the coming of the white men and Christianity; the admirable picture of African tribal life; and the inevitable racism when black and white meet. Although many other writers have portrayed men like Okonkwo, none has revealed the cast of his mind so skillfully. Okonkwo is not idealized but made real. What destroys him is his unyielding pride; he fails to adapt to any change. The tragedy is that Okonkwo is made of noble heritage that has somehow become cursed. Yet Okonkwo's tragedy is not merely personal: it is the end of the black individualist, the tribal chieftain, the traditional rule.
Achebe's second novel, No Longer at Ease (London, 1960), also takes its title from the work of a modern poet. The phrase comes from a line in T. S. Eliot's "The Journey of the Magi."… Again, Achebe is criticizing the modern white European for bringing Africa to the point of conversion and loss. In exchange for the dubious currency of a better material life, the young African has traded in the spirit of a traditional ethic….
Achebe's third novel, Arrow of God (London, 1964), goes back in time and setting to the Ibo villages of Things Fall Apart, and again pits a tribal chieftain against the changing realities of modern Africa. Ezeulu, the Chief Priest of Ulu and god of the six villages of Umuaro, plays the power game against his tribal rivals and against the British colonial system. Friendly to the British, Ezeulu finds that he must oppose them at the very moment they offer him more nominal power. The battle between them is symptomatic of the battle between tribal and modern life, between an independent and proud people and a colonial system that at best can only offer condescension, and between the old religions and the attractive economic assurance of Christianity…. As the novel ends, Ezeulu and the tradition he represents are both broken by the "arrow of God." As in Achebe's other novels, it is the strong-willed man of tradition who cannot adapt, and who is crushed by his virtues in the war between the new, more worldly order, and the old, conservative values of an isolated society. Achebe tends to see the white man as culprit, though not the only one, while the black man who follows or resists is lost and wandering in a stormy passage. It is Achebe's remarkable classical simplicity of style—the almost heroic calmness of his accusatory statement—that provides the richest kind of tension for his profoundly ambivalent portrayals.
Achebe's [next] book, A Man of the People (New York and London, 1966), reveals a further development of his double-edged and scarred compassion. In his first three novels Achebe clearly indicated a bias against the white European settler who had brought with him the seeds of war and corruption; whatever the faults of black tribalism, it had at least a tradition that ennobled and unified the Ibo people. In A Man of the People Achebe takes on the corruption of Nigerians in high places in the central government, but he in no way claims or deals with the white man's responsibility for this corruption. In this … novel, Achebe avoids practically all mention of the white man: again the milieu is a black man's society, only it is no longer a society in conflict, it is a society in transition. The twentieth century has come now to dominate Africa, and whoever's fault it is, Achebe does not care to say. What Achebe achieves here for the first time is a comic as well as critical treatment of the clever politician for whom the trappings of power are everything; in other words, Achebe is characterizing the pomposity and duplicity of modern African politicians.
Achebe could have gone another way. By indulging his obvious critical spirit against the white man's corroding effect on African tradition he could have become more and more of a propagandist…. He has instead shifted his emphasis to the comic aspects of human foibles in a threatening situation. Having had his say about the cause of the Nigerian corruption (the white man's decadence and the African's fall into temptation and submission to white power), evidently he now feels free to deal with corruption from the uncluttered viewpoint of a sardonic raconteur….
Eventually in this novel, as in all of Achebe's novels, the resolution is to withdraw the hero from the world of politics and action, either by death or imprisonment. In Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God the strong tribal leader is defeated, and his end is tragic and inevitable; in No Longer at Ease the young modern hero is an admixture of corruption and principles, and his role must lead him to an external prison where he can shake free the prison of his ambivalence. In A Man of the People the hero has found a modus operandi. He has his girl, his job, and his political cause. But, it is important to notice, while Odili remains politically committed, he is not politically active. The novel ends with the abolition of all political parties in a military state. Thus Achebe, even in this novel in which his hero is able to achieve some triumph through compromise (all his other heroes have been tragic heroes or misfits), portrays the modern Nigerian in a state of abeyance. The implications of the divorce from stately tribal traditionalism in the union of modern Nigeria are still present.
Martin Tucker, in his Africa in Modern Literature: A Survey of Contemporary Writing in English, Ungar, 1967, pp. 83, 87, 89-90, 90-1, 93.
Chinua Achebe … handles the dominant themes of African writing, commanding all the resources of a brilliant creative imagination from a classical sense of tragedy to ironic wit. In his first novel, Things Fall Apart, he shows at once a comprehensive insight into his characters. Their psychological make-up is never seen in isolation, as a neurotic phenomenon; his historical sense sets them at the axis of their time and place. He knows who they are, and why they are as they are; he shows them as stemming from the past, engaged with the forces of the present, and relevant to a future. He chooses as his hero what Hegel calls a world-historical figure, a man who, though not obscure, is not a king, not a history-maker in the obvious sense, but someone through whose individual life the forces of his time can be seen to interact….
In Things Fall Apart, Achebe's purpose was to show traditional life disintegrating; in Arrow of God his purpose is above all to reinstate the validity of life without the white man. He examines, through the ordinary devices of the psychological novel, the stresses and emotion problems of that life and the social order created to contain them. They are presented in themselves, in the tension of their own order, rather than in conflict with another. Although the actions of colonial administrators precipitate events in the novel, it is the events themselves and the Africans who deal with them who take up the foreground—the white men, prominent in Achebe's other books, this time remain curiously unimportant and remote.
Nadine Gordimer, in Michigan Quarterly Review, Fall, 1970, pp. 222-24.
Achebe is a quiet writer, and his prose is deceptively understated. Though the stories range over two decades, and some are clearly those of an apprentice writer, they are remarkable for consistency of style and point of view. "Girls at War" has a great deal to say to Americans about the new Africa, but it is first-rate fiction in its own right.
Jonathan Yardley, in New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 13, 1973, pp. 36-7.
Jean Jacques Rousseau uses the term "political alienation" to mean the political process of representation whereby a community allows its interests to be represented by a smaller group. It is in the light of this definition that I will consider the term and look at the novels of Chinua Achebe. Colonization offers a peculiar and extreme version of political alienation, producing in the colonized country rich social and psychological material. Achebe has tapped this material in his four novels in which he deals almost progressively with different stages of colonization in Nigeria from about 1890 to 1966. In the colonial situation, the will of the colonized people is alienated because their interests are perforce represented by a smaller group which is alien and foreign, of another culture and, in Nigeria's case, of another race. Needless to say that this governing group does not and cannot truly represent the interests of the colonized country. The effects on Nigerian society of the experience of political alienation can be said to be the subject of Achebe's works….
Contact with Christianity and Imperialism is used in Achebe's first novel, Things Fall Apart, to precipitate the tragic end of the main character, Okonkwo. We see in Things Fall Apart only the beginnings of the subjection of a people to an alien will….
The third novel, Arrow of God, takes up the study of the impact of colonialism where the first novel leaves off….
[In Arrow of God, Achebe] gives his record of colonization sharpness by showing how political change affected the religious life of a people and precipitates tragedy in the life of one man.
Corruption is the generating principle in the novel No Longer at Ease. The novel is patterned by an inquiry implied in the first scene: Why does an educated, idealistic young man end up receiving bribes? The rest of the novel is a long flash-back explaining why….
Achebe implies through the picture of society he presents that Obi Okonkwo's predicament is inevitable. He is morally isolated in a country of generalized corruption….
[A Man of the People] … is a satire on political motivations in post-independence Nigeria….
Odili, the graduate hero [in A Man of the People], believes like his counterpart in No Longer At Ease that the Western educated graduate is better able to rule the country because he has the élite mentality created by the colonialists…. [When Odili] goes into politics, it is not for the betterment of his people but for personal reasons of revenge or for showing the European that the African can rule himself. The condition of always reacting to criticism from Westerners and acting because of such criticism rather than for self-generated reasons is one of the most crippling cultural effects of colonialism….
[For Chief Nanga and his kind], nationalization means the transfer into native hands of those unfair advantages which the colonial group enjoyed.
It is evident from Achebe's novel that the national middle class has merely stepped in to the shoes of the former European administrators…. But unlike the European middle class, they are decadent from the outset because they do not go through the phases of exploration, invention and nation building which the European middle class experienced in its own country….
Achebe's novel A Man of the People, from its iornic title and fictive content, is an artistic vehicle deliberately applied to revealing these foibles of the greedy class who parody national governing in Nigeria….
To sum up, Achebe's work reveals the social and psychological effects of colonialism in Nigeria which bear upon the political life of the nation, in [A Man of the People]. In the first novel, we see the shock and impotence felt by a Nigerian society; then, in Arrow of God, we see colonialism tearing at the fabric of the familial, political and religious life of the people; in No Longer at Ease, the human psyche is now culturally ill at ease while a problematic élite is spawned on the nation; in A Man of the People, the society is shown to be politically decaying; responsible for the attitudes and the values of the characters is the political alienation of colonialism.
Omolara Leslie, "Nigeria, Alienation and the Novels of Chinua Achebe," in Black World (© June, 1973, by Black World; reprinted by permission of Black World and Omolara Leslie), June, 1973, pp. 34-43.