Study Guide

Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe Essay - Achebe, Chinua (Vol. 5)

Achebe, Chinua (Vol. 5)

Achebe, Chinua 1930–

Achebe, a Nigerian novelist, short story writer, poet, critic, teacher, and diplomat, writes richly anthropological fiction concerned with conflict caused by change. His successful first novel, Things Fall Apart, is still his best known work. See also Chinua Achebe Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 3, 7, 11, 26, 127.

Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart was published in England in 1958, two years before Nigerian independence. The price of the book was fifteen shillings, which placed it out of reach for the average Nigerian whose annual income in those days did not exceed seventy-five dollars. Achebe's novel, however, had been written not for a Nigerian reading audience nor even for an African reading audience, but, to a large extent, for readers outside of Africa. However, in 1960, when Nigeria became independent, the educational system began to reflect a sense of growing national pride; and in 1964,… Things Fall Apart became the first novel by an African writer to be included in the required syllabus for African secondary school students throughout the English-speaking portions of the continent. By 1965, Achebe was able to proclaim that his novel in a paper-backed reprint edition priced at a more moderate five shillings had the year before sold some 20,000 copies within Nigeria alone.

In the seven years during which this spectacular change had taken place, Chinua Achebe became recognized as the most original African novelist writing in English. He wrote and published three additional novels (No Longer at Ease, 1960; Arrow of God, 1964; and A Man of the People, 1966), and he became one of the first African writers to build up a reading audience among his fellow Africans. So famous and popular did he become within his own country, that by the time Achebe published his fourth novel it could no longer be said that he was writing for a non-African audience. Things Fall Apart during this time became recognized by African and non-African literary critics as the first "classic" in English from tropical Africa. So far did Achebe's influence extend that by the late 1960's his impact on a whole group of younger African novelists could also be demonstrated. (pp. 27-8)

Things Fall Apart has come to be regarded as more than simply a classic; it is now seen as the archetypal African novel. The situation which the novel itself describes—the coming of the white man and the initial disintegration of traditional African society as a consequence of that—is typical of the breakdown all African societies have experienced at one time or another as a result of their exposure to the West. And, moreover, individual Africans all over the continent may identify with the situation Achebe has portrayed. (p. 28)

Although Arrow of God is in some ways probably artistically superior to Things Fall Apart, it is fated to run a second place in popularity to Achebe's first work. [Things Fall Apart] may also be regarded as archetypal because of Achebe's reshaping of a traditional Western literary genre into something distinctly African in form and pattern. (p. 29)

Achebe's dialogue in Things Fall Apart is extremely sparse. Okonkwo [the protagonist] says very little at all; not of any one place in the novel may it be said that he has an extended speech or even a very lengthy conversation with another character. And as for authorial presentations of his thoughts, they are limited to two or three very brief passages. Indeed, Achebe relies for the development of his story usually on exposition rather than the dramatic rendering of scene, much as if he were telling an extended oral tale or epic in conventional narrative fashion—almost always making use of the preterit. Again and again the reader is told something about Okonkwo, but he rarely sees these events in action. (pp. 40-1)

I have … noted the strong aversion that many Western critics have toward the anthropological overtones present in African fiction, except for the anthropologist, of course, who is looking for this kind of thing. This aversion of the literary critics, however, is no doubt due to their equation of the anthropological with the local colorists at the end of the last century and the beginning of this one. However, in a work such as Things Fall Apart, where we are not presented with a novel of character, the anthropological is indeed important. Without it there would be no story. The only way in which Achebe can depict a society's falling apart is first by creating an anthropological overview of that culture, and it should be clear that it is not going to Okonkwo's story that Achebe is chronicling as much as the tragedy of a clan. It is the village of Umuofia, which has been sketched in so carefully, which he will now show as falling apart, crumbling from its exposure to Western civilization. (pp. 43-4)

The piling up of ethnological background, I suggest, is often the equivalent of atmospheric conditioning in Western fiction. Achebe's anthropological passages are what Hardy's descriptive passages are for him—equivalent to Hardy's evocation of atmosphere and mood. Indeed, it is extremely difficult to find a passage of pure description of a natural setting anywhere in Anglophone African writing of the first generation. There is very little that can be related to "landscape painting" in English fiction except for the anthropological passages. (p. 44)

The concluding chapter of Things Fall Apart is one of the highlights of contemporary African fiction. In less than three pages, Achebe weaves together the various themes and patterns he has been working with throughout much of his novel. Technically, the most significant aspect of this final chapter is Achebe's sudden shifts in point of view. (p. 57)

The shifting point of view back and forth between an African and a Western viewpoint symbolizes the final breakup of the clan, for Things Fall Apart, in spite of the subtitle on the first American edition, The Story of a Strong Man, is only in part Okonkwo's story, and, as we have noted, as the book progresses, the story becomes increasingly that of a village, a clan. Achebe clearly indicates this in the final paragraph of his novel where he reduces Okonkwo's story to nothing more than a paragraph in a history book, for history is facts and not individuals, and the history of the coming of the white man to Africa is not the story of the pacification of individuals but of entire tribes of people and even beyond that…. Achebe has moved throughout his book away from the individual (Okonkwo) to the communal (Umuofia) and beyond that to the clan. And in the last paragraph, the extension is even further beyond the Ibo of Southeast Nigeria to that of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger, ergo, the entire African continent.

The conclusion to Things Fall Apart has often been considered over-written, anti-climactic, unnecessarily didactic…. Certainly it can be argued that Achebe takes pains to make his message clear, but I feel that the shift to the District Commissioner's point of view strengthens rather than weakens the conclusion. It seems impossibile for any one to read Achebe's last chapter without being noticeably moved, and if it is didactic in the sense of tying things up a little too nicely, then I would have to insist that this was Achebe's intention from the beginning and not merely an accident because of his background of oral tradition…. Achebe has written … [that] the novelist in an emergent nation cannot afford to pass up a chance to educate his fellow countrymen…. [Furthermore], contemporary African literature and other forms of African art have inherited a cultural inclination toward the didactic which in regard to African tradition may be called functionalism.

The ending of Things Fall Apart also illustrates the dichotomy of interpretations which cultural backgrounds impose upon a reader. Most Western readers of Achebe's novel seem to interpret the story of Okonkwo's fall as tragic if not close to pure tragedy in classical terms. They cite Okonkwo's pride, his going against the will of the gods (for instance, breaking the Week of Peace, and killing Ikemefuna), and interpret the ending as tragic and inevitable, citing, usually, a parallel to Oedipus. Achebe's own feelings about Okonkwo and the conclusion to the novel, however, would tend to indicate a rather different interpretation. The most obvious clue is Achebe's title, Things Fall Apart, taken from William Butler Yeats's poem, "The Second Coming." Although Yeats's title may be applied ironically to Achebe's story, the indications are that Achebe views the new dispensation as something inevitable, perhaps even desirable. His criticism is clearly of the old way of life which is unsatisfactory now that the West has arrived. This interpretation is supported by several comments Achebe has made about his novel…. Lack of adaptability … is what Achebe implies led to the collapse of traditional Ibo society. (pp. 59-61)

Of the three major divisions of the book, only the trajectory of Parts II and III resembles the traditional Western well-made novel with conflict—obstacles to be overcome by the protagonist. Part I is especially loose, incorporating as it does section after section of anthropological background. The effect is, of course, to re-create the entire world of day-to-day existence in traditional Ibo society, and Achebe takes pains to make certain that the major stages of life are included: birth, marriage, and death. In the symbiosis which results, Umuofia, rather than Okonkwo, becomes the main character of Things Fall Apart, and the transformation it undergoes is archetypal of the entire breakdown of traditional African cultures under exposure to the West.

The novel itself, as I stated at the beginning, must also be regarded as archetypical for the form and patterns Achebe has given it. If we compare the novel very briefly with Joyce Cary's Mister Johnson it is readily evident that Things Fall Apart is not a story about a character as is Cary's novel and as I feel we tend to regard Western novels as being. For example, Achebe could never have called his novel Okonkwo, though it could have been given the name of Okonkwo's village if Achebe had thought that the situation did not extend beyond that one locale within Nigeria. Okonkwo himself does not alter at all throughout the novel. He is the same at the ending as he is at the beginning of the story. Thus, Things Fall Apart, because of its emphasis on community rather than individuality, is a novel of situation rather than of character, and this is undoubtedly its major difference from the traditional Western genre, which in the twentieth century, at least, has emphasized the psychological depiction of character. (pp. 62-3)

Let it simply be noted here that the situational plot is indeed the most typical narrative form one encounters in contemporary African fiction. The reason for this is that by and large the major theme of African writing to date has been the conflict of Africa with the West, whether this is shown in its initial stages, as in Achebe's Things Fall Apart, or at any one of several different later stages. All four of Achebe's novels are examples of the situational plot, for what happens is ultimately more significant for the group than for the individual whom Achebe uses to focus the situation. The significance, then, is felt by the village, the clan, the tribe, or the nation. (pp. 63-4)

Things Fall Apart does not necessarily give the impression that the story is "plotless" in spite of the fragmentary nature of many of the substories or tales…. Achebe's use of the proverb can act as a serious counterpart for the more continuous surface progression of the story…. The other unities which he relies on to give form and pattern to the story are the traditional oral tale or tale within a tale—a device no longer in favor with contemporary Western novelists, yet a convention at least as old as the "Man in the Hill" episode in Fielding's Tom Jones. The use of the leitmotif and its associations with stagnancy in Umuofia, masculinity, land, and yam also act as connective links throughout the narrative. It is because of these unities and others, which are vestiges of his own traditional culture, that Achebe's Things Fall Apart deserves its position in the forefront of contemporary African writing. Achebe has widened our perspective of the novel and illustrated how a typically Western genre may be given a healthy injection of new blood once it is reshaped and formed by the artist whose vision of life and art is different from our own. (pp. 64-5)

Achebe has increased the importance of dialogue in [Arrow of God]—especially dialogue which makes use of materials drawn from traditional oral literature such as the proverb. Hardly a page of his story passes without the presence of a proverb or two; sometimes there will be as many as half-a-dozen, piled one upon another…. The use of these oral examples is a primary means of characterization, and it is the adults in Achebe's novel who make the greatest use of these materials—giving the impression of great wisdom. The majority of the proverbs in Arrow of God are spoken as dialogue rather than as a part of authorial commentary. The unique aspect of Achebe's characterization, then, is his use of oral literary materials—far more frequently than almost all other African writers. (pp. 150-52)

Achebe's European characters in Arrow of God are generally a little less convincing than they could be, for, in truth, they are examined only from the outside, are stereotyped and one-dimensional, efficient little machines meant to do a job in the British Foreign Service, and, necessarily, I suppose, are in too many ways typical of the men who were in the colonial service. (p. 153)

Almost all—if not all—of Achebe's characters in A Man of the People are stereotypes, because with this novel Achebe moved into a new area: satire. In many ways the novel is his weakest so far, and I am convinced that its popularity with the African reading audience bears little correlation to its literary merits; however, the novel accomplishes exactly what it set out to do—satirize life in Nigeria in the mid-1960's. Many of the situations satirized can only be appreciated by someone who lived in Nigeria during those years: political corruption, the increasing bureaucracy, the postal strike, the census, the means of communication, the daily news media.

It probably is not fair to criticize Achebe's cardboard characters in A Man of the People, since satire rarely is built on believable characters. Even the fact that the story is told in the first person results in no great insight into Achebe's narrator, Odili Samalu, or any of the other characters. The thin story thread is more reminiscent of the novels of Cyprian Ekwensi than of Achebe's earlier works…. When the story line gets out of control, Achebe conveniently draws his political morality to an end by having the nation succumb to a military coup. In spite of the de-emphasis on character development, there is certainly more dialogue than Achebe has ever used before, especially in dialects such as Pidgin English, as a means of characterization. The conversation at times is witty, but the whole affair—Odili's entering politics because he has lost his girl—is unconvincing and rather overdrawn. Everybody gets satirized, however, educated and uneducated Africans, the British and the Americans, even the Peace Corps…. A Man of the People should be acknowledged for exactly what it is: an entertainment, written for Africans. Achebe no longer tries to explain the way it is, to apologize for the way things are, because this is exactly the point: this is the way things are. The characters are ineffectual, and Achebe's satire itself will be short-lived. The story and the characters have none of the magnitude or the nobility of those in Things Fall Apart or Arrow of God. (pp. 153-55)

Charles R. Larson, in his The Emergence of African Fiction, revised edition (copyright © 1972 by Charles R. Larson), Indiana University Press, 1972.

That Chinua Achebe is essentially a pessimistic writer is apparent both in terms of plot and theme. Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God portray the disruption caused by imperialism. In the first novel, Okonkwo, the protagonist, commits suicide; in the latter, Ezuelu's mind gives way under strain. No Longer at Ease, a study of deterioration under stress and temptation, ends with Okonkwo's grandson, Obiajulu, being found guilty of accepting bribes. A Man of the People, a criticism of political corruption, ends with Odili, the narrator through whom we follow the story, rejecting all public involvement and, disillusioned, going into voluntary exile.

Achebe's major awareness is of a heroic past and a debilitated present. (p. 95)

Achebe's sense of history is sophisticated, for he shows not only that the modern character is weak, but why it is weak. To appreciate his analysis fully, one must read all the novels and see them whole. Then, though the direct causes are personal, peculiar to the individual, be he an Odili or an Obiajulu, the indirect causes are more remote, impersonal, and historic. Achebe is more concerned [with presenting] the value of what was destroyed than [with dwelling] on who or what caused that destruction, but when we come to the historic factors, Achebe makes a criticism of colonialism, not so much one of economic exploitation and political suppression—Achebe avoids slogans and easy emotionalism—but of the destruction of social structure and cohesion. As a creative artist, Achebe is more concerned with the individual, so the destruction is shown as it works itself out in individual life and experience. By placing Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God in the background, we understand better No Longer at Ease and A Man of the People; by taking the measure of Okonkwo and Ezuelu, we can arrive at a fuller and more sympathetic understanding of Obi and Odili.

Achebe's protagonists are of two types. The heroes are past their prime, courageous, but [end] in defeat that is not only personal but marks the end of much of what they had known and loved. The anti-heroes are the successors, younger and weaker. They are sensitive, initially good intentioned, but being weak, end in failure. Though failing, they survive, disillusioned and damaged: the heroic mold has been shattered, the glory is past.

In Things Fall Apart (as in Arrow of God) frequent reference is made to the effeminacy of the younger generation. The passing of strength and courage is associated with, if not attributed to, Christianity, since, as preached in the colonies, it stressed meekness and the seeking of justice in a time other than the present and in a place other than this world: "To abandon the gods of one's father and go about with a lot of effeminate men clucking like old hens was the very depth of abomination"…. Christianity was also a divisive force, breaking up the unity of the clan, and making military and political conquest easier…. Obiajulu in No Longer at Ease sees death as release rather than tragedy. Conrad's Kurtz succumbs to the heart of darkness; ironically, Obi succumbs to "the incipient dawn"…. It is post-independence, deep disillusionment: the old home being broken was abandoned, and the new is but a mockery of hopes and expectations. The tragedy seems not only of individuals or of a particular society caught up in historic events, but of universal and permanent significance…. (pp. 107-08)

Charles Sarvan Ponnuthurai, "The Pessimism of Chinua Achebe," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by Critique, 1974), Vol. XV, No. 3, 1974, pp. 95-109.