Study Guide

Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe Essay - Achebe, Chinua (Vol. 7)

Achebe, Chinua (Vol. 7)

Achebe, Chinua 1930–

Achebe, a Nigerian novelist, poet, and short story writer, records transition, transformation, and tragedy in the modern history of his people. It has been noted that "his realistic treatment of Nigerian life is as valuable anthropologically and sociologically as it is creatively." See also Chinua Achebe Criticism (Volumne 1), and Volumes 3, 5, 11, 26, 127.

Things Fall Apart was criticized by a European scholar and critic in residence in Nigeria for showing a lack of understanding of the religious organization of the Ibo. In his third novel, Arrow of God (1964), Achebe … does give a rather full account of the religious institutions of his grandfather's people. He does not, however, present these institutions in a scholarly manner, but rather as dimensions of the soul and complications in the lives of Nigerian villagers between the two world wars that still, in different ways, both plague and enrich educated Nigerian sensibilities. (p. 86)

Now that the passionate battles between the spiritual forces have been silenced, a latter-day Nigerian imagination like Achebe's cannot, perhaps, do better than to return to the life of the villages in art. Some of our generation, writers of our Western tradition, are fond of quoting the German poet Hölderlin, himself obsessed by the retreat of the gods—the eponymous poet of a dry time, the perennial romantic who feels he has been born too late. Just as Hölderlin was fond of celebrating the feasts of the ancients to which the Greek gods were invited, occasions which seemed to him to produce states of being equivalent to the most joyous pinnacles of his own inner life, so Achebe and others of his generation celebrate their theophanies. (p. 92.)

The festivals have lost their power, but not their meaning. The ancient scarified faces of the gods have been superseded; the carvings that were their vehicles have been replaced by others, and again by others. Most recently they have been carved out of the irony of words….

Perhaps someday Achebe will turn his attention to Christian religious institutions as vehicles for the exploration of his father Isaac's psychology. Here and there Achebe has already hinted at the inner anatomy of the sort of youth who out of a rebellious sense of insufficiency flees to Christianity as a refuge from a sterner, more exacting way of life, a youth who as a man tries to crush out the new ways of feeling among a pious, if promiscuous, generation of the future which equates Western Christianity with colonialism and seeks a sophisticated dialectical return to African forms of belief. (p. 93)

Judith Illsley Gleason, in her This Africa: Novels by West Africans in English and French (copyright © 1965 by Judith Illsley Gleason), Northwestern University Press, 1965.

Each of Achebe's novels sheds light on a different era in the recent history of Nigeria. Things Fall Apart (1958) is set in a traditional Ibo village community at the turn of the century when the first European missionaries and administrative officials were beginning to penetrate inland. In Arrow of God (1964) the action takes place in a similar environment about twenty-five years later, the major difference being that the missionaries and district officers have by this time become quite firmly entrenched. Achebe switches to an urban scene in No Longer at Ease (1960) in order to present a picture of the life of an educated Nigerian in the late nineteen-fifties. He brings the historical record right up to contemporary times in A Man of the People (1966), a devastating political satire that ends with a military coup. Achebe's novels read like chapters in a biography of his people and his nation since the coming of the white man.

What gives each of Achebe's novels an air of historical authenticity is his use of the English language. He has developed not one prose style but several, and in each novel he is careful to select the style or styles that will best suit his subject. In dialogue, for example, a Westernized African character will never speak exactly like a European character nor will he speak like an illiterate village elder. Achebe, a gifted ventriloquist, is able to individualize his characters by differentiating their speech. Of course, any sensitive novelist will try to do this, but most novelists do not face the problem of having to represent in English the utterances of a character who is speaking another language. To resolve this problem, Achebe has devised an African vernacular style which simulates the idiom of Ibo, his native tongue. (pp. 73-4)

It is my contention that Achebe, a skillful artist, achieves an appropriate language for each of his novels largely through the use of proverbs. Indeed, Achebe's proverbs can serve as keys to an understanding of his novels because he uses them not merely to add touches of local color but to sound and reiterate themes, to sharpen characterization, to clarify conflict, and to focus on the values of the society he is portraying. Proverbs thus provide a "grammar of values" by which the deeds of a hero can be measured and evaluated. By studying Achebe's proverbs we are better able to interpret his novels. (p. 77)

Sometimes in Achebe's novels one finds proverbs expressing different views on the same subject. Examined closely, these proverbs can provide clues to significant differences in outlook or opinion which set one man apart from others. (p. 80)

Bernth Lindfors, "The Palm-Oil with Which Achebe's Words Are Eaten" (originally published in African Literature Today, No. 1, 1968), in Folklore in Nigerian Literature (copyright © 1973 by Bernth Lindfors; published by Africana Publishing Company, a division of Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Africana, 1973, pp. 73-93.

[In The Igbo of Southeast Nigeria], Victor Uchendu has said that "Human interdependence is a constant theme in the folklore of the Igbo. It is the greatest of all values for them." This is true not only of Igbo folklore but of the novels by Chinua Achebe, who emphasizes the need for human interdependence by his judicious use of Igbo ílú or proverbs and by his development of imagery which parallels in tone or form the traditional sayings of his people….

The majority of Achebe's proverbs—those drawn from ílú used among the Igbo in general, those of Achebe's Awka-Onitsha area, and those which he created or modified—and his other figures of speech serve to further the central purposes of his novels. They lend realism to the dialogue, first and foremost, as anyone even slightly familiar with Igbo speech realizes; the proverbs also function as metaphors to concretize description in a customary manner and, now and then, to make ironic commentary upon situations which arise in the course of the plots; finally, the figures stress the plot and problems of the stories, most of them repeating in slightly differing form the points emphasized by the sayings [Achebe uses]. (p. 109)

It is noteworthy that in Achebe's novels educated characters use proverbs less frequently. This suggests that they have lost the gift of poetic speech because they have become acculturated by contact with and adoption of European values. In this there is implicit criticism of European values inherent in the language (English), as well as less familiarity on the part of Achebe with English and other European proverbs. Nonetheless, English-speakers do not often speak proverbially or figuratively, save in some slang, which is usually considered of a lower order in language hierarchies. Achebe also links proverbial speech directly with Igbo, often to indicate when a person is speaking in Igbo rather than in English. (p. 110)

It is this gracefulness of language resulting from Achebe's use of proverbs which quite definitely "Africanizes" his writings in English, even though English is not suitable otherwise for the conveyance of Igbo or other African modes of thought. Moreover, one will not go too far astray in suggesting that Achebe's use of the traditional ílú gives him a nicely realized opportunity to reveal his "proper sense of history," without which, he has argued, the African novelist cannot truly "explore in depth the human condition." (p. 111)

Austin J. Shelton, "The 'Palm-Oil' of Language Proverbs in Chinua Achebe's Novels," in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. XXX-1969, pp. 86-111.

The whole question of the chi is one which comes into much of Achebe's writing, and perhaps it is worth while to try to see what the chi is. The Ibo have many gods, and the Supreme Being is Chukwu. Apart from the whole pantheon of gods, however, is the chi, which Margaret Green in Ibo Village Affairs … defines as 'the personal spirit which everyone has and which is in the nature both of a creating and a guardian spirit'. Some critics have described the chi as the 'Conscience' but this word—essentially Christian—does not seem very accurate. The term chi appears to be closer to a concept of the unconscious mind or perhaps to the Ijaw idea of the teme, the steersman of the soul, the deepest inner nature, the part of the human spirit that decides a man's fate before his birth. (p. 103)

Beyond Achebe's portrayal of the old Ibo society or his portrayal of a contemporary society in the throes of transition, there is one theme which runs through everything he has written—human communication and the lack of it. He shows the impossibly complicated difficulties of one person speaking to another, attempting to make himself known to another, attempting to hear—really to hear—what another is saying. In his novels, we see man as a creature whose means of communication are both infinitely subtle and infinitely clumsy, a prey to invariable misunderstandings. Yet Achebe's writing also conveys the feeling that we must attempt to communicate, however imperfectly, if we are not to succumb to despair or madness. The words which are spoken are rarely the words which are heard, but we must go on speaking.

In Ibo villages, the men working on their farm plots in the midst of the rain forest often shout to one another—a reassurance, to make certain the other is still there, on the next cultivated patch, on the other side of the thick undergrowth. The writing of Chinua Achebe is like this. It seeks to send human voices through the thickets of our separateness. (pp. 124-25)

Margaret Laurence, "The Thickets of Our Separateness," in her Long Drums and Cannons: Nigerian Dramatists and Novelists (© 1968, in London, England, by Margaret Laurence), Frederick A. Praeger, 1969, pp. 97-125.

The immediate subject of Chinua Achebe's novels is the tragic consequences of the African encounter with Europe—this is a theme he has made inimitably his own. His novels deal with the social and psychological conflicts created by the incursion of the white man and his culture into the hitherto self-contained world of African society, and the disarray in the African consciousness that has followed.

But a novelist deals not only with situations but also, and above all, with individuals. And it is precisely the cycle created by the responses of men to the pressure of events, their evolutions at significant levels of feeling and thought, that makes the real world of the novel. The importance of Chinua Achebe's novels derives not simply from his theme, but also from his complete presentation of men in action, in living reaction to their fate, as well as from his own perception that underlies his imaginative world and confers upon it relevance and truth. (p. 167)

Things Fall Apart is the tragedy of one man, worked out of his personal conflicts—his neurosis, almost—as well as out of the contrariness of his destiny. Yet the title is not without relevance, for the novel does have another dimension, that of social comment. Okonkwo's suicide is a gesture that symbolises at the same time his personal refusal of a new order, as well as the collapse of the old order which he represents. For Okonkwo's inflexibility, his tragic flaw, is a reflection of his society; his defect, though a deformation, derives from a corresponding trait in his society, an aspect of it pushed to its extreme logical frontiers.

It is true, of course, that Achebe presents the society as one that has positive qualities of its own. The coherence and order that make social life one long ceremonial, the intense warmth of personal relationships and the passionate energy of the religious life, all these reveal the other side of the coin. But if the social structure is carefully reconstructed—with a fondness that at least reveals, if it does not betray, the author's attachment to his social background—so also is the suddenness of the final bolt that strikes it carefully prepared for the disastrous effect it is going to have, the cracks in the edifice where the falling apart begins being carefully shown up. (p. 171)

Things Fall Apart turns out to present the whole tragic drama of a society, vividly and concretely enacted in the tragic destiny of a representative individual. This use of an individual character as a symbolic receptacle, the living theatre, of a social dilemma, is what gives Achebe's novels their real measure of strength—it explains what for me is the weakness of his second novel: No Longer at Ease, and the achievement of his third novel, Arrow of God. (p. 171-72)

Achebe has justly been called a chronicler, for in the last resort he is not dealing simply with the collapse of African society, but with its transformation. He is examining from the inside the historical evolution of African society at its moments of crisis, and the inevitable tensions attendant upon this process. In the final analysis, his novels reveal the intimate circumstances of the African Becoming. (p. 178)

Abiola Irele, "Chinua Achebe: The Tragic Conflict in His Novels," in Introduction to African Literature: An Anthology of Critical Writing from "Black Orpheus," edited by Ulli Beier (copyright © 1967 by Ulli Beier and Mbari), Northwestern University Press, 1970, pp. 167-78.

Chinua Achebe's first novel, Things Fall Apart is unquestionably his best. Never again was he to demonstrate such mastery of plot construction, such keen psychological insight, and such an ability to hold his themes steadily before his mind and pursue them convincingly to a logical conclusion. Things Fall Apart derives its strength from the quality of the author's perception of the social forces at work in an ancient and proud society, and from his admirable knowledge of human psychology shown in the development of Okonkwo's character. There are distinct affinities between the work of Achebe and that of Hardy. Both show a keen awareness of the movement of social forces and their effect on the destiny of ordinary people. (p. 48)

The theme of the novel is stated clearly on page 160: 'He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.' With the arrival of the white man and his new religion and administration, traditional society's cracks and weaknesses, hitherto concealed by the common fear of the ancestors and the gods, break open and the once-stable community collapses. In order to impress on the reader the tragedy of its collapse, Achebe devotes great skill in evoking his society as it used to be; and this is one of the reasons for the novel's enduring appeal. Those who open this novel hoping to find a description of noble savagery where the tensions of modern Western society do not exist, are likely to be disappointed. Umuofia society is proud, dignified, and stable, because it is governed by a complicated system of customs and traditions extending from birth, through marriage to death. It has its own legal, educational, religious, and hierarchical systems, and the conventions governing relations between the various generations are as elaborate as any to be found in a Jane Austen novel. (pp. 48-9)

There is a school of social anthropologists who rhapsodize over traditional African society seeing it as a welcome antidote to the materialism and commercial technology of Western society, with its morbid preoccupation with worldly possessions, status symbols, rapid promotion, and all the trappings of the rat-race. Such anthropologists are likely to have second thoughts on reading Things Fall Apart, for this society is just as competitive, just as materialistic, and just as concerned with status as any to be found in the Western world. (pp. 51-2)

The apparent prosperity of this society is overshadowed by the everbrooding presence of danger, fear, and death. There was the fear of evil and capricious gods and magic, the fear of the forest, and 'of the forces of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw'. It is fear, especially the fear of the gods and of evil, that motivates the many acts of apparent brutality in this community. (p. 52)

It is a mark of Achebe's intelligent objectivity, that conscious though he is of the strength and stability of traditional Umuofia society, he is not blind to its brutality. He does not merely record these instances of savagery without implying any judgement, for he carefully leaves clues and hints, structural as well as textual, as comments on the nature of the society he describes. (pp. 52-3)

The need for sociological detail to create a sense of society dictates the novel's construction. The first part may appear sluggish, with a number of apparently irrelevant digressions, while the second moves with astonishing rapidity and is much more unified. This is necessary, for Achebe is not concentrating on action in the first part, but on the evocation of Ibo society which requires the description of episodes some of which, like Ezinma's illness, or the trial scene, could even be transposed elsewhere, without materially damaging the story. (p. 61)

In a sense, Achebe could not avoid using proverbs since they are highly prized in the society he has set himself the task of portraying. He tells us himself that the art of conversation is highly regarded among the Ibos and 'proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten'…. Proverbs do not merely convey a quaint charm, nor are they only part of the elaborate conventions of Ibo society, they have a very important rôle to play in conversation and are an indispensable aspect of Achebe's style. (pp. 61-2)

As in Things Fall Apart, Achebe's insight into the working of social forces shapes [No Longer At Ease]. The novel derives its interest largely from this social analysis. But No Longer At Ease has flaws. Firstly, the hero is weak and insufficiently realized…. The failure to take us close enough to Obi's consciousness is the basic cause of our ignorance of the mainspring of the hero's actions and this, in its turn, results in a number of psychological implausibilities in the novel. (pp. 68-9)

Another major flaw is the imperfect blending of the two main themes. Achebe wishes to show that Obi's love affair with Clara is destroyed by his society's conservatism. However, Achebe does not demonstrate that social forces are to blame…. The affair is destroyed, not by the clash between the old and the new, but by Clara's unreasonable behaviour.

The third major weakness of the novel is structural. No Longer at Ease is too episodic to form a coherent whole. We saw in our study of Things Fall Apart that although some of the scenes were not causally related and could be transposed without materially affecting the novel's meaning, yet each was absolutely necessary in the presentation of Okonkwo and his society. With No Longer At Ease, some of the scenes are not only transposable, but are also irrelevant. (pp. 69-70)

Finally, Achebe does not seem to have been able to resist melodramatics, for example, Obi's outburst at the meeting of the Umuofia Progressive Society, or the scene in which Clara returns Obi's ring.

What gives this novel its interest is Achebe's social concern and his terse, ironic, lucid, unpretentious style. His scintillating wit, which is itself the index of his objectivity and maturity of outlook, is everywhere apparent. (p. 71)

Thematically A Man of the People belongs to the same tradition as Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease…. Stylistically, however, A Man of the People is very different from the earlier novels. Firstly, it is a first person narrative; secondly, it is that rare bird in the corpus of African literature—a comic novel. After the tragic grandeur of Things Fall Apart and the pessimism of No Longer At Ease, it is refreshing to turn to a novel which occasionally stirs a belly laugh. One of the puzzles of African literature is that our verbal humour never seems to carry through to our writing. Perhaps we take ourselves and our leaders far too seriously to expose them publicly in a comic novel, although we are quite prepared to caricature them in private. However, African intellectuals are becoming more ready to laugh at aspects of their society—witness the publication of four satirical novels: A Man of the People, Mission to Kala, The Interpreters, and The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. (pp. 72-3)

[Despite its humour], A Man of the People looks like a tract for the times in which Achebe's dominant preoccupation is the exposure of the evils of his country's political system. But he is so full of his didactic mission that he fails to create situations, characters, and a plot which can convincingly carry the message. Consequently, the political intention is always obtrusive, especially in the last sections of the novel, where Achebe becomes more of a journalist than a novelist. One is disappointed not to see more of the process whereby law and order broke down. The conclusion of the novel is also unsatisfactory, for if Chief Nanga deserved to end on the rubbish heap, Odili did not deserve much better.

The weaknesses of A Man of the People should not blind us to its merits, although it is a flawed work, it is a necessary and an important one. (p. 84)

Eustace Palmer, "Chinua Achebe," in his An Introduction to the African Novel (copyright © 1972 by Eustace Palmer; published by Africana Publishing Company, a division of Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Africana, 1972, pp. 48-72.

Chinua Achebe, undoubtedly the best contemporary African novelist, has been most renowned for his ability to record with loving accuracy the cultural tradition of his people. Yet … history has vehemently intruded. Achebe was one of the major spokesmen for the abortive breakaway of the state of Biafra from the Nigerian Federation. The title of [his] first book of poems, Christmas in Biafra and Other Poems, sets the balance of his interest: the potential poet at the service of the national disaster of his country. Again it may be hard for some to distinguish between concern for the subject and concern for the poetry. The agonizing memory of those photographs of pot-bellied starving Biafran children is too vivid for us to be neutral and perhaps makes us hesitate to judge the potential sentimentality of

          No Madonna and Child could touch
          that picture of a mother's tenderness
          for a son she soon would have to forget.

Perhaps it is the agony of the context, the potential passion deriving from the anguish of contemporary history, which confirms that the simplicity of Achebe's lines is not accidental but the result of an urgent control over emotions that threaten to drown all poetic organization and structure by their intrusive intensity. Consider "Air Raid." The vision is horrifying and angering, yet the lines are oddly detached in the sense that Wilfred Owen's most bitter denunciations of war were couched in a tone of wry exasperation. (pp. 203-04)

In Achebe's verse there is a careful, slightly prosy accuracy of observation—intelligent, sharp, and often moving. Yet the war poems for all their sincerity seems a little obvious. Perhaps one should wonder at an age that finds death and starvation a commonplace human event, and deplore that one's capacity for vivid response is sadly jaded by the repetitions required by contemporary history. The later poems begin to be freed from the cataclysm of history. Their style retains sparse, brief lines. The observations are pointed and poignant. This is the work of an honest, dedicated craftsman at least, and that is not minor praise. (p. 204)

John F. Povey, in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Spring/Summer, 1974.

Achebe shuns obliqueness and remains close to the most limpid of his prose. Although the handful of poems in his collection Beware Soul-Brother (… 1971) falling chronologically between "The First Shot" (1967) and "Christmas in Biafra" (1969) might be considered a brief chronicle of the [Biafran] war, the range of Achebe's poetry is much wider. In "Lament of the Sacred Python" he ruminates on tradition and change ("Look out python! Look out python! / Christians relish python flesh"), dabbles in the philosophy of history ("Had Hitler won his / war just think what / a mess the history books / would be in today …") and, in the title-poem, "Beware, Soul Brother," writes an anti-colonialist manifesto…. If Achebe in this poem recalls Ala, the Ibo earth-goddess, it is not a gesture of chthonic mysticism, but a bid to enlist her support against the "leaden-footed, tone-deaf" intruder, "Passionate only for the deep entrails / of our soil"…. The Pan-African tenor of the poem, already expressed in the Black American flavor of the title, "Beware, Soul Brother," and its economic component show us a new Achebe, a writer whose social awareness has been heightened by the Nigerian Civil War and its aftermath.

As in his poems, Achebe goes beyond the war in his collection of short stories entitled Girls at War and Other Stories (… 1972). In the social criticism of "Vengeful Creditor," for example, a ten-year-old girl, despairing of the possibility of ever going to school like the children of the rich, kills the baby whom she is caring for for five pounds a year by giving it red ink to drink. Of the thirteen stories in the volume, only the title story deals with the war…. (pp. 42-3)

Willfried F. Feuser, "A Farewell to the Rising Sun: Post-Civil War Writings from Eastern Nigeria," in Books Abroad (copyright 1975 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 49; No. 1, Winter, 1975, pp. 40-9.

When Achebe uses the python in "Lament of the Sacred Python," in Things Fall Apart, and in Arrow of God, he is using a symbol which has significance in terms of the West African religious/mythic environment, as well as one which belongs to the archetypes of world myth (snakes as phallic symbols and symbols of immortality). What seems significant about Achebe's use of the python is that it always appears in the same type of episode. It is always portrayed in a situation in which a Christian commits sacrilege against it. Furthermore, the Christian, significantly, is never European, but rather always African. The python episodes suggest, therefore, not just a turning away from old traditions, but a flaunting and despising of them.

In Things Fall Apart there are two python episodes, both used … [to] emphasize the disintegrating effect that the Christian religion is having on the clan, which is one of the most clearly underlined themes in the novel. (p. 101)

We can isolate the effect of internal forces on the disintegration of the society as being a central theme in both Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God; and the symbol of the python underlines the violence of those internal forces. The convert comes to despise his past, represented by the python. And the gentle python of Ibo tradition becomes metamorphosed, in the eyes of the converted African, into the serpent of the garden of Eden. (p. 106)

Richard Bryan McDaniel, "The Python Episodes in Achebe's Novels," in The International Fiction Review, July, 1976, pp. 100-06.