Study Guide

Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe Essay - Achebe, Chinua (Vol. 127)

Achebe, Chinua (Vol. 127)

Introduction

Chinua Achebe 1930–

(Full name Albert Chinualumogu Achebe) Nigerian novelist, short story writer, poet, essayist, editor, and author of children's literature.

The following entry presents an overview of Achebe's career through 1997. See also Chinua Achebe Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 3, 5, 7, 11, 26.

Widely known as "the father of the African novel in English," Achebe is one of the most significant writers to emerge from contemporary Africa with a literary vision that has profoundly influenced the form and content of modern African literature. In his novels, he has chronicled the colonization of Nigeria by Great Britain and the political turmoil following its independence. Achebe's novels represent some of the first works written in English that articulate an intimate and authentic account of African culture and mores—especially his first novel, Things Fall Apart (1958), which critics have proclaimed a classic of modern African fiction. A major theme of Achebe's writings is the social and psychological impact of European imperialism on indigenous African societies, particularly with respect to a distinctly African consciousness in the twentieth century. Critics have praised Achebe's novels for their insightful renditions of African history as well as balanced examinations of contemporary African politics and society. Scholars also have praised Achebe's innovative fusion of Igbo folklore, proverbs, and idiomatic expressions with Western political ideologies and Christian doctrines.

Biographical Information

Born in Ogidi, Nigeria, Achebe attended Church Mission Society School, where his Igbo (or Ibo) parents were catechists. He continued his education at Government College in Umuahia, which is considered one of the best secondary schools in West Africa. In 1948 he enrolled in the first class at the newly established University College in Ibadan, run by the University of London. As an English literature student, Achebe often contributed stories, essays, and sketches to the University Herald. These works eventually were collected in Girls at War (1972). Within a year after his graduation in 1953, Achebe began a twelve-year career as a producer for the Nigerian Broadcasting Company (NBC) in Lagos, Nigeria's capital. During these years, Achebe also began researching and writing his most famous novel, Things Fall Apart, which was published two years prior to Nigerian autonomy in 1960. He followed his literary debut with three other novels—No Longer at Ease (1960), Arrow of God (1964), and A Man of the People (1966). By 1966, however, Nigeria's political climate worsened, deteriorating into a thirty-month civil war. Achebe quit his position at NBC and moved to the eastern region of Nigeria, which briefly seceded to become the independent state of Biafra. While there, Achebe devoted all his time to Biafran affairs and writing poetry, short stories, and essays. His most notable work during this time was his book of poetry, Beware, Soul Brother (1971). After the war ended in 1970, Achebe accepted a series of visiting professorships in the United States, where he founded and edited the respected African literary journal Okike and published Morning Yet on Creation Day (1975), a collection of literary and political essays written between 1962 and 1973. In 1976 Achebe returned to Nigeria where began teaching at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka. By the early 1980s, he was actively involved in Nigerian politics, serving first as the deputy national president of the People's Redemption Party and later as president of the town union in his hometown. At the same time, he also issued a polemical commentary on Nigerian leadership, The Trouble with Nigeria (1983). In 1987 Achebe published Anthills of the Savannah—his first novel after a twenty-one-year sabbatical from writing long fiction and the work that won Achebe a nomination for the prestigious Booker Prize. In 1990 Achebe nearly died from injuries sustained in an auto accident on a Nigerian highway under suspicious circumstances. Achebe spent six months recuperating in England following the accident, and moved to the United States where he continues to write and teach.

Major Works

A realistic and anthropologically informative portrait of traditional Igbo society distinguishes Things Fall Apart, which is named after a title from a line in Irish poet W. B. Yeats's poem "The Second Coming." Set in the village of Umuofia during the initial stages of colonization in the late 1880s, the narrative traces the conflict between Igbo and Western customs through the characterization of Okonkwo, a proud village leader whose refusal to adapt to the encroaching European influences leads him to murder and suicide. No Longer at Ease follows Obi Okonkwo, the grandson of the protagonist of Achebe's first novel, throughout his failure to successfully combine his traditional Igbo upbringing with his British education and affluent lifestyle in Lagos during the late 1950s. Describing Igbo village life during the 1920s, Arrow of God centers on Ezeulu, a spiritual leader, whose son Oduche attends a missionary school to learn about Western society and technology. When Oduche comes home, he nearly kills a sacred python, which precipitates a chain of events culminating in Ezeulu's loss of his position as high priest and his detention by British authorities. Highlighting the widespread graft and abuse of power by Nigerian leaders following its independence from Great Britain, A Man of the P̀eople focuses on the tribulations of a Nigerian teacher who joins a political group working to remove a corrupt bureaucrat from office. The poems of Beware, Soul Brother—which later was republished as Christmas in Biafra (1973)—reflect on the human tragedy of the Nigerian civil war, using plain language and stark imagery. Similarly, some of the stories in Girls at War are about aspects of imminent war. Most of the stories deal with the conflict between traditional religious values and modern, secular mores, displaying the full range of Achebe's talents for humor, irony, and political satire. Divided into two parts, Morning Yet on Creation Day addresses a number of literary and political themes, with special emphasis on traditional and contemporary roles of art and the writer in African society. Set in the fictional West African country of Kangan, Anthills of the Savannah is about three childhood friends who hold influential governmental posts. When one of them fails in his bid for election as president for life, he works to suppress his opposition. After successfully conspiring to murder one friend, he meets a violent death during a military coup, while the third friend dies in a street riot. Generally considered Achebe's most accomplished work, Anthills of the Savannah illustrates the often dire consequences for society when individual responsibility and power are recklessly exploited. While retaining the use of Igbo proverbs and legends to enhance his themes, Achebe also pays more attention to the development and role of the women characters in this novel. In the book, Achebe gives women strength and composure as the agents of traditional morals and precepts. Finally, Hopes and Impediments (1988) gathers new and previously published essays and speeches, including a controversial essay attacking British novelist Joseph Conrad as racist. The book also includes a tribute to American novelist James Baldwin, along with several commentaries on post-colonial African society that high-light cultural forces influencing its modern-day character.

Critical Reception

Many critics regard Achebe as the finest Nigerian novelist of the twentieth century with his works often serving as the standard for judging other African literary works. Achebe's literary criticism and sociological essays also have won praise. As one of the most discussed African writers of his generation, Achebe has inspired a substantial body of criticism and scholarship about his writing and political stances. Achebe's inventive usage of Igbo proverbs and folklore in his novels is the most studied feature of his art. Scholars have mostly concentrated on the significance of proverbs in Achebe's construction of vernacular speech patterns and social conventions, as well as a way to distinguish identities of his fictional characters. Scholars also have focused on how the proverbs provide thematic control to Achebe's narrative structures. Critics note, however, that Achebe's writings have relevance beyond the borders of Nigeria and beyond the anthropological, sociological, and political concerns of post-colonial Africa. Achebe's literature also deals with the universal qualities of human nature. As Achebe has said, "My politics is concerned with universal communication across racial and cultural boundaries as a means of fostering respect for all people…. As long as one people sit on another and are deaf to their cry, so long will understanding and peace elude all of us."

Principal Works

Things Fall Apart (novel) 1958
No Longer at Ease (novel) 1960
The Sacrificial Egg and Other Stories (short stories) 1962
Arrow of God (novel) 1964
Chike and the River (juvenilia) 1966
A Man of the People (novel) 1966
Beware, Soul Brother, and Other Poems (poetry) 1971; republished as Christmas in Biafra and Other Poems, 1973
Girls at War and Other Stories (short stories) 1972
How the Leopard Got His Claws [with John Iroaganachi] (juvenilia) 1972
Morning Yet on Creation Day (essays) 1975
The Drum: A Children's Story (juvenilia) 1977
Don't Let Him Die: An Anthology of Memorial Poems for Christopher Okigbo (1932–1967) [co-editor with Dubem Okafor] (poetry) 1978
The Flute: A Children's Story (juvenilia) 1979
The Trouble with Nigeria (essays) 1983
African Short Stories [co-editor with C. L. Innes] (short stories) 1985
Anthills of the Savannah (novel) 1987
Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays (essays) 1988

Criticism

Chinua Achebe with Charles H. Rowell (interview date 28 May 1989)

SOURCE: "An Interview with Chinua Achebe," in Conversations with Chinua Achebe, edited by Bernth Lindfors, University Press of Mississippi, 1997, pp. 165-84.

[In the following interview, originally conducted on May 28, 1989, and first published in Callaloo in 1991, Achebe discusses the role of the writer and literature in an African context, paying particular attention to indigenous narrative traditions, the influence of the English language on the continent, and the genesis of his own identity as a writer.]

[Rowell:] Mr. Achebe, here in the United States, those of us who read twentieth-century world literature think of you as one of the most important...

(The entire section is 9721 words.)

Solomon O. Iyasere (essay date March 1992)

SOURCE: "Okonkwo's Participation in the Killing of His 'Son' in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart: A Study of Ignoble Decisiveness," in CLA Journal, Vol. XXXV, No. 3, March, 1992, pp. 303-15.

[In the following essay, Iyasere explains the thematic and structural significance of the murder of Ikemefuna in Things Fall Apart, focusing on the character development of Okonkwo.]

No episode in Achebe's memorable novel, Things Fall Apart,1 is more shocking and heartrending as the execution of Ikemefuna, an event too dreadful to endure. Circumstances surrounding the event make it even more hideous—if that is possible—and invite our moral...

(The entire section is 4391 words.)

Adeleke Adeeko (essay date April 1992)

SOURCE: "Contests of Text and Context in Chinua Achebe's 'Arrow of God,'" in Ariel, Vol. 23, No. 2, April, 1992, pp. 7-22.

[In the following essay, Adeeko examines various manipulations of a thematic Nigerian proverb in Arrow of God, arguing that its intentional misuse contributes to the novel's tragedy.]

Proverbs are so conspicuous in Chinua Achebe's novels that they constitute the most studied singular feature of his art. As it were, Achebe's use of proverbs is in itself proverbial. One can speak of two tendencies in this well-traversed area. Bold critics often tend to generate ethnic theories of cognition from the structure and nature of the proverbs, and...

(The entire section is 6393 words.)

Chris Kwame Awuyah (essay date October 1992)

SOURCE: "Chinua Achebe's Arrow of God: Ezeulu's Response to Change," in College Literature, Vol. 19, No. 3, October, 1992, pp. 214-19.

[In the following essay, Awuyah analyzes Ezeulu's attitudes toward colonial authorities in Arrow of God, focusing on the significance of his decision to send Oduche to a Christian missionary school.]

Achebe's Arrow of God is a multifarious work with several uncharted territories that can be explored with much reward. However, one must exercise caution in teaching this text to neophytes, lest they become befuddled within its several contours. It is with this notion in mind that I introduce Arrow of God to my...

(The entire section is 2389 words.)

Chelva Kanaganayakam (essay date October 1993)

SOURCE: "Art and Orthodoxy in Chinua Achebe's 'Anthills of the Savannah,'" in Ariel, Vol. 24, No. 4, October, 1993, pp. 35-51.

[In the following essay, Kanaganayakam compares and contrasts Achebe's narrative technique in Anthills of the Savannah to that of his earlier works.]

Twenty-one years after the publication of A Man of the People (1966), Chinua Achebe published Anthills of the Savannah, perhaps his most enigmatic and complex work to date. The years separating these two works have been significant ones in the life of the author, for they entailed a deep concern with political turmoil, disillusionment with economic and cultural life, loss of...

(The entire section is 6051 words.)

Simon Gikandi (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Chinua Achebe and the Poetics of Location: The Uses of Space in Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease," in Essays on African Writing, A Re-evaluation, edited by Abdulrazak Gurnah, Heinemann, 1993, pp. 1-12.

[In the following essay, Gikandi analyzes the development of meaning in Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease in terms of narrative representations of space and location.]

It is not an exaggeration to say that the works of Chinua Achebe have up to now been read almost exclusively in terms of time and historicity. But this privileging of temporal terms has not arisen because of critical oversight or theoretical blindness:...

(The entire section is 4721 words.)

Chinua Achebe with Eleanor Wachtel (interview date January 1994)

SOURCE: "Eleanor Wachtel with Chinua Achebe," in The Malahat Review, No. 113, December, 1995, pp. 53-66.

[Wachtel is a writer and radio personality who hosts CBC Radio's Sunday literary program "Writers & Company." In the following interview, originally broadcast in January, 1994, Achebe discusses his personal and literary background, the evolution of his literary career, and his role in and hopes for the Nigerian political economy.]

The first book I ever read by a black African was Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. I read it some twenty-five years ago, just as the Nigerian civil war was winding down. It was often referred to as the Biafran war, because...

(The entire section is 5858 words.)

Andrew E. Robson (essay date June 1994)

SOURCE: "The Use of English in Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah," in CLA Journal, Vol. XXXVII, No. 4, June, 1994, pp. 365-76.

[In the following essay, Robson examines various types of English that appear in Anthills of the Savannah, demonstrating how each reflects differences in education, social status, and cultural context.]

The language question, that is to say the question of whether Third World writers should write in indigenous languages or the international language of the former colonizer, is most commonly political in nature. Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, the Kenyan writer, illustrates this point very clearly when he describes his decision to change from...

(The entire section is 3988 words.)

Anthonia C. Kalu (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "The Priest/Artist Tradition in Achebe's Arrow of God," in Africa Today, Vol. 41, No. 2, 1994, pp. 51-62.

[Kalu is an American educator whose research interests include multiculturalism, women in the African diaspora, African and African-American literary theory construction, and African development issues. In the following essay, Kalu demonstrates how Achebe's use of traditional Igbo religious, political, philosophical, and artistic motifs in Arrow of God combine to illumine the abstract notion of duality.]

In his efforts to validate the African literary artist's vision, Chinua Achebe has frequently spoken out against art for art's sake. He...

(The entire section is 4901 words.)

Neil ten Kortenaar (essay date January 1995)

SOURCE: "Beyond Authenticity and Creolization: Reading Achebe Writing Culture," in Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, Vol. 110, No. 1, January, 1995, pp. 30-42.

[Ten Kortenaar has written other scholarly articles on Achebe. In the following essay, he compares similarities in the narrative strategies of the colonized and the colonizer to define their respective cultural identities in Arrow of God.]

The discussion of culture in postcolonial literary criticism revolves around the twin poles of authenticity and hybridization. One response to the experience of colonialism and the concomitant denigration of cultural identities has been to call for a...

(The entire section is 8670 words.)

Stephen Criswell (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "Okonkwo As Yeatsian Hero: The Influence of W. B. Yeats on Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart," in The Literary Criterion, Vol. XXX, No. 4, pp. 1-14.

[In the following essay, Criswell traces thematic parallels between Things Fall Apart and Yeats's play On Baile's Strand, focusing on conceptual similarities that characterize the tragic hero in each work.]

The title of Chinua Achebe's first novel, Things Fall Apart, is taken from W. B. Yeats's poem, "The Second Coming." Many critics, such as Judith Gleason and A. G. Stock, have commented on the influence of Yeats's view of history and time (his notion of the cyclical nature of existence...

(The entire section is 3726 words.)

Clayton G. Mackenzie (essay date Summer 1996)

SOURCE: "The Metamorphosis of Piety in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart," in Research in African Literatures, Vol. 27, No. 2, Summer, 1996, pp. 128-38.

[In the following essay, Mackenzie details the transformation of indigenous religious beliefs and practices in Things Fall Apart, comparing it to the relatively static portrayal of religion in Arrow of God.]

Matters of religion are thematically central to Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God. Both novels reflect revisions in the nature of traditional worship, and both attest to the demise of traditional mores in the face of an aggressive and alien proselytizing religion. The disparities...

(The entire section is 6043 words.)

Richard Begam (essay date Fall 1997)

SOURCE: "Achebe's Sense of an Ending: History and Tragedy in Things Fall Apart," in Studies in the Novel, Vol. XXIX, No. 3, Fall, 1997, pp. 396-411.

[In the following essay, Begam describe's three distinct conclusions to Things Fall Apart in relation to three different conceptions of history produced by reading the narrative in a post-colonial context, arguing that the novel offers various responses to tragedy as an art form as well.]

One of the more notable consequences of cultural globalization has been the exchange that has occurred over the last decade or so between what we have come to call postmodernism and postcolonialism.1 This meeting...

(The entire section is 7251 words.)