Chinua Achebe World Literature Analysis
Achebe establishes a human context for understanding modern Nigerian history. Things Fall Apart describes the devastating first contacts between European and Igbo cultures at the beginning of the twentieth century and bends over backwards to demonstrate good and bad on both sides. The subsequent institutionalization of European religious and political structures is examined in Arrow of God; the uneasy years immediately preceding independence are explored in No Longer at Ease; the excitement and disappointment of Nigeria’s First Republic are the subjects of A Man of the People; the suffering produced by the Nigerian civil war is the theme of Girls at War, and Other Stories and Beware, Soul Brother, and Other Poems; and the corrupt authoritarianism that has characterized Nigeria’s Second Republic is the focus of Beware, Soul Brother, and Other Poems and Anthills of the Savannah. Indeed, the title of his commentary, The Trouble with Nigeria, identifies a concern central to his entire canon.
As a corrective to European literature’s stereotypical portraits of Africans as unvaryingly backwards, Achebe demonstrates the value and viability of traditional Igbo culture, describes Nigerians as complex human beings with a strong sense of community and tolerance, and establishes the independence of African literature. In “The Role of a Writer in a New Nation,” he identifies his first priority: to inform the world that “African peoples did not hear of culture for the first time from Europeans; that their societies were not mindless . . . that they had poetry and, above all, they had dignity.” Achebe, however, does not idealize the precolonial past, for he knows that it could not have survived unaltered in a modern world; instead, he shows built-in systems for communities and individuals and explores continuities with the past that can coexist with modern society.
Achebe’s conflicted protagonists, torn between self-realization and social responsibility, demonstrate the difficulty of attaining such a balance. The destructive pull of individual pride thwarts each character’s movement toward communal acceptance. In Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo overcomes personal humiliation to win community respect, but his inflexible refusal to accommodate himself to the increasing influence of colonial government and Christianity alienates him from his clan and drives him to violence that necessitates personal sacrifice. In Arrow of God, the priest Ezeulu earnestly wishes to be a good religious leader, but his proud refusal to adapt religious dictates to the necessities of circumstance leads to Christian dominance in his village and to his own madness. In No Longer at Ease, the idealistic Obi self-righteously resists the corruption of government service, alienating himself from his fellow civil servants and the clan members who funded his education (Achebe’s touch of self-deprecating autobiography); yet when his proud need to maintain an expensive lifestyle leads him to accept a bribe, his amateurish attempt results in his arrest. In A Man of the People, the cynical Odili, who collaborates in Nanga’s political manipulation of rural people, learns to see the corrective value of traditional beliefs. Anthills of the Savannah offers the most hopeful view, with Beatrice showing that traditional values can exist in altered but viable forms in the present.
In his fiction, Achebe opposes interpersonal, political, cultural, and linguistic forms of authoritarianism. He associates inflexible refusal to recognize the validity of multiple viewpoints—the central flaw of his protagonists—with the cultural arrogance of colonial powers and the cynical greed of Nigerian officials. Stylistically, Achebe refutes this myopic authoritarianism through multiple perspectives and irony. In Anthills of the Savannah, he repeats the Igbo proverb, “Where something stands, there also something else will stand,” to indicate his belief in the fluidity of perception, the duality of existence, and the adaptability of Igbo culture. He represents this fluidity in his fiction by mixing literary English, pidgin English, and a colloquial English that approximates the rhythms of Igbo speech; he also mixes Igbo proverbs, songs, and rituals with allusions to European literature and uses irony and unreliable narrators to question authoritarian voices. To create an open, nonauthoritarian view, Achebe balances one novel against another; thus, the naïvely idealistic Obi Okonkwo of No Longer at Ease is a tragicomic version of his grandfather, Okonkwo, in Things Fall Apart. Achebe’s decision to write in English instead of his native Igbo broadened his work to include a worldwide audience but brought criticism that he was assisting in the destruction of Igbo culture. He, in turn, blamed the missionaries’ mangled translations of the Bible for destroying the Igbo language, but he has since moved toward greater use of native languages by editing the Igbo poetry anthology Aka Weta and the bilingual journal Uwa ndi Igbo.
Achebe has been an active, visible public figure in Nigeria since the 1950’s, and, not surprisingly, his writings parallel his personal experiences. His early sympathetic portrayals of traditional Igbo culture were, in part, gestures toward expiating his own guilt over the rare educational privileges that he enjoyed. His skillful satire of the abuse of power and language in books such as A Man of the People mocks his own involvement in the development of Nigeria’s mass media. After the Nigerian civil war, in which Achebe and many other Igbo writers took an active part, his writings became more directly utilitarian and political. After teaching in the United States made him realize that the most widely taught book concerning Africa was Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899, serial; 1902, book), Achebe became more sympathetic to African authors who renounced the use of colonial languages and more aware of the extent to which Americans and Europeans misunderstand and ignore Africa’s problems.
Things Fall Apart
First published: 1958
Type of work: Novel
A warrior opposing colonialism’s threat to Igbo culture strikes back and must sacrifice himself and his reputation to save his village and achieve personal balance.
Achebe’s title from William Butler Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming” invokes an ironic, apocalyptic vision warning of a new order from Africa that will...
(The entire section is 2716 words.)
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