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 destroy the status quo; thus, the novel describes the European destruction of Igbo culture but suggests a potential future shift of power reinvigorating Africa, a theme in Achebe’s later work Home and Exile. Things Fall Apart disproves white stereotypes of Igbo as primitive savages, amoral and unsophisticated, and asserts the viability of preconquest Igbo culture through the tragic story of Okonkwo and his village. A warrior determined to counter the reputation of his lazy imprudent father, Okonkwo wins community respect and titles for his hard work, public service, and martial courage. However, this hero, like William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, is flawed. His obsessive fear of repeating his father’s failures drives him to extremes in a culture proud of its balance. Humorless and short-tempered, he beats his wife in the Week of Peace, alienates his son with reprimands, joins the ritual killing of a boy he considers a son just to appear manly, and accidentally shoots a youth, resulting in his seven-year banishment to his mother’s village.
This period of separation distances him from the communal life of Umuofia, so while still ambitious after his return, he now appreciates the bonds of kinship and the comfort of a community speaking with one voice. Unfortunately, he fails to understand the inroads the British have made on his community. Christianity in particular divides families and undermines traditional systems of government, justice, and religion. His eldest son’s conversion to Christianity separates Okonkwo from his lineage, and when another convert desecrates a traditional totem, Okonkwo leads the Umuofians in destroying the missionaries’ church. Like Okonkwo, the Umuofians face separation from their past and a future requiring difficult compromises; yet Achebe carefully shows that the decentralized structure of Igbo society allows for such change.
Okonkwo, personally unwilling to adapt to cultural change and believing that his fellow Umuofians will wage war against the whites who have insulted their representatives, murders the district commissioner’s messenger. However, the village understands that this act will bring retaliation, possibly the deaths of everyone in the village, as happened to neighboring Abame. At the end of the novel, Okonkwo proves his worth and restores balance to his life and to his village by committing a womanly act, suicide, that renounces everything he has stood for but protects his people. His friend, Obierta, calls Okonkwo the best man among them, for he has given up his place in the memories of his people so they will not suffer from his act. He is an exceptional individual whose final act both restores him to his clan and forever alienates him from it. Okonkwo’s Christlike sacrifice confirms that Umuofia is a living culture capable of adapting to meet new challenges.
The central theme of all Achebe’s novels is the tragedy created by the British contempt for African religion, law, culture, and people, yet Igbo accommodation to change remains a survival mechanism enabling Africans to endure untold hardships. In Things Fall Apart, Achebe effectively refutes European stereotypes of African culture, offering instead a complex, fluid portrait of Igbo culture as essentially democratic, pluralistic, tolerant, and community-centered. It is, however, a society whose acceptance of difference within its community assured dramatic future change after English hegemony.
No Longer at Ease
First published: 1960
Type of work: Novel
An idealistic young Nigerian bureaucrat, trapped between his traditional background and his European education, succumbs to the corrupting influences of government service.
Achebe’s title No Longer at Ease from Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” suggests that like the wise men in Yeats’s poem, Obi Okonkwo, a young civil servant in the colonial Nigerian government, and his nation are trapped between two eras. Like his grandfather Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart, who stands for the vanishing traditional African, Obi stands for the vanishing idealist in a world of compromise. Ironically, No Longer at Ease opens and closes at Obi’s bribery trial. The novel provides a retrospective look at Obi’s progress from the remote village of Umuofia to an English university and then to a position with the Nigerian civil service in Lagos, where he finally succumbs to the prevalent practice of bribery and is caught. A diminished version of his grandfather, Obi is crushed by cultural forces beyond his control, but the pettiness and ineptitude of his crime make him a paradoxical tragicomic hero. His innocence makes him a criminal; his coveted education does not provide him with wisdom; and the support of his clanspeople increases his sense of loneliness.
Obi is the first from his village to receive a European education, his expenses paid by clan members hoping to enhance the status of their village and reap future economic dividends. However, idealistic romance and failure to manage his finances complicate Obi’s life. He falls in love with a woman marked by a traditional, hereditary taboo that Obi rejects as primitive superstition, but his naïve determination to be thoroughly modern places him in direct conflict with family and clan. At first, he eschews the customary practice of accepting bribes, self-righteously viewing doing so as anachronistic behavior that the new generation of educated, idealistic civil servants will eradicate, but his obligation to repay the clan and his determination to maintain a lifestyle commensurate with his civil service position eventually lead him to accept payments. When he succumbs to custom, he handles the bribery so amateurishly that he is caught and convicted.
Although Obi has been shaped by the traditional Igbo culture of Umuofia, the Christianity of his father, the idealism of English literature, and the corrupt sophistication of Lagos, he is at ease nowhere. As a child, he dreamt of the sparkling lights of Lagos. In England, he writes pastoral visions of an idealized Nigeria. Disillusioned by the corruption of Lagos, he returns to his home village only to witness a truck driver attempting to bribe a policeman and to have his parents’ reject his proposed marriage. Obi naïvely tries to maintain the idea of his own integrity as a detribalized, rational, thoroughly modern man, but his reintegration into Nigeria fails because he cannot assimilate successfully any of the competing cultures through which he passes. He finds it impossible to mediate the conflicting duties thrust upon him, and his steady progress in the novel is toward despair and withdrawal.
No Longer at Ease, set in Lagos on the verge of Nigeria’s independence, depicts an urban jungle that combines the worst of European and African cultures. Centralization has led to inefficiency and corruption; traditional Igbo communalism has devolved to the narrow pursuit of advantage. Having learned the Western desire for material goods without having sufficient income to satisfy them, Obi, like the nation, must choose between corruption and bankruptcy.
Home and Exile
First published: 2000
Type of work: Essays
Achebe surveys his life experiences as he defended Nigeria and Nigerians, countering imperialist assaults on that home with Nigerian perspectives, finding balance even in exile.
The title Home and Exile summarizes the essence of this work: Achebe’s discovery of Igbo values and ways as his true home, despite years abroad, an exile paralleling the Igbo experiences with oppressive European literature undermining their sense of worth, defining them as primitive savages, and justifying European ways as superior. The book consists of three lectures delivered over a three-day period, December 9-11, 1998, at Harvard University: “My Home Under Imperial Fire,” “The Empire Fights Back,” and “Today, the Balance of Stories.”
The first essay records Achebe’s youthful discovery of Nigeria as his spiritual and intellectual home when his missionary family retired and returned to their ancestral home. Achebe developed a love of Igbo ways and a deep-seated desire to attack denigrators. He rejects the word “tribe” as a racist misnomer, asserting that the Igbo are neither “primitive” nor bound by blood ties, with their language complex, including major and minor dialects, and their sociopolitical identity purposefully defined by disdain for the concept of a single ruler. He finds the term “nation” more appropriate for a loose federation of people with strong individual identities, loyalty to independent towns or ministates, a love of competition and controversy, and a marketing network for disseminating goods and news. He emphasizes the Igbo love of song, dance, proverbs, and storytelling and so deep-seated a tolerance of difference that they refuse to impose their religious beliefs even on outsiders seeking to join them. He depicts his formal education as Eurocentric but describes a landmark rebellion when, in 1952, a class of Nigerian university students rejected as absurd author Joyce Cary’s derogatory racial stereotyping in Mister Johnson (1939). This rebellion led the young Achebe to scrutinize the connection between the slave trade and literature written to justify it and to recognize the appropriation of his homeland by imperialistic propaganda.
Achebe’s second essay, “The Empire Fights Back,” explores his outrage at racist depictions of his people and home, his decision to fight back in novels providing Nigerian perspectives, and his willingness to face considerable trouble to tell worthy stories. He contrasts the works of Joseph Conrad and Elspeth Huxley with F. J. Pedler’s call for authentic African literary voices in West Africa (1951), and he deplores the mind-set that led British-educated Africans to mock Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard and His Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Dead’s Town (1952) for presenting an African perspective. For Achebe, the launching of Heinemann’s African Writers Series marked the turning point in African literature, rejecting imperialist voices in favor of true Africans. He ends with Jomo Kenyatta’s parable of British imperial practices, “The Gentlemen of the Jungle,” to demonstrate African writers fighting back.
The final essay praises Salman Rushdie’s description of postcolonial literature as “The Empire Writes Back,” W. E. B. Du Bois’s hopes for racial parity, and Ama Ata Aidoo’s sympathetic tales of the afflicted poor, but it criticizes V. S. Naipaul’s imperialist rejection of impoverished peoples and Rushdie’s assertion that literature can exist apart from a writer’s national roots. Achebe concludes that African literature has found its voice since the 1950’s and that such literature finds its worth, not in a universal civilization, but in a writer’s home. African writers long exiled from their heritage by literature justifying imperial conquest have found their literary home in Africa, whether they live there or in exile from it.