As the most widely read work of African fiction, Things Fall Apart has played an instrumental role in introducing African literature to readers throughout the world. In particular, Achebe's fiction has contributed to world literature by retelling African history, as well as the history of European colonization, from an Afro-centric perspective rather than a Euro-centric one. By shifting the narrative focus from the perspective of the colonizer to the perspective of the colonized, Achebe's novels reveal and correct many of the biased assumptions found in previous historical and literary descriptions of Africa. Specifically, they reaffirm the value of African cultures by representing their rich and complex cultural traditions instead of stereotyping them as irrational and primitive. As Achebe explains in his frequently quoted essay, "The Novelist as Teacher," his novels seek to teach Africans that "their past—with all its imperfections—was not one night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God's behalf delivered them." To say that Achebe affirms African culture and history, however, is not to imply that he simply inverts European ethnocentrism by romanticizing African culture as perfect or vilifying European cultures as entirely corrupt. Instead, Achebe presents a remarkably balanced view of how all cultures encompass both good and bad dimensions.
In addition to re-interpreting African culture and history from an African perspective, Things Fall Apart is also significant because of its mastery of literary conventions. In fact, many critics argue that it is the best African novel ever written, and they specifically praise its sophisticated development of character, tragedy, and irony. Okonkwo, in particular, is a complex character, and consequently there are many ways to interpret his role in the novel. On one level, he can be interpreted psychologically in terms of the oedipal struggle that he has with his father and the very different oedipal struggle that his son, Nwoye, has with him. As each son rejects the example of his father, these three generations form a reactionary cycle that ironically repeats itself: when Nwoye rejects Okonkwo's masculinity, he ironically returns to the more feminine disposition that Okonkwo originally rejected in his father. Many of the major events of the novel, including both Okonkwo's tragic drive to succeed and Nwoye's eventual conversion to Christianity, largely result from the inter-generational struggle created when each son rejects his father.
Another way to analyze the psychological dimensions of Okonkwo's character is to examine how he constructs his sense of gender by asserting a strong sense of masculinity and repressing any sense of femininity Just as there is an external psychological conflict between Okonkwo and his father, there is also an internal psychological conflict between the masculine and feminine sides within Okonkwo. While Okonkwo's hyper-masculinity initially enables him to achieve success as a great wrestler and warrior, his refusal to balance this masculine side with feminine virtues eventually contributes to his later destruction. At virtually every turn in the novel, his excessive masculinity nudges him toward new troubles. Because of his contempt for unmanliness, he rudely insults Osugo, destroys his relationship with his own son Nwoye, and lets himself be pressured into sacrificing Ikemefuna in spite of Ezeudu's warning. Moreover, Okonkwo's lack of respect for women is equally pervasive and problematic. He ignores the wisdom found in women's stories, he frequently intimidates and beats his wives, and he can only relate to his daughter Ezinma because he thinks of her as a boy. Consequently, Okonkwo is a man out of balance who has only developed one half of his full serf because he only accepts the masculine side of his culture.
In addition to noting how gender influences Okonkwo's behavior within the story, many critics also note that gender influences Achebe as an author. Feminist critics, in particular, have criticized Things Fall Apart both for suggesting that men are representative of all Africans and for focusing too exclusively on masculine activities and male characters. Though it is perhaps inevitable that Achebe would write his novel from a male perspective, these critics raise interesting questions about how Achebe's male perspective might ignore and misrepresent the experiences of African women. Nevertheless, despite Achebe's male bias, there are moments in the novel when Achebe emphasizes female characters and valorizes (heir perspectives. It is the women who pass on many of the cultural traditions through stories, and it is Okonkwo's daughter, Ezinma, not his son, Nwoye, who understands Okonkwo in the end. Moreover, Okonkwo's wife, Ekwefi, shows more courage and parental love in defending the life of her daughter, Ezinma, than Okonkwo...
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That Achebe sees the best of Igbo village life as offering something of the ideal is suggested by an interview in 1988 with Raoul Granqvist [in Travelling: Chinua Achebe in Scandinavia. Swedish Writers in Africa, Umea University, 1990]. Achebe, talking of the importance of ideals, refers to the example of village life based on a land of equality. "This," he says,
is what the Igbo people chose, the small village entity that was completely self-governing... The reason why they chose it [this system] was because they wanted to be in control of their lives. So if the community says that we will have a meeting in the market place tomorrow, everybody should go there, or could go there. And everybody could speak.
Since Achebe is not the first to write of Africa, he must dispel old images in order to create a true sense of his people's dignity. Works such as Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness see Africans as primitives representing Europeans at an earlier stage of civilization, or imaging all humanity's primal urges which civilization hides. Firsthand European accounts of the colonial period, such as the district commissioner's Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger in Things Fall Apart, reduce the African experience to an anthropological study told from the white man's point of view. Achebe reveals that the Europeans' ideas of Africa are mistaken. Perhaps the most important mistake of the British is their belief that all civilization progresses, as theirs has, from the tribal stage through monarchy to parliamentary government....
The Igbos, on the other hand, have developed a democratic system of government. For great decisions the ndichie, or elders, gather together all of Umuofia. The clan rules all, and the collective will of the clan can be established only by the group. Further, as is appropriate in a democracy, each man is judged on his own merits, "according to his worth," not those of his father, as would be appropriate in an aristocracy or an oligarchy.
Within this system the Igbos as a whole reveal themselves more tolerant of other cultures than the Europeans, who merely see the Igbos as uncivilized. In other words, the Igbo are in some ways superior to those who come to convert them. Uchendu, for example, is able to see that "what is good among one people is an abomination with others," but the white men tell the Igbos that Igbo customs are bad and that their gods are not true gods at all. Unlike the Europeans, the Igbos believe that it "is good that a man should worship the gods and spirits of his fathers" even if these gods are not the Igbos' gods. While the European tradition allows men to fight their brothers over religion, the Igbo tradition forbids them to kill each other: it is an abomination to kill a member of the clan. Further, the long history of Crusades and holy wars and of religious persecution in Europe occurs because men can fight for gods, but it is not the Igbo "custom to fight for [their] gods." Rather, heresy is a matter only between the man and the god.
The Christian missionary in Mbanta objects to the Igbo gods on the belief that they tell the Igbos to kill each other, and, in fact, the gods are invoked in the fighting of wars against another village— though not indiscriminately, only when the war is just. At times the oracle forbids the Umuofians to go to war. The Europeans in Things Fall Apart, however, kill far more in the name of religion than the Igbos: the British, for example, wipe out the whole village of Abame in retaliation for the killing of one white man.
The Igbos do not fight each other because they are primitive. Achebe implies the existence of the conditions in Nigeria which historically led to the need for war as a matter of survival. The land, consisting of rock underlying an almost nonexistent topsoil, was very poor and thus would not support large numbers of people. Planting soon depleted the soil, and so villagers were forced to move further and further afield to find land which would yield a crop to support them. Okonkwo's father, the lazy Unoka, has little success planting yams because he sows on "exhausted farms that take no labor to clear." Meanwhile, his neighbors, crossing "seven rivers to make their farms," plant the "virgin forests." As the population of Nigeria increased, land and food were insufficient to provide for everyone The novel seems to make the turning point in the alteration from plenty to scarcity some time between the generation of Okonkwo's Uncle Uchendu and that of Okonkwo, for Uchendu speaks of "the good days when a man had friends in distant clans." Although the state of constant warfare was hardly desirable, at least it provided a means for survival....
The Christian missionary, then, is mistaken about the perversity of the Igbo religion: some wars are inevitable if the clan is to survive, but war is not indiscriminate. Religion is a factor both in limiting war and in supporting it when it is j'ust. In the latter case war might be seen as a deterrent to future crimes against Umuofia. Neighboring clans try to avoid war with Umuofia because it is "feared" as a village "powerful in war," and when someone in Mbaino kills a Umuofian woman, "[e]ven the enemy clan know that" the threatened war is "just."
In fact, the Igbo have a highly developed system of religion which works as effectively as Christianity. The Igbo religion and the Christian religion are equally irrational, but both operate along similar lines to support morality. To the Christians it seems crazy to worship wooden idols, but to the Igbos it seems crazy to say that God has a son when he has no wife. Both systems of religion look to only one supreme god, Chukwu for the Umuofians. Both supreme gods have messengers on earth, Christ for the British and the wooden idols for the Igbos. Both religions support humility; the Igbos speak to Chukwu through messengers because they do not want to worry the master, but they deal with Chukwu directly if all else fails. Both gods are...
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Written about the past of Africa by a novelist who sees himself as a "teacher," Things Fall Apart encompasses several worlds, several experiences, sometimes complex, all altered or mixed. Achebe is never a mere reporter of public events. Talking of Things Fall Apart, he said: "I now know that my first book was an act of atonement with my past, the ritual return and homage of a prodigal son." [Achebe in Morning Yet on Creation Day, Heinemann, 1975]. The past that Chinua Achebe describes so beautifully in Things Fall Apart is a past that Achebe himself had to rediscover. It is a past that was largely lost as a result of twentieth-century Europeanization. This rediscovery of the suppressed past is an act of...
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