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Things Fall Apart

by Chinua Achebe

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How is awareness of rank observed in the drinking of the palm wine in Things Fall Apart?

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Even before the palm wine is served in the ritual depicted in chapter 12 of Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe alerts his readers that the serving of the wine will be a means through which prestige is affirmed and misconceptions about relative rank corrected. For example, before the wine arrives, Ogbuefi Ezenwa remarks:

I hope our in-laws will bring many pots of wine. Although they come from a village that is known for being closefisted, they ought to know that Akueke is the bride of a king.

In this passage, Ezenwa expresses status anxiety about his in-laws's opinion regarding the rank of the bride. When the guests show up bearing no fewer than 45 bottles of wine, their hosts are very pleased because the rank of the bride (and by extension, their own rank) has been affirmed. The pots of wine serve as material tokens of the recognition of rank. Once the moment of status anxiety has passed, the bonds of kin and friendship can be affirmed, but Achebe makes it clear that the signaling of the recognition of rank is the condition for the hosts's feelings of peace and approval.

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In Things Fall Apart, Achebe presents a number of traditional Igbo customs and rituals in an effort to give the text an authentically Nigerian perspective. Chapter twelve contains one of the most striking rituals in the novel as Achebe portrays Obierika’s daughter’s uri. The families of the engaged the bride and her suitor along with the most important and reputable individuals in Umuofia are invited to the feast; indeed, there are no osu individuals present. After an entire day of cooking and preparing for the uri, the ceremony begins with a presentation of pots of palm wine. Interestingly, even though the ceremony is intended to be centered on the bride and her companions, the official drinking of the palm wine begins when the women retire:

“When the women retired, Obierika presented kola nuts to his in-laws…. The kola nut was eaten and the drinking of the palm-wine began” (117).

Awareness of rank is observed by the group because the top men in the clan drink first:

“As night fell, burning torches were set on wooden tripods and the young men raised a song. The elders sat in a big circle and the singers went round singing each man’s praise as they came before him. They had something to say for every man. Some were great farmers, some were orators who spoke for the clan; Okonkwo was the greatest wrestler and warrior alive” (118).

First, the great men drink wine. Then, the singers who were praising the great men of Umuofia are invited to sit in the circle. This is how rank is observed in the Igbo ceremonial drinking of the palm wine.

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