What kinds of literary devices are used in the novel Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe?

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Things Fall Apart is full of figurative language (like similes and metaphors) and proverbs. Achebe, a Nigerian writer who is critical of British colonialism in his work, has been called out by some reviewers for writing in English, the colonizer's language. However, his use of figurative language and proverbs helps...

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Things Fall Apart is full of figurative language (like similes and metaphors) and proverbs. Achebe, a Nigerian writer who is critical of British colonialism in his work, has been called out by some reviewers for writing in English, the colonizer's language. However, his use of figurative language and proverbs helps Achebe express cultural beliefs and capture the speech patterns of Igbo people.

Here are some examples from early in the novel, though Achebe consistently incorporates figurative language and proverbs throughout the work.

And so at a very early age when he was striving desperately to build a barn through share-cropping Okonkwo was also fending for his father’s house. It was like pouring grains of corn into a bag full of holes. His mother and sisters worked hard enough, but they grew women’s crops, like coco-yams, beans and cassava. Yam, the king of crops, was a man’s crop. (22-23)

The bolded phrase is an example of simile. In this simile, the narrator compares Okonkwo’s work trying to establish himself as a farmer while also supporting his mother and sisters as “like pouring grains of corn into a bag full of holes.” The comparison conveys the frustration and uselessness of Okonkwo’s work. He cannot establish his own planting success quickly enough because he is also having to provide for his mother and sisters since his father’s yam planting has not been productive. Therefore, his work does not have the stabilizing effect on his own career to match the energy he is devoting to that work.

Having spoken plainly so far, Okoye said the next half a dozen sentences in proverbs. Among the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten. (7)

In this example, the bolded portion is a metaphor comparing proverbs to palm-oil. The implicit comparison is between proverbs and spices or seasoning. As a good cook will season his or her meal appropriately to make the food taste appealing, the skilled conversationalist will pepper his or her speech with proverbs to “spice up” the language and provide a more entertaining experience. Here, Okoye moves from speaking “plainly” to using proverbs to communicate ideas in his next several sentences. Conversation is described as an “art” in this quote, and since Okoye likes to talk, he takes pride in practicing his art by incorporating proverbs. This metaphor could also be applied to Achebe’s writing of the novel as a whole, since the narrator sprinkles the prose with evocative proverbs.

Finally, here is one example of the many proverbs in the novel:

A toad does not run in the daytime for nothing. (20)

This proverb is preceded by the line “There must be a reason for it.” The proverb means the same: the toad will not take an action that does not have a specific purpose. The men are having a conversation in this scene a man named Obiako who has stopped tapping palm-wine suddenly, even though that was his given trade. The men assume there must be a good reason for him to do so. The proverb suggests that the people use natural elements, like animals, to understand and describe phenomena in the human world.

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Any author that writes a story is going to use literary devices. Literary devices are narrative techniques that enhance a story. They give the story texture, energy, and excitement, which can grip the reader's imagination and convey information. Even the setting of a story is a literary device because the author has chosen a particular place for the story's events to be occurring. Achebe uses diction in this story. Diction is Achebe's use of words to tell this story. In reality, diction is used by all authors to tell a story. However, this does not make all diction equal. How an author uses diction separates good literature from bad, and Achebe's novel is an example of good diction. His word choice throughout the story fits the characters and setting. The diction makes the story that much more believable. Achebe also uses a mixture of direct characterization and indirect characterization in order to build a mixture of character types. Achebe is able to easily move from character to character because he has chosen to write this story from the third person narrative point of view. The story also includes the literary technique of dialogue. The story uses the flashback literary device when Okonkwo talks about when he beat Amalinze in a fight.

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Simile: Figure of speech that directly compares two different things using the words "like" or "as."

  • "Okonkwo's fame had grown like a bush-fire in the harmattan" (Achebe, 1). 
  • "Okonkwo was as slippery as a fish in water" (Achebe, 1).
  • "That year the harvest was sad, like a funeral..." (Achebe, 9).
  • The priestess, with Ezinma sleeping on her back, had crawled out of the shrine on her belly like a snake" (Achebe, 41). 
  • The band of egwugwu moved like a furious whirlwind to Enoch's compound and with machete and fire reduced it to a desolate heap" (Achebe, 66). 

Foreshadowing: When the author gives the reader hints about what will happen later on in the novel. Throughout Things Fall Apart, Achebe foreshadows Okonkwo's suicide by mentioning several men who were hanged.

  • "One man tied his cloth to a tree branch and hanged himself" (Achebe, 9). 
  • "I told you on my last visit to Mbanta how they hanged Aneto" (Achebe, 62).

Hyperbole: This literary device involves exaggeration as a way to emphasize something. In chapter 6, Okafo wins a wrestling match and the villagers lift him on their shoulders saying,

"He has thrown four hundred men. Has he thrown a hundred Cats? He has thrown four hundred Cats" (Achebe, 18).

Clearly, Okafo has not fought four hundred men, given the fact that he has only wrestled one person that the reader knows about.

Metaphor: This figure of speech makes an implicit comparison between two seemingly unrelated things that share some common characteristics.

"He was a leper, and the polite name for leprosy was 'the white skin.'" (Achebe. 27).

In chapter 8, Achebe uses a metaphor which equates the disease of leprosy with white skin. Just like the deadly illness, the white colonists are similarly destructive.

Personification: This literary device is when an inanimate object, idea, or animal is given human attributes. Throughout the novel, Achebe tells various folk tales in which animals are personified. In chapter 9, Okonkwo remembers a story from his childhood about why mosquitoes always fly around a person's ear. Achebe writes,

"Mosquito, she had said, had asked Ear to marry him, whereupon Ear fell on the floor in uncontrollable laughter. "How much longer do you think you will live?" she asked. "You are already a skeleton." Mosquito went away humiliated, and any time he passed her way he told Ear that he was still alive" (27).

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