illustrated portrait of Igbo Nigerian author Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe

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Achebe, Chinua (Vol. 1)

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Achebe, Chinua 1930–

Achebe is Nigeria's best known novelist, and one of the finest writers of Black fiction. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Achebe's style is apparently quite near that of good standard English prose, and yet there is a varient in the density and balance of his writing style which displays a marked originality. On the surface the obvious stylistic trick is the use of the many proverbs in which the Ibo language abounds—Achebe's mother-tongue. Yet this is to see only the most ostentatious stylistic feature and the diction created for the speakers is characterized individually and highly appropriate. It is a good direct English yet it has somehow been colored to reflect the African verbal style; sometimes ponderous, sometimes flippant.

John Povey, "The English Language of the Contemporary African Novel," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XI, No. 3, 1969, pp. 79-96.

[Achebe's] reputation rests principally on his first novel, Things Fall Apart, published in 1958, the first novel by a Nigerian writer to have serious claim to consideration as literature. The novels which follow, No Longer at Ease, Arrow of God and A Man of the People reveal no less certainly the serious approach Achebe takes to the craft of fiction. (p.1)

To interpret Achebe's work as mere explication of the Nigerian scene, either that of his grandfather's or his own generation, is to mistake his intention and his achievement. In kind with most writers of his generation, he has shown in his published novels and short stories a pre-occupation with certain basic themes, of which the legacy of colonial rule is the central core. It is true that the novels reveal the destructive consequences of the rule of the colonial period. But these are not displayed for their own sake. They are there because they arise out of and reflect to a sensitive mind a manifest indifference and caprice which mirrors life itself. This pre-occupation is found in each of the novels as Achebe explores its meaning and seeks to accommodate himself to it…. It can be argued that for Achebe the principal virtue is to accept stoically what life serves up. But his pre-occupation is more than this: it is with the plight of the individual in a world characterized by uncertainty, pain and violence. Achebe is essentially a moralist, concerned with considerations of right and wrong as they are revealed by the individual's responses to the circumstances which surround him. (p. 11)

The novels reveal much more than a study of the traumatic effects of colonialism on a subject people even though this is a serious part of their intention. Achebe recognizes his obligation to his society and has said of himself that he must participate in the task of 're-education and re-generation' which must be done. This places him in a quite different relation to his society than writers in Europe and America. He lives in his society and expresses its aspirations; they appear by and large, in revolt against their societies. (p. 97)

Achebe's novels offer a vision of life which is essentially tragic, compounded of success and failure, informed by knowledge and understanding, relieved by humour and tempered by sympathy, embued with an awareness of human suffering and the human capacity to endure. Sometimes his characters meet with success, more often with defeat and despair. Through it all the spirit of man and the belief in the possibility of triumph endures. (p. 104)

G. D. Killam, in his The Novels of Chinua Achebe (© 1969 by G. D. Killam), Africana Publishing Corp., 1969.

(This entire section contains 1164 words.)

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[Chinua] Achebe is important … because, first of all, he has written four good novels; and secondly, he focuses his attention and his imaginative gifts upon the meeting of Africa and Europe. He takes us back into the past and re-creates the traditional life of his people, the Ibo, at the time of the European penetration and then forward to the present to the complex permutations which have arisen out of this meeting—from the eccentricities of pidgin English to the Africanization of the Church of England.

Achebe himself is quite certain that this task of re-creation and evaluation is the important one for the African writer at the present time. (Preface)

What makes [the] exploration [of his major themes] memorable is not, of course, any general statement we might extract from the novels but the accumulated impact of particular scenes and situations. These in turn are dependent upon Achebe's deployment of the resources of English to embody African experience. There is an inevitability about the language of the novels which should not blind us to Achebe's originality. The wise ancestral narrative voice of Things Fall Apart gradually loses its calm confidence in the face of the advancing strangers and finally capitulates to the acts of sacrilege it is incapable of describing. This is a triumph of style in the same way as the contrast between the panache of Nanga's pidgin and the narrator's Received Standard English takes us effortlessly to the heart of A Man of the People. Then there are the other varieties of English in the novels which are used by the author to cover the whole kaleidoscope of African and European attitudes—the polysyllabic jargon of the politicians, the stiff-upper-lip rhetoric of the colonial administrators, the extempore prayers of the converts with their admixture of African proverb and Christian doctrine, the demotic English of the servant and the court messenger.

But above all else it is Achebe's representation of the speech, the idioms, the proverbs of the Ibo still secure in their traditional way of life which stays in the memory. (p. 147)

David Carroll, in his Chinua Achebe, Twayne, 1970.

Chinua Achebe, who is probably the most highly regarded novelist of West Africa and perhaps of all of black Africa, presents the student of African literature with an interesting, and I should say paradigmatic, case. If we take his novels as a single, coherent body (and I think Achebe encourages this when he occasionally re-uses settings and characters), then his themes read like an epitome of African fiction from its beginning to the present time. Nor is it in theme alone that Achebe's fiction seems to summarize the history of the African novel: in the progress of his thematic and technical concerns as well, or in the historic development that his career traces, Achebe is, for the non-African reader, representative and characteristic. One might say, adapting the idea from C. G. Jung's notion of psychological development in the individual and in the race, that the ontogenetic, private curve of Achebe's career repeats in small the phylogenetic, historic pattern of the African novel. Being thus representative, the body of Achebe's work tells us much not only about him and about the African novel, but a great deal also about the society and the civilization that the novel reflects and in which it has its roots.

James Olney, "The African Novel in Transition: Chinua Achebe," in South Atlantic Quarterly (© 1971 by the Duke University Press), Summer, 1971, pp. 299-316.


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