Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1365
Chinua Achebe 1930–
(Full name Albert Chinualumogu Achebe) Nigerian novelist, short story writer, poet, essayist, editor, and author of children's literature.
The following entry presents an overview of Achebe's career through 1997. See also Chinua Achebe Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 3, 5, 7, 11, 26 ...
(The entire section contains 76385 words.)
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Chinua Achebe 1930–
(Full name Albert Chinualumogu Achebe) Nigerian novelist, short story writer, poet, essayist, editor, and author of children's literature.
The following entry presents an overview of Achebe's career through 1997. See also Chinua Achebe Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 3, 5, 7, 11, 26.
Widely known as "the father of the African novel in English," Achebe is one of the most significant writers to emerge from contemporary Africa with a literary vision that has profoundly influenced the form and content of modern African literature. In his novels, he has chronicled the colonization of Nigeria by Great Britain and the political turmoil following its independence. Achebe's novels represent some of the first works written in English that articulate an intimate and authentic account of African culture and mores—especially his first novel, Things Fall Apart (1958), which critics have proclaimed a classic of modern African fiction. A major theme of Achebe's writings is the social and psychological impact of European imperialism on indigenous African societies, particularly with respect to a distinctly African consciousness in the twentieth century. Critics have praised Achebe's novels for their insightful renditions of African history as well as balanced examinations of contemporary African politics and society. Scholars also have praised Achebe's innovative fusion of Igbo folklore, proverbs, and idiomatic expressions with Western political ideologies and Christian doctrines.
Born in Ogidi, Nigeria, Achebe attended Church Mission Society School, where his Igbo (or Ibo) parents were catechists. He continued his education at Government College in Umuahia, which is considered one of the best secondary schools in West Africa. In 1948 he enrolled in the first class at the newly established University College in Ibadan, run by the University of London. As an English literature student, Achebe often contributed stories, essays, and sketches to the University Herald. These works eventually were collected in Girls at War (1972). Within a year after his graduation in 1953, Achebe began a twelve-year career as a producer for the Nigerian Broadcasting Company (NBC) in Lagos, Nigeria's capital. During these years, Achebe also began researching and writing his most famous novel, Things Fall Apart, which was published two years prior to Nigerian autonomy in 1960. He followed his literary debut with three other novels—No Longer at Ease (1960), Arrow of God (1964), and A Man of the People (1966). By 1966, however, Nigeria's political climate worsened, deteriorating into a thirty-month civil war. Achebe quit his position at NBC and moved to the eastern region of Nigeria, which briefly seceded to become the independent state of Biafra. While there, Achebe devoted all his time to Biafran affairs and writing poetry, short stories, and essays. His most notable work during this time was his book of poetry, Beware, Soul Brother (1971). After the war ended in 1970, Achebe accepted a series of visiting professorships in the United States, where he founded and edited the respected African literary journal Okike and published Morning Yet on Creation Day (1975), a collection of literary and political essays written between 1962 and 1973. In 1976 Achebe returned to Nigeria where began teaching at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka. By the early 1980s, he was actively involved in Nigerian politics, serving first as the deputy national president of the People's Redemption Party and later as president of the town union in his hometown. At the same time, he also issued a polemical commentary on Nigerian leadership, The Trouble with Nigeria (1983). In 1987 Achebe published Anthills of the Savannah—his first novel after a twenty-one-year sabbatical from writing long fiction and the work that won Achebe a nomination for the prestigious Booker Prize. In 1990 Achebe nearly died from injuries sustained in an auto accident on a Nigerian highway under suspicious circumstances. Achebe spent six months recuperating in England following the accident, and moved to the United States where he continues to write and teach.
A realistic and anthropologically informative portrait of traditional Igbo society distinguishes Things Fall Apart, which is named after a title from a line in Irish poet W. B. Yeats's poem "The Second Coming." Set in the village of Umuofia during the initial stages of colonization in the late 1880s, the narrative traces the conflict between Igbo and Western customs through the characterization of Okonkwo, a proud village leader whose refusal to adapt to the encroaching European influences leads him to murder and suicide. No Longer at Ease follows Obi Okonkwo, the grandson of the protagonist of Achebe's first novel, throughout his failure to successfully combine his traditional Igbo upbringing with his British education and affluent lifestyle in Lagos during the late 1950s. Describing Igbo village life during the 1920s, Arrow of God centers on Ezeulu, a spiritual leader, whose son Oduche attends a missionary school to learn about Western society and technology. When Oduche comes home, he nearly kills a sacred python, which precipitates a chain of events culminating in Ezeulu's loss of his position as high priest and his detention by British authorities. Highlighting the widespread graft and abuse of power by Nigerian leaders following its independence from Great Britain, A Man of the P̀eople focuses on the tribulations of a Nigerian teacher who joins a political group working to remove a corrupt bureaucrat from office. The poems of Beware, Soul Brother—which later was republished as Christmas in Biafra (1973)—reflect on the human tragedy of the Nigerian civil war, using plain language and stark imagery. Similarly, some of the stories in Girls at War are about aspects of imminent war. Most of the stories deal with the conflict between traditional religious values and modern, secular mores, displaying the full range of Achebe's talents for humor, irony, and political satire. Divided into two parts, Morning Yet on Creation Day addresses a number of literary and political themes, with special emphasis on traditional and contemporary roles of art and the writer in African society. Set in the fictional West African country of Kangan, Anthills of the Savannah is about three childhood friends who hold influential governmental posts. When one of them fails in his bid for election as president for life, he works to suppress his opposition. After successfully conspiring to murder one friend, he meets a violent death during a military coup, while the third friend dies in a street riot. Generally considered Achebe's most accomplished work, Anthills of the Savannah illustrates the often dire consequences for society when individual responsibility and power are recklessly exploited. While retaining the use of Igbo proverbs and legends to enhance his themes, Achebe also pays more attention to the development and role of the women characters in this novel. In the book, Achebe gives women strength and composure as the agents of traditional morals and precepts. Finally, Hopes and Impediments (1988) gathers new and previously published essays and speeches, including a controversial essay attacking British novelist Joseph Conrad as racist. The book also includes a tribute to American novelist James Baldwin, along with several commentaries on post-colonial African society that high-light cultural forces influencing its modern-day character.
Many critics regard Achebe as the finest Nigerian novelist of the twentieth century with his works often serving as the standard for judging other African literary works. Achebe's literary criticism and sociological essays also have won praise. As one of the most discussed African writers of his generation, Achebe has inspired a substantial body of criticism and scholarship about his writing and political stances. Achebe's inventive usage of Igbo proverbs and folklore in his novels is the most studied feature of his art. Scholars have mostly concentrated on the significance of proverbs in Achebe's construction of vernacular speech patterns and social conventions, as well as a way to distinguish identities of his fictional characters. Scholars also have focused on how the proverbs provide thematic control to Achebe's narrative structures. Critics note, however, that Achebe's writings have relevance beyond the borders of Nigeria and beyond the anthropological, sociological, and political concerns of post-colonial Africa. Achebe's literature also deals with the universal qualities of human nature. As Achebe has said, "My politics is concerned with universal communication across racial and cultural boundaries as a means of fostering respect for all people…. As long as one people sit on another and are deaf to their cry, so long will understanding and peace elude all of us."
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 126
Things Fall Apart (novel) 1958
No Longer at Ease (novel) 1960
The Sacrificial Egg and Other Stories (short stories) 1962
Arrow of God (novel) 1964
Chike and the River (juvenilia) 1966
A Man of the People (novel) 1966
Beware, Soul Brother, and Other Poems (poetry) 1971; republished as Christmas in Biafra and Other Poems, 1973
Girls at War and Other Stories (short stories) 1972
How the Leopard Got His Claws [with John Iroaganachi] (juvenilia) 1972
Morning Yet on Creation Day (essays) 1975
The Drum: A Children's Story (juvenilia) 1977
Don't Let Him Die: An Anthology of Memorial Poems for Christopher Okigbo (1932–1967) [co-editor with Dubem Okafor] (poetry) 1978
The Flute: A Children's Story (juvenilia) 1979
The Trouble with Nigeria (essays) 1983
African Short Stories [co-editor with C. L. Innes] (short stories) 1985
Anthills of the Savannah (novel) 1987
Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays (essays) 1988
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9721
SOURCE: "An Interview with Chinua Achebe," in Conversations with Chinua Achebe, edited by Bernth Lindfors, University Press of Mississippi, 1997, pp. 165-84.
[In the following interview, originally conducted on May 28, 1989, and first published in Callaloo in 1991, Achebe discusses the role of the writer and literature in an African context, paying particular attention to indigenous narrative traditions, the influence of the English language on the continent, and the genesis of his own identity as a writer.]
[Rowell:] Mr. Achebe, here in the United States, those of us who read twentieth-century world literature think of you as one of the most important writers in this era. We view you as an artist—and for us the word artist has a certain kind of meaning. In the African world, does artist have the same meaning as that conceptualized in the Western world? Or, more specifically, what do Nigerians conceive the writer to be?
Is he or she thought of as an artist, a creator of the kind that we think of here in the United States when we speak about writers?
[Achebe:] Well, I think that there are obviously certain common factors when anybody talks about an artist, whether in America or in Africa. I think there are certain factors which would apply to either place—and so we can leave those aside, if you like. But there are differences definitely, in emphasis if not absolute, and it is these that one should draw attention to. The artist has always existed in Africa in the form of the sculptor, the painter, or the storyteller, the poet. And I suppose the role of the writer, the modern writer, is closer to that of the griot, the historian and poet, than to any other practitioner of the arts. But I think one can find, even from the other forms of art, fundamental statements, cultural statements, made about art in general which seem to me to be peculiarly African in their emphasis.
What I mean, for instance, is this. The ceremony, which is called "Mbari" among the Igbo people, is a festival of art, a celebration of humanity. It is not a festival of oral arts; it is more a festival of the visual arts, the plastic arts, though drama and songs are presented there as well. There you will find, I think, what our people thought of art—and that's the reason I am referring to it. Some of the statements made by Mbari are very profound. One is that art is in the service of the community. There is no apology at all about that. Art is invented to make the life of the community easier, not to make it more difficult. Artists are people who live in society. The professional artist, the master artist and craftsman, is a special kind of person, but he is not the only person who is expected to practice art.
For this celebration, this Mbari celebration, ordinary people are brought in to work under the supervision of professional artists, because we assume that everybody has art in themselves. So ordinary people are brought in, and they are secluded with the professionals for a period—months and sometimes even years—to create this celebration of life through art. So what this says to me is that art is not something up there in the rarified reaches of the upper atmosphere but something which is down here where we live. Art is not something which is beyond the comprehension of ordinary people. It is something which ordinary people not only can understand and use, but even take part in making. So these are ideas which I don't find very much in the West, you see. These are some of the ideas we have that one should specify and draw attention to. If one looked at what we do and compared it with what our contemporaries do in the West, these ideas would explain some of the differences and some of the puzzlement that certain Western critics have, for instance, when they encounter African literature and say: "Why do they do that? Why are they so political?" And they ask these questions to the point of irritation. If only they understood where we were coming from, then perhaps they would not be so puzzled. Perhaps they would even be open to persuasion on this score.
At the University of Virginia, last April [19, 1989], you responded to a question from the audience which I think describes further what you have just said or is related to it. I can't quote you directly. However, I do remember that you implied that art, in Nigeria, is intimately linked to social responsibility and that it is connected to that which is moral, that which is ethical, that which is right, or that which is good. I think you made that statement in response to a question about Joseph Conrad—and I'm not trying to get into a Joseph Conrad discussion here. Will you say more about art?
Yes. The festival which I have just been talking about, the Mbari festival, is commanded from time to time by the goddess of creativity, the earth goddess, called Ala or Ani by the Igbo people. This goddess is not only responsible for creativity in the world: she is also responsible for morality. So that an abomination is described as taboo to her, as nso-ani. That's the word for something which is not supposed to be done—not just a wrongdoing—but an abomination, something which is forbidden by this goddess. So obviously by putting the two portfolios, if you like, of art and morality in her domain, a statement is being made about the meaning of art. Art cannot be in the service of destruction, cannot be in the service of oppression, cannot be in the service of evil. We tend to be a little apologetic about that. You know, if you talk about "good," people will get uneasy. They become uneasy. I don't know why that should be so, but we work ourselves into all kinds of corners from which we then become uneasy when certain words are mentioned. That's not the fault of the words; there is perhaps something wrong with us.
So there is no question at all, in the view of my people, that art cannot serve immorality. And morality here doesn't mean "be good and go to church." That's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about manifest wickedness like murder. There is no art that can say that it is right to commit murder. I remember, I think it was Yevtushenko who once said that "You cannot be a poet and a slave trader." It seems to me fairly obvious that you cannot combine those particular professions, because they are antithetical. And this is not something which only the Africans or the Igbo people know, I think it is there, embedded also, in the minds of other people. The difference is that our culture makes no bones about it, and I think this comes through too in our writing. It does not mean that our heroes have to be angels. Of course not. It means, in fact, that heroes will be as human as anybody else; and yet the frontier between good and evil must not be blurred: it means that somewhere, no matter how fuzzy it may be to us, there is still a distinction between what is permissible and what is not permissible. One thing which is not permissible is to stereotype and dehumanize your fellows. That is not permissible in our art. You celebrate them, their good and their bad. You celebrate even rascals, because they abound in the world and are part of its richness.
You just said that this conceptualization of art comes through "in our writing." Will you talk about how this is exemplified in your own work or that of other African writers, either consciously or unconsciously?
Well, I think if you took a tape recorder and went around African writers, I bet you will find them making rather large statements for what they do. You'll find them saying, for instance, "I am writing so that the life of my people will be better." I even found a modern story in Hausa which ended: "And so they married and they produced many sons and daughters who helped to raise the standard of education in the country." That's the way the story ends, imitating the format of the folk story but obviously turning it into something very practical for today, you see. And I said elsewhere, if anybody reads this story and says "oh now, this is an anticlimax," he could not possibly know anything about Africa, because the story of today has to do with raising the standards of education of the country, you see. We are engaged in a great mission, and we attempt to bring this into our storytelling. It is this mission that our storyteller brings into his tale without the slightest inclination to discuss it self-consciously in the way we are doing now. He instinctively felt a need for his story and supplied it. This is why we get letters saying, to me for instance, "Why did you let Okonkwo fail in Things Fall Apart? Why did you let a good man or a good cause stumble and fall?" At another time, I remember a letter from a woman in Ghana saying, "Why did Obi, in No Longer at Ease, not have the courage to marry the girl he loved instead of crumbling?" People are expecting from literature serious comment on their lives. They are not expecting frivolity. They are expecting literature to say something important to help them in their struggle with life.
That is what literature, what art, was supposed to do: to give us a second handle on reality so that when it becomes necessary to do so, we can turn to art and find a way out. So it is a serious matter. That's what I'm saying, and I think every African writer you talk to will say something approaching what I have just said—in different forms of words, except those who have too much of the West in them, and there are some people, of course, who are that way. But the writer I am referring to is the real and serious African writer. I think you will find them saying something which sounds as serious, as austere, or as earnest as what I have just said.
You've mentioned the griot. I have read many things about what a griot is. And sometimes these texts seem to contradict each other. What is a griot? The word itself sounds Francophone.
It's a word that comes from somewhere: I don't even know where it comes from. I know it certainly is not a Nigerian word. It's not an Igbo word. But it is a word. But it is a word which concerns us, because we know roughly what kind of person we are talking about. We are talking about the traditional poet and historian. The function of this person would not be exactly the same thing in all cultures. Where you have a monarchical system, for instance, the chances are that the griot or the poet, this historian, would be connected with the history of the dynasty. This is supposedly where problems immediately arise, you know. How reliable, then, is this poet, who resides in the court of the emperor, reciting the history? There are problems there. And the greatest griots, I think, have managed to find a way around those problems. How they do it we cannot go into here. It suffices to remind us that 700 years after the life and death of Sundiata, the first emperor of Mali, the griots in West Africa were still reciting the story of his birth and life and death. It was only in the fifties, the 1950s, that this story was finally put down in writing. And the person who put it down in writing went to different and widely separated places and compared the versions given by various griots and discovered that the core of the story remained the same, you see. This is quite remarkable: over a period of 700 years … because we tend to think that unless something is scribbled down on some piece of paper it cannot be true. I don't know who told us that. And we have come to believe it ourselves, that our history should be measured in terms of paper. So whenever you don't have a piece of paper, somebody says there is no history. And we seem to be quite ready to accept it. So you would find our historians going to archives in Portugal, for instance, to see what some sailor from Portugal had said when he came to Benin in the fifteenth century. We don't ask the condition of this sailor when he was making his entry, whether he was drunk or sober. He is on a piece of paper and therefore reliable—and more reliable than what you might gather in the field by asking people: "What do you remember? What do your people remember about this?"
Anyway, I think we are learning. We know a little better now than we used to. Thanks to the work of people like the late Professor Dike, who helped to create a new historiography of Africa using the oral tradition. We know now that we can find some of the truth in oral traditions. Now, to get back to the problem of the griot, let me tell the story of one short fable in Hausa, which I think exemplifies the way a griot might approach his problem obliquely, because if you are dealing with the emperor who is so much more powerful than yourself, you have to have your wits around you. If you start telling a story which puts him in a bad light or a bad mood, your career will be very short indeed! So you have to find a way of getting around this problem.
Now this is a story, a very simple animal story, from the Hausa language, which I encountered years ago. And I have used it again and again because I think it is a marvelous little story. In my own words, it goes something like this: The snake was riding his horse, coiled up in his saddle.
That's the way the snake rode his horse. And he came down the road and met the toad walking by the roadside. And the toad said to him. "Excuse me, sir, but that's not how to ride a horse." And the snake said, "No? Can you show me then?" And the toad said, "Yes, if you would step down, sir." So the snake came down. The toad jumped into the saddle and sat bolt upright and galloped most elegantly up and down the toad. When he came back he said. "That's how to ride a horse." And the snake said, "Excellent. Very good. Very good, indeed. Thank you, Come down, if you don't mind." So the toad came down, and the snake went up and coiled himself in the saddle as he was used to doing and then said to the toad. "It is very good to know, but it is even better to have. What good does excellent horsemanship do to a man without a horse?" And with that he rode away.
Now, the Hausa, who made this story, are a monarchical people. They have classes: the emir, the upper class, the nobility, etc., down to the bottom, the ordinary people, the talakawa. As you can see, the snake in this story is an aristocrat, and the toad a commoner. The statement, even the rebuke, which the snake issues is, in fact, saying: "Keep where you belong. You see, people like me are entitled to horses, and we don't have to know how to ride. There's no point in being an expert. That's not going to help you." Now that's very nice in that kind of political situation. And we can visualize the emir and his court enjoying this kind of story and laughing their heads off—because, you see, it's putting the commoner in his place. But also if you think deeply about this story, it's a two-edged sword. I think that's the excellence of the griot who fashioned it. To put this other edge to it, which is not noticed at first … this other side is that the snake is incompetent, the snake is complacent, the snake is even unattractive. It's all there in the story, you see, and the time will come in this political system when all this will be questioned. Why is it that a snake is entitled to a horse? Why is it that the man who knows how to ride does not have a horse to ride? You see. This questioning will come in a revolutionary time, and when it comes you don't need another story. It is the same story that will stand ready to be used; and this to me is the excellence of the griot in creating laughter and hiding what you might call the glint of steel. In the voluminous folds of this laughter, you can catch the hint of a concealed weapon which will be used when the time comes. Now this is one way in which the griot gets around the problem of telling the emperor the truth, you see. That is very, very important. Of course, if the griot is strong enough to say this to the emperor in his face, he will do it. But if he is not, he will find a way to conceal his weapon. Of course, there will be griots who sell out, but we're not talking about those, those who sing for their dinner.
After your reading-lecture at the University of Virginia last April, one of my graduate students, a native of Mauritania, said to me: "In this culture, meaning the Western culture, you meet knowledge, you meet erudition, you meet expertise, but not wisdom. Mr. Achebe speaks and writes wisdom." That was what the student, Mohamed B. Taleb-Khyar, said, and I quote him directly.
That was very kind of him.
What I would like to ask of you is this: Does this speaking wisdom characterize, in any way, the sensibility of the African artist?
Yes. I think it does. Wisdom is as good a word to use, I think, in describing the seriousness I was talking about, this gravitas that I'm talking about which informs our art. We can be as jovial, as lighthearted, even as frivolous as anybody else. But everything has its place and its measure. When you are dealing with art of the level at which we are dealing with it, it's a serious matter, a matter of clarification and wisdom.
You are a teacher—in the United States we would say that you are a professor—of literature. What is the status of teaching literature in Africa? That's to say, does the teaching of literature contribute positively or negatively in the development, for example, of the new Nigeria? In other words, what is the role of the humanities in the African context?
Well, we as writers and artists have or should have a central role in the society. We are not necessarily carrying the day in that way of thinking. For instance, when I gave the National Lecture in Nigeria (which you give if you win the Nigerian National Merit Award which is our highest honor for intellectual achievement), the lecture I gave recently in Nigeria was entitled "What Has Literature Got To Do With It?" It was about the problem of development which concerns all of us. How do we develop, how do we raise our standard of living, how do we improve the life of our people, how do we modernize, and all of that which we aspire to like anybody else? How do we even raise the income per capita? All of these things are important. What I'm asking is: What has literature got to do with them? Has literature any relevance to all this or is it simply something we can perhaps forget for the time being? Are we to concentrate on the hard sciences, and then perhaps when we have become developed we can afford the luxury of literature. Is that what we want? There will be people who say so. There are attempts, for instance, to shift the emphasis in the universities in Nigeria from the humanities to the sciences, to limit the admissions for the humanities and increase the admissions for the sciences. Now all that, of course, may be necessary. I really don't know, but I think any people who neglect the importance of addressing the minds and hearts and the spirit of the people will find that they will be really getting nowhere at all in their development. One of the examples I gave was a story told us in Japan.
Some years ago I was taking part in a symposium in Japan. The Japanese would bring two foreign experts to Japan to meet with about half a dozen local experts in similar disciplines. They would talk and discuss for three or four days. On this occasion, the subject was culture and development. I remember the story which a Japanese professor told. His grandfather went to the University of Tokyo and graduated, he said, I think, about 1900. All of his notes, the notes he wrote in the university as a student, were written in English. His own father graduated about 1920. Half of his notes were written in English and half in Japanese. Then he, the man who was telling us the story, graduated in 1950 or thereabouts, from the same university. All his notes were written in Japanese. Now this profile is very interesting. The Japanese were becoming giants in the modern world, in technology and so on, surpassing those who began the industrial revolution. They were also, as it were, travelling back to regain-their own culture through their language, you see. This is very important; I think this is an extremely important story. It says something about the relationship between technology and the humanities.
How far can you develop without dealing with certain humanistic problems, such as who am I, why am I here, what is the meaning of life, what is my culture? I believe that the relationship is close, important and crucial.
You teach literature courses. You told me that you teach African literature frequently. But when you teach a literature course that does not include an African literary text, what are some of the creative works or texts you select?
No, I have never taught anything but African literatures, and I'm not really a professional literature teacher. The only reason I got into teaching at all is that I wanted to teach African literature. So I taught African literature from the start. I guess I've not done anything else in my teaching career.
If you were teaching a course in twentieth-century literature, what are some of the texts you'd use? And why would you select them? I guess, ultimately, I'm asking this: What are some of the twentieth-century texts you consider to be important? For example, I couldn't imagine teaching a course in twentieth-century American literature without including Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man or William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! or Toni Morrison's Sula. In other words, what do you consider some of the most important texts for teaching twentieth-century world literature?
Well, it's not really a question I can answer satisfactorily. The texts you mention are all very important—and there are other important ones as well. I wouldn't really be able to or want to rattle off a list just like that, but I would certainly try to cover the world. I would attempt to cover those writers who have written what you call "the landmarks" of the twentieth century. And I guess that would include people like T. S. Eliot, would include Ezra Pound, would include Faulkner, would include Hemingway. Then if you come nearer to our time … yes, yes, Invisible Man is an outstanding novel by any stretch of the imagination—and I would include it for that reason and also for the reason that Ellison is writing from a history and a tradition which have a unique message for us. I would include one—at least one—Baldwin text. From African literature I would include Ambiguous Adventure by Cheikh Hamidou Kane, I would include Camara Laye and Amos Tutuola. I would include Alex La Guma and Nadine Gordimer. Then I would attempt to find, even in translation, some Arabic writers from Egypt. Naguib Mahfouz and Alifa Rifaat, for example. Then I would attempt to include writers from India, Raja Rao for example. That doesn't cover the whole world. Then I would move to Latin America, you see. I would include Neruda and Marquez. Actually, some of the most interesting writing is taking place there, I would also go to the Caribbean which, for its size, is perhaps the most dynamic literary environment in the world in our time. There is a legion of people there I would want to include. So you see I would have really to end up with a very long list and then begin to pare it down. But the important thing I would attempt to do is not to limit myself to anybody's "Great Tradition," because that sort of thing limits you and blinds you to what is going on in the real world.
Are there other reasons that you would not include "anybody's 'Great Tradition'"?
No, no, I said I would go beyond anyone's "Great Tradition." Why? Because it is not the "Great Tradition." It cannot be. No way. One small corner of the world cannot wake up one morning and call its artifact the "Great Tradition," you see. Our people have a saying that the man who's never traveled thinks that his mother makes the best soup. Now we need to travel—with all due respect to our mothers—we need to travel. So the question of a "Great Tradition" makes sense only if you're not aware of other people's traditions.
I had a very curious experience in Holland, where I was put up to run as president of International PEN. An older, much older, man, a Frenchman, was put up also—or he put himself up after he saw my name. And he won. But the interesting thing is that he had no conception—and didn't want to have any conception—of the literature of Africa. He kept quite clearly and studiously avoiding any mention of African literature, and at some point he said something like this: "How can we expect the Third World, with all of their problems, to produce great art?" Do you see what I mean? Now this is the kind of mind or mentality I'm talking about. It remains alien to me though I encounter it frequently. It is alien to me because my whole life has been ordered in such a way that I have to know about other people. This is one of the penalties of being an underdog: that you have to know about the overdog, you see. The overdog doesn't need to know about the underdog; therefore, he suffers severe limitations, and the underdog ends up being wiser because he knows about himself and knows about the overdog. So my reading list would be really catholic, would be catholic in every sense of the word. I haven't talked about the Far East, because I don't know enough, but I will try and find, for example, some good writers from Japan. One must read the Japanese novelists. Their own contribution to the consciousness of the twentieth century is unique.
Is the Third World writer presently participating in the ongoing revision of what one calls "the literary canon"?
Oh yes, yes. By just being there. He/she is, in fact, the reason for the revision. He/she is the very reason for the revision.
Isn't the Third World writer something else other than what we just said? The matter I'm thinking of here is linguistic. Let us assume for a moment that Percy Shelley was correct when he said that "the poet is the legislator of the world." The poet is indeed a person who shapes our vision of the world; he or she does that and provides us with a vocabulary, or new vocabulary, to describe it. I'm thinking of you and what you do for the Englishspeaking would as a writer, and what Jorges Luis Borges does, or did, for the Spanish-speaking world, and what Aimé Césaire does linguistically, for example, for the French-speaking world. In other words, does the Third World writer alter or adapt the medium and, through a destruction of what is out there as—I'll call it this—" the parent language or dialect" itself, revise or reinvest the medium?
Well, yes. My answer to the previous question was rather brief, but it was really intended to contain all of this. This Third World creature comes with an experience which is peculiar, including the linguistic experience. The use of French, in the case of Césaire, is the use of a French that has been in dialogue with other languages, you see. In my case, it is an English which has been in dialogue with a very rich alien linguistic milieu—that is, you have African languages strong in their own right, and an African history and experience. An English which has had this particular encounter cannot be the same as the English of Kingsley Amis writing in London. So this is something which the members of the metropolis have to deal with, and they don't always like it. But it is not really something for me to worry about. I know some people who are worried, and they say, "Look what they are doing to my language!" They are horrified.
We come with this particular preparation which, as it happens, actually enriches the metropolitan languages. But that's not why we do it; we're not doing it in order to enrich the metropolitan language. We're doing it because this is the only way we can convey the story of ourselves, the way we can celebrate ourselves in our new history and the new experience of colonialism, and all the other things. We have had to fashion a language that can carry the story we are about to tell.
It's not all so new, even though, perhaps, it's happening now on such a wide scale that we are paying more attention to it than before. But if you think, for instance, of all the great writers in English in our century, they are virtually all Irish. Why is that so? This is very important, and I think it is the same situation. James Joyce, of course, addresses it directly and talks about it in that famous passage in which Stephen Daedalus is talking about what the English language means to him and to his teacher who is English. He muses on the fact that every word he says means something different to each of them—any word, "ale" or "Christ"; no word can mean the same thing to me as it does to him. Why? Because we colonials and excolonials come to the English language with a whole baggage of peculiar experiences which the English person doesn't have. This is what has made the English language, in our time, such a powerful force in literature. This is why we're talking about the Caribbean literature and about African literature.
Will you elaborate on a statement you just made about using a new form of English? You said that it (the new form of the medium) was the only "way we can convey the history of ourselves." You said we use the language in the way we do because this is the only way we can convey the history or the story of ourselves. Apparently, you are talking about the nature of that revised form, or the new fabric, of English.
Well, take Nigeria. Nigeria is a vibrant cultural environment. It has been for a long time. It has, literally, two hundred languages—not all of them important, but some quite big. The three main Nigerian languages are spoken by at least ten million people each, and some of them, like Hausa, cross beyond Nigeria's borders to other places. The English language arrives in Nigeria, then, and is thrown into this very active linguistic environment. Of course, it has the special privilege of being the language of administration, the language of higher education—the lingua franca, in fact, the language in which the various indigenous political and linguistic entities can communicate among themselves. Unless he learns the Igbo language, the Hausa man will communicate with the Igbo man in English. A Yoruba man communicates with a Hausa man in English. We're talking about Nigeria. And this has gone on for a number of generations. English, then, acquires a particular position of importance. You must recognize this, unless, of course, you agree with some of my friends who have said that we should ignore this history and ignore this reality and ignore whatever advantage of mutual communication English has brought to our very complex situation. Unless you were to accept that extreme position, you would have to say. "What will we do with this English language that's been knocking around here now for so long?" Our people don't allow anything as powerful as that to keep knocking around without having a job to do, because it would cause trouble.
This is the whole point of that Mbari phenomenon that I was describing earlier, in which anything which is new and powerful, which appears in the horizon, is brought in and domesticated in the Mbari house with all the other things that have been around, so that it doesn't have the opportunity to stay out of sight and scheme to overthrow the environment. This is what art does. Something comes along and you bring it in—and even if you don't yet fully understand it, you give it a place to stand. This is the way in which we have been using the English language to tell our story. It's not the only way we can tell our story, of course. I can tell our story in the Igbo language. It would be different in many ways. It would also not be available to as many people, even within the Nigerian environment. So this is the reality: this English, then, which I am using, has witnessed peculiar events in my land that it has never experienced anywhere else. The English language has never been close to Igbo, Hausa, or Yoruba anywhere else in the would. So it has to be different, because these other languages and their environment are not inert. They are active, and they are acting on this language which has invaded their territory. And the result of all this complex series of actions and reactions is the language we use. The language I write in. And, therefore, it comes empowered by its experience of the encounter with me. One advantage it has is this: Although it is thus different, it is not so different that you would have to go to school to learn it in America or in India or Kenya or anywhere English is already spoken. So it definitely has certain advantages which we can only ignore to our own disadvantage. It is a world language in a way that Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo are not. There is no way we can change that. Now that is not to say that we should therefore send these other languages to sleep. That's not what I'm saying, I am saying that we have a very, very complex and dynamic multilingual situation, which we cannot run away from but contain and control.
No Longer at Ease addresses the problem of communication in particular terms. There are moments in the novel when there's a lack of communication. This problem revolves around Obi, your central character. Will you comment on the issues related to language and its failure as a medium in modern society?
Well, yes, language is of course a marvelous tool of communication. This is what makes us different from cattle, that we have language and we are able to communicate with the precision that language brings. But even this is not enough. We all know that. Sometimes we say. "I know what I want to say, but I just can't find the words to say it." In other words, language is not absolutely perfect; there are still things we struggle to express. Sometimes we approach fairly close to what we feel, what we want to say, but at other times no. So it's not surprising that there should be problems in communication, even though we've got language in the technical sense of just using words. But, of course, you can be using the same words and still not communicate, because of other blocks, of other factors. People can refuse to listen. People can for all kinds of reasons not want to accept the message.
That failure of communication, for instance, between Obi and Clara is interesting. They speak the same language but there is a communication breakdown. Obi is saying "just give me a little more time, my mother is sick, let's wait. we'll get married later on." Now, Clara cannot understand that, you see, and it's not because she's unreasonable. She's very reasonable. She's so reasonable that she had foreseen this problem before, and warned Obi about it, you see. She is not going to allow herself to be brutalized over and over again: this is why she'd taken the humiliating pains to say: "Do you know that you're not supposed to marry someone like me?" Obi says, "Nonsense, we're beyond that, we're civilized people." And now that Clara has invested her life in this civilization she's being told: "Let's wait a minute." So this is an example of my own view of the breakdown in communication because it's not that either party does not understand the words being used, it's just that no words can solve their predicament. There's no way you can resolve this particular problem in any kind of language; we are at an impasse, and it's now beyond language. But we have no better tool than language to communicate with one another. So when language fails, what do we do? We resort to fighting, but that, of course, is destructive. So language is very important, it is a hallmark of our humanity, one of the hallmarks of our humanity, but it is never enough, even that is not enough. We work at it, we give it all the patience we have, but we must expect that even when all is said and done there will always remain those areas, those instances when we are unable to get across.
What about Obi and communication with his family?
Well, the same kind of thing is happening but not to the same degree, obviously. Between him and his mother there is a very peculiar relationship that has been built up from birth, which he's in no position to deal with at all. He can deal with his father quite abruptly, in fact, and overwhelm him, but he doesn't even try with his mother. This is a relationship we may not comprehend unless we come from a culture like his. There's no way he can argue with his mother when she says. "well, if you're going to marry that girl, wait until I'm dead. You won't have very long to wait." In some cultures they say "to hell with that, she's had her own life, this is my life." That's not the Igbo people, you know. There's no way Obi can respond like that. So that's communication again. One part of Obi knows that he can say "mother, I can't wait." Another part of him says "you can't say that to your mother."
Critics have often described Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart as representative of a kind of Aristotelian tragic hero. How do you respond to critics reading Okonkwo as a hero in terms of Aristotle's concept of tragedy?
No, I don't think I was responding to that particular format. This is not, of course, to say that there is no relationship between these. If we are to believe what we are hearing these days, the Greeks did not drop from the sky. They evolved in a certain place which was very close to Africa. Very close to Egypt which in itself was also very close to the Sudan and Nubia which was very close to West Africa. So it may well turn out, believe it or not, that some of the things Aristotle was saying about tragedy were not really unheard of in other cultures. It's just that we are not yet ready to make these quantum leaps! For instance, it has been shown that one-third of the entire vocabulary of ancient Greek came from Egypt and the Middle East. And so obviously there were links with us which the Greeks themselves apparently had no problem acknowledging. It was only late, from the eighteenth century, that the Europeans began to find it difficult to accept that they owed anything to Africa. In any event, I think a lot of what Aristotle says makes sense. Putting it in a neat, schematic way may be peculiar to the Greek way of thinking about the hero. But that idea is not necessarily foreign to other people: the man who's larger than life, who exemplifies virtues that are admired by the community, but also a man who for all that is still human. He can have flaws, you see; all that seems to me to be very elegantly underlined in Aristotle's work. I think they are there in human nature itself, and would be found in other traditions even if they were not spelled out in the same exact way.
Would you agree that there are patterns of irony or an extensive use of irony in all of your first four novels, from Things Fall Apart all the way down to No Longer at Ease? If there are ironic situations or ironic characters, will you talk about that irony? I really don't like to ask writers to talk about their own work.
I think irony is one of the most powerful (how does one say it?)… one of the most powerful conditions in human experience. And anybody who is a storyteller—I see myself as a storyteller—will sooner or later come to the realization that ironies are among the most potent devices available to them. Irony can raise a humdrum story to a totally new level of power and significance simply by the fact of its presence, the presence of ironic juxtaposition. That's really all I can say. Your question seems to me almost like asking what do I think about metaphors. Well, you can't even begin to tell a story without saying this thing is like that thing. Or even this thing is that thing. Or, as in an almost grotesque proverb of Igbo, the corpse of another person is a log of wood. Of course, we know that somebody else's body is not a log of wood; but it could be so for all we care. We don't seem to be able to put ourselves inside that box. We do not say "there go I but for the grace of God." We lack the imagination to leap into that box. And if we didn't the world would have been a much more whole some place. The oppression in the world would not be as great as it is. The inhumanity we practice would be greatly reduced. But because we lack the metaphoric imagination we are unable to make that imaginative leap from out of our own skin into somebody else's. And so our storytellers jolt us with metaphor and irony, and remind us that "there but for the grace of God go I." Without metaphor and irony things would be white or black, and not very interesting. It's only when you show that this white is also black that something very interesting and important begins to happen.
In this interview, you have, I've noticed, in more than one instance, used a tale to illustrate your point. You have also used the proverb. I suddenly remember the narrator of Things Fall Apart talking about the importance of proverbs in Igbo conversation.
Proverbs are miniature tales; they are the building blocks, if you like, of tales. They are tales refined to their simplest form, because a good proverb is a short story. It is very short indeed. What it demonstrates, first of all—before we go on to the why—is the clarity with which those who made these proverbs had observed their reality. A proverb is a very careful observation of reality and the world, and then a distillation into the wisdom of an elegant statement so that it sticks in the mind. You see it, you know it's true, you tell yourself, "this is actually true, why hadn't I thought of it," and you remember it. And there is a whole repertory of these statements made by my people across the millennia. Some must have fallen out of use; others have remained and have been passed on from one generation to the next. And part of the training, of socialization of young people in this society, is to become familiar with these statements from our immemorial past. So that when we are dealing with a contemporary situation, when we are dealing with here and now, we have the opportunity to draw from the proverbial repertory to support or refute what is said. It's like citing the precedents in law. This case before us is what we are talking about. But similar things have happened before; look at the way our ancestors dealt with them down the ages. So it gives one a certain stability, it gives one a certain connectedness; it banishes, it helps to banish the sense of loneliness, the cry of desolation: why is this happening to me, what have I done, woe is me! The proverb is saying no, it's tough, but our ancestors made this proverb about this kind of situation, so it must have happened to someone else before you, possibly even to a whole lot of other people before. Therefore, take heart, people survived in the face of this kind of situation before. So proverbs do many kinds of things. They are, just for their elegance as literary forms, interesting and satisfying; then they ground us in our "Great Tradition"; they tell us something about the importance of observing our reality carefully, very carefully.
We know you in the United States as a novelist mainly. But you're also a poet, a critic, and a short story writer. Does the poem, or the essay, or the short story do something for you that the novel cannot do?
Yes, I think so, I think so. Though, I hope you won't ask me what it is, because that would be more difficult. But suddenly I have not been writing short stories for some time; there was a period in my life when I wrote a lot of short stories. At that point I was not writing novels. There was also a period when I wrote much poetry, much for me; now I rarely write poetry and so it must mean these forms serve me at particular times or have served me at particular times. If I may be more specific, during the Biafran war, the civil war in Nigeria, I was not writing novels for years and years and years; after that I was not in a mood to write novels. I wrote most of my poetry at that period, many of the short stories. So without saying categorically that I only write poetry in times of war, I think that there is some connection between the particular distress of war, the particular tension of war, and the kind of literary response, the genres that I have employed in that period. I remember in particular one poem, "Christmas in Biafra," which actually came out of the kind of desperation which you felt hearing carols on short-wave radio and being reminded that there were places in the world where people were singing about the birth of the Prince of Peace and you were trapped in this incredible tragedy. Now it's a very powerful feeling, a very powerful feeling indeed. It is analogous to that scene in Things Fall Apart just before those men kill Ikemefuna and they hear in the air the sound of music from a distant clan. I don't know how those men felt hearing it; the sounds of peace and celebration in the world and a horrendous event at home. So what I'm feeling at any particular time and what the world is doing impinge on the kind of writing I do, obviously.
Earlier you said, "I see myself as a storyteller." What do you mean?
Well, that's just a manner of speaking, of again relating myself in the manner of the proverbs we are talking about to something that had happened before. So even though I don't think I'll ever be in the court of the emperor, telling stories to him and his courtiers, still I am in that tradition, you see. The story has always been with us, it is a very old thing, it is not new; it may take new forms, but it is the same old story. That's mostly what I'm saying, and we mustn't forget that we have a certain link of apostolic succession, if you like, to the old Griots and storytellers and poets. It helps me anyway; it gives me that sense of connectedness, of being part of things that are eternal like the rivers, the mountains, and the sky, and creation myths about man and the world. The beginning was a story, it is the story that creates man, then man makes other stories, you see. And for me this is almost like Ezeulu in Arrow of God who before he performs important functions in his community has to go to the beginning and tell how his priesthood came into existence. He has to recite that story to his community to validate his priestly rites. They know it already but cannot hear it too often. This is how stories came into being, and this is what they did for our ancestors and we hope that they will continue to serve our generations, not in the same form necessarily, but the same spirit.
What is the role of the literary critic in the new Nigerian society?
Well, that's a good question. I didn't want to speak for critics, but I dare say that there were ancestors of literary critics in the past; I mean spectators who might get up and say: I don't like that stuff! Obviously modern critics could claim a certain apostolic succession but quite frankly I don't think the role of their ancestors was as elevated as that of the original creators. Today when the thing is down in print on paper, I think the role of the critic has become a lot more complex and thus a lot more important. It is important because there is need for mediation. Since I'm not going to go around and meet the people and answer their questions as a storyteller would do in the past, actually meet them face to face and experience their support or disagreement, somebody else is called into existence to perhaps explain difficult parts, or perform all kinds of functions of a mediating nature. Also, there is so much which is produced, there is so much that is written, all of it is not of the same quality and a certain amount of discrimination is necessary just to survive the barrage of production in the modern world, the sheer number of books. I think therefore the role of the critic is important. Also, I think the critic is there to draw attention to this continuity that I was talking about, to the tradition. How does this new work relate to what has happened before, how does it relate to writers who were here before, how does it even relate to those who did not write their stories but told them? So I think there is a new and necessary and important role for the critic.
I'm going to ask one more question about art and literature. Then I want to turn to a handful of questions about your background. If you had to look back on your works and judge them, is there one text or one genre which allowed you to speak or write the best way you wanted to? Or is there one of the them which is more representative of the kind of expression you wanted to make?
Well, I think I can only talk about the genre, and the only reason I can talk about it is that I can lean on the simple fact of numbers. I've written more novels than I've done any other thing, and therefore that must be the one that as of now seems most congenial. But I really don't even try to think about that and even if I were tempted I would resist the thought. I would go out of my way to stop it because, as I've said, everything I have written has been useful to me at the time when I needed to write it, and I wouldn't want to say that this time is more important than that time. So apart from being able to say that obviously I have written more novels, I would not bother to rank my texts and genres, or award distinctions, even secretly.
Did your education at the University of Ibadan direct you in any way toward a career in creative writing? I guess what I'm ultimately asking is how did you come to write?
Yes, well, I think I grew up in Ibadan in a way that pointed clearly in the direction of writing. That was the period when I was able to reassess what I had read and all I had to go by at that point was the colonial novel written by white people about us. And so it was a very, very crucial moment in my career, that moment when I was reading these things again with a new awareness of what was going on, the subtle denigration, and sometimes not so subtle, that I had missed before. So in that sense it's at Ibadan that I grew up, and growing up is part of the decision to write. It did not give me the taste for writing; it was always there. Even in high school and before that, because the taste for stories was always, there. I think it's simply encountering myself in literature and becoming aware that that's not me, you see. A number of texts helped; one of them was Joyce Cary's Mister Johnson, and I suppose one of them was Conrad's Heart of Darkness. There were a lot of other books not so well known and not worth remembering. But what I'm talking about is encountering the colonial ideology, for the first time in fiction, as something sinister and unacceptable. So if you add to this the weakness to stories anyway, you have the possibilities, even the incitement to become a writer, somebody who will attempt to tell his own story. Because we all have a story in us, at least one story, I believe. So in my case Ibadan was the watershed, a turning point.
At the present time we have only a bit of biographical or autobiographical public information about you, the man and the writer, and I've always wondered whether or not the Christian component of your background (your father was a mission teacher) extracted you from Igbo culture in any way?
I think it intended to, but I don't think it succeeded. Certainly it had its moments of success. But with my curiosity, my natural curiosity, I didn't allow it to succeed completely. And so there I was between two competing claims but not aware of any discomfort as a child. I was certainly aware of curiosity about the non-Christian things that were going on in my community, and I was not really convinced that because they were non-Christian they were therefore bad, or evil. And even though I met a lot of Christians who seemed to operate on the basis that everything in the traditional society was bad or evil or should be suppressed, I think that slowly, little by little, they realized too that that was really a lost hope, a wrong kind of attitude to adopt. I could see that a bit in my father. I know that he became less rigid as he grew older. The things he would not tolerate, when I was very little, I saw him not pay too much attention to later on—like traditional dancing and singing, you know. I never had any problem with those things. I was in a peculiar and an interesting position of seeing two worlds at once and finding them both interesting in their way. I mean I was moved by the Christian message. I was moved by hymns in the church. I was moved by the poetry of Christianity. I was also moved by the thing that Christianity was attempting to suppress: the traditional religion, about which at the beginning I didn't know very much. But I was going to make it my business to listen and learn and go out of my way to find out more about the religion. This is how it happened. So I was not distressed at all by being born in that kind of crossroads. On the contrary, I thought it was one of the major advantages I had as a writer.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4391
SOURCE: "Okonkwo's Participation in the Killing of His 'Son' in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart: A Study of Ignoble Decisiveness," in CLA Journal, Vol. XXXV, No. 3, March, 1992, pp. 303-15.
[In the following essay, Iyasere explains the thematic and structural significance of the murder of Ikemefuna in Things Fall Apart, focusing on the character development of Okonkwo.]
No episode in Achebe's memorable novel, Things Fall Apart,1 is more shocking and heartrending as the execution of Ikemefuna, an event too dreadful to endure. Circumstances surrounding the event make it even more hideous—if that is possible—and invite our moral revulsion more intensely than the killing of the messenger. Commenting on the significance of the murder of Ikemefuna, David Caroll writes:
The death of Ikemefuna is a turning point in the novel. The guardianship of the boy was a mark of Okonkwo's hard-won status and the highest point of his rise to power. The execution of Ikemefuna is the beginning of Okonkwo's decline, for it initiates the series of catastrophes which ended in his death. But this event is not only a milestone in the career of the hero. The sympathetic rendering of Ikemefuna's emotions as he is being marched through the forest to his death has wider implications.2
As crucial as this episode is to the overall thematic and structural development of the novel, especially in the development of the central character, critics have paid only cursory attention to it. With the exception of a brief study by Damian Opata, most of the comments on the killing of Ikemefuna, particularly those treating Okonkwo's participation, have been superficial and judicial, far less extensive and vigorous than the event demands.
The vexing, and paradoxical, question raised by Ikemefuna's death is why Okonkwo takes part, particularly after Oguefi Ezeudu, a respected elder in Umuofia who understands its values and traditions and the habits of the gods, warns Okonkwo against participating:
"That boy calls you father. Do not bear a hand in his death." Okonkwo was surprised, and was about to say some things when the old man continued: "Yes, Umuofia has decided to kill him. The Oracle of the Hills and Caves has pronounced it. They will take him there. But I want [you] to have nothing to do with it. He calls you father." (59-60)
In defense of Okonkwo's participation, Damian Opata argues that Okonkwo has no choice but to comply with the monstrous decree of the gods; further, because Ikemefuna is already regarded as a sacrificial Iamb, his death already a fait accomplit, Okonkwo acts only as a messenger executing the decree of the gods. To stress Okonkwo's place as a victim who deserves our sympathy instead of our vilification, Opata writes:
Okonkwo's killing of Ikemefuna is instinctive. No time was left for him to consider his actions. In other words, his killing of Ikemefuna was not premeditated. The immediate circumstances under which he had to kill Ikemefuna seem to have been forced on him by capricious fate, he was not in control of the situation. Rather, the situation was controlling him and we should not apply the principles of morality to a situation in which he was inexorably led by uncanny fate.3
The inaccuracies of Opata's view derive from his uninformed reading of the text; Opata disregards the particularities of the rhetoric of Achebe's controlled presentation of Okonkwo's actions throughout the novel and of the circumstances leading to his execution of Ikemefuna. For example, nowhere in the novel is it hinted that if Okonkwo had time to reflect on the execution he would have acted differently, as Opata seems to imply. In fact, a close reading of the text shows that Okonkwo was informed of the intended execution by Oguefi Ezeudu two full days before the execution was carried out (59-60); if Okonkwo had been a man of thought and not of blind action, he would have reflected on the moral consequences of his action during those two days. To demonstrate his eagerness to participate in the execution, "Okonkwo got ready quickly [when] the party set out with Ikemefuna carrying a pot of wine" (60).
To suggest, as Opata does, that Okonkwo is a victim of fate, one forced by circumstances beyond his control to kill Ikemefuna, is inaccurate. Although the capricious gods decreed that the innocent Ikemefuna should be killed, the gods did not specifically order Okonkwo to participate in the event. The fact is that Okonkwo was free to choose not to participate in Ikemefuna's execution, as the following conversation between Okonkwo and his friend Obeirika makes plain:
"I cannot understand why you refused to come with us to kill that boy," he [Okonkwo] asked Obeirika.
"Because I did not want to," Obeirika replied sharply. "I had something better to do."
"You sound as if you question the authority and the decision of the Oracle, who said he should die."
"I do not. Why should I? But the Oracle did not ask me to carry out its decision."
"But someone had to do it. If we were all afraid of blood, it would not be done. And what do you think the Oracle would do then?
"The Earth cannot punish me for obeying her messenger," Okonkwo said. "A child's fingers are not scalded by a piece of hot yam which its mother puts into its palm."
"That is true," Obeirika agreed. "But if the Oracle said that my son should be killed, I would neither dispute it nor be the one to do it." (69)
Opata's argument that Okonkwo is a victim of fate denies him his tragic stature and thereby robs him of our deepest sympathy.
More responsive to Ikemefuna's execution and Okonkwo's role in it is David Carroll, who writes:
This incident is not only a comment on Okonkwo's heartlessness. It criticizes implicitly the laws he is too literally implementing…. As we watch him [Ikemefuna] being taken unsuspectingly on his apparently innocent journey, the whole tribe and its values is [sic] being judged and found wanting. For the first time in the novel, we occupy the point of view of an outsider, a victim, and from this position the community appears cruel.4
Carroll's comment is to the point in directing our attention to Okonkwo's heartlessness and his literal minded acceptance of the decree of the gods. However, it does not specifically address the crucial question of whether or not Okonkwo had the choice of refusing to participate in the gods' hideous decree nor why Okonkwo interprets the gods so literally.
Okonkwo was faced with a paradoxical situation in participating in Ikemefuna's death. On the one hand, his relationship with the boy had evolved into a strong paternal/filial relationship; on the other hand, the gods decreed that the boy must die—a decree which had to be obeyed without question—as did the decree that the twins must die, as Obeirika recalled:
[W]hat crime had they committed? The Earth had decreed that they were an offense on the land and must be destroyed. And if the clan did not exact punishment for an offense against the goddess, her wrath was loosed on the land and not just the offender. As the elders saw, if one finger brought oil, it soils the others. (130)
The important question raised here is why does Okonkwo participate in executing Ikemefuna? Does he fear and respect the wrath of the gods? Judging from Okonkwo's actions, we have to say that the answer is "no"; habitually, Okonkwo acts too impulsively, too violently, to think of the consequences of his actions. This habit of impulse is made clear, for example, when Okonkwo beats his wife during the sacred Week of Peace—a week of harmony, restraint, and decorum: "And when she returned, he beat her heavily. In his anger he had forgotten that it was the Week of Peace. His first two wives ran out in great alarm, pleading with him that it was the sacred week. But Okonkwo was not the man to stop beating somebody halfway through, not even the fear of a goddess" (31). In fact, because of his excessive pride; because he would not admit his error, "people said he had no respect for the gods" (32). Though not afraid of a goddess, Okonkwo is not fearless, for he fears failure, as the narrator tells us:
[H]is whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness. It was deeper and more intimate than the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic…. Okonkwo's fear was greater than these. It was not external but lay deep within himself. It was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father. (14)
Robert Wren emphasizes Okonkwo's freedom to choose not to participate in killing Ikemefuna, "[I]f a man says 'no' strongly enough, his 'chi' says 'no' also. Okonkwo had that within him which said 'no' to the killing of Ikemefuna."5
Does he act, then, out of his own selfish motives—his inordinate ambition to be acknowledged as one of the courageous and brave men of Umuofia? Does he perceive the decree of the gods as a challenge to his manhood and, as a result, exceeds in his actions even what the gods demand? Based on a careful analysis of Achebe's controlled presentation of Okonkwo's character, his habit of mind and action, as this paper contends, Okonkwo's participation results not from obedience to the gods. Instead, like Ezeulu in Arrow of God, Okonkwo is in competition with the gods and acts out of his pathological fear of being thought weak—his fear of being perceived as like his father Unoka.
Because of the centrality of the scene in which Ikemefuna is killed to our understanding of Okonkwo's role in it, it is necessary to cite the passage of length:
At the beginning of their journey the men of Umuofia talked and laughed about the locust, about their women, and about some effeminate men who had refused to come with them. But as they drew near to the outskirts of Umuofia, silence fell upon them too.
The sun rose slowly to the center of the sky, and the dry, sandy footway began to throw up the heat that lay buried in it. Some birds chirruped in the forest around. The men trod dry leaves on the sand. All was silent. Then from the distance came the faint beating of the ekwe….
They argued for a short while and fell into silence again, and the elusive dance rose and fell with the wind. Somewhere a man was taking one of the titles of the clan, with music and dancing and a great feast….
Thus the men of Umuofia pursued their way, armed with sheathed machetes, and Ikemefuna, carrying a pot of palm wine on his head, walked in their midst. Although he had felt uneasy at first he was not afraid now. Okonkwo walked behind him. He could hardly imagine that Okonkwo was not his real father. He had never been fond of his real father, and at the end of three years he had become very distant indeed….
As the man who had cleared his throat drew up and raised his machete, Okonkwo looked away. He heard the blow. The pot fell and broke in the sand. He heard Ikemefuna cry, "My father, they have killed me!" as he ran towards him. Dazed with fear, Okonkwo drew his machete and cut him down. (61-63)
This tragic event takes place during or immediately after the celebration of the coming of the locust—an occasion of joy, laughter, and excitement, especially among the children of Umuofia. "Locusts are descending" was joyfully chanted everywhere, and men, women, and children left their work or their play to run into the open to see the unfamiliar sight. Ikemefuna's death comes only two days after "Okonkwo sat in his obi cruching happily with Ikemefuna and Nwoye and drinking palm wine copiously …" (59), sharing with Ikemefuna the joy which enveloped the whole community. The feast of the locust thus serves as a foil for and throws into sharp relief the killing of Ikemefuna.
These contrasting events are presented as occurring almost simultaneously to underscore the brutality and inhumanity of the Umuofia society. On the very day that Ikemefuna sits happily with his "father" Okonkwo, Ezeulu reports, "Yes, Umuofia has decided to kill him" (59). The narrator's terse, mournful description of Ikemefuna's death intensifies both the horror of the event and the dastardliness of Okonkwo's participation: His "son" runs to him for protection only to be felled by the hard steel of Okonkwo's machete. Okonkwo's deliberate participation makes the death of Ikemefuna too horrible to endure.
Okonkwo is consistently presented in the novel, as in the above episode, as a man of ignoble decisiveness, one who acts strong but is mentally weak. He is a man who rushes headlong into action and will not allow himself to be contained, as he should be, by the bonds of interpersonal relationships, by the prickings of conscience, or by the customs and values of his society.
Okonkwo's predisposition to commit himself with tragic intensity to irrevocable violence is made clear in the narrator's first description of him:
He was tall and huge and his bushy eyebrows and wide nose gave him a severe look. He breathed heavily, and it was said that when he slept, his wives and children in their houses could hear him breathe. When he walked, his heels hardly touched the ground and he seemed to walk on springs, as if he was going to pounce on somebody. And he did pounce on people quite often. He had a slight stammer and whenever he was angry and could not get the words out quickly enough, he would use his fists…. (4)
Emphasis here and throughout is on Okonkwo's intimidating physical strength and his reliance on force to achieve his ends. As Eustance Palmer observes, "In a sense, Okonkwo is presented as a life-denying force. He was always associated with death, whereas his father, with all his faults is associated with life … always charged and tense like a loaded cannon…. [O]ne expects his fiery temper and nervous energy to find outlet in violent action in that he will plunge headlong into self destruction."6 Equally important, the narrator's emphasis on Okonkwo's monstrous energy and brute strength calls attention to Okonkwo's primary weakness—his inability to think, to use language to channel and communicate his thoughts and thereby interact meaningfully with his environment.
To Okonkwo, words are mere shapes to fill a void, not prime instruments for conceptual expressions or for giving outward experience its form and making it definite and clear. According to Susan Langer, "all genuine thinking is symbolic, and the limits of expressive medium are therefore really the limits of our conceptual powers. Beyond these, we have only blind feeling, which records nothing and conveys nothing, but has to be discharged in action … or other impulsive demonstrations."7 Because of his limited metacognitive power, Okonkwo habitually resorts to blind and impulsive actions; he approaches every problem—no matter how complex or paradoxical—with a singleminded, preconceived solution: force without thought, action without regard for consequence. Unlike his friend Obeirika, his uncle Uchendu, and his father Unoka, Okonkwo is too impatient, too much a man of action to deal with subtleties, with nuances that do not fit easily into his monochromatic view of life. Okonkwo's rigid use of language corresponds to his rigid approach to life. (In significant ways, his attitude towards life and language help explain why he accepts the decree of the gods literally, without questions). Okonkwo's rhetorical ineptitude further alienates him from Umuofia, further divorces him from his goal of being Umuofia's champion, because Umuofia prides itself on its rhetorical refinement. In Umuofia, as among the Ibos, the art of conversation is regarded highly, and proverbs "are the palm oil with which words are eaten." As Wren observes. Okonkwo "does occasionally use a proverb—four or five times in the course of the novel—but they do not seem to flow from him…."8 In general, Okonkwo finds words poor substitutes for action. As C. L. Innes observes, "Phrases or statements which reaffirm rather than extend the existing world view of a person or his society are typical of Okonkwo…. His contributions to a discussion are generally short and commonplace…. For Okonkwo talking is never a prelude to action, it leads nowhere."9 Lacking rhetorical skill, Okonkwo overcompensates for his deficiency in this area by being too quick to act, by doing more than Umuofia and even the gods demand.
Okonkwo possessed a monomaniacal commitment to placing success and achievement above everything else—even the need to love and be loved—and identifying his whole existence with gaining power as one of the lords of the clan of Umuofia. This commitment to and drive for power ruled his life. Worse still, this habit of mind leads tragically to Okonkwo's denial of his true self and makes inevitable his suicide. He resorts to force instead of dialogue, acts violently when flexibility and compassion are called for.
The murder of Ikemefuna, though the most dreadful, is the climax of a series of extreme actions Okonkwo takes to assert his manliness—his existence. Other key moments arise when he savagely beats his son, repudiates his father. Unoka, kills the messenger, and ultimately turns his own violent hand against himself.
Okonkwo's impulsive violence marks his relationship with his only biological son, Nwoye. The boy seeks his father's love and understanding, but Okonkwo is incapable of responding to these basic human needs; he considered them unmanly and effeminate. When Okonkwo is confronted by the failure of his own rigid code as Nwoye turns to Christianity for love and succor, Okonkwo responds in the only way he knows—with violence:
It was late afternoon before Nwoye returned. He went into the obi and saluted his father, but he did not answer. Nwoye turned around into the inner compound when his father, suddenly overcome with fury, sprang to his feet and gripped him by the neck.
"Where have you been?" he stammered. Nwoye struggled to free himself from the choking grip.
"Answer me," roared Okonkwo, "before I kill you!" He seized a heavy stick that lay on the dwarf wall and hit him two or three savage blows.
"Answer me!" he roared again. Nwoye stood looking at him and did not say a word. The women were screaming outside, afraid to go in.
"Leave that boy at once," said a voice in the outer compound. It was Okonkwo's uncle, Uchendu. "Are you mad?"
Okonkwo did not answer. But he let hold of Nwoye, who walked away and never returned. (157)
In another crucial event, the final gathering of the clan, everything seems to point toward the need for dialogue and flexibility in responding to the clan's increasing fragmentation, "They have broken the clan and gone their several ways…. Our brothers have deserted us and joined a stranger to soil their fatherland. If we fight the stranger we shall hit our brothers and perhaps shed the blood of a clansman" (210). Okonkwo reacts predictably, decisively, violently. Early in the morning, under a somber silence, the elders of Umuofia gather in the marketplace to decide collectively what action they will need to take to stop the Reverend Smith and the District Commissioner's ruthless violations of the customs and traditions of Umuofia. A foreign judicial system has been established in place of indigenous laws; a foreign religion, Christianity, has begun to supplant the local gods. Umuofia's existence and all that gave the people's lives substance and meaning are being destroyed from within and without. As the elders deliberate, five messengers from the District Commissioner arrive, and tragic drama unfolds, with Okonkwo at center stage:
He [Okonkwo] sprang to his feet as soon as he saw who it was. He confronted the head messenger, trembling with hate, unable to utter a word. The man was fearless and stood his ground, his four men lined up behind him.
In that brief moment the world seemed to stand still, waiting. There was utter silence. The men of Umuofia were merged into the mute backcloth of trees and giant creepers, waiting.
The spell was broken by the head messenger. "Let me pass!" he ordered.
"What do you want here?"
"The white men whose power you know too well have ordered this meeting to stop."
In a flash Okonkwo drew his machete. The messenger crouched to avoid the blow. It was useless. Okonkwo's machete descended twice and the man's head lay beside his uniformed body.
Okonkwo stood looking at the dead man. He knew that Umuofia would not go to war. He knew because they had let the other messengers escape. They had broken into tumult instead of action. He discerned fright in that tumult. He heard voices asking: "Why did he do it?"
He wiped his machete on the sand and went away. (210-11)
To understand the reason why Okonkwo acts as he does, we need to examine Okonkwo's relationship with Unoka. Okonkwo's relationship with his father, Unoka, is devoid of love and marked by hate. Okonkwo violently and decisively repudiates Unoka, obliterating his father's existence from his mind because Unoka is known to be weak, a failure: "[H]e had long ago learned how to slay that ghost. Whenever thought of his father's weakness and failure troubled him, he expelled it by thinking about his own strength and success" (68-69). At his death, Unoka had no title; when he died, he was not accorded the proper traditional funeral but was buried like a dog. In trying to obliterate all Unoka represents, Okonkwo casts off not only Unoka's undignified irresponsibility but also those positive attributes—love, compassion, creativity—which Unoka embodies. What Okonkwo does not recognize is that by attempting to obliterate his father's reality, he symbolically destroys his own existence and his own place in Umuofia society and ends up, in death, just like his father. To Umuofia, Okonkwo's death by hanging is an abomination. an offense against the earth; as a result, Umuofia buries Okonkwo, as Obeirika mournfully observes, "like a dog." The clan's attitude toward Okonkwo's death is tersely summarized: "His body is evil, and only strangers may touch it…. We cannot bury him. Only strangers can. We shall pay you men to do it. When he has been buried, we will then do our duty. We shall make sacrifices to cleanse this deserted land" (214).
Okonkwo's fatal gift is his predisposition to violence; he commits himself with tragic intensity to become the champion of the heroic tradition of Umuofia through extreme and decisive action. These attributes appear to serve him well, especially when he channels his strength towards industry. He threw himself into whatever he did like a man possessed. For example, during the planting season, Okonkwo worked daily from cock-crow until the chickens went to roost. He was very strong and rarely became fatigued. Consequently, Okonkwo became prosperous and well known throughout the nine villages and beyond; he had a large compound enclosed by a thick wall of red earth, and his own hut, or obi, stood immediately behind the only gate in the wall. Each of his three wives had her own hut and "the barn was built against one end of the red wall and long stacks of red yam stood out prosperously in it" (15). Okonkwo was respected for rising so suddenly from great poverty and misfortune to be one of the lords of the clan.
Paradoxically, the same qualities that contribute to Okonkwo's greatness also account for his isolation, his blindness, and his ruin. To achieve success, fame, and power, Okonkwo habitually resorts to and comes to rely on thoughtless violence. Without regard for consequences, Okonkwo acts: he kills Ikemefuna, beats his son, repudiates his father, butchers the messenger. He becomes the apotheosis of violent action and as such ultimately destroys himself.
Yet Okonkwo is not a classical Machiavellian. Although bound to violence to achieve his goals, deep down in his heart, he is not an evil, heartless man. As I have argued elsewhere,10 he is capable of love, warmth, and compassion. To maintain the image of his "grandiose self," he struggles and succeeds in burying these positive human attributes within himself because he considers them unmanly. He allows his buried humanity to surface only in private, unguarded moments: for example, it is in the dark that he shows his spontaneous response and deep-felt anguish in saving his dying daughter Ezinma from Chielo, and it is in his private dark room that he shows brief remorse after his brutal killing of Ikemefuna.
On the one hand, we admire Okonkwo's heroic determination to achieve personal success and applaud his strong commitment, though futile, to preserve the legacy of Umuofia's heroic tradition. At the same time, we condemn and despise him when his determination to succeed and his commitment to preserve the tradition become an insane preoccupation leading to inhuman acts and violence, such as his slaughtering his "son" Ikemefuna.
All in all, Okonkwo is a man of uncommon achievement and uncommon failure. The overriding paradox of his life and death is that if he had not been obsessed with avoiding the life of failure which his father Unoka lived, he would have been less prone to violence, but if he had been less violent, he probably would not have achieved success as a lord in Umuofia. He is, as tragic heroes often are, a victim of the defects of his virtues.
1. Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (New York: Astor, 1959). All subsequent quotations from the text are from this edition.
2. David Carroll, Chinua Achebe (New York: Twayne, 1970), pp. 48-49.
3. Damian Opatu, "Eternal Sacred Order Versus Conventional Wisdom: A Consideration of Moral Culpability in the Killing of Ikemefuna in Things Fall Apart," Research in African Literature, 18, No. 1 (1987), 75-76.
4. Carroll, p. 49.
5. Robert Wren, Achebe's World (Washington, D.C.; Three Continents Press, 1980), p. 44.
6. Eustance Palmer, An Introduction to the African Novels (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1972), p. 54.
7. Susanne Langer, Philosophy in a New Key, 3rd ed. (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1987), p. 87.
8. Wren, p. 57.
9. C. L. Innes, "Poetry and Doctrine in Things Fall Apart," in Critical Perspectives on Chinua Achebe, ed. C. L. Innes and Bernth Lindfurs (Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1978), pp. 114, 120.
10. Solomon O. Iyasere, "Narrative Techniques in Things Fall Apart, New Letters 40, No. 3 (1974).
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6393
SOURCE: "Contests of Text and Context in Chinua Achebe's 'Arrow of God,'" in Ariel, Vol. 23, No. 2, April, 1992, pp. 7-22.
[In the following essay, Adeeko examines various manipulations of a thematic Nigerian proverb in Arrow of God, arguing that its intentional misuse contributes to the novel's tragedy.]
Proverbs are so conspicuous in Chinua Achebe's novels that they constitute the most studied singular feature of his art. As it were, Achebe's use of proverbs is in itself proverbial. One can speak of two tendencies in this well-traversed area. Bold critics often tend to generate ethnic theories of cognition from the structure and nature of the proverbs, and much of the highly perceptive ones concentrate on the significance of the sayings in Achebe's creative construction of "vernacular" conversation. For the reason that proverbs usually employ concrete images, Cairns suggests, for instance, that the sayings reflect the African predilection for non-abstract thought (16). However, more perceptive Achebe scholars have revealed that he uses proverbs to add distinctively local shade to his settings, depict the speech patterns and conventions of Igbo characters who would not ordinarily speak English, define these characters by particular types of proverbs, and also exercise narrative control by changing "thematic" statements as his plots develop. In addition, such studies reveal that women and children do not cite proverbs in Achebe's Igboland and that "educated" people (ironically, like Achebe himself), more often than not, forget or misuse proverbs.1 In spite of the large attention paid to his inventiveness in proverb usage, a lack still exists of a "rhetorical" analysis of this all-important aspect of Achebe's work.2 Two factors could have, in the main, contributed to this neglect. First, paremiology used to be almost exclusively an anthropologist's forte wherein proverbs were defined in terms of the mores of the people that use them. Second, many critics believe that Achebe chooses the proverb as his signature idiom because he is a teacher, his novels are his lesson plans, and no other figure known to literary anthropology helps the teacher better than the proverb (Achebe, "The Novelist" 162).3 Why is the proverb such a good friend of the teacher-novelist? It is an oral and rural manner of speaking, it is highly pragmatic, and it is unavoidably didactic. According to Patnaik,
[c]ultures that employ the oral mode of communication are more likely to value compressed succinct expression. What better vehicle of communication than the proverb, which by its very nature penetrates to the heart of the situation and character, lending at the same time, to succinct thought a freshness of expression and ingeniousness of idea. (68)
While not disregarding the basic assumption of anthropological interpretation, I suggest in this paper that proverbs are not mere vehicles of thought. I equate them with structures that render thinking perceptible. I assume that proverbs are rhetorical not because they are simply figures of speech but because they thematize the possibility of representing speech. Much as they are about political control, the tragic conflicts in Arrow of God result from what I perceive to be an almost endless jostling for superiority between the authorities of message, meaning, and context. The colonial milieu provides the concrete historical and political boundaries within which these "proverbial" contests play themselves out.4 In the ensuing "literary" reading of one thematic proverb—"a messenger does not choose its message" (158)—in Arrow of God, I argue that the novel dramatizes not just the well-documented monumental disaster that accompanies the colonial incursion into Umuaro but also the role that disagreements over reading (in this so-called "oral" culture) play in the development of the novel's tragedy.
A messenger's loyalty to its charge first becomes the main focus of a conversation when Ezeulu rejects Tony Clarke's orders to report to the District Headquarters for instruction on becoming a Warrant Chief.
"Do you know what you are saying, my friend?" asked the messenger in utter unbelief.
"Are you a messenger or not?" asked Ezeulu. "Go home and give my message to your master." (157)
To avert a major confrontation between the cocky imperial messenger and the tradition conscious audience, Akuebue quickly intervenes with a tacit citation of tradition on the appropriate comportment of messengers:
In Umuaro it is not our custom to refuse a call, although we may refuse to do what the caller asks. Ezeulu does not want to refuse the white man's call and so he is sending his son. (157)
When the messenger declines this reminder of tradition, Akuebue expresses his surprise with the proverb "I have never heard of a messenger choosing the message he will carry" (158).
The messenger "chooses" his message, as Akuebue implies, not because there is no proverb prohibiting such behaviour where he comes from, but because the messenger believes he speaks for a sovereign Crown that is not subject to "local" laws. He deems it untenable that a local potentate could cite tradition to so dismiss the white master's subpoena. This little skirmish over the importance of a message as determined by the social position of its originator and courier is going to lead to unimaginable implications for Ezeulu and his community as the story unfolds.
In tracing the itinerary of the sad events that ensue, I find that most other key conflicts in the novel—even before this encounter—involve the cultural control of either messages or messengers. At several crucial moments, the plot relies on the outcome of struggles for command between the messages and messengers, and on all such occasions, the messengers succeed regardless of what the contestants think. The messengers at each of these turns demonstrates that they have minds of their own independent of the fates of their messages, their senders, and their intended receivers. In almost every instance, the messengers accept all messages dumped on them, but deliver only those that suit them. In the wake of what we may call this apparent "betrayal," tragic scenarios often result. On most occasions, the messengers appear indifferent to the incessant struggles on how to articulate the dispatchers' intentions with the receivers' wiles.
The first consequential conflict in the novel arises when a delegation, charged with negotiating a choice of settlement of a land dispute with Okperi, unwittingly botches its mission. One of the elders at the meeting specifically tells Akukalia that "we do not want Okperi to choose war; nobody eats war. If they choose peace we shall rejoice. But whatever they say you are not to dispute with them. Your duty is to bring word back to us" (19). As Ogbuefi Egonwanne bids here, the emissaries are to be true messengers, though, as Ezeulu argues later, not necessarily messengers of truth. The clan expects Akukalia to be a transparent messenger in whom its message could be easily read, for according to proverbial injunction, he cannot choose his message.
The message, partly because of the messenger's meddling with his commission, actually miscarries when Akukalia reaches Okperi. First, it is the market day in Okperi, and there are not too many qualified people around to receive the message. Second, Akukalia is impatient and refuses to return at a more convenient time because, according to him, his "mission could not wait" (25). The urgency, I must say, is not part of the message, and there is therefore little surprise, except for the messenger who has added the urgency, when Ebo, his Okperi host, quotes the traditional saying, "I have not yet heard of a message that could not wait" (25). A heated argument ensues, and at one point Ebo, presumably innocently, censures Akukalia: "'if you want to shout like a castrated bull you must wait until you return to Umuaro'" (26). Incidentally, Akukalia is an impotent man, "whose two wives were secretly given to other men to bear his children" (26). At this point, the hitherto wayward message totally falls through. Akukalia runs into Ebo's family shrine and breaks his ikenga, "the strength of his right arm" (27). By so doing, Akukalia severs Ebo's communication channel with his ancestors. To convince his primogenitors that he is still alive, Ebo murders his assailant. By virtue of this incident, the Okperi people unwittingly choose war because customarily Umuaro must draw equal compensation for Akukalia's death. Akukalia does not live long enough to pass on the options in his charge, but the message got delivered. The messenger's body, even in death, anchors the mission.
Before discussing the major singular conflict in the story, I want quickly to examine another important episode involving an argument over the supremacy of either the message or the messenger. The colonial administration wants to make Ezeulu its messenger by offering him a warrant chieftaincy. Already, Ezeulu is a messenger of Ulu and the Umuaro community, but Tony Clarke and his superiors in the colonial hierarchy do not perceive him as one. So, after making his offer through an interpreter, Clarke asks, "Well, are you accepting the offer or not?" (196). Ezeulu replies:
"Tell the white man that Ezeulu will not be anybody's chief [messenger], except Ulu."
"What!" shouted Tony Clarke. "Is the fellow mad?"
"I tink so sah," said the interpreter.
"In that case he goes back to prison." Clarke was now really angry. What cheek! A witch-doctor making a fool of the British Administration in public! (196)
Clarke's detention order spells doom for the community, and greater conflicts over the role of the messenger develop.
Ezeulu already sees himself as a messenger of his god, whose command he does not dispute, but Clarke and Winterbottom read him incorrectly by assuming that he is a transparently honest messenger on whom they could load their own message. They develop the wrong prompt after listening to the chief's testimony against his own clan during the Okperi-Umuaro boundary adjustment inquiries. Somehow, the colonial operatives believe that Ezeulu's deposition, which contradicted his clan's claims, marks him out as an unusually honest African who can be trusted with the Crown's directives to Umuaro citizens. The colonial administrators do not know that Ezeulu is not a dispassionate messenger on whose face they can wilfully inscribe their own messages. This singular misreading engenders the tragic conflict that occurs over the eating of two calendrical yams. Ezeulu's detention for refusing the chieftaincy prevents him from re-marking the communal schedule for two months. As the drama of how to prevent an imminent collapse of the Umuaro economy unfolds, it appears clearly that different sectors of the federation are motivated by vested methods of textual interpretation, negotiations on deciphering the will of the messenger and of the sender vis-à-vis the truthfulness of the message. It is also a battle over the "nature" of nature.
First, Ezeulu's assistants, who also "reckon" the number of months, approached the chief priest after the "twelfth moon" to make arrangements for the next New Yam Feast. One of them says:
It is now four days since the new moon appeared in the sky; it is already grown big. And yet you have not called us together to tell us the day of the New Yam Feast—(232)
And Ezeulu responds, "I see. I thought perhaps I did not hear you well. Since when did you begin to reckon the year for Umuaro?" (233). One of the assistants, Chukwulobe, who thinks Obiesili is tactless, recasts the request: "We do not reckon the year for Umuaro; we are not Chief Priest. But we thought that perhaps you have lost count because of your recent absence—" (233). Ezeulu completely loses his temper:
Lost count! Did you father tell you that the Chief Priest of Ulu can lose count of the moons? No, my son … no Ezeulu can lose count. Rather it is you who count with your fingers who are likely to make a mistake, to forget which finger you counted at the last moon. (233)
There is no doubt that Ezeulu's incarceration in Okperi could not but result in loss in counting; in fact, that is partly the reason why tradition does not allow the chief priest to stay away from Umuaro for an extended period of time. But if counting the yams is all there is, then he has not lost count, for he has the yams to refer to, and there can be no arguments over that. But one more visit two days later by the titled elders further shows that there is more to this conversation than mere yams. The elders call on Ezeulu to urge him to amend the calendar so as not to change things as they know them to be. But to their gracious entreaties Ezeulu replies, "'I need not speak in riddles. You all know what our custom is. I only call a new festival when there is only one yam left'" (236). When the elders insist that Ezeulu should seek a way out, with one of them even suggesting that he eat up the yams, the Priest restates his position saying, "you have spoken well. But what you ask me to do is not done. Those yams are not food and a man does not eat them because he is hungry. You are asking me to eat death" (237).
Again, Ezeulu is both right and wrong, and the ambiguity is not totally of his own making. The yams are food and, of course, not food. They are food because he eats them; they are not food because these particular yams satisfy more than nutritional needs, and someone will have to eat them if the entire community is not to starve. In other words, the yams are yams and not yams at the same time. They are markers (or messengers or signifiers) of the communal calendar, and Ezeulu (another marker or signifier) is the designated reader and, arguably, the writer.
Surprisingly, Ezeulu the designated reader now takes an unprecedented stand by refusing to read according to the senders' (the community's) will. He hedges the elders and his assistants because the yams (messengers) have a will of their own (their materiality) that he exploits, knowingly or unknowingly. He denies the elders their wishes by telling them that, although they are the initial creators of the calendar, the yams and whatever they now signify are beyond their direct control. The elders, on the other hand, also recognize the yams' will, and they too seek to bend it to serve the purpose imperilled by current circumstances but for which the yams were originally invented. Ezeulu hides behind the invincibility of the messenger (signifier), and the elders wave the banner of the infallibility of the social will. The elders face a greater difficulty than Ezeulu because they have to contend with two messengers: the yams (the text) and their eater (the reader). The resultant confusion is more disconcerting because ordinary reasoning suggests that this is an open text whose letters everybody can decipher but which no one can now read.5
The community expects Ezeulu to count the moons with the aid of the yams and not the yams with the moons. Chukwulobe therefore suggests he has lost count, but Ezeulu rejects such counsel because the yams (the messenger, the signifier) say he has not. In a way, the yams carry transparent messages that neither the yams, nor Ezeulu, nor the aides and the elders can choose for them. Ezeulu accordingly rejects the pleas of his aides and the community that he should count moons and not yams. He maintains that it is impossible for him and anybody else to do so, and anyone who has a contrary opinion must actually be miscounting. The yam counter, he insists, is forever right, and the finger counter incessantly susceptible to miscounting.
The yams are relatively permanent and differentiable, and once eaten they are no more countable. Every yam eaten (thus counted) disappears, and its absence announces its conspicuousness and thereby determines the value of the remainder. On the other hand, the fingers are not removed, they are always present and so could be recounted. These facts notwithstanding, the community believes that Ezeulu is wrong in the values he assigns to the remaining yams. The citizens do not share Ezeulu's calculations that the yams represent an unalterable ("natural") number of moons.6 Ezeulu holds everybody to ransom because the yams, like him, though messengers, and contrary to proverbial injunctions, have their own designs that are indifferent to whatever purpose for which the users (the senders and the receivers) might wish to make of them. Ironically, it is also this independence that tethers them to the schemes of whoever deems them useful.
It is also possible for us to see the Ezeulu-Umuaro fiasco as the product of a quarrel over the cultural control of nature and its signs. In Ezeulu's logic (also available to his opponents), there can be no culture (the year, the calendar) beyond the signification of the yams. The year ends only at the mercy of the calendar and not because it has a natural end. That is why, after consulting the deity over whether or not he should announce the New Yam Feast as the elders demand, he comes out with a negative result (240). But the arbitrariness of the whole marking system, the lack of organic connection between the yam (the signifier) and the New Yam Feast (the signified, the planting season and, by implication, the fiscal year) is highlighted by the elders' insistence that Ezeulu either eat the yams or substitute a sacrifice. The elders believe they made Ulu, not because Ulu "gave birth" to the yams or the harvest, but because they made it so. Anichebe Udeozo speaks to this effect when he says to Ezeulu: "I want you to look around this room and tell me what you see. Do you think there is another Umuaro outside this hut now?" (237). Ezeulu agrees with him that the elders are the creators of the Federation and the tradition. Udeozo then tells him:
Yes, we are Umuaro. Therefore listen to what I am going to say. Umuaro is now asking you to go and eat those remaining yams today and name the day of the next harvest … and if Ulu says we have committed an abomination let it be on the heads of the ten of us here. (237-38)
Udeozo's plea falls on deaf ears, and Ezeulu's wish partially prevails because the same arbitrariness that the elders' entreaties hang on also permits the chief priest to read the yams his own way.
Were Udeozo talking to a messenger that had no interest in his message, his invocation of public interest might have swayed Ezeulu. But the chief priest is prosecuting a personal agenda while furthering Ulu's course. He pursues his grievance under the pretext that he is a mere messenger who does not select his messages, whereas in fact he chooses them at every turn. He could not be proved false because, "cultural" (proverbial) prohibition notwithstanding, it appears that all messengers possess the ability to bear their own messages in addition to others latched onto them.
What are the specifics of Ezeulu's grudge? Prior to his detention, Ezeulu has had a long-running disagreement with some sections of his community in the persons of the rival priest of Idemili and his active supporter, the wealthy Nwaka. The high point of this conflict occurs during the land dispute inquiry I mentioned above. Ezeulu, the Chief Priest of Umuaro's "highest" deity, almost single-handedly gives the parcel of land in question to the foreigners, who, by the way, are his mother's people. In this society, historical recollection is a reconstitution, subject to conjecture and personal interests. Ezeulu, even with his high office, does not possess the right to a correct historical reconstruction and as such has no right to speak for the community. But, acting on the belief that his is the voice of a messenger speaking only for the deity he serves, he testifies against his people. He thereby chooses his message, which he believes belongs to his deity.
Ezeulu also uses the same rationale at the acrimonious prewar deliberations when he appeals to the people to listen to him because he speaks on behalf of a deity that never endorses unjust courses. "Ulu would not fight an unjust war," he says. To buttress this point, he informs the assembly: "My father said this to me that when our village first came here to live the land belonged to Okperi…. This is the story as I heard it from my father" (17).7 At this meeting, Ezeulu maintains he does not speak for himself but as a simple messenger of truth, and Nwaka, his most notorious opponent, replies that that does not make him a truthful messenger.
Wisdom is like a goatskin bag; every man carries his own. Knowledge of the land is also like that. Ezeulu has told us what his father told him about the olden days. We know that a father does not speak falsely to his son. But we also know that the lore of the land is beyond the knowledge of many fathers…. My father told me a different story. (17-18)
Nwaka may be right in several other unstated respects. At the least, Ezeulu's mother, of whom he has fond memories, comes from Okperi. In addition, the priest is also involved in a theological rivalry with Ezidemili. He cannot for these reasons be a messenger of unimpeachable truth.8
While taking refuge in the proverb of a messenger not choosing its message, Ezeulu testifies against his people and conveniently forgets another proverb: "no man, however great, can win a judgment against his clan" (148). Henceforth, the community regards itself as set against Ezeulu and so sees nothing heroic in his refusal to be the white man's chief. As fate would have it, it is this very lack of enthusiasm that Ezeulu, still using the old alibi that he is a mere messenger, now avenges on his people by refusing to bend the message of the yams. At any rate, only in Ezeulu's mind does such a notion exist, because evidence abounds that there is nothing like a mere messenger and that every messenger bears its own message, if only that of a message bearer.
The novel's tragedy further takes shape partly because Ezeulu does not understand that even the messenger cannot totally control the messages in its care, its own messages included. This is so because, like their carriers, messages have their own wills, and these wills are messengers in another sense. As dramatized in the pre-war meeting, Ezeulu's anti-war message, for which he claims divine guidance, can easily be interpreted against him, as Nwaka does, as "I am the voice of Okperi that also happens to be the land of your chief priest's mother" (17). In other words, Ezeulu is not a mere messenger although he shelters himself behind the proverbial "injunction" that says he is.9
To conclude this section on the apparent discrepancy between historical experience as narrated here and cultural "injunction" as "encoded" in the proverb, I want to cite one incident between Ezeulu and his son, Oduche, whom he has sent to join the local Anglican Church so as, in Ezeulu's words, "to be his eyes" among the people of the new religion. While packaging the boy, as it were, Ezeulu does not think that Oduche may like the new faith and all the benefits and prestige that come with it. Ezeulu, thoughtful as he is, never imagined that the new faith will make his son an inheritor of a legacy that empowers the boy to kill the sacred snake of Idemili (another Umuaro deity and Ulu's arch-rival), which the local teacher interprets to be a species of the serpent that deceived Adam and Eve. None of Oduche's independent but prohibited actions as a Christian surpasses his not telling his father that Umuaro citizens, in a desperate attempt to escape hunger and poverty, are sending the sacrificial yams that they normally give to Ulu on the day of the New Yam Feast to Jesus, the Christ. When Ezeulu learns about this development from his friend, he is surprised that his son (his eyes, his messenger) did not alert him earlier. He rebukes the boy:
Do you remember what I told you when I sent you among those people?… I called you as a father calls his son and told you to go and be my eye and ear among those people. I did not send Obika or Edogo; I did not send Nwafo, your mother's son. I called you by name and you came here—in this obi—and I sent you to see and hear for me. I did not know at that time that I was sending a goat's skull. (251)
Again, the messenger derails the message. The messenger chooses, because of the comforts of the destination, not to fulfill his commission. He returns no answer to the sender.
One other image that aptly illustrates the itinerary I am drawing appears in the narration of Ezeulu's first night in detention at Okperi. Ezeulu has vowed not to watch for the moon while he is in detention, "but," the narrator tells us, "the eye is very greedy and will steal a look at something its owner has no wish to see" (179). Ezeulu watches for the moon that night although he did not see anything. The visual imagery, again, demonstrates the inevitable errancy of the messenger. In other words, the messenger has its own business to attend to that often might not coincide with the dispatcher's.10
I find the greatest support for the disparity between the proverb and the narration at the point at which Ezeulu's mind snaps. He seeks explanations for the unfortunate turns of events in proverbs that focus on the non-culpability of the messenger in the effect of its message.
Why, he asked himself again and again, why had Ulu chosen to deal thus with him, to strike him down and cover him with mud? What was his offence? Had he not divined the god's will and obeyed it? When was it ever heard that a child was scalded by the piece of yam its own mother put in its palm? What man would send his son with a potsherd to bring fire from a neighbor's hut and then unleash rain on him? Who ever sent his son up the palm to gather nuts and then took an axe and felled the tree? But today such a thing had happened before the eyes of all …
Perhaps it was the constant, futile throbbing of these thoughts that finally left a crack in Ezeulu's mind. Or perhaps his implacable assailant having stood over him for a little while stepped on him as on an insect and crushed him in the dust. But this final act of malevolence proved merciful. It allowed Ezeulu, in his last days, to live in the haughty splendor of a demented high priest and spared him knowledge of the final outcome. (260-61)
One can hastily read these sayings as confirming that Ezeulu is a victim of the social vagaries that invariably determine the fates of messages and messengers. Lindfors, for instance, interprets the sequence of proverbs as Ezeulu's belated regret of not knowing the limits of his powers. He says, "Ezeulu, in trying to adjust to the changing times, takes certain inappropriate actions which later lead him to neglect his duties and responsibilities. Not knowing his limitations, he goes too far and plunges himself and his people into disaster" (15). Griffiths has said, rightly I think, that this interpretation is inadequate. But Griffiths's replacement is equally short on several marks. Although it might be correct to say that Ezeulu seeks help in "proverbial" knowledge and that "frantically he runs through the proverbial wisdom seeking for a clear sign that the relationship of trust which must exist between high priest and god still endures" (97), it is, however, not true that this so-called proverbial society (as opposed to modern "literate" ones) and its mores succumb to the "irresistible and incomprehensible force of the white man, a force blind to the values and meaning of tribal life" (97). The invading force is not blind to local values. Indeed, it bends over backwards to understand and manipulate them for its own purpose.
The conglomerate of proverbs running around in Ezeulu's head all centre on the unjust culpability of the messenger. Ezeulu, the ordinary messenger (though of a deity), struggles within a web of proverbs about message and messenger, and ponders why he must suffer for carrying out his duties "faithfully." His assailant is certainly not just the white man as Griffiths claims. Ezeulu is crushed by the burden of his office as both a message and a messenger at the time when a "discursive displacement" (Spivak 197) is taking place in his land. Ezeulu does not violate "tradition" if his actions are interpreted according to the letters of the proverb. But as the narration shows, proverbs do not ossify tradition. When perceived as "readable" codes, we see that proverbs expose tradition as textual constructs that can only be successfully—politically, that is—invoked by those with prevailing reading strategies.
We need to ask whether or not the proverb is wrong about the irremediable servitude and muteness of the messenger. I believe that the proverb is, in spite of itself, correct to a very large extent because all the messengers who choose to appoint their messages, consciously or not, regardless of their purpose, lose out because everything they had hitherto perceived as controllable messages slipped out of their grips and became other messengers. The proverb seems to be wrong because each manipulator enjoys temporary successes that events usually negate later. Ezeulu makes of the yams messages of vengeance, but the yams eventually turn into messengers of change in the hands of the famished citizens, the local mission school teacher, and the Anglican catechist. The teacher, in particular, recognizes the "open" letters of the yam and fully exploits them by urging his church members to convince their fellow citizens to substitute the church harvest for the New Yam Feast. He even tells them that if the "dead" Ulu can eat one fine tuber from each family, the "living" god deserves at least two. Both the Feast and the church ceremony inhabit entirely different worlds, but Mr. Goodcountry tears them from their different universes and yokes them together because both the yam and the harvest are so usable; they are independent messengers that, so to say, conventions and trappings of particular epochs cannot hold from circulating.
It is tempting to say that Ezeulu's foresight prevails because Christianity becomes widespread and the colonial administration fully settles down in Umuaro. Yielding to such temptation will amount to crediting Ezeulu with more than he deserves, for he is certainly not clairvoyant. Events do not happen the way they do simply because Ezeulu wishes them so but in spite of his desires. Events turn around because the traditional calendar markers refuse ironically to obey Ezeulu's wishes, and respond to the mission teacher's. It is true many kids go to the mission school as Ezeulu suspects they would; even Nwaka—Ezeulu's most vociferous critic—sends his laziest son there. I submit that events turn out this way because of the yam text's favorable response to the local teacher's perceptive, though opportunistic, reading. For readers like Ezeulu, the teacher's substituted text is the anti-thesis of all that the yam was created for.
Chinua Achebe's critics often attribute his wide readership to the simplicity and clear-headedness of his language and plots. As I have shown in this essay, a "literary" reading might indicate that such interpretation need not be simplistic. Undoubtedly, Achebe's fiction provides strong tools for unearthing the relationships of language and power in colonial societies and the sociolinguistics of English language in postcolonial Nigeria. In equally poignant terms, Arrow of God dramatizes problems associated with the materiality of the letter even in so-called oral cultures. In all the "contests" for the manipulation of "textual" meanings in this novel, it appears as if the victor is the "openness" of reading.
1. For an overview of proverb criticism in Achebe's fiction see Azeze, Cairns, Griffiths, and Lindfors.
2. I use rhetoric here in the sense that Paul de Man employs it in the first chapter of his Allegories of Reading.
3. One proverb will summarize the situation thus: when the willing dancer meets a drummer with an itching palm, a dance ensues.
4. And according to C. L. Innes, Achebe's reaction to Joyce Cary's colonialist novels is central to the "fiction" of the text. "Insofar as it is the story of the interaction between colonists and colonized, Arrow of God can be seen as yet another response by Achebe to Mister Johnson and the literary and historical perspective it represents …" (64).
5. The calendar furor is not simply the dilemma that sometimes arises when a community thrusts and entrusts its fate in the hands of one person but, in addition, it is a dramatization of the problem of fetishization of knowledge. Every one in Umuaro knows it is the end of the year, but the fetish guide of knowledge says they do not know. The elders could not fault this argument because it is so.
6. The aides and the community could have asked, "counting yams and counting fingers, what is the difference?" and Ezeulu would have responded, "that is the only difference!"
7. Umuaro is certainly a patriarchal society, but, surprisingly it does not take any individual patriarch's words, no matter how great, as absolute. Every father, the society believes, has his own story to tell, and even the Chief Priest's father's narrative has no superior force.
8. To realize that this novel is also about the authenticity and authentication of historical narratives, see Winterbottom's retelling of this and related incidents to his assistant a few years later. "This war between Umuaro and Okperi began in a rather interesting way. I went into it in considerable detail…. As I was saying, this war started because a man from Umuaro went to visit a friend in Okperi one fine morning and after he'd had one or two gallons of palm-wine—it's quite incredible how much of that dreadful stuff they can tuck away—anyhow, this man from Umuaro having drunk his friend's palm wine reached for his ikenga and split it in two. I may explain that ikenga is the most important fetish in the Ibo man's arsenal, so to speak. It represents his ancestors to whom he must make daily sacrifice. When he dies it is split in two; one half is buried with him and the other half is thrown away. So you can see the implication of what our friend from Umuaro did in splitting his host's fetish. This was, of course, the greatest sacrilege. The outraged host reached for his gun and blew the other fellow's head off. And so a regular war developed between the two villages, until I stepped in. I went into the question of the ownership of the piece of land which was the remote cause of all the unrest and found without any shade of doubt that it belonged to Okperi. I should mention that every witness who testified before me—from both sides without exception—perjured themselves. One thing you must remember in dealing with natives is that like children they are great liars. They don't lie simply to get out of trouble. Sometimes they would spoil a good case by a pointless lie. Only one man—a kind of priest-king in Umuaro—witnessed against his own people." (41)
9. For example, he reflects several times on the immensity of his latent powers. In the opening chapter, soon after citing a new moon, Ezeulu, while waiting for the yam to cook, contemplates the extent of his political clout and debates with himself whether "[h]is power was no more than the power of a child over a goat that was said to be his. As long as the goat was alive it was his; he would find food and take care of it. But the day it was slaughtered he would know who the real owner was. No! the Chief Priest of Ulu was more than that, must be more than that. If he should refuse to name the day [the Feast of Pumpkin Leaves] there would be no festival—no planting and no reaping. But could he refuse? No Chief Priest had ever refused. So it could not be done. He would not dare" (3). Lest it be thought that Ezeulu is a thoroughly evil person, it is very important I remark that he thinks he is obeying social conventions when he acts, but as my discussion should have shown, it is not in the nature of things (that is, it is not conventional) that conventions control all things.
10. In one other incident, Nweke Ukpaka appeals to Moses Unachukwu, the only Umuaro citizen who speaks some English, to help his age group inquire from the white road overseer why he is not paying them for the work they do. In his appeal, he says, "a man may refuse to do what is asked of him but may not refuse to be asked …" (18) That is to say, a messenger does not choose which message he accepts but exercises a considerable control over that which he delivers. If Ukpaka is right, a messenger cannot just not choose a message, he also cannot not bear a message. However, he cannot choose which ones will reach their destinations.
Achebe, Chinua. Arrow of God. New York: Anchor-Doubleday, 1969.
―――――――. "The Novelist as a Teacher," New Statesman 29 Jan. 1965: 161-62.
Azeze, Fekade. "Folklore in Literature: Some Aspects of Achebe's Use of Proverbs in Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God." Studies & Documents/Etudes & Documents 3 (1982): 1-14.
Cairns, P. "Style, Structure and the Status of Language in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God." World Literature Written in English 25:1 (1985): 1-9.
Clifford, James. "On Ethnographic Allegory." Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Ed. James Clifford and George E. Marcus. Berkeley: U of California P, 1986.
De Man, Paul. Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.
Griffiths, Gareth. "Language and Action in the Novels of Chinua Achebe." African Literature Today 5 (1971): 88-105.
Innes, C. L. Chinua Achebe. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990.
Lindfors, Bernth. "The Palm-Oil with which Achebe's Words are Eaten." African Literature Today 1 (1968): 3-18.
Patnaik, Eira. "Proverbs as Cosmic Truth and Chinua Achebe's No Longer At Ease." Africana Journal 13. 1-4 (1982): 98-103.
Spivak, Gayatri. In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics. New York and London, Routledge, 1988.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2389
SOURCE: "Chinua Achebe's Arrow of God: Ezeulu's Response to Change," in College Literature, Vol. 19, No. 3, October, 1992, pp. 214-19.
[In the following essay, Awuyah analyzes Ezeulu's attitudes toward colonial authorities in Arrow of God, focusing on the significance of his decision to send Oduche to a Christian missionary school.]
Achebe's Arrow of God is a multifarious work with several uncharted territories that can be explored with much reward. However, one must exercise caution in teaching this text to neophytes, lest they become befuddled within its several contours. It is with this notion in mind that I introduce Arrow of God to my beginning class in world literature (at West Chester University, Pennsylvania), most of whom are taking literature at the university level for the first time as a General Education requirement. Instead of engaging my students in multiple interpretations, as Arrow of God really demands, I find it expedient to map out and concentrate on a few significant segments that invariably lead to the core of Achebe's art.
A principal issue which unfailingly elicits enthusiastic comments from students is Ezeulu's response to changes in his social environment as a result of the presence of the white man. By focusing on this topic students gain insight into Ezeulu's character and become acquainted with the background of British colonial rule in Eastern Nigeria. Usually we engage in spirited discussions about the ambivalent roles of Ezeulu as a protector of the indigenous tradition, but one who undermines his god and antagonizes his people by openly associating with the new forces. My aim is to help students appreciate Ezeulu's complex character and the difficult choices he has to make. I also find it timely to relate Achebe's art to the larger configuration of black writing. Students who have studied some aspects of African/African American history and politics have an advantage in understanding the continuity and tradition behind Achebe's work. There is personal satisfaction when students eventually come to appreciate the simple fact that Ezeulu is after all a human being who acts in the interest of his own society and its future, not some strange being who fits the Western prototype of the Neanderthal.
In consonance with the objective of focusing on singular subjects in Arrow of God I will analyze Ezeulu's perception of the sociopolitical dynamism in Umuaro and review his conception of his own experience with the colonizer. In one of the most memorable passages of African fictional writing, Ezeulu, the chief priest of Umuaro, explains why he has sent his son, Oduche, to a mission school:
I want one of my sons to join these people [the Christian mission] and be my eye there. If there is nothing in it you will come back. But if there is something there, you will bring home my share. The world is like a mask dancing. If you want to see it well, you do not stand in one place. (46)
An intricate and sophisticated man, Ezeulu could not have been unaware that he has compromised his position by urging Oduche to join the white man's religion and school, whose practices undermine the local tradition. In the past Ulu (the supreme god) protected Umuaro against hostile neighbors. But with the presence of the white man, all their local traditions have become violable. Even Ulu seems vulnerable, a fact signaled by the tolling of a church bell that momentarily distracts the chief priest as he prepares an annual rite.
Ezeulu is convinced that it is only by understanding their ways that he can challenge white men. He confides in his close friend, Akuebue, in proverbial language:
Shall I tell why I sent my son? Then listen. A disease that has never been seen before cannot be cured with everyday herbs…. This is what our sages meant when they said that a man who has nowhere to put his hand for support puts it on his own knee. (133)
Thus, with some ambivalence, the chief priest's response to social and political exigencies constitutes, for him, the ultimate sacrifice. It is imperative that he seeks information about the "strangers" who have come uninvited to his land.
Power relations in the Umuaro region have changed with the intervention of the colonizer. The British colonial administration suppressed a war between Umuaro and their neighbors, Okperi, propped up Okperi as the administrative center of the subregion, and established warrant chiefs (effectively cronies of the colonizers) in an acephalous society. The chief priest has assumed that the power of the white man derives largely from literacy, especially the ability to write with the left hand. Ezeulu's statement to Oduche about the need to acquire Western literacy is putatively a Fanonian discourse of language as power:
I saw a young white man who was able to write his book with the left hand; he could shout in my face; he could do what he liked. Why? Because he could write with his left hand…. I want you to learn and master this man's knowledge so much that if you are suddenly woken up from sleep and asked what it is you will reply. You must learn it until you can write it with your left hand. (189)
However, judging even from his personal confrontation with the British, it is clear that though Ezeulu is highly impressed with the new forces, he is not willing to cede his authority to them. It is inconceivable that this proud chief priest would abandon his own tradition. Ezeulu is unequivocal in instructing his children about propriety and observance of local customs. He tells Oduche:
When a handshake goes beyond the elbow we know it has turned to another thing…. Your people should know the custom of this land; if they don't you must tell them. (13)
It seems to me that Ezeulu seeks social equilibrium, coexistence between the indigenous tradition and the new forces. Unfortunately, he does not anticipate that the colonizer, positing his own value system as an absolute, wants to dominate the existing sociopolitical and economic structure.
Already some of the ancillary trappings of the new culture have caused discomfort in Umuaro. Oduche, unlike any other family member, wears a singlet, and owns a slate and chalk and a wooden box—supplies from the Christian mission. While the rest of his family sits together during a storytelling session, Oduche sits apart, completely absorbed, learning the alphabet from his new book, Azu Ndu.
But the real threat to Umuaro comes from the colonizer's utter disregard and, consequently, his attempt to impose a new order on the local society. A major case is the mission's crusade against indigenous traditions they consider anathematic to Christian faith. Fired with this zeal, the impressionable Oduche tries to harm a royal python, a symbol of ancestor worship. Oduche's attempt to suffocate this snake in a box, made by a missionary carpenter, is symbolic of the efforts of the Christian forces to subjugate the traditional religion.
Ezeulu regards himself as an equal and a friend of the British administration, and therefore may not have reckoned that he is at odds with the new forces, who are bent on dominating and destroying Umuaro. In line with their fixed definition of relations with the colonized, the British consider themselves at opposite ends with Ezeulu. However, even though they failed to recognize common grounds with the local people, the British have no hesitation about exploiting the social order of Umuaro in an attempt to legitimize colonial rule. Indeed, the head of the colonial administration in eastern Nigeria, Captain Winterbottom, is convinced that Ezeulu would be the best candidate through whom to maintain their authority over Umuaro. Having come to that conclusion, the British intimidated and coerced Ezeulu to become chief of Umuaro. But the chief priest remained unswayed, vowing he would "not be anybody's chief, except Ulu" (174). Dismayed at Ezeulu's resolution, the administration called him an insane witch-doctor and promptly imprisoned him.
Though embittered by his personal experience, Ezeulu is nevertheless determined to find out the full extent of the white man's power, declaring tersely: "a man must dance the dance prevalent in his time" (189). But first he must contend with problems within his own community. Because of his incarceration the chief priest was not able to perform two of the monthly ceremonies of eating sacred yams from the previous year's harvest. By custom, Ezeulu must perform these rituals before declaring the New Yam festival, which marks the beginning of a new harvest. Meanwhile food from the last season is exhausted. In the ensuing confusion, the Christian mission subverts Ezeulu's authority by urging Umuaros to harvest their crops once they make offering to the Christian God, who will protect them against Ulu. Initially, the response is slow, but, as the threat of starvation looms, even important members of the community openly seek the sanctuary of the church for immunity against Ulu, thereby subverting the authority of the traditional priest.
In the end, Ezeulu is destroyed. His tragedy is caused not so much by his personal pride as by his failure to determine the true objectives of the colonizer. The chief priest's authority has been undermined by the British administration, thus setting in motion a series of events that disrupt the political and social order of Umuaro. It is ironic that Ezeulu, the most enlightened member of Umuaro, the person with foresight, should be destroyed by the new forces.
Achebe's characterization of Ezeulu belies myths about Africa as a primordial world, an emptiness, where the benighted natives live in benign nature, waiting to be redeemed by Europeans. Ezeulu is a very impressive and an immensely powerful man, with a sharp intellect, and he is independent minded. He is the only opposing voice among the council of elders when Umuaro declares war on Okperi, and he fervently defends his decision to send Oduche to learn about the white man's culture. But even when he is at variance with some elders of Umuaro, Ezeulu never loses confidence in the system whereby leaders of the six villages which form Umuaro meet and debate mutual matters. As Achebe indicates in Arrow of God, the social fabric of Umuaro can absorb singular acts, dissensions, and personal differences, since the community has faith in the system.
However, when the British got to Igboland, they assumed that they had "discovered" a people living in a state of tabula rasa. These colonizers then considered it their duty to civilize the Igbos, to save them from the pervasive darkness. This sentiment was expressed by Captain Winterbottom who, with self-indulgence, noted the transformation in his houseboy, Boniface:
He's a fine specimen, isn't he? He's been with me four years. He was a little boy of thirteen—by my own calculation, they've no idea of years—when I took him on. He was absolutely raw. (35)
Their cultural blinkers have prevented the British from relating well to the local people. The British administration do not appreciate Ezeulu's attributes since, for them, he is no more than "the Other." Ironically, however, it is the chief priest who shows openness, accommodation and desire to relate intellectually and with some objectivity to the foreigners.
The attributes of the Igbos, which Achebe attests to, had been validated nearly two centuries earlier by Olaudah Equiano, whose personal odyssey began in his native Essaka, Igboland, in eastern Nigeria, where he was kidnapped and sold into slavery, and later transported to the West Indies, America, and Europe. Equiano, whose name in Igbo means "one who is chosen" or "who has a loud voice," struggled to acquire literacy and has given a powerful written testimony of his experience not just of slavery, but also of life prior to enslavement. In The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, he recalls in endearing terms details about his birth place, his family, and the social order. Equiano illuminates everyday activities, noting:
We are almost a nation of dancers, musicians, and poets. Every great event, such as triumphant return from battle, or other cause of public rejoicing, is celebrated in public dances, which are accompanied with songs and music suited to the occasion. (14)
Even after his immersion in Western culture, Equiano speaks proudly of his African roots. He challenges Western aspersions about Africans as primitive, not quite human, and therefore deserving to be enslaved.
Akin to Equiano's testimony about the virtues of the Igbos, Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass documents the painful experience of enslaved blacks in Maryland who, nonetheless, maintain their humanity. Douglass' autobiography is a personal triumph, manifesting the elevation of the human mind and empowerment that come with literacy. In a well-known episode that recalls the aspiration of the deformed slave, Caliban, to acquire the discourse of his master, Prospero, in order to attain freedom (in Shakespeare's Tempest), the enslaver, Mr. Auld, vigorously opposes his wife's attempt to teach Douglass to read. Accordingly, Douglass comes to the realization that literacy constitutes "the pathway … to freedom" (275).
Scholars such as Donald Wesling, James Olney, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. have written extensively about the connections between literacy, slave narratives, and the affirmation of the humanity of black people. Suffice it here to say that the ethos of African/African American writing involves self-definitions, renunciation of mislabeling, and crossing boundaries from non-beings into beings. Writers who share the African heritage engage in these paradigmatic acts of reconstructing self-images. Some of the most eloquent expressions are by Achebe, Equiano, and Douglass.
In Arrow of God, although Ezeulu is physically destroyed, his vision has staying power. By learning to read and write, Oduche acquires a powerful tool to express himself, to proclaim the richness of his culture, and even to protest against the presence of the colonizer. In a sense, the achievements of Achebe himself and others have become possible because of the foundation laid by the likes of Oduche. Arrow of God fits into the framework of black experience and must be linked with substantive issues of African/African American humanism.
Achebe, Chinua. Arrow of God. New York: Doubleday, 1989.
Douglass, Frederick. "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an African Slave." The Classic Slave Narrative. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: New American Library, 1987.
Equiano Olaudah. "The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African." The Classic Slave Narrative. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: New American Library, 1987.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6051
SOURCE: "Art and Orthodoxy in Chinua Achebe's 'Anthills of the Savannah,'" in Ariel, Vol. 24, No. 4, October, 1993, pp. 35-51.
[In the following essay, Kanaganayakam compares and contrasts Achebe's narrative technique in Anthills of the Savannah to that of his earlier works.]
Twenty-one years after the publication of A Man of the People (1966), Chinua Achebe published Anthills of the Savannah, perhaps his most enigmatic and complex work to date. The years separating these two works have been significant ones in the life of the author, for they entailed a deep concern with political turmoil, disillusionment with economic and cultural life, loss of friends and property, and an undying faith in the ultimate destiny of his country. All these sentiments find expression in the short stories, poems, and essays published in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly in his work of non-fiction, The Trouble with Nigeria (1984). It is thus not surprising that the novel that followed this period of upheaval (and the author's concomitant silence as a novelist) should be different in many ways, although the thematic preoccupations of the previous novels still persist. What has changed is the attitude to a historical process, and that in turn has necessitated a more experimental form, one that transcends the referentiality of his earlier works and lends itself to greater complexity and syncreticity of vision.
Responses to the novel have varied from unqualified admiration to disappointment and scepticism. Emmanuel Ngara, for instance, speaks of the author soaring "to the heights of literary artistry" (128), and Elleke Boehmer claims that Achebe's "new vision is manifested in the strategic gender configurations of his central characters" (102). David Maughan-Brown is cautious about the ideology of leadership implicit in the novel and comments: "the solution Achebe's fiction here proposes to what its author sees as the problems afflicting contemporary Nigeria seem to me to be unlikely to have the durability of the anthills of the savannah, capable of enduring many seasons of grassfires" (148). The diversity of opinion points to the difficulties inherent in a narrative that self-consciously forges new directions.
Achebe has preserved a meticulous sense of historical continuum in his first four novels, beginning with the turn of the century in Things Fall Apart (1958) and moving to the post-independence era in A Man of the People (1966). In between are No Longer at Ease (1960), which deals with the classic been-to predicament of disillusionment and Arrow of God (1964), a novel about a priest who refuses to change with the times.1Anthills of the Savannah confronts the present by focussing on the oppressive military rule in the West African state of Kangan. Continuities are also present at other levels, and the author himself draws attention to his previous works through intertextual references. Beatrice's mention of Chielo, the priestess of Agbala, is, for instance, a clear reference to the relevance of Things Fall Apart to this work. Both novels are concerned with the idea of a hero and the implications of death. The preoccupation with tradition and the symbiotic relation between values and ritual figure prominently in both Arrow of God and Anthills of the Savannah. A concern with the predicament of the been-to informs No Longer at Ease, and in some ways all the major characters in Anthills of the Savannah, like Obi Okonkwo, are victims of a colonial and alienating education. Despite ostensible differences in the political context, the same urge to build up the nation dominate the protagonists of both novels. The cynicism of Odili as he watches the machinations of Chief Nanga in A Man of the People parallels the disdain of Chris, the Commissioner for Information, as he watches the ministers debase themselves in the presence of the president in Anthills of the Savannah.
However, the artistic impulse that informs Achebe's early novels is a tendentious and celebratory one, which the author himself documents at various points. As a writer, Achebe sees his world not as a taxonomist "whose first impulse on seeing a new plant or animal is to define, classify and file away," and not as a taxidermist "who plies an even less desirable trade" (Morning 49-50), but that of a teacher, committed "to help [his] society regain belief in itself and put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self-abasement" (Morning 44). He sees himself not merely as a social critic or historian, but as a teacher who seeks to remedy an internalized sense of inferiority. He comments that "although the work of redeeming which needs to be done may appear too daunting, I believe it is not one day too soon to begin" (Hopes 13). Abdul JanMohamed rightly points out that "the dilemma produced by colonialist praxis", namely "denigration and historical catalepsy" (178), leads Achebe to reject the acquired ontology and affirm the value of a culture that has been displaced and disprized. A concern with the conflict between two ontologies, as it manifests not only in a confrontation between the colonizer and the colonized but also in the inner contradictions and complexities of individuals and families, finds expression in the realistic mode. As JanMohamed observes:
Realism, then, is his aesthetic as well as ethical response not only to colonialist views of African societies but also to the social dilemma of African cultures that are attempting to come to terms with the disorganization that is the legacy of colonialism. (178)
Anthills of the Savannah does not jettison this preoccupation. In fact it thrives on it by drawing attention to several manifestations of this conflict, including notions of exile, alienation and identity. Even more significantly, the novel draws heavily on the sentiments expressed in The Trouble with Nigeria. The points of contact between the two works are striking. Of the corruption in Nigeria, Achebe comments:
Nigeria is not a great country. It is one of the most disorderly nations in the world. It is one of the most corrupt, insensitive, inefficient places under the sun. It is one of the most expensive countries, and one of those that give least value for money. It is dirty, callous, noisy, ostentatious, dishonest and vulgar. (Trouble 9)
Ikem's speech to the students in Anthills of the Savannah captures something of the vituperative quality of these words. The problems confronting Igbos that the author discusses at length in his non-fiction are reiterated in the secessionist desires of Abazon in Anthills of the Savannah. Transformed into fictive terms, distanced by different names, the political context still remains that of Nigeria.
Also, the novel is, as Fiona Sparrow quite clearly demonstrates in her review of the novel, a memorial to Christopher Okigbo, who died fighting in the Biafran war; Achebe movingly captures his greatness in the phrase "headstone on tiny debris of passionate courage" in the poem "Mango Seedling" (Christmas 16-17) written in memory of his friend. That he chooses to call his protagonist in Anthills of the Savannah Christopher Oriko and have him die in Abazon opposing a mindless sergeant indicates that the author intends the parallels to be made clear to the reader. Achebe has called his friend "the finest Nigerian poet of his generation" (Don't 8), and this novel is a fitting tribute to his life. In short, the novel, in addition to its concern with a historical dialectic, becomes a version of truth to a much greater degree than his previous works, which draw on political and social reality without insisting on an identification between art and life.
All these factors lead to the expectation of a strikingly referential surface, at least to the extent of his previous novels. Despite the quality of orality, the repetitious structures and the metaphorical underpinning, the early novels remain very much in the tradition of realism. They are novels that, despite their ambivalence, affirm and celebrate an indigenous ontology. Anthills of the Savannah, on the other hand, departs from this mode by foregrounding narrative form and language, creating paradigms that both complement and subvert meaning and by exploring an experience that the reader perceives as all too real while accepting the fictionality of the text. The novel thus marks a point of transition, a point of departure by concerning itself with forms of reading and perception, and with structures that make meaning more elusive and complex. Insisting on the fictionality and autonomy of the text becomes an important strategy in occupying a more fluid space that straddles both the public and the artistic. Interestingly, this is achieved, at least in part, by insisting on the political context and the sequentiality of the novel.
Despite the discontinuities and digressions, the reader never loses sight of the corrupt and corrupting political reality of Kangan. The secession of Abazon surfaces at various points, drawing attention to inner tensions and the fear of rulers. In fact, the novel begins with a delegation from Abazon to the Presidential Palace, and concludes (if one excepts the section on naming Elewa's daughter) with the death of Chris in Abazon. In between lies an attempt at sequentiality that insists on Anthills of the Savannah as a political novel about contemporary West Africa. Corruption, secret trials, jockeying for power and all the machinations of a corrupt political world provide the necessary backdrop for the text.
The political scene is seen as an inevitable aftermath of a historical process that involves acquired values, the role of the colonizer, and the values that colonization engenders. Repeated references to the colonizer departing with his luggage and leaving the colonized with half-formed ideas, a craving for power, and a desire to imitate the colonial master reinforce the suspicion that independence has been won only in principle and not in practice. The classic example of cultural conflict is evident in Sam whose studied mannerisms are described as an attempt to imitate an English gentleman of leisure. More specifically, images of the colonizer are present in Lou, the American journalist, and Mad Medico, the eccentric but astute hospital administrator. Lou is more overtly an exploiter, as is evident in her speech about how Nigeria should handle its economic policies, while Mad Medico is a more complex figure who combines a genuine regard for the African landscape with a contempt for the country's attempt to run itself and a penchant for essentialist statements. It is not without significance that his steward is called Sunday—recalling Friday. In Mad Medico's eulogies about the difference between England and Africa, and in Beatrice's skeptical comments about Mad Medico's double standards, the reader glimpses conflicts that have not been totally resolved, despite the departure of the colonizer.
These perceptions emerge as part of the Weltanschauung, in spite of the narrative that constantly parades its artifice, upsets the readers' expectations, and insists on its fictionality. The reader perceives this duality, and it is in the author's insistence on creating a form that works ostensibly against content that the uniqueness of the novel lies. As David Richards points out, the novel is "in part, an essentially optimistic manifesto of the power of 'the literary' in all its humanistic potential to offer an alternative epistemology to that of the state, another constellation of meaning and an arena for the outlawed disputation of political ideologies" (135).
Achebe's concern with form and the problematic nature of his endeavour become apparent in the metafictional comments he incorporates into his novel. In subtle ways, Achebe has found ways of commenting on his work even in his earlier novels. In Arrow of God, for instance, Edogo is clearly an artist-surrogate. As Edogo looks at the mask he has carved as it appears during a festival and wonders whether its features betray a weakness that he did not intend, and whether the response of the onlookers is a measure of his success, he is clearly meditating on the value and integrity of his art. And yet these comments are woven seamlessly into the novel, so that the reader perceives no disruption in the referentiality. Anthills of the Savannah, on the other hand, is more direct in its commentary. Soon after the humiliating episode with Sam at the Presidential Retreat, Beatrice feels the impulse to write, even at the expense of neglecting her routine chores. She is drawn by a frenzy to her writing about which the narrator comments:
The discarded pages and the nearly spoilt meat seemed like a necessary ritual or a sacrifice to whoever had to be appeased for this audacity of rushing in where sensible angels fear to tread, or rather for pulling up one of those spears thrust into the ground by the men in the hour of their defeat and left there in the circle of their last dance together. (83)
Here the distance between the immediate episode that occasioned the spurt of writing and language that draws on history, legend, and resistance foreground the metafictional comment. In a more specific manner, Ikem, the editor of the Gazette, observes that "a novelist must listen to his characters who after all are created to wear the shoe and point the writer where it pinches" (96). Later, after Ikem's speech to the students, the chairman, in an attempt to put out the fires caused by Ikem, says that "writers in the Third World context must not stop at the stage of documenting social problems but move to the higher responsibility of proffering prescriptions" and Ikem interjects with "writers don't give prescriptions…. They give headaches" (161).
No longer is the role of the writer or the purpose of writing clear. If Beatrice's attempt is therapeutic in some way, Ikem's comment strongly opposes the pedagogical role of the writer. The idea of the writer as non-conformist is dealt with in greater detail, with classic irony, in the episodes involving Mad Medico's friend and visiting poet, Dick, whose language and description of his magazine Reject clearly indicate the limitations of the kind of criticism that the visiting poet espouses.
As unclear as the objectives of writing are the forms that could express a complex vision. Beatrice, having alluded to the many strands—such as Christian, African, white, black—that make up her world, comments:
World inside a world inside a world, without end. Uwat'uwa in our language. As a child how I thrilled to that strange sound with its capacity for infinite replication till it becomes the moan of the rain in the ear as it opened and closed, opened and closed. (85)
Her world, like a Chinese box, holds multitudes, and like the experience in the novel, needs a form that would contain it. A little later, the bearded old man talks about the significance of the storyteller:
The sounding of the battle-drum is important; the fierce waging of the war itself is important; and the telling of the story afterwards—each is important in its own way…. But if you ask me which of them takes the eagle-feather I will say boldly: the story. (123-24).
Having affirmed the significance of the story, the old man concludes by recounting a tale which deals with the leopard and the tortoise—one which makes a tremendous impact on Ikem—about how the tortoise, moments before its death at the hands of the leopard, asks for a few moments to scratch the sand furiously to create the impression of a struggle. Here again is the notion of pretence, of fiction, a leap of the imagination that transforms the reality of defeat into something ennobling and positive.
The metafictional comments alert the reader to problems of form, of embedded paradigms that question and subvert and pose dualities in the novel. Paradigms of detection and legality appear very early in the novel, signalled by the titles of two chapters, namely, "First Witness" and "Second Witness." The structures suggest ways of reading and artistic intent, patterns of disclosure and gradual peeling away of layers until the truth is revealed. The pattern is reinforced by the various episodes of questioning and interrogation that take place in the novel, each time with the intention of arriving at the truth. Sam, at the beginning, questions two of his ministers to ascertain the truth about Chris's integrity. Police officers question Ikem, again ostensibly to get details about the parking offence. Beatrice undergoes a similar experience when her house is raided. When Chris disguises himself and attempts to leave Bassa, he is questioned by a soldier who wants to see if Chris is who he claims to be. Significantly, each time the attempt to arrive at the truth fails, thereby questioning the validity of the paradigm as a vehicle for probing the truth. Sam, for instance, totally misunderstands the integrity of his friends, which eventually leads to a series of rash decisions and his final downfall. The soldier believes Chris's fiction about selling motor parts and fails to perceive the truth. Significantly, the only person who sees through the disguise chooses not to expose Chris until after the shooting. Ironically, Chris succumbs to what he seeks to avoid by getting shot, but that is not a result of anyone discovering his true identity. Not unlike the story of the tortoise and the leopard, it is invariably the semblance of truth, the pretence, that appears to be significant. The legal process of questioning witnesses and examining evidence proves futile in the context of the novel.
The paradigm of legality leads to notions of judgement, with which the novel is so insistently concerned. Here again, judgement is perceived to be faulty. Ikem and Chris are both judged to be traitors and punished. The elders from Abazon are misjudged and arrested while Abazon is ostracized. Mad Medico is hastily deported for no valid reason. The structures that one would expect to support a referential reading now become suspect.
The paradigm of detection is reinforced by the process of providing clues rather than answers to the various mysteries in the novel. Anonymous phone calls, coded messages, nuances of expression promise greater revelation when the layers are finally peeled away. The anonymous phone calls, contrary to expectations, turn out to be those of a sympathetic officer. Chris's final words "The last green" allude to a private joke of no great significance except to Beatrice. The end of the novel is always predictable—in fact it is predicted by Beatrice in one of her visionary moments—and the various structures that promise meaning through a gradual process of disclosure are, in fact, deliberately rendered inadequate.
This process of subversion is underlined by the technique of revealing effects before the causes are examined. On the one hand, events are foretold long before they occur. On the other, incidents like the suspension of Ikem are mentioned before the events leading to it are revealed to the reader. In both cases, the narrative departs from its ostensible pattern of disclosure and sequentiality. In some ways, the novel works against itself by creating expectations only to subvert them. As Ikem points out in a slightly different context, drawing attention to the difficulty of leaning on absolutes, "all certitude must now be suspect" (99).
It is thus not surprising that the novel is so wilfully discontinuous in its account of the various events that take place. Climactic episodes, once they occur, are abandoned for several pages and picked up when the intensity of the moment is no longer felt by the reader. Beatrice's confrontation with the president, which the reader knows is bound to have its consequences, is abandoned for the next twenty-five pages, and continued only after a detailed account of Beatrice's life and her relations with Ikem and Chris. The intervening episodes are crucial to an understanding of the novel, but they do disrupt the linearity of the novel. At the beginning of Anthills of the Savannah, the reader is given an elaborate account of Ikem attempting to reach the Presidential Palace (for reasons unknown) in the midst of heavy traffic, and the causes and consequences are left unexplained for several chapters. The discontinuity has the effect of distancing the realism and compelling the reader to look at the synchronic axis in order to perceive complexities of meaning.
The constant interruptions to the linear narrative lead to what is perhaps a very significant aspect of the novel, namely, the strategy of presenting a series of micro narratives, linked together tenuously by the thread of sequentiality. The narratives are spoken by various voices: Chris, Ikem, Beatrice, and an unnamed omniscience. Each voice presents its own way of telling the narrative, thereby establishing its uniqueness and looking at various ways of dealing with the text. Interestingly enough, the president, who is a long-standing friend of the main characters, and who determines the events in the novel, is never made a narrator. He becomes the object of much discussion, and the reader hears conflicting tales about him, but his voice is never available. It is almost as if parts of the puzzle are deliberately left out for the reader to fill in.
Chris's voice, in keeping with his professed desire to remain "reasonable" at all times, is the voice of common sense looking somewhat sceptically, even cynically, at the contradictions of the present from the point of view of one who belongs to the establishment. His is the voice of the critic who chooses not to become an exile. In fact, he declares that he prefers the charade of the present over the option of lecturing in foreign lands about the oppression of his homeland. His voice, then, focusses on the present and strengthens the referentiality of the text. In some ways it is appropriate to have him do so, for he is in some ways a fictionalized version of Christopher Okigbo, whose presence in the novel mediates between historical circumstance and fictional text.
Ikem's narrative is unpredictable, for as the editor of a leading newspaper one would expect him to be committed to current affairs. Yet he deals with abstractions, more like a poet than an editor. On one occasion, he relates a story of public executions in a manner that recalls Achebe's poem "Public Execution in Pictures" (Christmas 60-61). While Achebe's poem is largely descriptive, Chris's version, which is far more complex, serves as a frame for the entire narrative. He claims his story to be real, but his narration flaunts its textuality and thus suggests the artifice of the entire narrative. The execution he describes involves four thieves, one of whom is dressed like a prince. The clothes worn by the prince are reminiscent of the president while the execution itself has obvious parallels with the crucifixion of Christ. The prince's final words "I shall be born again," reminiscent of Nicodemus, underscore the religious dimension of the novel, while the reference to four thieves clearly alludes to Sam, Chris, Ikem, and Mad Medico, all of whom are either killed or deported in the course of the narrative. If the scene is intensely real in its evocation of disgust and horror, it is also fictive in the manner in which it foretells the future and serves as a frame. Ikem's narrative, like that of Beatrice and the omniscient narrator, leads the narrative away from the immediate context into one that is non-linear and metaphoric.
Both the omniscient narrator and Beatrice employ a frame of reference that includes the referential and the mythical and a species of language that ranges from pidgin to standard English, all of which enable them to move freely in two worlds—the metonymic and the metaphoric. This fluidity of movement is at its best when the focus is Beatrice. Fiona Sparrow's comment that "Beatrice is the most important female character that Achebe has created" and that the "modern Beatrice" is "also a goddess and a muse" (58) alludes to the complexity of her portrayal. The multiplicity of her role comes through at various points, often through the language that intervenes between the actual event and the metaphoric subtext.
This duality is central to the design of the novel. At the referential/metonymic level, she is the promising civil servant, the pride of the nation, the headstrong "been-to," and the angered and disappointed lover. At this level, she is contemptuous of the visiting journalist, sceptical of Mad Medico's cynicism, and defiant of traditional notions of marriage. Her career, in referential terms, proves to be far from successful, and she is seen as a victim not merely of a corrupt political regime, but also the entire process of colonization. It is, however, at the metaphoric level that the significance of her portrayal becomes evident. Here is Beatrice's description of her "seduction" of the president:
And was I glad the king was slowly but surely responding! Was I glad! The big snake, the royal python of a gigantic erection began to stir in the shrubbery of my shrine as we danced closer and closer to soothing airs, soothing our ancient bruises together in the dimmed lights. Fully aroused he clung desperately to me. And I took him then boldly by the hand and led him to the balcony railings to the breathtaking view of the dark lake from the pinnacle of the hill. And there told him the story of my Desdemona. (81)
Sam's essentialist assertion that "African chiefs are always polygamists" and his loss of self-respect in the presence of the American journalist, combined with Beatrice's recollection of having been abandoned by a boyfriend as a result of what is called the "Desdemona complex," are occasions for this impulsive act of humiliating the president. And yet the language insists on the mythical dimension of the episode, alluding to the goddess Idemili, the dark lake from which she rose, her punishment of a lascivious chief through the python, all of which are documented in the section entitled "Idemili." She herself is not entirely conscious of the mythical dimension, but she is aware, she declares, that "[s]omething possessed [her] as [she] told it" (81). Now she is an emblem of tradition, an angry goddess, a prophetess and a priestess.
Soon after her humiliation, she is visited by Ikem in circumstances that are not unlike a similar episode in England when Ikem, in response to a telephone call, braves the weather to visit her. Now the language distances the narrative and suggests the mystical/mythical element. Ikem comes "barging into a pillar of rain" to sing the praises of Idemili. This time Beatrice offers no shelter in her home, and Ikem, after having read his "love poem," which he calls the gift of insight, leaves, and both are aware that the parting is forever. Ikem goes as it were to obey the dictates of the goddess, leaving behind "twitches of intermittent lightning and the occasional, satiated hiccup of distant thunder" (101). The narrator in the next section rightly points out that "Ikem alone came close to sensing the village priestess who will prophesy when her divinity rides her" (105).
Beatrice, however, is not done with her role. In response to the question posed by a bird—"Is the King's property correct?"—she responds, "You have not heard the news? The King's treasury was broken into last night and all his property carried away" (108), drawing attention to her "seduction" of the president, who, one remembers, is described as a "moral virgin" by Mad Medico. But Beatrice, as goddess seeking revenge, goes even further. She entices Chris in a scene in which once again the language intervenes between event and fictional text:
From there she took charge of him leading him by the hand silently through heaving groves mottled in subdued yellow sunlight, treading dry leaves underfoot till they came to streams of clear blue water. More than once he had slipped on the steep banks and she had pulled him up and back with such power and authority as he had never seen her exercise before. (114)
The consummation is described in terms that resemble an archetypal quest, an initiation into a different realm. Beatrice herself comments that she is like Chielo, the priestess and prophetess of the Hills and the Caves. From this moment, Chris ceases to be "reasonable" and is quickly involved in the overthrow of the government. The consummation leads to a commitment against the political regime and eventually leads to death. He becomes, in a sense, the instrument of punishment for Sam, while becoming a victim himself for abandoning Beatrice in her moment of need.
She is both goddess and priestess, the source of authority and the witness, one who knows and does not know. The ambiguity is central to the novel for the death of Chris leaves Beatrice devastated, and when she recovers the narrator comments:
It was rather the ending of an exile that the faces acknowledged, the return of utterance to the sceptical priest struck dumb for a season by the Almighty for presuming to set limits on his omnipotence. (220)
Beatrice's narrative includes a "love poem" written by Ikem about the plight of women who are either forced to bear the burden of guilt or become objects of veneration—either way rendered irrelevant in the process of running the world. Symbolically, the poem captures the paradox that relates to Beatrice. Ikem pays tribute to this complexity in an important passage:
Those who would see no blot of villainy in the beloved oppressed nor grant the faintest glimmer of humanity to the hated oppressor are partisans, patriots and party-liners. In the grand finale of things there will be a mansion also for them where they will be received and lodged in comfort by the single-minded demigods of their devotion. But it will not be in the complex and paradoxical cavern of Mother Idoto. (100-01)
At this level, Beatrice is the goddess in whom are enshrined the values of a culture. She is the source of nourishment and nemesis, the daughter of the almighty who was created "to bear witness to the moral nature of authority by wrapping around Power's rude waist a loincloth of peace and modesty" (102). At the end of the novel, her character undergoes yet another transformation as she decides to hold a naming ceremony for Elewa's daughter, and dismissing the claims of tradition, names the child herself. The name she suggests—Amaechina (Ama for short)—is, as the characters point out, both masculine and feminine. The subversion of tradition is caused by the symbol of tradition. The ceremony takes place accompanied by a dance that includes Muslim, Christian, and African elements. As Beatrice herself comments, "if a daughter of Allah could join his rival's daughter in a holy dance, what is to stop the priestess of an unknown god from shaking a leg?" (224). The multiplicity of the novel, the fusion of black, white, religious, secular, African, and European finds expression at the end, leading to a new beginning. The transformation recalls Achebe's comment in an essay entitled "The Igbo World and Its Art" where he says: "It stands to reason, therefore, that new forms must stand ready to be called into being as often as new (threatening) forces appear on the scene" (Hopes 43).
Beatrice, in fact, is as much Classical, Indian, and Christian as she is African. The Christian element is pervasive in the novel, and its complexity is hinted at the very beginning in the title "First Witness." The thread is picked up in the execution, in the references to Esther, the pillar of salt, the Book of Genesis, and the New Testament. Beatrice as the pillar of salt is likened to Lot's wife (which recalls Mad Medico's graffiti about Sodom and Gomorrah), and in her role as seductress a courtesan in the Indian temples, and as an unattainable lover and the object of quest and adoration, none other than Dante's Beatrice.
The non-referential, mythical dimension of the novel persists right through to the end, even in the latter part which lends itself so readily to a linear, sequential reading. It is significant that as Chris makes his plans to escape, two others—Emmanuel and Braimoh—join him, making a party of three and filling the spaces created by the absence of Ikem and Sam. Three continues to be a magic number, with Emmanuel giving Chris three kola nuts—a trivial detail that turns out to be significant when the latter is questioned by the soldier—and Chris's last words refer to a private joke involving three green bottles. The symbolic reading prompted by the symmetry is reinforced by the three enigmatic inscriptions on the bus. The inscriptions suggest notions of guilt, suffering and redemption, all of which suggest that the journey is as much one of self-discovery as it is of escape. The journey needs to be seen in relation to Ikem's "Hymn to the Sun," which, unlike Donne's poem, is a hymn of lovelessness, dispossession, and loss of tradition. It describes a landscape through which Chris now travels, one in which the trees are stunted, like "anthills surviving to tell the new grass of the savannah about last year's brush fires" (30). Here Chris discovers himself in a final heroic gesture. Interestingly, the description of the scene concludes with a struggle in the sand between the Braimoh and the brutal strength of the sergeant, an encounter that is strongly reminiscent of the tale of the tortoise and the leopard. The juxtaposition underlines the relation between truth and art with which the novel is concerned, and which Achebe defines elsewhere as the truth of fiction: "Art is man's constant effort to create for himself a different order of reality from that which is given him, an aspiration to provide himself with a second handle on existence through his imagination" (Hopes 95-96).
In the final analysis, the novel defies easy classification. If, in the manner of the earlier novels, it deals with issues of contemporary relevance, it does so in a manner that projects ambiguity. While the novel does not abandon its pedagogical role, it refuses to take shelter in orthodoxy. Chinua Achebe's role as artist supersedes that of teacher. If a mimetic mode and a readily identifiable binary of ruler and ruled inform the previous works, an experimental form and an ambivalent subjective stance characterise the recent one. The writer is not removed from sociopolitical concerns, but the involvement is predicated on artistic distance. Inevitably, this space prevents a wholehearted endorsement of and alliance with power brokers. As Ikem points out, "a genuine artist, no matter what he says or believes, must feel in his blood the ultimate enmity between art and orthodoxy" (100). If the novel creates paradigms of reading only to subvert them, structures of realism only to disown them, it is because the novel is in many ways a charting of new territory, an exploration of the process of writing and the role of the artist in relation to the contemporary postcolonial reality about which he must write. Beatrice's seemingly innocent response to Ikem might well be one that Achebe, confronted with the complexity of postcolonial Nigeria, would reiterate: "wetin be my concern here?" (90).
1. Griffiths, in his article that deals with the "missing volume" in Achebe's trilogy, discusses the hiatus as "the difficulty within the hybridized poetics of a postcolonial literature of formulating the revolutionary public consequences of the personal 'betrayals' of those transitional figures who straddle the period of cultural onslaught and change" (21). While it might be far-fetched to assert that Anthills of the Savannah is the missing volume, it could certainly be argued that this novel attempts to deal with the difficulties in filling the lacunae.
Achebe, Chinua. Christmas in Biafra and Other Poems. New York: Doubleday, 1973.
――――――. Morning Yet on Creation Day. London: Heinemann, 1975.
――――――. Don't Let Him Die: An Anthology of Memorial Poems for Christopher Okigbo 1932–1967. Enugu, Nigeria: Fourth Dimension Publishers, 1978.
――――――. The Trouble with Nigeria. London: Heinemann, 1984.
――――――. Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays. London: Heinemann, 1988.
――――――. Anthills of the Savannah. London: Pan Books, 1989.
Boehmer, Elleke. "Of Goddesses and Stories: Gender and a New Politics in Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah." Kunapipi 12.2 (1990): 102-12.
Griffiths, Gareth. "Chinua Achebe: When Did You Last See Your Father?" World Literature Written in English 27.1 (1987): 18-27.
Lodge, David. The Modes of Modern Writing: Metaphor, Metonymy, and the Typology of Modern Literature. London: Edward Arnold, 1977.
Maughan-Brown, David. "Anthills of the Savannah and the Ideology of Leadership." Kunapipi 12.2 (1990): 139-48.
JanMohammed, Abdul. Manichean Aesthetics: The Politics of Literature in Colonial Africa. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1983.
Ngara, Emmanuel. "Achebe as Artist: The Place and Significance of Anthills of the Savannah." Kunapipi 12.2 (1990): 113-29.
Sparrow, Fiona. Rev. of Anthills of the Savannah. World Literature Written in English 28.1 (1988): 58-63.
Veit-Wild, Flora, ed. Dambudzo Marechera 1952–87. Harare: Baobab Books, 1988.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4721
SOURCE: "Chinua Achebe and the Poetics of Location: The Uses of Space in Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease," in Essays on African Writing, A Re-evaluation, edited by Abdulrazak Gurnah, Heinemann, 1993, pp. 1-12.
[In the following essay, Gikandi analyzes the development of meaning in Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease in terms of narrative representations of space and location.]
It is not an exaggeration to say that the works of Chinua Achebe have up to now been read almost exclusively in terms of time and historicity. But this privileging of temporal terms has not arisen because of critical oversight or theoretical blindness: Achebe seems to have written his works so close to the axis of temporality that his whole oeuvre has an uncanny way of forcing us to read it not so much in the sequence in which his novels were written, but in the progressive historical relation these texts have established vis á vis the African experience. In the circumstances, even when our critical paradigms are generated by the desire to trace the formal and ideological relations between Achebe's texts—as I have tried to do in Reading Chinua Achebe1—we are more likely to follow a trajectory from Things Fall Apart, through Arrow of God, to No Longer at Ease, than one which reads these novels in the order in which they appeared. It is indeed difficult to promote a programme of reading Achebe's novels that will seek their cultural and symbolic value in the genetic relation between Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease, although the latter is considered to be a sequel to the former.
Why does it seem easier to insert Arrow of God in the temporal space that separates Achebe's first and second novels even when the three works are not related in any fundamental sense? Or, to put the question another way, why has Arrow of God become a supplement for the Nwoye Okonkwo story that Achebe, by his own admission, could now write? The most obvious answer to these questions has to do with our own engagement with the novel as a genre: we are still imprisoned in a critical tradition—whose most fervent advocate has been Georg Lukács—in which the history and development of the novel is explicated in strictly temporal terms.2 In addition, the peculiar condition in which Achebe's novels have been produced—the history of colonialism and nationalism—has affirmed the centrality of the temporal axis in our theoretical and critical reflections.
There is, in other words, such a close affinity between Achebe's narratives and his subject—the African historical experience—that it is difficult, if not impossible, not to read these texts as both representations of this experience and a metacommentary on their condition of possibility. The temporal axis offers readers a secure framework for reading Achebe's novels.
My essay seeks to propose a different approach to the epistemology of narrative in Achebe's first two novels, to pose the question of location and space and its relation to the development of meaning in both Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease. Can a methodical interpretation of spatial relations and what Foucault has called 'the fatal intersection of time and space' cast new insights into the epistemology that drives Achebe's works?3 Can an interpretation of the numerous spatial and geographical metaphors that have such a palpable presence in Achebe's texts proffer us new ways of reconvening the central problems in these texts—problems about identity and location, power and knowledge, and the topography of the nation? Surely, a reconsideration of the poetics of location—and the politics of space—is warranted by the current reconfiguration of global cultures. It is warranted by the simple fact that the present period, a period in which the postcolonial cultures of formerly colonised areas are challenging older, temporal organisations of power and knowledge, has come to be defined, in the words of Foucault, as 'the epoch of space … when our experience of the world is less that of a long life developing through time than that of a network that connects points and intersections with its own skein' (p. 22). If this is so, how is a poetics of location exemplified in Achebe's texts, and what is its relation to the inherited nineteenth-century (colonial) discourse on the place and space of the African in the taxonomy of world cultures?
It is important to begin with the question of inherited spaces, and the geopolitics surrounding African cultures, because if metaphors of location seem to play a more prominent role in Achebe's earlier works than they do in the later ones, this has to do with his proximity to the colonial text which had deployed colonised spaces as a key element in the debate on Englishness and its domain. For Englishness, as I have argued elsewhere, defines itself through gestures of situatedness: English identity, especially in the period of high imperialism, is enacted against the backdrop of the spaces of the Other which function as what Foucault has aptly called heterotopias.4 If utopias are sites that have no real places and present society in perfected form, says Foucault, heterotopias are the real spaces in which the central meanings of a culture 'are simultaneously represented, contested and inverted' (p. 24). Heterotopias are hence spaces of representation and interpretation. Such spaces, according to Foucault, are mirrors that exert 'a sort of counteraction' on the positions occupied by the writing subject; from the standpoint of this mirror, this subject, counteracting itself against the Other, comes back towards itself (p. 24). It is not by accident, then, that some of the most important colonial texts on Africa in the modern period, texts such as Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Cary's Mister Johnson, and Greene's Journey without Maps, are dominated by the problematic of location, of spaces, of maps and roads. As numerous critics have observed, these texts provide the English with mirrors in which to gaze at themselves; but the African is absent from such works except as a projection of European desire.5
Now in writing against this tradition in Things Fall Apart, Achebe provides us with an ingenious, but paradoxical, deployment of space; he wants, on one hand, to counter the heterotopic representation of the African in the colonial text by making Umuofia an epistemological presence, one defined not only by the process of time, but also by an ensemble of spaces; the African space hence functions as a Foucauldian 'space of emplacement' (p. 22). On the other hand, however, Achebe's narrative does not seek to represent the African space as a utopian counter to European heterotopias; if he were to do so, he would merely be valorising the romantic image of Africa to counter the western projection of the continent as a savage space. To avoid these two traps—that is, the image of Africa as the place of the savage or as the cradle of human values—Achebe invokes a double image of Umuofia: the village is shown to be both an autonomous geographical entity, and a place torn by contending social and historical forces. This doubleness accounts for the chronotopic disjuncture that leads to the triumph of colonialism at the end of the novel.
Moreover, when we consider the tension between time and space in the novel, we realise how Okonkwo's narrative is both progressive and retrogressive. From a temporal perspective, the structure of the novel, especially in the first part, encourages us to see Okonkwo's story as a progressive struggle in which he ultimately triumphs over the process of time. The wrestling match that opens the novel is the quintessential space of emplacement and empowerment because it makes Okonkwo's subjectivity parallel the character of his community and culture: his triumph takes place in 'a fight which the old men agreed was one of the fiereest since the founder of their town engaged a spirit of the wild for seven days and seven nights'.6 Okonkwo's victory in the wrestling ring has become, over the years, one of the founding stories of the village: 'That was many years ago, twenty years or more, and during this time Okonkwo's fame had grown like a bush-fire in the harmattan' (p. 3).
But if the first part of the novel promotes a progressive narrative in which time brings fame and prosperity to the cultural hero, the second and final parts negate the temporal process. In exile, Okonkwo is forced into a historical hiatus; on his return to Umuofia, he realises that his life (and hence his story) has been reduced to zero ground. Moreover, the ending of the novel appears to be a void in which the hero is silenced and, in his abomination, is cut off from the spirit of his community. As the District Commissioner notes, Okonkwo's story, which opened the novel by being compared to the mythical narratives of Umuofia's founding father, can only be confined to 'a reasonable paragraph' (p. 148). And although it is possible to argue that the compression of the hero's story to only a paragraph in the colonial text arises from the coloniser's ethnocentric negation of the African narrative, we also need to remember that by the time Okonkwo returns to Umuofia after his exile, his story has become marginal even in his own community.
The relation between the space of emplacement and that of negation is, however, more complicated than the structure of the novel suggests. We can discern this complication if we refuse to follow the linear plotting of the novel and focus our attention on the constant juxtaposition of different spatial configurations and the uncanny ways in which the hierarchy of social spaces that emplaces Okonkwo in Umuofia is also responsible for his displacement. We need, in effect, to reconsider Okonkwo's troubled relation with his communal territory, a relation that is defined in the narrative by the tension between space and time in his engenderment. Consider, for example, how the incipient moment of the novel derives its power from the subtle evocation of the metaphorical identity between Okonkwo and Umuofia and his metonymic displacement from it; the novel surrounds the heroic character with innumerable spaces in which his relation with his community is affirmed and his hierarchy within it is denoted. In the wrestling arena of his youth, Okonkwo's identity as a powerful man is realised (p. 3); in the market place where 'the normal course of action' (p. 8) is a connotation of the norms by which the community lives, Okonkwo is recognised as Umuofia's representative man and is 'asked on behalf of the clan' to look after Ikemefuna 'in the interim' (p. 9).
In all these instances, Okonkwo's authority as the protector of the Umuofian doxa is closely related to the character of his household space: 'Okonkwo's prosperity was visible in his household. He had a large compound enclosed by a thick wall of red earth … The barn was built against one end of the red walls, and long stacks of yams stood out prosperously in it' (p. 10). This household is, in effect, represented as a replica of the larger social spaces that sustain a cosmos which, in turn, provides natural ground and cultural stability to the larger community. In this household, celestial power becomes symbolised in material terms (Okonkwo's prosperity is written on his household) and also functions as a spatial mirror for both idealised social production and the localisation of the communal doxa. In other words, when we gaze at Okonkwo's social space (his household), we witness not only the materiality of 'his personal god and ancestral spirits', but also the gods that have 'built' Umuofia. Moreover, the novel provides us with a crucial juxtaposition between this individualised space and the communal space (ilo) that it replicates. Both function as crucial symbols of the organic community.
But even as we trace Okonkwo's advancement along the temporal axis that elevates him from the son of a pauper to one of the strongest men in Umuofia, we cannot fail to notice how his temporal progression is constantly being challenged by what would appear to be the undialectical force of space.7 In the first part of Things Fall Apart, as most readers will recall, Okonkwo's struggle to succeed is a manifest struggle against the process of time, a struggle that is commented on retrospectively (p. 17). On the temporal axis, the subject has transcended his past; his suffering and penury are narrated in the past tense (Chapter 2) as a qualifying appendix to his present prosperity (Chapter 1). But in spatial terms, the present doesn't have any primacy over the past: Okonkwo rémembers his first 'tragic' year as a farmer 'with a cold shiver throughout the rest of his life' (p. 17). In Okonkwo's body and psyche, the very forces he thought he had transcended rule his life, for in this internal landscape his selfhood is mapped by a repressed past association with his father.
So if in the visible space of his household we read Okonkwo's material and temporal advancement from the regime of his father, his internal landscape is defined by Unoka: his 'whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness … It was fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father', 'he was possessed by the fear of his father's contemptible life and shameful death' (pp. 9, 13). If his household is an affirmation of masculinist power ('Okonkwo ruled his household with a heavy hand'), his masculine aggression arises in his attempt to deny the feminine forces he associates with his father (pp. 30-2).8
Moreover, if Okonkwo's masculine ideologies are predicated on the belief that the household (and natio) ruled by men is a natural entity, the Ikemefuna subtext both affirms masculinity and carefully questions the intrinsic value of the male-dominated space. Consider, for example, the process by which Ikemefuna is temporarily incorporated into Umuofia: 'For three years Ikemefuna lived in Okonkwo's household and the elders of Umuofia seemed to have forgotten about him. He grew rapidly like a yam tendril in the rainy season, and was full of the sap of life. He had become wholly absorbed in his new family' (p. 37). The images of vegetation and growth are important here: they suggest that Umuofia is an organic community with the natural capacity to absorb and assimilate those who enter it. And yet we know that Ikemefuna does not have natal rights within this community; he can only inscribe himself within it by appealing to Umuofia's implied discourse of what is 'right', especially through the evocation of masculinity (and hence homosociality). In other words, Ikemefuna becomes part of Umuofia by establishing the 'deep, horizontal comradeship' that Benedict Anderson has isolated as a key facet of nationness.9
It is through Ikemefuna that Nwoye is masculinised, at least temporarily, thus allowing Okonkwo to sustain his fantasy of an overarching male hegemony that will reproduce itself through his son: 'Okonkwo was inwardly pleased at his son's development, and he knew it was due to Ikemefuna. He wanted Nwoye to grow into a tough young man capable of ruling his father's household when he was dead and gone to join the ancestors' (p. 37). But no sooner has this desire been asserted than it is negated: in the Obi, the male domain, the men bond through 'masculine stories of violence and bloodshed', but in his inner space, Nwoye, eager to please his father and to conduct himself as a man, 'feigned that he no longer cared for women's stories' (p. 38). Masculine stories are hence not able to transform Nwoye's 'essential' character.
In addition, masculine ideologies are exposed as inverted—rather than natural and organic entities—at that crucial junction in the novel when Ikemefuna is 'cut down' by Okonkwo, in spite of his unconditional identification with male hegemony and masculinist spaces. We are told that Ikemefuna could 'hardly imagine that Okonkwo was not his real father', but his evocation of the name of the imagined father does not save him in the end (pp. 42, 43). Indeed, soon after Ikemefuna dies, we are left to witness the collapse of the 'deep, horizontal comradeship' that held the household together: a 'snapping' takes place inside Nwoye (p. 43) and a cold shiver descends on Okonkwo (p. 44). So, if Okonkwo seems to have reached the height of success (in temporal terms), his spaces of empowerment are shown to be in a state of crisis because they were founded on unstable male relationships.
It is in this context that Okonkwo's subsequent exile acquires several important resonances. Okonkwo's exile, it must be emphasised, is not merely the opposite of belonging, nor does it simply denote the hero's displacement from the masculine space he has dominated; it is, above all, the process that compels the hero to confront his repressed feminine space. Although exile displaces Okonkwo from his space of emplacement—'everything had been broken' (p. 92)—the maternal space, as his uncle reminds him, provides him a sanctuary in moments of distress (p. 94). The motherland, then, functions as an example of what Foucault calls a 'crisis heterotopia', a place 'reserved for individuals who are, in relation to society and to the human environment in which they live, in a state of crisis' (p. 24).
But in this part of the novel we notice, once again, a crucial tension between temporality and spatiality. On one hand, from the perspective of time and historicity, Okonkwo's life in exile is denoted either by temporal suspense (he has to wait seven years before he resumes his place in Umuofia), or by his marginalisation in relation to the grand narrative of colonisation (he hears of the great historical events of his time second hand). In both cases, however, the narrative sustains the illusion that the hero will, in time, return to his proper place. On the other hand, Okonkwo (in exile) inhabits a heterotopic space that is at once privileged (because it is a sanctuary), but is not very different from the desecrated space occupied by the missionaries (the evil forest), or the marginal social spaces inhabited by outcasts. Indeed, when Okonkwo returns to Umuofia in the last section of the book, the narrative constantly calls attention to his loss of place in Umuofia: 'Seven years was a long time to be away from one's clan. A man's place was not always there waiting for him' (p. 121); the hero returns to a community that no longer recognises him ('Umuofia did not appear to have taken any special notice of the warrior's return'); he is forced to mourn for 'the clan, which he saw breaking up and falling apart' (p. 129).
If the novel opened with a symmetrical relationship between the hero and his communal space, they are now placed in opposition. Hence we can say that Okonkwo's exile from his natal space constitutes a radical break with his space of emplacement. In fact, the only reason why we don't read his exile as a radical form of marginalisation is because the narrative promotes the illusion that Okonkwo will be rehabilitated (in time); until the end, the narrative sustains the false belief that the space of exile is really not one of absolute loss. If we ignore this illusion, however, we can see why Okonkwo's exile is both a negation of the progressive narrative promised at the beginning of the novel and an ironic retour to the space inhabited by his father, the space from which he sought to escape.
Let us recall that Okonkwo, by killing a kinsman, has 'polluted' the earth, the source of his masculine power; his act is hence an abomination that recalls Unoka's death; the father's fatal sickness 'was an abomination to the earth, and so the victim could not be buried in her bowels' (p. 13); by committing suicide, Okonkwo, too, has committed 'an offence against the Earth' (p. 147). We may quibble about ostensible differences in the two men's deaths, but we cannot escape the similitude. Above all, we cannot escape the fact that Okonkwo, the great defender of the Umuofian doxa, has in his death (and possibly his life) gone, in Obierika's words, 'against our custom' (p. 147). But one of the questions the novel has raised at the same time is this: now that Umuofia is being challenged and transformed by the forces of colonialism, what exactly is the authority of custom and what spaces sustain it?
This is the question taken up by the asymmetrical spaces in No Longer at Ease. In this novel, Achebe uses as his epigraph a verse from T. S. Eliot's 'Journey of the Magi' to foreshadow the unstable places and spaces in which the poetics of identity formation are played out: 'We returned to our places, these Kingdoms. / But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation.'10 The theme of dislocation is also underscored by an Igbo proverb that appears strategically in the novel's moment of closure, a moment that is haunted by the dialectical tension between Obi's desire for identity and the reality of displacement: 'Wherever something stands, another thing stands beside it' (p. 145).
Now, because critical attention has often been focused on the temporal progression of this novel, that is, Obi's transformation from an idealistic young man to a corrupt bureaucrat, we have not paid enough attention to how this crisis of selfhood is generated by the contending loyalties between inherited and designated locations. Obi's inherited location is Umuofia, but far from being a place with a stable space, a natural ground that sustains a tradition, the ancestral home is a schizophrenic and transplanted locale, which is under the hegemony of colonialism, the designated space. In the circumstances Obi has to define himself in relation to, or even against, two contending spaces.
There is, first of all, an Umuofia space that exists as a marginal space in Lagos: this is a small village that subsists on 'its past when it was the terror' of its neighbours (p. 4), but it neither has the authority of the original nor can it sustain its traditions. This space speaks a deracinated language as it tries to negotiate its mythical past and its colonised present (pp. 5, 6). Obi's position, in relation to this space, is one of liminality: he belongs to a nationalistic generation that has rediscovered the value of tradition as a discursive formation, but cannot appropriate the spaces in which this tradition first emerged.
Then there is the Umuofia of colonial desires, the community that had sent Obi to England. This is not the community associated with his legendary grandfather; it does not proffer him a space in which he can fulfil his desire for the past. Indeed, this Umuofia expects him not to be a representative of its mythical history, but a custodian of its communal desire for Englishness (pp. 28-30). For the 'modern' Umuofians, power is vested in the fantasmic image of England which Obi embodies: he is praised as 'Obi who had been to the land of the whites. The refrain said over and over again that the power of the leopard resided in its claws' (p. 29). But Obi cannot identify with this given image either, because once he has lived in England for some time, he becomes convinced that if the notion of Nigeria is to have value, it has to negate the eromania associated with England and Englishness—hence his craving for 'things Nigerian' (p. 31).
And yet, Obi cannot escape from his colonial heritage because his identity is mapped, as it were, by England and Englishness in ironic ways. First, it is only in an oppositional relation to England that Nigeria 'first became more than just a name to him' (p. 11): the realities of English life ('the miseries of winter') necessitated a counteracting value that would, in turn, be imagined as the Nigerian national space; and it is around this space that memories and desires can be reorganised. In the sense of Obi's discovery of it, there would be no Nigeria if England did not exist as its geographic and cultural Other. There is even a second, more pervasive irony: even as he decries the colonial mentality, the cultural spaces that Obi inhabits are exclusively English. His technology of identity formation is English literature, which connects him to the colonial chairman of the civil service commission in ways he cannot be linked with his Umuofian kinsmen and women.11 Above all, Englishness realises the cultural geography of England in ways that are more definitive than the Nigeria Obi wants to imagine: Housman's poetry hence seems to have a palpability which Obi's poem on Nigeria does not have (pp. 136-7).
In the end, Obi has to negotiate three spaces with contradictory claims and cultural contours: an Umuofia that is displaced from its traditions and is in a perpetual state of cultural crisis; a Nigeria that he had earlier hoped would be an erotic space of fulfilment but has become corrupted in its genesis: and an England whose cultural transcripts have shaped his character but whose function as a colonial power is a negation of the most important ingredients in his Africanity—history, home, language. All these spaces and their problems crystallise in Obi's relation with Clara and the failure of the marriage plot which, in traditional fiction, provides an ideal place for resolving problems of cultural and national identity. In quite unexpected ways, Clara confronts Obi with the problem of abomination that had plagued his ancestors. As an osu she inhabits what Foucault would call the 'heterotopia of deviation' (p. 25); she inhabits a place that is part of Igbo culture, but outside its norms.
Obi's intention to marry Clara forces him, in effect, to reflect on what his Umuofian compatriots consider to be his estrangement from the Igbo norm. For example, when Joseph asks him whether he knows what an osu is, we are told, he was saying 'in effect that Obi's mission-house upbringing and European education had made him a stranger in his country—the most painful thing one could say to Obi' (pp. 64-5). And yet there is a sense in which marrying Clara would have been the apotheosis of Obi's desire for a Nigerian space. It would have been a willed entry into the desired nationalist space, a space transcending ethnic traditions and family loyalties. At the same time, however, he could not reach his desired space without evoking the (colonial) doctrines of modernity and Christianity.
At the end of the novel, we come to realise that these are not real options: his mother will stand up for tradition and will even commit an abomination to stop her son from marrying an osu; his father will not countenance the thought that modernity and Christianity are good enough reasons to defy the inherited norm. So, like his grandfather before him, Obi is left suspended in limbo. His presumed imprisonment at the end of the novel could well be Achebe's way of valorising the split between cultural geographies that have, at the same time, been spatialised by history. For this reason, the way African spaces have been organised and reorganised by Achebe's early novels points towards interesting directions in which the poetics of location can be examined.
1. Simon Gikandi, Reading Chinua Achebe, London: James Currey, 1991.
2. Georg Lukács, The Theory of the Novel, trans. Anna Bostock, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1971, pp. 120-5.
3. Michel Foucault, 'In Other Spaces', trans. Jay Miskowice, Diacritics 16 (Spring 1986), pp. 22ff. Further references will be included in the text.
4. I am pursuing some of these questions in Maps of Englishness: Postcolonial Theory and the Politics of Identity, in progress.
5. See Abdul JanMohammed, Manichean Aesthetics: The Politics of Literature in Colonial Africa, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1983; and Christopher Miller, Black Darkness: Africanist Discourse in French, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.
6. Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart, London: Heinemann. 1958, p. 3.
7. See Edward Soja, Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory, London: Verso, 1989, p. 11.
8. An excellent discussion of masculinist ideologies in Things Fall Apart can be found in Rhonda Cobham's 'Making Men and History: Achebe and the Politics of Revisionism', in Approaches to Teaching 'Things Fall Apart', ed. Bernth Lindfors, New York: Modern Language Association, 1991, pp. 91-100.
9. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism, London: NLB, 1983, p. 16.
10. Chinua Achebe, No Longer at Ease, London: Heinemann, 1960.
11. The relation between space and identity formation is discussed by Caren Kaplan in 'Reconfigurations of Geography and Historical Narrative: A Review Essay', Public Culture 3 (Fall 1990), p. 27.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5858
SOURCE: "Eleanor Wachtel with Chinua Achebe," in The Malahat Review, No. 113, December, 1995, pp. 53-66.
[Wachtel is a writer and radio personality who hosts CBC Radio's Sunday literary program "Writers & Company." In the following interview, originally broadcast in January, 1994, Achebe discusses his personal and literary background, the evolution of his literary career, and his role in and hopes for the Nigerian political economy.]
The first book I ever read by a black African was Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. I read it some twenty-five years ago, just as the Nigerian civil war was winding down. It was often referred to as the Biafran war, because Biafra was the name of the breakaway Ibo nation. And it was the first time in my memory that Africa became associated with that horrific image of starving children with distended bellies. Casualties were very high—most of them Ibo civilians who starved to death after federal forces blockaded the rebel-controlled area.
Things Fall Apart provided a rare and original picture of Ibo society in the late nineteenth century. By focusing on a single village and its leader, the novel illustrated Nigeria's early experience of colonialism and British rule. The book sold millions of copies worldwide, was translated into thirty languages, and adapted for stage, radio, and television. It was the first novel by an African to be taught to African secondary students throughout the English-speaking parts of the continent. By the late sixties, when I caught up with it, Things Fall Apart had come to be recognized as the first "classic" in English from tropical Africa, and Achebe became known as the "father of the African novel in English."
Achebe followed Things Fall Apart with three other novels in fairly quick succession: No Longer at Ease, Arrow of God, and in 1966, A Man of the People. But when the Biafran war ended in 1970, Achebe wrote poetry, short stories, and essays, but not novels. In the early 1980s, he became directly involved in Nigerian politics—first as the deputy national president of the People's Redemption Party, and then as president of the town union of his hometown, Ogidi.
Finally in 1987, twenty-one years after his previous novel, Chinua Achebe wrote a dark political work of fiction called Anthills of the Savannah. It was short-listed for Britain's Booker Prize.
Nigeria is Africa's most populous country—with ninety million people. It won its independence from Britain in 1960, but this oil-rich country has been run by the military for all but nine of those thirty-five years. Most recently, in June 1993, the presidential elections were declared invalid and the generals maintained control.
Five years ago, Chinua Achebe was injured in a car accident on a highway in Nigeria. The circumstances were unsettling and a military vehicle was said to be involved. Achebe spent six months in England undergoing operations and therapy, and then moved to the United States. He was very close to death. In fact, the American doctors who examined his X-rays didn't think he'd survive.
But Achebe continues to write and teach. His most recent book of essays is called Hopes and Impediments. In his novel, Anthills of the Savannah, the traditional storyteller says. "It is only the story that outlives the sound of war-drums and the exploits of brave fighters…. The story is our escort; without it, we are blind."
I talked to Chinua Achebe from his home in Anandale, New York, in January 1994.
[Wachtel:] You have said that your father revered books and hoarded paper, and that when he died the family made a bonfire of his life's accumulation of paper. It's a powerful image, but did it feel strange to see all those things that he'd saved go up in smoke?
[Achebe:] In retrospect, yes it did, but it wasn't archival material, it was old church magazines and so on. We just needed space. You know, even though I'm a writer, I don't like paper. When my table is full of paper I always like to get rid of it. So it's a matter of temperament. You are right, though, looking back; one should save what can be saved. But I do think that there's too much paper in the world.
So your father's legacy to you was a love of literature and a revulsion for paper.
Yes, that's right. It's a great paradox.
You were born in a village in eastern Nigeria to Christian missionary parents, and you've talked about "living at the crossroads of culture." Can you give me a sense of the early days in your life with those two influences, the Christian and the traditional Ibo?
It's not easy to put into words. It's like being in two worlds, or being at the confluence of two rivers, but it's never quite the confluence. The image of crossroads is a good one, because crossroads are a place where there's a lot of traffic, not just human traffic but also spirit traffic. So it's a very powerful location. That's the idea I was trying to convey. Christianity was new, strange in many ways, but it was powerful, and so was the traditional life of the people. When I was growing up, we had already passed the initial encounter, which involved fighting at times—literally, actual battles. Things had become more settled, and the advantage was that you saw a bit of the past and a bit of the future. That was where you stood. Of course, being of the Christian party, the missionary party, I was not really supposed to pay much attention to the traditional; what they did was thought to be heathenish, and I was not supposed to be interested in it, but I was.
You've written about how on one arm of the cross in this crossroads you sang hymns and read the Bible, and on the other there was your uncle's family, as you ironically put it, "blinded by heathenism, offering food to idols." As a child, which one were you drawn to more?
The one which I was not supposed to see. The fact that it was forbidden was part of the attraction. I wasn't evaluating the two. If anyone had asked me, I would have said that the Christian faith was the right one. But I was curious about what was going on in the other place.
Which impulse do you feel most strongly now?
The traditional, because it is the underdog; and of course I've learned more and more about it. I was not exposed to it, nor was anyone in my generation; it was not taught in the schools, and so it was always something half-understood. Now that I have had time and years to look at it, I have discovered profound truths and profound significances that are very valuable, and so I'm in a position to look at Christianity from the position of traditional religion.
Would you describe yourself as speaking three languages—Ibo, English, and Nigerian pidgin?
I've never really described myself that way but you are right. Nigerian pidgin is something which we all pick up; I didn't grow up with it, it's more a language, or dialect, of the cities, but as one grew up one encountered it and picked it up.
You use it quite a lot in your novels. How your characters speak seems to depend on a number of things: their class or level of education, the context, and how intimate they're feeling. Is this something you consciously do?
Yes and no. A closeness to life as it is lived is for me very vital. What I try to achieve in my novels is as close a version of events as would happen in real life. That's an aspect of realism that I think is valuable, so that then you can delve into magic or whatever you do.
Ibo proverbs figure prominently in your novels. Did they always resonate for you, even when you were growing up?
Yes, I loved them. The language of the Ibo people, their imagery is all very picturesque, and I always found it, and still find it, very moving and very powerful. A very simple example, for instance: in English we would say, "Two heads are better than one." The Ibos would say, "Two heads, four eyes." They always bring in a picture so you see it at once. It's not just that it's better, they tell you how it's better.
There's a line in your first novel that "proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten." It's a very vivid image. There's another one that you use and I think the idea of it really is implicit in several of your novels, and the English translation is, "To every man his due." What does that mean to you in its broadest sense?
It's extremely central to my understanding of reality, and it is so important to the Ibo that they say it in many different ways. The world is very complex, that's what they are saying. We must be aware of that complexity, and not just be aware but actually recognize it in the way we behave by according to every reality its own respect. You are not expected to admire or to love every thing, but you are expected to recognize that that thing has its own validity. That is what is meant by "To everyone his due."
For example, if you entered a hall in which Ibo elders were assembled for a meeting, if you came in and there were many, many people seated, the polite thing would be to shake hands with everybody and call them by their chosen names, not the names which they were given at birth but their titles. Everyone who becomes a titled person takes a new name, and you are supposed to know that and address them that way when you meet. Now, that's how you should deal with this crowd. But it's impossible! It would take the whole day if you were to go around shaking hands with everybody there and calling them by their names. So what you then do is greet them generally and say, "To everyone his due," which means you recognize everyone's title.
Your first novel, Things Fall Apart, was published thirty-five years ago. It sold more than three million copies, and it's been translated into thirty languages. How does it feel to be described as "the father of African literature in English"?
Oh, I don't mind that. I don't mind that at all. [laughs] It couldn't have even come close to my mind when I started writing. It's just one of those amazing developments, the way that my work has grown. It has been an amazing and gratifying surprise. Actually, the figure that my publishers give is not three million but eight, and it's still spreading—right now it's spreading very fast in the Far East. So I'm very happy and of course humbled by this, and that's all I can say, really.
You've said that one of the reasons you became a novelist was to tell the story from the inside. Do you remember how you felt when you first read books like Mr. Johnson, by Joyce Cary, which was actually set in Nigeria, or when you read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which was set in what was then the Congo?
That's a long story. I encountered Conrad before I was old enough to see what was going on and so it didn't make the kind of impact that it would have made if I had been older. It was only when I reread it at college, at the University of Ibadan, as an undergraduate in the English department, that I then began to realize just what was happening there. Joyce Cary was different. The Joyce Cary was a later book; it was published in the forties, so I read it for the first time in college. Not just my response but the response of the whole class was quite definite: we didn't like what Joyce Cary was doing. I remember it was interesting because our teachers were all English and we were all Nigerian, and our teachers thought it was a marvellous book. In fact it is still called by some people in the West the greatest African novel. It's just amazing. One of my colleagues shocked our teacher by saying that the only moment he enjoyed in the book was when Johnson was shot. That was a very drastic response but it conveys the exasperation that we Africans feel when we encounter this kind of mindless racism.
When you first read Heart of Darkness, and you say you were too young to understand it, did you identify with Marlowe?
You identify with whom the author wants you to identify with, that's what fiction does; and until you are strong enough to break away from that, you don't see what's going on. I believe this is the problem with professors in the West today who don't see racism in Heart of Darkness; they are still reading like young boys and girls who are fascinated by the sound of adjectives and the creation of emotion, a cheap emotion, with fear and stereotype. That's really what's happening. But when you become experienced with literature, you should be able to get rid of that response.
Do you buy into what's called "appropriation of voice," the argument that only a black African is truly able to write about black Africa?
No, I don't. I think anybody can write about any place, even places they have never visited. Kafka wrote about America without leaving Prague. But a good writer knows just what kind of story to write about the place you don't know deeply. There are many different levels on which a story can move; you don't have to be an expert about place.
You were what's sometimes called "a been-to," in that you studied in Ibadan but you also studied in London. When you came back to Nigeria, just before independence, what were your hopes or expectations?
Actually, I wasn't a proper "been-to." I went to London, to the BBC School, for less than one year. I was already working; I was not a young student. Although it was an important experience, to spend seven months in Europe, it wasn't really formative. But as to what that period meant, it was a time of excitement; it was four or five years before our independence, and independence was very much in the air. We all felt happy and excited and hopeful, optimistic. It was the optimism that at last we would be on our own again and take hold of our history and manage our lives. It was a heady moment. About a year after I came back from London, Ghana got her independence; Ghana was the first in modern Africa. And it was so exciting! We were not Ghanaians, we were Nigerians and Nigerians and Ghanaians tend to be rivals, yet the independence of Ghana felt like our own. People stayed up at night till one a.m. in the morning, which was twelve midnight in Ghana, to hear the handing over of power. So it was that kind of heady, exciting feeling.
You once described your first novel, Things Fall Apart, as "an act of atonement, the homage of a prodigal son." What did you mean by that?
What I meant was that being a Christian, being educated in things of the West, being a university graduate and all that, one really shouldn't be any of those things. Our business should be to restore what was lost, to take on the task of redefining ourselves. That is what I tried to do in my writing, and I see that as a kind of service which is demanded of us by Africa because we betrayed her in doing all these other things. My father, for instance, was one of the first generation of Christians; he abandoned the faith of his fathers. I'm putting it rather strongly so that what I'm trying to say will be clear. In actual fact, one's life doesn't stop because you've become a Christian; there are even some advantages in getting acquainted with another culture and all that. But basically, we were led into accepting that what our forefathers, our ancestors, had done through the millennia was somehow misguided and that somebody else who's come from afar could straighten us out, that he was the Way, the Truth and the Life, and that we had been sunk in blindness. That's an outrageous thing to accept. In retelling, in redefining ourselves, we are making amends for this betrayal.
Yet I think one of the reasons that Things Fall Apart is so successful is that you don't romanticize the old Africa.
No. Making amends doesn't mean glorifying. It simply means giving to everyone his due, you know, that salutation. This is due to Africa. At no point in the history of Africa, at no point was it inhabited by people who were less than human—we have to be absolutely strict about that. You must give it its due. Then, having said that, you have to recognize that things were not perfect. Things were not supposed to be perfect. God did not make a perfect world. The Ibo people have a different notion of creation. They have a notion in which God is constantly having a conversation with humanity on how to improve the environment. It was not finished in six days; we have a role to play. So we recognize the fact that things are not perfect, things are not even good. But that does not mean that this place is less than a human habitation.
Between 1958 and 1966 you published four novels, including your post-independence political satire A Man of the People. Then in the late sixties, from '67 to 1970, there was the Nigerian Civil War, which is sometimes called the Biafran War. You've described the war as a watershed for you. Can you talk about what happened to you during that time?
If we go back to that spirit of euphoria I described, when we got our independence—the feeling that we were new people, that we were reinventing ourselves—all that hope and promise seemed smashed in the catastrophe of the civil war, in which Nigerians set upon one another and people were massacred in the thousands, hundreds of thousands. It was a war in which perhaps a million people died in the short period of two-and-a-half years. It seemed as if everything we had planned for and looked forward to was going to be taken away and that independence itself was perhaps a hoax. It was a very savage war. Beginning to deal with that reality was very difficult.
I was quite involved in the war, not in the sense of going to the front or anything, but it was close, it was close to everybody. Everyone lost friends and relations, their homes; we all became refugees, running from one place to another. So at the end of it you had to reassess what you'd been doing in this redefining of yourself. You realized that it had perhaps been too optimistic, and that now you had to look more closely at what happened. And that was why I virtually put aside the novel I had been planning. Actually, I didn't put it aside, the novel just refused to come. Again and again I wrestled with this novel that I'd had in mind for years, and it just wouldn't make itself available. I realized that this was understandable, that what had happened to us was so devastating that we couldn't just get up and say, now it's business as usual again. Some people thought, when the war ended and the leader of Biafra and the leader of Nigeria were seen embracing, that the whole thing was over. That's not true. You don't lose a million people and shake hands and just go back to business as usual.
Was there a way in which you felt you had to heal yourself as well?
Yes, and I wasn't sure just what to do. One of the things I did was leave the country, though not right away; I felt that my role during the war was so well known that I couldn't run away. If there was going to be any punishment, it would be right that I would be one of those punished. So I sat around for two years after the war ended and when it was clear that I could go away, then I left the country for four years.
What was your role during the war?
I was more of a traveller. I travelled to the United States, to Europe, to other parts of Africa, and spoke about what was happening. I gave lectures, but I always came right back, to the fighting itself and to the war. And my family was there, my wife and three little children. My role was described as diplomatic in some places, but that's a very grand way of putting it, because I didn't really have any official position. I was simply a writer who travelled and spoke about what was going on.
More than twenty years elapsed between the last novel of your earlier period, A Man of the People, and the publication of Anthills of the Savannah in 1987. The poet in Anthills of the Savannah is a man poised between action and reflection, and at one point he's addressing a group of students and, in answer to a question about what the country should do, he says, "Writers don't give prescriptions, they give headaches." When I read that I felt it was you. Is that true?
Yes, I think you are right. Just at that point, as long as you don't take it that that character is me; no characters of mine are allowed to be me. They may reflect, they may share some common ideas here and there with me. On that point, yes, he is talking like me, that's exactly what I would say in that circumstance.
That whole dilemma of action or reflection seems to be one that you have alternated between in your own life. You were involved in actual Nigerian politics in the 1980s. Then you published a novel. Do you find yourself going back and forth on this issue?
Yes, I think there's an inevitable seesaw position for someone like me, because you get so frustrated that things are not working out, and you want to go in and do something. Then you find that it isn't really that kind of action where your best work can be done. I discovered, for instance, that party politics was really going to be a waste of my time. I got into it because I felt so desperate to indicate that, out of all the bad leaders we had, this particular man was least bad and our people should know that and recognize it. There is a certain amount of value in that kind of work, but it's time-consuming and it's also energy-consuming. In the end you say, no, I really should be writing my books. So one does alternate in that kind of desperate way in our situation, and our situation is very desperate.
The novel Anthills of the Savannah is in some ways a very political book. It's set in a fictional country called Kangan, but it feels as if it's probably not a very distant relation from a country like Nigeria, and it's a place where corruption is everywhere. Have people in Nigeria ever criticized you for being disloyal to your country by painting such a bleak picture?
They have on and off, yes. But Nigerians are very critical of themselves, generally. I think you will find more people who regard me as a truthful witness and as a seer and prophet rather than as somebody who is disloyal. You will find some who take the other position, maybe among the leaders, but even there I'm not so sure. Nigerians tend to recognize their faults and it's amazing that we don't do very much with that recognition.
Has there been any personal price that you've had to pay for being a writer who speaks the truth?
Oh, little ones. I wouldn't really bother even to discuss them because I got off very lightly. For instance, at the end of the Biafran War, someone who was on the other side, who was very powerful on the federal side, told me that I personally gave Nigeria more trouble than all the other Biafrans put together. That was of course an exaggeration, but even so I got off very lightly. Having one's passport seized is not something one can complain about when one could have been charged with high treason. I think by and large my political work has been accepted as valid and valuable for Nigeria.
You were involved in a terrible car accident in Nigeria in 1990, which necessitated surgery and many months of therapy. Did you ever feel that the accident wasn't an accident?
We have not bothered to pursue any investigation along those lines, but it did cross our minds. There were a few strange things that happened just before the accident. But we are very lucky, we are very lucky that it wasn't worse than it was, and so we have simply left it there. Also, the outpouring of love and sympathy that we saw, from all over Nigeria, makes it unnecessary for us to pursue what happened.
What is your physical condition now?
It's more or less where it was when I left the hospital. I broke my spine and so, as you know, I am a paraplegic. I'm in a wheelchair and it looks as if that's the way it's going to be.
The anthills of your novel's title, Anthills of the Savannah, stand as a powerful metaphor, some indication of hope. Can you tell me what that metaphor means?
It's about hope, promise, but most importantly it's about memory. The grassland, the savannah, is generally consumed by a fire at the end of every year in the dry season, and all the grass is burnt. If you came there you would see nothing except these anthills dotted across the landscape. That's all that survives until the rains return and the new grass comes up. But that new grass wasn't there when this disaster happened, it doesn't know anything about it, and if it's going to find out what happened last year, the only person it can ask is the anthill, that's all that was there. So that's the image. It's hope, it's survival, and it is memory, because if you survive without knowing who you are, then it really doesn't make any sense. You have to be told the importance of the story. It's the anthill that has the story. If the grass is wise, it will ask, what was it that happened? And then the story will be told.
Nadine Gordimer has described you as a moralist and an idealist, but it would seem to me that your idealism has had to weather some very difficult things over the years. How is your idealism faring these days?
It's still alive and well, because without it the business of the writer would be meaningless. I don't think the world needs to be told stories of despair; there is enough despair as it is without anyone adding to it. If we have any role at all, I think it's the role of optimism, not blind or stupid optimism but the kind which is meaningful, one that is rather close to that notion of the world which is not perfect, but which can be improved. In other words, we don't just sit and hope that things will work out; we have a role to play to make that come about. That seems to me to be the reason for the existence of the writer.
You have distanced yourself from your parents' Christianity, but in your essays especially and even in talking to you. I feel that you assign to literature and the imagination almost the same kind of spiritual or even religious value, that fiction is a kind of salvation, or can be a salvation.
Yes. And so one hasn't really moved all that far away. We have a proverb which says that the little bird that flies off the ground and lands on an anthill may think it's left the ground, but it hasn't.
How do you convince people of the redemptive powers of fiction?
I don't think it needs a lot of heavy work. I think good stories attract us and good stories are also moral stories. I've never seen a really good story that is immoral, and I think there is something in us which impels us towards good stories. If we have people who produce them, we are lucky. I can't make a very large claim for what I do, I just make a modest claim because we really don't know.
I feel that there has to be a purpose to what we do. If there was no hope at all, we should just sleep or drink and wait for death. But we don't want to do that. And why? I think something tells us that we should struggle. We don't really know why we should struggle, but we do, because we think it's better than sitting down and waiting for calamity. So that's my sense of the meaning of life. That's really how I would put it, that we struggle, and because we struggle, that struggle has to be told, the story of that struggle has to be conveyed to another generation. You have struggle and story, and these two are quite enough for me.
You're giving me a variation of a story that's told in the novel Anthills of the Savannah, which is about a leopard and a tortoise, and it's a story that's told twice, first in a village and then to university students. It's about what you're saying, the meaningfulness of the struggle itself, that to have struggled is important, so your children will know that you struggled. Can you tell that story, the story of the leopard and the tortoise?
It's a very short one. The leopard had been looking for the tortoise to deal with him for something or other, and hadn't found him for a long time. On this day, on a lonely road, he suddenly chanced upon Tortoise, and so he said, "Aha! at last, I've caught you. Now get ready to die." Tortoise of course knew that the game was up and so he said, "Okay, but can I ask you a favour?" and Leopard said, "Well, why not?" Tortoise said, "Before you kill me, could you give me a few moments just to reflect on things?" Leopard thought about it—he wasn't very bright—and he said, "Well, I don't see anything wrong with that. You can have a little time." And so Tortoise, instead of standing still and thinking, began to do something very strange: he began to scratch the soil all around him and throw sand around in all directions. Leopard was mystified by this. He said, "What are you doing? Why are you doing that?" Tortoise said: "I'm doing this because when I'm dead, I want anybody who passes by this place to stop and say, "Two people struggled here. A man met his match here."
You've been living in the United States on and off over the last twenty or so years. Do you think of yourself now as living in exile?
No, I don't. I spare myself that luxury, and as a matter of fact, I'm constantly planning for my return. I've been here now three years, since my accident, and it's partly medical, but I'm making arrangements to get back home. It's very important to me that I get back home. People at home also expect me back.
Despite the recent coup?
Perhaps because of the recent coup. The situation is so bad—
The fact that it's so bad means you feel a greater compulsion to be there?
Yes. People in fact do call or write me and say, when are you coming? I am very much involved in what's going on in Nigeria and I'd like to keep it that way.
Do you need to go back to Nigeria in order to write more about it?
I think so, though that's not an immediate problem. I have enough knowledge about the place to write the kind of fiction I want to write. I may not know what's happening politically this week, but that's never been my need; I've never really needed that kind of topical knowledge. I have enough residual information and knowledge to keep working for a time. What I need is the spiritual sense of connectedness one gets by being there.
I understand the way in which you are hopeful about the possibilities of literature, but are you also hopeful about Nigeria?
That's a tough question. I have said, and more than once, that always, even in my reincarnation, I would like to be a Nigerian. But as more and more bizarre situations occur, you sometimes wonder whether you haven't spoken too positively. I still think that we might just make it. We have squandered so much time and money and people, but I still hope. Here it's hope rather than belief. Even if we don't make it, then we'll have other arrangements. A country is simply an area or territory defined and called one thing and if the people there don't really want to live together in that definition, then they can make other arrangements. I think we should give Nigeria at least one more chance to see if we can make it as a country.
NOTE: In November 1994. Nobel Prize winning writer Wole Soyinka had his passport taken away when he was leaving the country, and he was forced into involuntary exile. Also in 1994, writer and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa was arrested. For more than a year, international groups such as PEN campaigned for his release. On November 10, 1995, Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed along with eight other activists for the Ogoni people.
Saro-Wiwa had been president of the Association of Nigerian Authors, an organization founded by Chinua Achebe in 1988 expressly in order to protect writers by banding together. When reached for comment, Chinua Achebe said that even though he had little faith in the Nigerian military, he was stunned by the execution. "It was not only a terrible thing to do, but a stupid thing to do. But the way I read it is that nothing is impossible once you depart from government by consultation. It will simply get worse and worse. What we have seen in the last thirty years is an increasing wickedness within the military and at the same time a complete collapse of Nigeria. Nobody is talking about the suffering, the agony of millions of Nigerians on a day-to-day basis at all levels."
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3988
SOURCE: "The Use of English in Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah," in CLA Journal, Vol. XXXVII, No. 4, June, 1994, pp. 365-76.
[In the following essay, Robson examines various types of English that appear in Anthills of the Savannah, demonstrating how each reflects differences in education, social status, and cultural context.]
The language question, that is to say the question of whether Third World writers should write in indigenous languages or the international language of the former colonizer, is most commonly political in nature. Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, the Kenyan writer, illustrates this point very clearly when he describes his decision to change from English to Gikuyu as his preferred literary language as "part and parcel of the anti-imperialist struggles of Kenyan and African peoples."1 The language question may also be seen, however, as part of a debate in the fields of linguistics and culture, or the ethnography of communication. In this context, the question alludes not to political realities and/or fantasies, but to the nature of the relationship between language and culture. If language shapes our perception of the world, and if to be part of a language group is, in the linguist Whorf's phrase, to share a common "thought world." then to write a novel whose characters are Nigerian, for example, but whose thoughts and words are presented in English, might be said to be risking a certain lack of authenticity. Ngugi seems to be thinking along these lines when he asserts that "Language … has a dual character: it is both a means of communication and a carrier of culture,"2 but he politicizes the sociolinguistic point by insisting that to write in English would be, for him and other Third World writers, to help perpetuate cultural imperialism. Taken to one extreme, of course, this kind of thinking, which sees language in proprietary terms, and which sees language choice as being equivalent to political choice, fails to take into consideration other aspects of the ethnography of communication, particularly in the area of code mixing and bilingualism. The world is not as simple as Ngugi seems to suggest, especially in the tumultuous areas of language and politics, where one symbol of modernity is the exile, the emigrant, the refugee, and others who live daily in a cultural and linguistic montage, a point made so effectively by Salman Rushdie. Ngugi's thesis leads us almost to the same unhappy conclusion as is reached in one version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, namely that literature is, in its very essence, untranslatable because language shapes the thought worlds of its users, and each linguistic thought world is different from all others.
The proposition that one's language of choice betrays one's political values, while it may in certain cases be true, is too narrow. We speak the language of our society first, and Third World writers usually speak the language of their former colonizers second. In neither case do we have much choice in the matter. Of course, we may ask why Chaucer or Conrad decided to write in English, or why Beckett chose to write in English, and it is possible that in both cases the answer is political in nature (certainly, much in human affairs can be said to have a political context), but it is also possible that such decisions have some other motivation—aesthetic, practical, mercenary, or quirkily individualistic. Chinua Achebe has observed that the language issue is unnecessarily sensationalised; he writes: "The issue is, I'm bilingual. This is the advantage we have—why turn it into a liability?"3
It is the purpose of this paper to describe how Achebe uses this "advantage" in his 1987 novel. Anthills of the Savannah.4 We shall see that in this work his use of English reflects the reality of language varieties and code switching reflecting educational background, social status, and context, as well as his characteristic flair for representing the dignity of indigenous languages in English words. Achebe, like Rushdie but in a different context, demonstrates the significance of language within contemporary culture in a way that is more telling and more relevant than the narrow obsessiveness of Ngugi who, after all, translates his work into English and who lives in the world of Salman Rushdie far more than the world of Franz Fanon.
Chinua Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah is set in a fictional West African state called Kangan. A civilian government has been overthrown, landing "unloved and unmourned on the rubbish heap" (11), and a military man has assumed the presidency. His closest advisers, members of his cabinet, are close friends, all of whom have overseas educations, mostly in England. The president himself is a graduate of Sandhurst, England's prestigious military academy. The privileged education of these people is reflected in their language. They and their friends are all bilingual and have a perfect facility in English, which is, indeed, their usual medium of communication. The language they use is indistinguishable from educated English anywhere in the world, except for the occasional locai references. Christopher Oriko, the Commissioner for Information, describes his longtime friend, now His Excellency the President, and those around him with ironic detachment:
He is in mufti as he now tends to be more and more within the precincts of the Presidential Palace: a white dashiki tastefully embroidered in gold, and its matching trousers. By contrast many of my colleagues, especially the crew from the Universities, aspire to the military look. Professor Okong wears nothing but Khaki safari suits complete with epaulettes. It is amazing how the intellectual envies the man of action. (4)
The words here are those of educated English speakers everywhere: "within the precincts," "tastefully embroidered," "the crew from the Universities," with the latter having perhaps a rather British sound. The final sentence—"It is amazing how the intellectual envies the man of action"—is also interesting, because it is characteristic of this novel that the philosophical, the reflective, the ironic voices of the narrators employ standard educated English. Ikem Osodi, editor of the National Gazette and, with Christopher Oriko, one of the two principal characters in the novel, both of whom are eventually murdered by security or military men, uses this same voice after witnessing public executions held before a grotesquely festive crowd and state television cameras:
I had never expected that Authority should excel in matters of taste. But the ritual obscenities it perpetrated that afternoon took me quite by surprise—from the pasting of a bull's eye on the chest of the victim to the antics of that sneaky wolf of a priest in sheep's clothing whispering God knows what blasphemies into the doomed man's ear, to the doctor with his stethoscope rushing with emergency strides to the bull's eye and then nodding sagely and scientifically that all was finished. Call him tomorrow to minister genuine human distress and see how slow he can be! And how expensive! Authority and its servants far exceeded my expectations that day. (37)
A certain self-consciousness about English appears among this group also, with Christopher Oriko noting that one moment of crisis "threw the Chief Secretary into utter confusion and inelegance of speech" (6). Oriko even goes so far as to correct the English of the Attorney-General:
"Your Excellency, let us not flaunt the wishes of the people."
"Flout, you mean," I said.
"The people?" asked his Excellency, ignoring my piece of pedantry. (5)
In these circles, the language of the elite is spoken, and this emphasizes the distance between the powerful and the powerless. This distance is suggested more directly when the Chief Secretary opens the palace window in order to hear what is going on outside: "And the world surges into the alien climate of the Council Chamber on a violent wave of heat and the sounds of the chanting multitude" (8).
In the "alien" world of the elite, there is a little room for the language of the ordinary people. The use of traditional proverb is characteristic of the national culture, but the President, impatient with Professor Okong's obfuscations: tells him to "Please cut out the proverbs, if you don't mind" (18). The President is happier with the language and values of Sandhurst:
I certainly won't stand for my commissioners sneaking up to me with vague accusations against their colleagues. It's not cricket! No sense of loyalty, no esprit de corps, nothing! And he calls himself a university professor. (19)
This, then, is the world of educated soldiers, of a certain disdain for the masses, of people trained in foreign universities, and of public relations. The President tells Okong to "humour" the masses outside: "Gauge the temperature and pitch your message accordingly" (16). In response to these and other remarks by the President, Okong makes the first successful use of traditional proverbs in the novel, putting himself and his colleagues in the role of students, with the President being teacher:
We are always ready to learn. We are like children washing only their bellies, as out elders say when they pray. (17)
This flattery, along with the self-abasement that it involves, is expressed in traditional proverb form and is appropriate for this moment of deference to authority. In general, the representation of the idiom, notable particularly for its use of proverbs, for its ornate formality, and for its elegance, reminds us of the traditional society from which it springs. Thus, deference to the chief may be expressed in such a form, although the reader may be aware of the rather fawning effect of this particular speech in the political context in which it takes place. There is something paradoxical, even incongruous, about the use of such language in the palace, and this explains the President's impatient demand, shortly thereafter, that Okong "cut out the proverbs."
No such sense of the inappropriateness of traditional oratory attaches itself to the use of such language at the gathering of Abazon elders and their supporters, who are hoping to petition the President for relief from certain reprisals which he imposed on them following their rejection of a proposal to make him President-for-Life. Ikem, the editor, is also from the Abazon region and is the guest of honor at a gathering near the palace. Ikem is criticized by one speaker for his failure over the years to attend ceremonies and monthly meetings of the urban Abazonian community. At this point, one of the elders, a member of the delegation from the province itself, far from the urban center, speaks in defense of Ikem:
"I have heard what you said about this young man, [Ikem] Osodi whose doings are known everywhere and fill our hearts with pride. Going to weddings and naming ceremonies of one's people is good. But don't forget that our wise men have said also that a man who answers every summons by the town-crier will not plant corn in his fields. So my advice to you is this. Go on with your meetings and naming ceremonies because it is good to do so. But leave this young man alone to do what he is doing for the Abazon and for the whole of Kangan; the cock that crows in the morning belongs to one household but his voice is the property of the neighborhood. You should be proud that this bright cockerel that wakes the whole village comes from your compound."
There was such compelling power and magic in his voice that even the MC who had voiced the complaints was now beginning to nod his head, like everybody else, in agreement. (112)
Here, in the more tribal, more traditional context of village elders and a gathering of the community at a moment of crisis, the cadence and imagery of traditional speech is powerful. The image of Ikem, the news editor, as the cockerel whose early morning voice belongs to the whole community, is one which is compelling in any context, but it is particularly appropriate when used among people whose village lives make them intimately familiar with the early morning crowing alluded to.
The use of such images and proverbs is also interesting in the context of the struggle between the master-of-ceremonies and the elder for the audience's sympathy. This oratorical struggle becomes a battle of proverbs, with the MC couching his sarcasm in the terms of traditional oratory:
"When you hear Ikem Osodi everywhere you think his head will be touching the ceiling. But look at him, how simple he is. I am even taller than himself, a dunce like me. Our people say that an animal whose name is famous does not always fill a hunter's basket." (111)
This contest is, as we have seen, won by the elder, and Achebe uses this character to deliver some of the most poignant messages in the novel. The wisdom of the elder is used to assert the supreme value of the storyteller's art compared with "the sounding of the drum" and "the fierce waging of the war":
"[I]t is only the story [that] can continue beyond the war and the warrior…. It is the story, not the others, that saves our progeny from blundering like blind beggars into the spikes of the cactus fence. The story is our escort; without it, we are blind…. It is the thing that makes us different from cattle; it is the mark on the face that sets one people apart from their neighbors." (114)
Here, the author's voice may be heard in that of the elder. The novel is a continuation of Achebe's brave condemnations of corruption and failure of leadership in Nigeria and elsewhere; the writer, as we have seen recently in Eastern Europe, as well as in parts of Africa and around the world, may articulate the present pain and the future promise, may be a moral voice in a frightened or indifferent world. Such is Ikem in the novel, and such is the novelist himself. The elder may articulate the significance of history, or the story, for the reader, but he also gives his people a way of seeing the circumstances of the present that are both true and painful:
"It is proper that a beggar should visit a king. When a rich man is sick a beggar goes to visit him and say sorry. When the beggar is sick, he waits to recover and then goes to tell the rich man that he has been sick. It is the place of the poor man to make a visit to the rich man who holds the yam and the knife."
"That is indeed the world," replied the audience. (117)
The people's recognition of the realpolitik of their situation does not lessen the bitter irony of what is being said, and the language itself expresses this poignancy; to those in the palace, the crowd outside is a rabble to be dealt with in the noncommittal language of public relations, but to the crowd itself, those in the palace hold both the yam and the knife, and the poor are supplicants.
The third variety of English used in Anthills of the Savannah is the lingua franca of the urban masses; it may be referred to as pidgin English, described by Brosnahan in 1958 as "spoken by those without any formal education," and by Banjo, in 1971, as "marked by wholesale transfer of phonological, syntactic, and lexical features of Kwa or Niger-Congo to English. Spoken by those whose knowledge of English is very imperfect. Neither socially acceptable in Nigeria nor internationally intelligible."5
We are first introduced, in a mild way, to this variety when Ikem calls Chris Oriko's office and is told that he is "not on seat, sir" (25). This, of course, is not the full-blooded pidgin of the taxi drivers, but it gives us a local idiom, meaning that the person is not in the office at present, used by a secretary of intermediate education. Elewa, Ikem's uneducated girlfriend, speaks the real thing, and, in talking with her, Ikem and others switch codes constantly, depending on the purpose of the context. We are repeatedly made aware of the gaps that yawn between different codes, as when Ikem is remembering an argument with Elewa:
That was the night I first tried to explain my reason for not letting her sleep in my flat…. "Your compliment to my stamina notwithstanding," I said totally and deliberately over her head, "the reason is really quite simple, I no want make you join all the loose women of Bassa who no de sleep for house." She stared at me with her mouth wide open, quite speechless. Thinking to press home my point and advantage I said something like: "I wouldn't want a sister of mine to do that, you see." She fired back then: "Anoder time you wan' poke make go call dat sister of yours, you hear?" (33)
Beatrice, the English-educated girlfriend of Chris, is similarly at ease in both codes, as when she talks with her maid, Agatha. A soldier has come to her door:
When Agatha had whoever it was as long to herself as she thought necessary she came to the door of the bedroom to inform me that one soja-man from President house de for door; he say na President sendam make he come bring madam. "Tellam make he siddon," I said, "I de nearly ready." (65)
The pidgin code is also used between Beatrice and Chris in moments of banter, especially when the context is sexual (32).
Among the masses, therefore, and in certain contexts among educated people, the language of the streets is used. It is the language of banter but is also the language of confrontation and danger in encounters with police and soldiers. Chris Oriko's last exchange, as he attempts to evade capture by security forces, pits him against a police sergeant who is abusing a young woman. Chris cannot stand by and ignore the brutality, and his decency and his frame of reference are in stark contrast to the lawlessness and casual violence of the policeman:
Chris bounded forward and held the man's hand and ordered him to release the girl at once. As if that was not enough he said, "I will make a report about this to the Inspector-General of Police."
"You go report me for where? You de craze! No be you de ask about President just now? It you no commot for my front now I go blow your head to Jericho, craze-man." The other said nothing more. He unslung his gun, cocked it, narrowed his eyes while confused voices went up all some asking Chris to run, others the policeman to put the gun away. Chris stood his ground looking straight into the man's face, daring him to shoot. And he did, point-blank into the chest presented to him. (189)
Throughout the novel, Achebe describes the violence of the country in the most formal English. Educated English is also often used to score points over the less educated, either for momentary gratification, as with Ikem and Elewa, or to confuse and intimidate less-educated but armed antagonists, as when Ikem is confronted by police on a set-up charge, and decides that a counter-attack, in legalese, might help:
"Do you know it is an offence to operate a vehicle without interior lights according to the Criminal Code chapter forty-eight section sixteen subsection one hundred and six?"
"Na today—even na jus' nou as I de come here de light quench out."
His lie is as good as mine but I have an advantage: I know he is lying; he doesn't know I am, and he is scared. (34)
Educated English is, furthermore, also the language of reflection on the important issue raised in the novel. Ikem's set-pieces, as when he lectures the students towards the end of the novel, are addressed to the widest audience possible, the readers of the novel, and the language is articulate, educated, and unambiguous. He speaks for human decency and against hypocrisy and unthinking dogmatism. The students are not always pleased by what they hear:
"I regret to say that students are in my humble opinion the cream of the parasites." Redoubled laughter. "The other day, did not students on National Service raze to the ground a new maternity block built by peasants? Why? They were protesting against their posting to a remote rural station without electricity and running water. Did you read about it?" The laughter had died all of a sudden. "Perhaps someone can show one single issue in this country in which students as a class have risen above the low, very low, national level. Tribalism? Religious extremism? Even electoral merchandising. Do you not buy and sell votes, intimidate and kidnap your opponents just as the politicians used to do?… So what are we talking about? Do you not form tribal pressure groups to secure lower admission requirements instead of striving to equal and excel any student from anywhere? Yes, you prefer academic tariff walls behind which you can potter around in mediocrity. Are you asking me to agree to hand over my life to a democratic dictatorship of mediocrity? No way!" (147-48)
In this voice Ikem seems to be the medium through which Achebe's vision is articulated. He is brave indeed, not pandering to the worst instincts of his audience, nor seeking refuge in the conventional wisdom, but challenging anyone who cares to listen to put behind them the squalid factionalism, corruption, and violence of the past and seek a better path, based on traditional civility ("At this point the normal courtesies which the prevalence of armed robberies had virtually banished from Bassa could no longer be denied" one of the narrators notes elsewhere in the novel ), democratic processes, and a humanity that ameliorates suffering and rewards merit in national affairs.
In some ways this is a bleak novel, except that it is filled with characters from all sectors of society who, given a chance, could help realize this humane vision. The novel ends with a naming ceremony for Elewa's baby girl, and the ceremony is Beatrice's idea; thus the future is anticipated, a new start possible. The naming is celebrated by two women from opposite ends of the educational spectrum, both of whom have lost their male companions to state-sponsored brutality and lawlessness, and by a cross-section of men, civilian and military, of various religions, young and old, all of whom participate in a kola-nut ceremony for the baby, and, of course, for themselves and their country. Beatrice, the English major, cannot resist a reference to Keats' "Truth is beauty" (216), and this spirit of cultural pluralism, where wisdom from any source remains wisdom, where life is celebrated, not murder and mayhem, is also represented in Ikem's "Hymn to the Sun," a prose-poem in which the central image of the novel, from which the title is derived, is articulated:
The trees had become hydra-headed bronze statues so ancient that only blunt residual features remained on their faces, like anthills surviving to tell the new grass of the savannah about last year's brush fires. (28)
This admixture of Western and African images, like the representation of different groups and individuals through a range of English language varieties, conveys the view of someone who embraces the best of these various worlds and who sees the best hope for the future in nurturing a sense of a common humanity among the population, from soldier to intellectual to market woman to taxi driver to politician to policeman. The use of English in the novel, that is to say the use of different English language varieties, is perfectly appropriate, reflecting sociolinguistic realities and being a superb device for realizing a dangerous world in which the way characters use language reveals much about their status and their ability to survive and function.
1. Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, Decolonizing the Mind (London: James Currey, 1986) 28.
2. Ngugi 13.
3. Robert Moss, "Writing and Politics: An Interview with Chinua Achebe," West Africa 11 August 1986: 1677.
4. Chinua Achebe, Anthills of the Savannah (New York: Anchor, 1987). All page references are to this edition.
5. Qtd. in Ayo Bamgbose, "Standard Nigerian English: Issues of Identification," The Other Tongue, ed. Braj Kachru (Oxford: Pergamon, 1983) 100.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4901
SOURCE: "The Priest/Artist Tradition in Achebe's Arrow of God," in Africa Today, Vol. 41, No. 2, 1994, pp. 51-62.
[Kalu is an American educator whose research interests include multiculturalism, women in the African diaspora, African and African-American literary theory construction, and African development issues. In the following essay, Kalu demonstrates how Achebe's use of traditional Igbo religious, political, philosophical, and artistic motifs in Arrow of God combine to illumine the abstract notion of duality.]
In his efforts to validate the African literary artist's vision, Chinua Achebe has frequently spoken out against art for art's sake. He insists that
art is, and was always, in the service of man. Our ancestors created their myths and legends and told their stories for a human purpose (including no doubt, the excitation of wonder and pure delight); they made their sculptures in wood and terra cotta, stone and bronze to serve the needs of their times. Their artists lived and moved and had their beings in society and created their works for the good of that society.1
In this functional view of art, he appears to agree with Ernst Fischer2 that the arts express a higher purpose in man's existence. Achebe considers himself and other African artists teachers and recorders of African history and culture. He feels a need "to look back and try to find out where we went wrong, where the rain began to beat us."3 He uses Igbo society to demonstrate that the arts contribute to man's sensitivity about a "fullness of life of which individuality with all its limitations cheats him."4
He argues in his works that the Igbo art tradition is based on Igbo thought which contemplates an inscrutable order that humanity constantly attempts to reorder and control. In his works, Achebe identifies certain major characters and situations in Igbo life, using these as the people do in their oral art tradition to portray their perception of the harmonizing principles in their lives. Achebe's interpretation of Igbo thought through art reveals a relationship between political and religious institutions. It is in these relationships that the Igbo artist and art traditions are most important. In recreating and revealing these connections, Achebe assumes the venerable role of Igbo priest and artist.
Achebe's initial exploration of this relationship is in Things Fall Apart where Chielo, the priestess, is portrayed in her performance of her duties to Agbala. However, this presentation of Chielo does not allow analysis adequate to the purposes of this work. His demonstration of this link is most fully realized in Arrow of God5 in which he uses Ezeulu, the priest of Ulu, to explore these institutions in an Igbo community. Ezeulu's priestly functions, and his involvement, through Ulu, in making and implementing plans for the security of Umuaro are combined with his attitude toward life and understanding of Igbo thought to give an insight into Igbo society. In the performance of his duties to Ulu and Umuaro, he shows a desire to preserve both for posterity. Ulu, created by the people in a time of stress, is Umuaro's god of protection and symbolizes the Igbo's emphasis on the group. Ezeulu's desire to preserve this concept becomes the core of Achebe's portrayal of duality in Igbo thought. The depiction of this concept in Arrow of God revolves around Ezeulu and his responsibilities as the priest of Ulu, facilitating Achebe's exploration of Igbo traditions and art.
In his work, Achebe participates in group preservation in a way that is normally the responsibility of only priestly elders. The difference is the location of emphasis. In his direct involvement with the traditional society, Ezeulu tries to bring everything together under religion, while Achebe explains the society, including Ezeulu, through art. Achebe's exploration of the many facets of Igbo life in Arrow of God simultaneously delineates the complementary discourses that inform their significance within Igbo thought. The locus of his presentation, the priest/artist tradition, will be used here to show how Igbo traditional religion, politics, philosophy, and art were combined to give meaning to the abstract notion of duality, a concept central to most of Achebe's work and most deliberately explored in Arrow of God.
The traditional Igbo priest bridges the real and supernatural worlds, striving to maintain harmony between them. He is able to do this because he has a special relationship with the people and is perceived by them as having special powers. The priest and his functions must be sanctioned by the community. The man who becomes a priest has to demonstrate that he is in harmony with his environment. He must exhibit an understanding of Igbo thought. The priest of Ala, the earth goddess, for instance, must manifest Agwu, divination force, in his life. In an article in which the Ala priesthood is discussed, M. S. O. Olisa says that
one of the initial signs that a man is "called" to assume Ala Priesthood is the manifestation of "Agwu" in his life, a mild display by him of mental abnormality in which he sees visions and has supernatural communications with all sorts of spiritual forces. After undergoing this experience the Igbo often initiate and confer on him the title of Ezeani.6
Community sanction of such manifestations involves the people in the relationship that this individual now has with the supernatural world. When Boi Adagbom, a chief priest in Ika, was asked about his calling to the priesthood, he replied, "… if you were chosen, you would just know. Certain violent changes occur in you and you would 'answer the spirit's voice'."7 The changes enable the individual to act as a link between the two worlds. He is then able to perform rituals and sacrifices to the god who has called him. He becomes an instrument of mediation between the community and its god. Like Wole Soyinka's singer of Yoruba tragic music, he becomes
a mouthpiece of the chthonic forces of the matrix and his somnambulist "improvisations"—a simultaneity of musical and poetic forms—which are not representations of the ancestor, recognitions of the living or unborn, but of the no man's land of transition between and around these temporal definitions of experience.8
At moments when he communes with the gods, during sacrifices and divinations, he becomes like spirits, unknown. Then he dresses and acts the part, becoming the concrete interpretation and evidence of the people's relationship with the gods and each other. He interprets and balances and briefly becomes the major, visible part of the abstract principle governing these relationships. At all other times, he is an ordinary man, though this does not detract from his importance in the community. As a result of his special powers, the priest plays an important role in the making and execution of laws, becoming the direct connection between the gods and the elders. He guides the elders in their efforts to communicate with the gods in the maintenance of a harmonious society. Additionally, the rest of the community uses him to seek the god's will through sacrifices and divinations. This is not to say that Igbo society is theocratic, however, "… gods and the supernatural do play dominant roles in its political life."9
Role of Traditional Institutions and Rituals
In traditional society, the functions and attributes of the priest are taken for granted because of the assumption of shared beliefs and experiences. This is most evident in the art tradition. In Igbo oral narrative performance, for instance, the performer does not need to explain any images from the people's traditions when they occur in the story. The narratives become coded carriers of such information. In the contemporary and literate society, writers of Igbo fiction make assumptions similar to those that govern oral narrative performance traditions. Some of these assumptions are based on Igbo aesthetics, others are part of the norms and values of Igbo life. Consequently, the intersection of orality and literacy in Igbo life remains a location for interrogation of the conflict between Igbo and Western thought.
Frequently, Igbo writers during the early part of the colonial period rejected or ignored the significance of Igbo thought in their works. For instance, J. U. T. Nzeako10 and Leopold Bell-Gam,11 who have written of some aspects of Igbo traditions, often reflect a Westernized and Christian point of view, portraying traditional customs as backward and pagan. In Omenuko12 and Elelea Na Ihe O Mere,13 the functions of traditional priests are portrayed but unexplained. Achebe, in his first novel, Things Fall Apart, also presupposes the reader's familiarity with such information. He only briefly mentions the priestess Chielo's authority in relation to the Oracle of the Hills and Caves. Her brief appearance during Ezinma's illness provides scant insight regarding the existence and significance of the Oracle or its role in the lives of the people of Umuofia. When Ikemefuna's death is announced, one learns from Ezeudu that,
Yes, Umuofia has decided to kill him. The Oracle of the Hills and Caves has pronounced it. They will take him outside Umuofia as is the custom and kill him there….14
The reader has to know more about Igbo traditional religion, religious beliefs and political systems to fully understand Chielo, her Agbala and Ezeudu's announcement.
It is in Arrow of God that Achebe offers interpretations and explanations for the existence of such institutions, merging their complexities in Ezeulu. In his office as the priest of Ulu, he is portrayed as half-man, half-spirit. Achebe invests him with special powers, rights and privileges which give him a strong voice among the elders of Umuaro. His thoughts and actions strongly affect the rest of the community.
Even the actions of the members of his household, because they are close to him, become important to the people; this is the case when Oduche is sent to the new church and when he tries to suffocate the sacred python. Both incidents become major issues for discussion and action in the community because of Ezeulu's status. In Arrow of God Achebe interprets most aspects of Igbo traditional priesthood through Ezeulu. He discusses the rivalry between Ezeulu's sons over succession to the priesthood, and also Ezeulu's eldest son's apprehension about becoming a priest at his father's death. However, it is Nwafo, Ezeulu's youngest son, whom Achebe uses to show how one may be called to the priesthood. Nwafo's closeness to Ezeulu and his interest in the rituals mark him as a possible choice, among Ezeulu's sons, as successor to his father.
His youngest son Nwafo now came into the Obi, saluted Ezeulu by name and took his favorite position on the mud-bed at the far end, close to the shorter threshold. Although he was still only a child it looked as though the deity had already marked him out as his future Chief Priest. Even before he had learnt to speak more than a few words he had been strongly drawn to the god's ritual.15
Nwafo is strongly attracted to the service of the god, Ulu. When Ezeulu is detained at Okperi, it is Nwafo who wonders what should be done about announcing the new moon.
However as dusk came down Nwafo took his position where his father always sat. He did not wait very long before he saw the young thin moon. It looked very thin and reluctant. Nwafo reached for the ogene and made to beat it but fear stopped his hand.16
Although he takes "his position where his father always sat," he is old enough to know that his father's successor has to be appointed by Ulu and endorsed by the people of Umuaro.
During the festival of the First Pumpkin Leaves, Ezeulu reenacts the first coming of Ulu, showing how the people's support made it possible for him to lead them through his priestly office.
"At that time," he said, "when lizards were still in ones and twos, the whole people assembled and chose me to carry their new deity. I said to them: 'Who am I to carry this fire on my bare head? A man who knows that his anus is small does not swallow an Udala seed.' They said to me: 'Fear not. The man who sends a child to catch a shrew will also give him water to wash his hand.' I said: 'So be it.'"17
As Ezeulu continues with the retelling of the legend of the first coming of Ulu, the duties that go with his priesthood become apparent. He is expected not only to stand between the people and the things that threaten them, but also to eliminate the sources of these threats. He derives strength and confidence from the knowledge that the people support him at all times. Also, Ezeulu's role as buffer between his people and their god is comparable to that of the priests/medicine men in Omenuko and Elelea Na the O Mere who cleanse the land and the people of abominations. However, Ezeulu's office differs from theirs in that he is also involved in decision-making in Umuaro. The nature of Ulu makes it necessary for him to be concerned with Umuaro's safety and to play an important philosophical role in the sociopolitical welfare of the people.
Ezeulu demonstrates his awareness of the possible results of the changing times when he tries to secure Umuaro's future by sending Oduche to the new religion. Conscious of the Igbo's concern for preservation of the community, he sees the need to be in control of the present as well as anticipate events of the future. In the past, this consciousness in the people's worldview led to the amalgamation of the villages that make up Umuaro. Ezeulu therefore makes Oduche his ambassador to the new religion, Christianity: "I want one of my sons to join these people and be my eye there. If there is nothing in it you will come back. But if there is something there you will bring home my share."18 Some analysts of this novel have tended to agree with Ugoye, Oduche's mother, in her assertion that Oduche was sacrificed to the white man's religion.19 This is true only to the extent that Oduche is the first person from his family to get involved with the new religion. From Ezeulu's point of view, as the keeper of the people's god of protection, he is using Oduche to maintain a balance in their lives. Achebe points this out in Ezeulu's reply to Ugoye,
… Do you not know that in a great man's household there must be people who follow all kinds of strange ways? There must be good people and bad people, honest workers and thieves, peace-makers and destroyers; that is the mark of a great Obi. In such a place, whatever music you beat on your drum there is somebody who can dance to it.26
It may be true that historically such a decision may not have been made by a man of Ezeulu's social status, but the point here is that this type of thinking made it possible for the Igbo to tolerate their own people who joined the new group. Since they could neither chase away nor kill the strangers without harming or even losing their own people, the best approach was to fit the phenomenon into a known and existing world view. Achebe points this out several times in Arrow of God. When Obika is whipped by Mr. Wright, for instance, instead of confronting Mr. Wright or doing anything else that might make him angrier, the young men quickly reactivate an already existing quarrel, and Achebe comments: "It was much easier to deal with an old quarrel than with a new and unprecedented incident."21 The meeting ends with Nweke Ukpaka's speech, which begins, "What a man does not know is greater than he…."22 Nweke Ukpaka advises his age-mates to let Unachukwu, the carpenter who interprets for Mr. Wright, stay during their deliberations because he is their only link with the white man. Unachukwu is allowed to stay for the same reason that Ezeulu sends Oduche to the new church—both are a way of controlling, from a distance, an unprecedented threat to their well being:
Transitions and the New Dispensation
Ezeulu's use of Oduche as his "eye" in the new culture parallels the people's authorization of his own priestly responsibilities to Ulu. He can be seen as the people's "eye" in the supernatural world of spirits and gods which is beyond their human vision. The most obvious physical demonstration of this is evidenced in Ezeulu's function as watchman for the new moon. Apart from this visible calendar-keeping function of his watch, there is also the symbolic but unemphasized function of the priest as the person who keeps the people alert to changes in nature. He keeps an eye on nature, and as a result the people are kept aware of the passing of the seasons. This duty is so ritualized that even his house is built in a special way, emphasizing his distinctness in this regard.
His obi was built differently from other men's huts. There was the usual long threshold in front but also a shorter one on the right as you entered. The eaves on this additional entrance were cut back so that sitting on the floor, Ezeulu could watch that part of the sky where the moon had its door.23
Achebe here describes a physical relationship based on an abstract principle: Ezeulu, the priest, watches for the moon through the cutting in the eaves of his house. In Ezeulu's words to Oduche when the latter is sent to join the new religion, the priest is the "eye" of Umuaro. The cutting in the eaves of his house constitutes another eye, linking Ezeulu to the universe which is symbolized in the moon. The people see the approach of the seasons through the moon. This arrangement constitutes one aspect of Ezeulu's bridging function between the people and their world. He becomes one of the tools which Umuaro uses in its attempt to live harmoniously with nature. It is an important manifestation of his priestly responsibility.
Ezeulu, more than anybody else, realizes the symbolic nature of this arrangement and of his duties to Umuaro through Ulu. However, he becomes politically involved in Umuaro's affairs beyond the requirements of his priestly office. He wants Ulu to become a nature god like Idemili or Udo, with his priest in complete command of choosing and naming the days of all Umuaro's feasts. Achebe uses Ezeulu's interests in politics to explore the priest's human attributes, the other aspect of his duality. He pushes him into a position where even though Ezeulu recognizes his duties to the people, he is forced to choose between them and their god. He chooses to listen to the voice of Ulu, knowing that the people are no longer behind him. Caught between gods and men, he lets his human side assert itself, and forgets that the gods came into being to serve men. He disregards his favorite proverb: "When an adult is in the house, the she-goat is not left to bear its young from the tether." Ezeulu, the adult in the Umuaro household, allows his people to suffer, and like the man who brings home ant-infested faggots, he should have expected the visit of lizards.
However, Achebe strikes a balance between Ezeulu, the priest, and Ezeulu, the man. The priest in Ezeulu remains conscious of his duties toward Ulu and Umuaro's safety. He sees clearly the limits of the authority of his office. As the priest of Ulu, conscious of the people's voice supporting him, he warns against the dangers of fighting a "war of blame" against Okperi. His vision in this regard remains clear in spite of opposition from Nwaka and his group.
Duality, Politics, and Igbo Art
It is, however, at the peak of the performance of his priestly duties that Ezeulu's duality and that of the people's worldview are best expressed. This is portrayed during the festival of the First Pumpkin Leaves. Ezeulu, in his full regalia as Ulu's priest, comes into the village square.
He wore smoked raffia which descended from his waist to the knee. The left half of his body—from forehead to toe—was painted with white chalk. Around his head was a leather band from which an eagle feather pointed backwards. On his right hand he carried Nne ofo, the mother of all staff of authority in Umuaro….24
The figure of the priest embodies in artistic form the people's perception of their world. His painted body symbolizes his ability to bridge the gap between reality and the supernatural, reaffirming for them the harmonious existence of the two. It is also a concrete, visible way of bringing together the people's view of duality as it makes that which is intangible visible. In Ezeulu's hand is the staff of authority, which orders their lives, and on his head is the eagle feather, a symbol of affluence.25 Artistically, this image brings together the apparently unrelated institutions of politics and religion. The harmonious merging results in plenitude, a mark of social and economic stability. It is significant that this symbol is manifested during the Festival of the First Pumpkin Leaves, the first food-related item to be harvested in the year. The harmonious society works together to produce life-giving food. The abundant green leaves, carried by the women, symbolize life and good health. Continuity of the group is reaffirmed and assured.
Another important aspect of this image involves Ezeulu as a work of art. In full priestly regalia, he visually refers to such ritual art objects as the ofo, the ancestral staff of authority and justice, and the okposi, carved representations of renowned departed ancestors. Like Ezeulu in priestly regalia, these are fashioned by the people to aid them in their communication with their gods and ancestors. As the priest moves in the circle made by the people, the women throw pumpkin leaves at him. He becomes the scapegoat which must carry away and bury their sins of the past year. The only difference between him and other ritual art objects is that he is living. Consequently, he becomes both intermediary and representation; a combination of reality and art. However, as with other ritual situations, the emphasis is on the priest as representation rather than on the priest as an individual, reflecting the people's concern for the expression of community will over that of the individual. This concern in Igbo thought led to their intolerance of recalcitrant individuals, priests or even gods. Achebe refers to this aspect of Igbo thought when he portrays Ezeulu's attempts to attach too much importance to himself and his god. This individualistic tendency in Ezeulu allows Achebe's in-depth exploration of dualism within the society's systems and in the person of the priest in Arrow of God.
Achebe: The Artist/Priest
His use of Ezeulu to illustrate such aspects of Igbo thought parallels the traditional narrators' use of characters who are not allowed to win in confrontations between themselves and either their chi or the community. Such characters are usually portrayed as achievers who are discouraged from indulging in excesses but are encouraged to work towards the good of their families and communities. This theme has also been explored in more or less depth in early written Igbo literature.26 Its importance in Igbo thought is evidenced by its continued expression even in works like Leopold Bell-Gam's Ije Odumodu Jere which is not primarily concerned with the celebration of Igbo world view or art tradition. Achebe's Arrow of God is possibly his most deliberate attempt at the celebration of Igbo traditions. Most Igbo authors working within the novel or short story forms portray characters which, because of shared beliefs and experiences, become reaffirmations of aspects of Igbo thought. Oral traditional genres range from the oral tale to the reenactment of myth during festivals in which many different art forms are employed. Contemporary and written Igbo literature uses most of the oral narrative techniques but has yet to achieve the unity of festival drama. Achebe tries to achieve this unity through explanations of the people's worldview, descriptive images of customs and traditions, transliteration of the Igbo language into English, and a combination of Igbo oral narrative techniques with those of the Western novel.
In Arrow of God, for instance, he demonstrates the various uses of proverbs in Igbo language and culture. They serve as points of reference and linguistic signposts which in the novel serve the artistic objective of unifying the story line. Proverbs are repositories of the wisdom of the ancestors. However, they, like any other aspect of Igbo thought, are open to manipulation. As Achebe demonstrates, one can explicate issues using proverbs, or they can become a starting point, a premise to an argument. Since their meanings are dynamic, they can work backwards or forwards, for, or against, a given argument. Hence, the assumption among the Igbo of their applicability in rhetoric. In using the proverb, "When an adult is in the house the she-goat is not left to suffer the pain of parturition on its tether,"27 for instance, Achebe is able to show Ezeulu as protecting the people's interest in the Okperi land case but he also gets angry enough to hurt them when they refuse to act like adults during his confrontation with the British. The alternate interpretation makes him out as the goat; thus, he reacts by inverting the situation (with Ulu's help?) and making the elders suffer. This proverb works in an oblique way with the other frequently quoted proverb in the novel: "a man who brings home ant-infested faggots should expect the visit of lizards."28 When Ezeulu and the elders refuse to act like knowledgeable adults, that is, like wise statesmen whose titles bequeath elegance in manner, the best behavior and the responsibility to rational action, they become subject to the balancing natural principles of which they are supposed to be guardians.
In none of the known works of fiction by writers of Igbo origin has the Igbo art tradition and worldview been as exhaustively treated as in Arrow of God. The portrayal of Ezeulu shows Achebe's understanding of Igbo society and thought, paralleling him to the traditional elders of the land. His interpretations of Igbo life place him among the artists and philosophers of Igbo tradition. Achebe has claimed to be an ancestor worshipper29 and insists that the African novelist is a teacher.30 He contends that
the writer cannot expect to be excused from the task of re-education and regeneration that must be done. In fact he should march right in front. For he is after all—as Ezekiel Mphahlele says in his African Image—the sensitive point of his community.31
This assertion makes his role similar to Ezeulu's, the priest of Umuaro's god of protection, whose charge is to march in front of the people leading and confronting all threats to the community. Like Ezeulu, the writer has to be able to find ways of maintaining balance in the community. However, Achebe the artist emphasizes the Igbo art tradition more than the religion. This does not mean that Igbo religion is absent in his works; rather, he uses descriptions of aspects of the people's religion to delineate the role and significance of traditional religious objects as art objects. His explanation of Igbo worldview emphasizes the need for those familiar with the background, setting and characters to begin to see the utility and application of traditional wisdom and its possibilities in the reassessment of current experiences and problems. As with the priest/artist's religious objects, Achebe's works demonstrate the artist/priest's commitment to the well being of the society.
1. Chinua Achebe, Morning Yet On Creation Day (New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1975), p. 29.
2. Ernst Fischer, The Necessity of Art, Anna Bostock trans., (New York: Penguin Books, 1963).
3. Achebe, op. cit., p. 70.
4. Fischer, op. cit., p. 8.
5. Chinua Achebe, Arrow of God (New York: Doubleday and Company, 1969).
6. M.S.O. Olisa, "Political Culture and Stability in Igbo Society," Conch, vol. 3, no. 2 (Sept. 1971), p. 20.
7. Elizabeth Islchei, Igbo Worlds (Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1978), p. 20.
8. Wole Soyinka, Myth, Literature and the African World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), p. 148.
9. M. S. O. Olisa, op. cit., p. 22.
10. J. U. T. Nzeako, Okuko Agbasaa Okpesi (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd., 1964).
11. Leopold Bell-Gam, Ije Odumodu Jere (Lagos: Longmans, 1963).
12. Pita Nwanna, Omenuko (London: Longmans, 1933).
13. D. N. Achara, Elelea Na Ihe O Mere (London: Longmans, 1953).
14. Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (London: Heinemann, 1958), p. 40.
15. Achebe, Arrow of God, op. cit., p. 4.
16. Ibid. p. 187.
18. Ibid. p. 51.
19. See Bernth Lindfors, "The Palm Oil with which Achebe's Words are Eaten," in C. L. Innes and Bernth Lindfors, eds., Critical Perspectives on Chinua Achebe (Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1978), p. 58; Emmanuel Obiechina, "The Human Dimension of History in Arrow of God," in Innes and Lindfors, eds., p. 176.
20. Achebe, Arrow of God, op. cit., p. 51.
21. Ibid. p. 94.
23. Ibid. p. 1.
24. Ibid. p. 80.
25. Donatus J. Nwoga, "The Igbo World of Achebe's Arrow of God," Research in African Literatures, vol 12, no. 1 (Spring, 1981), p. 26.
26. See D. N. Achara, Ala Bingo (London: Longmans, 1954); Pita Nwanna, Omenuko, op. cit., D. N. Achara, Elelea Na Ihe O Mere, op. cit.
27. Achebe, Arrow of God, op. cit., p. 20.
28. Ibid. p. 148.
29. C. O. D. Ekwensi, "African Literature," Nigeria Magazine, no. 83 (Dec. 1964), p. 286.
30. See Achebe, Morning Yet on Creation Day, op. cit., pp. 67-73; Achebe, "The Uses of African Literature," Okike, no. 15, (Aug. 1979), pp. 8-17.
31. Achebe, Morning Yet On Creation Day, op. cit., p. 72.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8670
SOURCE: "Beyond Authenticity and Creolization: Reading Achebe Writing Culture," in Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, Vol. 110, No. 1, January, 1995, pp. 30-42.
[Ten Kortenaar has written other scholarly articles on Achebe. In the following essay, he compares similarities in the narrative strategies of the colonized and the colonizer to define their respective cultural identities in Arrow of God.]
The discussion of culture in postcolonial literary criticism revolves around the twin poles of authenticity and hybridization. One response to the experience of colonialism and the concomitant denigration of cultural identities has been to call for a return to precolonial authenticity. In current debates the standard of fidelity to origins is often Ng g wa Thiong'o's rejection of English in favor of G k y for the language of his novels. Such authenticity contrasts with the acceptance by other writers of some measure of interfertilization (or creolization or mongrelization or métissage). In the French Caribbean, for instance, the negritude of Aimé Césaire stands against the créolité celebrated by Patrick Chamoiseau. Advocates of creolization denounce colonialism but believe that it is irreversible. That position does not leave the former colonized without a culture: they have a hybrid or creole culture that has borrowed from the metropolitan culture and in the process subverted and indigenized it. Creolization celebrates the exuberant mutual contamination of styles that is characteristic of Salman Rushdie's and Wilson Harris's writings.
Advocates of creolization often argue that authenticity is quixotic, that, as Françoise Lionnet writes, "[c]ross- or transcultural exchange has always been 'an absolute fact' of life everywhere" (104). When conceived as a peculiarly postcolonial condition, however, creolization is open to the same objection that is levied against authenticity: that cultures have always been characterized by fluidity and exchange. Hybridization, like authenticity, is unintelligible without a notion of cultural purity. Both authenticity and creolization ascribe the significance of cultural elements to national provenance: where a thing is from is what it means.1
If, as Walter Benn Michaels writes, there "are no anti-essentialist accounts of identity," reifications of culture (including not only authenticity but also creolization) are rhetorical in intention: they manipulate shared symbols in order to win consent for political action. Although purporting to describe what people are and what they do, authenticity and creolization actually challenge people to identify with a certain image of themselves and so to adopt a certain identity. These constructions are what Anthony Cohen calls attempts "to represent the person or group in terms of a reified and/or emblematized culture" (195). To accept the validity of either authenticity or creolization as a description of oneself is to accept certain modes of dressing, speaking, and writing as belonging properly to oneself and to reject other styles as false. Such definitions of identity create a world not only of members and nonmembers but also of loyalists and traitors. Implicit in such a world is the assumption that there are people who have lost their identity.2
To say that authenticity and creolization serve rhetorical purposes is not to say that these constructs are false. They are the metaphors by which a communal identity is fashioned; identities have always been constructed by such means. People give reasons for what they do, invest what they do with meaning, and identify what they do as belonging properly to themselves; by this ascription of meaning to actions people declare who they are. Communities are constituted not by the possession of a shared culture that shapes the individual and makes him or her a replicate in miniature of the whole but rather by the ongoing debate over what the shared culture is, how members should behave, and what children should be taught (see Cohen 195-96). Like Cohen, I presume that culture "does not exist apart from what people do, and therefore what people do cannot be explained as its product" (207). People fashion their identity by identifying with cultural symbols and by narrating a place in the world. Of course, a community's narratives are shaped according to conventions, and narrative conventions change from age to age and differ from clime to clime. Narratives and symbols are social institutions that outlast the lives of individuals, and cultural agents must construct their lives within these inherited parameters. But individuals do not therefore merely replicate their inheritance. Culture, Jean-Loup Amselle argues, is not a prescriptive grammar but rather a reservoir of often contradictory potential practices that social actors can make use of when communal identity is being renegotiated, as it always is (10).
David Laitin rightly distinguishes between two faces of culture. The first face, which Laitin relates to the social systems theory of Clifford Geertz, is a symbolic system that establishes values and horizons of common sense. The second, associated with the positivist anthropology of Abner Cohen, locates the significance of cultural symbols not so much in their meaning, about which there is always disagreement, as in the fact that they are shared and can be used to summon a community to collective action. This face is shown when, as with authenticity and creolization, "[c]ultural identity becomes a political resource" (Laitin 11).
The first face establishes the limits of the thinkable, whereas people self-consciously shape the second. Laitin suggests how these two faces can be reconciled. The second face acknowledges that symbols serve the political and rhetorical ends of cultural agents; it cannot predict, however, what those ends will be. For an understanding of ends, the first face of culture needs to be considered—as well as the narrative conventions available within a community at any particular juncture. The inherited symbolic system does not determine who will win in any given conflict, but it directs community members to "what is worth fighting about" (Laitin 174).
This essay examines how the two faces of culture are related in Chinua Achebe's novel Arrow of God, which depicts the cultural crisis that accompanied the consolidation of British colonialism in Igboland in the early 1920s. Achebe's depiction of cultural redefinition at the time of the colonial encounter facilitates understanding of contemporary postcolonial communities. Achebe represents culture in Africa as Paulin Hountondji argues that it should be represented: as something invented and in constant need of reinvention (233).
Arrow of God, Achebe's third novel and many would say his best, was published in 1964, six years after Things Fall Apart, and revised in 1974. The novel depicts a fictional community of Igbo speakers grouped in six villages collectively known as Umuaro, which falls within the larger colonial territory baptized Nigeria, where the colonial administrative and military apparatus and the missionary presence are only beginning to make themselves felt. Achebe presents a community that defines itself by shared symbols (local deities and established rituals, as well as a proverbial wisdom) and by symbolic boundaries. Individuals invest shared symbols with various meanings, about which there is disagreement. The British intrusion forces Umuaro to redefine itself, but its culture has always been subject to redefinition. Umuaro did not have a homeostatic, holistic culture that fell apart when the Europeans came. The villages invented the god Ulu to unite them when they were threatened by Abam slave-raiders (15). If ever things were in danger of falling apart, it was then; instead a new identity was constructed and given religious legitimacy. Umuaro is best understood through the will of its members to narrate a collective identity.
The presence of the colonizers occasions an internal debate in Umuaro. The crisis in the novel is a contest between rival interpretations that are also rival strategic responses to the historical moment. Umuaro illustrates what Amselle has argued, that debate on the values of a community is what constitutes the community:
Pour qu'il y ait identité, société, culture ou ethnie, il n'est pas nécéssaire que les agents se mettent d'accord sur ce qui définit cette culture: il suffit qu'ils s'entendent pour débattre ou négocier sur les termes de l'identité, sur ce qui la fonde comme problème. En d'autres termes, on peut avancer que l'identité c'est l'accord sur l'objet même du désaccord. (65)
For there to be an identity, society, culture, or ethnicity, it is not necessary for the members to agree on what defines that culture: it is enough that they agree to debate or negotiate the terms of that identity. In other words, identity is an agreement about the object of disagreement. (trans. mine)
The terms of the debate resemble the poles of tradition and change, as the novel's critics have often said. The novel shows, however, that tradition and change are not absolute positions but the rhetorical means whereby a community fashions itself. All rivals in the debate make use of proverbs and appeal to the ancestors; the winner is neither the one who is closest to the opinion of the ancestors nor the one who is closest to objective reality but the one who can persuade the audience.
Ezeulu, the priest of the patron deity Ulu, assumes the mantle of upholder of tradition, but the novel makes clear that Ezeulu invents the tradition that he upholds. His devotion to Ulu is not the culture of Umuaro waiting to be interpreted and judged; it is already Ezeulu's own interpretation of Umuaro culture, with a judgment inscribed within it. Authenticity is a reallying cry in the community's internal debate. My reading here differs from that of Simon Gikandi, who emphasizes the crisis in traditional authority provoked by colonialism and the gap that colonialism opened in Igbo culture.3 Gikandi considers two examples of this gap: the headstrong young Akukalia's destruction of another man's ikenga, the symbolic manifestation of a person's life and strength, in a burst of unreasoning temper and the imprisonment of the sacred python in a box by Ezeulu's son Oduche. These two examples of sacrilege are certainly parallel, but the novel contrasts them. Achebe signals the difference between the two incidents by setting Akukalia's breaking of the ikenga in the past, five years before the narrative opens, and Oduche's imprisonment of the python in the narrative present. When the ikenga is broken, the elders can still debate communal strategy without taking the British into account. Akukalia's act is symptomatic not of a newly opened gap but of gaps that have always existed. The imprisonment of the python, however, is a sacrilege that would have been inconceivable before the coming of the missionaries, one that marks a change in the order of debate.
Five years before the events in the novel's present, Umuaro debates going to war with its neighbor Okperi over a land dispute. At stake is communal identity: specifically, whether or not Umuaro's relation to Okperi is a filial one. The boundary between Umuaro and Okperi does not separate those who are known from strangers who are not but divides two symmetrically constituted communities. The category of stranger does not operate; there is instead either alliance and intermarriage or hostility. But Umuaro and Okperi's parallel relation does not make the boundary between them any less necessary. Those who straddle the boundary are regarded as potential traitors to Umuaro—Nwaka is quick to hint that Ezeulu opposes the war because Ezeulu's mother was from Okperi—and the boundary dispute is serious enough that people are willing to go to war over it.
Akukalia is sent to Okperi with the sensitive assignment of offering the choice of war or peace. He has been specifically warned against losing his temper—the elder who warns him recognizes anger as an inevitable temptation for a young man full of the importance of his mission. The elder's fears are realized, for temper moves Akukalia to do what he recognizes as sacrilegious: he breaks another man's ikenga because he believes that it is sacred. The transgression implies acknowledgment of the boundary between the sacred and the profane. Sacrilege is not always foreign.
The British colonial administration puts an end to the fighting that breaks out between Umuaro and Okperi and then sits in judgment on the rivals in the land dispute. Captain Winterbottom is proud of the title "Breaker of Guns" that he has earned in establishing the Pax Britannica in this corner of the world. Of course, the presence of an outside arbiter changes the significance of the war for all concerned: the British intervention draws attention to a previously unconsidered external boundary that Umuaro and Okperi share. Winterbottom's account of the war to his newly arrived subordinate Tony Clarke shows that however much Winterbottom understands the facts, he does not understand the significance of the war. Winterbottom is sure that there must exist an absolute border that the two communities know but that they are lying about, because he assumes that African identities are fixed and absolute. He does not recognize the war's ritual function as a means of establishing identity. From the British perspective, the war is only a marker of a generalized African or Igbo identity: Africans are always fighting among themselves because they are Africans, and they require the British presence to maintain peace.
The British want fixed, easily understood identities for their colonial subjects, and Winterbottom values Ezeulu as the one such subject who will not prevaricate. But even those colonizers who are concerned about "respecting" local cultural conditions cannot agree what those conditions are and how they are to be respected. Winterbottom has been passed over for promotion precisely because he disagrees with the precepts of indirect rule as they are being applied in Igboland. Indirect rule was intended to preserve indigenous frameworks of control, but the model developed in northern Nigeria was inappropriate in Igboland, where the British had to invent "traditional" rulers because there were no absolute chiefs to assume local authority. Colonialism was riven with such contradictions. On the one hand, indirect rule imposed an unnatural stabilizing of identities among the colonized (see Young 79); on the other, the missionaries who accompanied the colonizers worked to destabilize those identities. John Goodcountry, the missionary in Umuaro, is dedicated to erasing traditional identities, abolishing pagan practices, and converting Umuaro to Christianity.4
Goodcountry has a disciple in Oduche, the son whom Ezeulu sends to be his eyes and ears at the mission school. Oduche imprisons a python to show that the sacred python has no power over Christians or at least to test its power. He acknowledges the symbolic boundary between the sacred and the profane, but his transgression is also a would-be redrawing of that boundary. The transgression provokes a crisis because any attempt to redraw the boundary requires that the boundary indeed be redrawn, even if only to be restored.
An explicit prohibition against interfering with the python exists, so it must always have been possible to imagine a transgression. What is new is that Oduche's transgression of the boundary between the sacred and the profane also challenges the boundary between the self and the other. The line that Oduche seeks to draw does not distinguish separate selves that are symmetrically constituted; it defines a new self, radically different from and completely opposed to an old self, which it also defines. The significance of Oduche's sacrilege is not that it contravenes an established set of values—all sacrilege does so, though without necessarily provoking a crisis—but that it shifts the debate and draws attention to new points of concern.
The process of collective self-redefinition is only partly influenced by the hegemonic definitions imposed by the British; it largely follows a dynamic within the community, a dynamic determined by available cultural resources. The sociologist Robert Wuthnow describes three common symbolic distinctions that delineate a social identity (71-75) and that can be observed in the structure of Umuaro. The Umuarans illustrate the first distinction, between moral objects and real programs, when they raise yams for subsistence but tell themselves that they do so to comply with the will of Ulu. What they must do to survive also fulfills the higher end of uniting them in a community. Wuthnow draws a second distinction between the self and the roles that the self must play. There is no essential self that is the repository of authenticity, but symbolic distinctions bring the self into being by demarcating what is self and what are the roles that are not the self but that the self must perform. Even though Ezeulu's name suggests an absolute identification with his role, his family and his neighbors distinguish between the man and the priest of Ulu. Wuthnow's third distinction is between intentionality and inevitability. The members of a social structure are given the sense that they are free to act, but moral responsibility is hemmed in by a sense of inevitability, which allows absolution for failure. In Umuaro, where the realm of freedom encompasses even mortality, a dying man is asked what he has done to deserve to die and is urged to refuse the spirit forces that seek his death (114). At the same time human freedom is limited by the intractability that characterizes the world and the human body. Akukalia's sacrilege can be attributed to his temper, a part of himself beyond his control, or to "Ekwensu, the bringer of evil" (24). In this way final responsibility for the sacrilege is removed from human hands.
When Ezeulu defends an authentic identity based on the worship of Ulu, the "tradition" that he upholds blurs the consensual internal distinctions between moral order and real programs, self and roles, intentionality and inevitability. Ezeulu wants to punish his fellow villagers for having insisted that he obey a white man's summons and travel to Okperi even though they know that the priest of Ulu is never to leave Umuaro. Ezeulu refuses to eat the sacred yams that as priest of Ulu he is supposed to eat at each new moon and that he has failed to eat during the thirty-two days that he has been detained by the British for refusing their offer of a warrant chieftaincy. Since the eating of the last of the yams is the signal that the time has come to harvest, Ezeulu's obstinate adherence to the letter of the law calls famine down on the community. The distinction between moral objects and real programs is thereby dissolved: the object of complying with the will of Ulu conflicts with the community's program of raising yams for subsistence. Ezeulu's totalizing impulse also provokes the collapse of the distinction between intentionality and inevitability, between freedom and necessity, as the priest identifies his own will with the god Ulu's. Ezeulu imagines himself to be an arrow of God and erases the realm of freedom. He also identifies his self too absolutely with one of its roles: he forgets the man and allows the priest to subsume his whole identity.
Ezeulu's dogmatic defense of the cult of Ulu is not the response of a whole, integrated world to the violence of a hegemonic alien culture but a redefinition of the world of Umuaro that erases other internal distinctions. The British impose contradictory definitions on the colonized: the administrators seek conformity to fixed definitions that the missionaries in turn condemn. The response of the colonized is also conflicted: Ezeulu does away with internal symbolic distinctions and makes identity fixed and unchanging.5
Both the Umuarans and the British are more concerned about internal distinctions than about the external boundary between the two peoples: Ezeulu regards Newaka as a greater personal threat than Winterbottom is, the god Ulu is engaged in a wrestling match with Idemili rather than with the Christian God, and Winterbottom worries more about proving something to his superiors than about the control of Umuaro. The novel illustrates the idea that when faced with a threat to its external boundaries, a community shores up its internal boundaries and seeks greater certainty about the status, loyalties, and values of its own members (Wuthnow 117).
Readers of Achebe's postcolonial novel, however, are most interested in the external boundary between the colonizers and the colonized. The boundary dividing the Igbo of Umuaro from the British is an internal division in the world of the novel, which contains both groups. At first colonizer and colonized are allocated separate chapters, but even that segregation breaks down. Although the differences between the groups are never minimized, the text evokes a world larger than the microworld of either one. Readers are invited to sympathize with the Umuarans, while the British are drawn with bolder strokes and are mildly satirized—the people of Umuaro have a story, while the British are relegated to a somewhat static background, a reversal of the strategy of imperialist texts. Nevertheless, the simultaneous presentation suggests that the two groups are located on a sociocultural continuum and that only confrontation makes them appear internally coherent and irreconcilably different.6
Both the colonized and the colonizers observe formal rituals: the lieutenant governor's dinner party (33-34) is as rigidly ruled by convention as is the breaking of kola nuts among the Igbo. Members of both groups jockey for status in a hierarchy that exists only in the eyes of others within the cultural community. Like the Umuarans, the British are defined by symbolic distinctions. But the distinction that the British make between the sacred and the profane inevitably comes into conflict with that made by the Umuarans, and Assistant Superintendent Wade finds it blasphemous that an English florin with the head of George V is part of a local sacrifice intended to ward off malevolent powers (161). An implicit distinction also exists between moral objects and real programs: Tony Clarke, who imprisons the "witch-doctor" Ezeulu for having embarrassed the administration, suffers from a guilty conscience until he can find a "reasonable explanation" for the detention, one that he can put down in his log (178). So, too, the British distinguish between the self and roles that the self must play: Clarke and Wright mock Winterbottom the captain for his pomposity but pity Winterbottom the man, whose wife has deserted him (102-03).
Distinctions are also drawn between intentionality and inevitability. The experience of imperialism encourages the British to exaggerate the arena in which they are free to act: an imperialist text that Clarke finds a little too smug celebrates "those who can deal with men as others deal with material, who can grasp great situations, coax events, shape destinies and ride on the crest of the wave of time" (33). At the same time stalled careers and other failures must be attributed to an intractability beyond human control. Africa's resistance to imperialist control is figured in terms of heat and discomfort and measured by morbidity rates. The British response to the intractability of Africa is to stress self-discipline and moderation; for example, Winterbottom would prefer cold baths but believes that he must take hot ones, since "Africa never spared those who did what they liked instead of what they had to do" (29). As Philip D. Curtin explains, the British in Africa found that "rules of conduct, whether sensible or not, were psychologically necessary. Where death was both common and mysterious, it was essential to lay out an area of personal responsibility, so that each could consider 'all men mortal but himself'" (354).
If Wuthnow's categories make possible a comparison between the Umuarans and the British, the differences between the two communities are significant. They go beyond the use of symbols and the drawing of boundaries to differences in the possession and exercise of power. The authority of the British has its basis in violence, as is made manifest when Wright the road builder strikes Ezeulu's son Obika and when Ezeulu is detained for refusing to cooperate with the administration. Umuaro, in contrast, is democratic. Indeed, the community accords with Mazi Elechukwu Nnadibuagha Njaka's depiction of Igbo political culture as "para-democratic": no individual wields uncontested authority in the public forum, and the most anyone can hope for is to influence decision making (59). Ezeulu's desire to command the obedience of others can be fulfilled only in his own compound; there, however, he tyrannizes his wives and sons. The colonizers regard Nigeria much as Ezeulu regards his compound; they claim to determine the place of Umuaro and Okperi within a larger order that only they, the British, can perceive.
The redefinition of identities in Achebe's Umuaro and by extension in Igboland is a response to British power. The powerful other inevitably frames the terms in which debates about identity are conducted. The community of Umuaro seems more concerned, however, about establishing internal loyalties than about marshaling external resistance, partly because the British never had as much power in West Africa as they thought they had. As Kwame Anthony Appiah has written, the West African situation differed from the New World or the southern African situation in that "the experience of the vast majority of these citizens of Europe's African colonies was one of essentially shallow penetration by the colonizer" (7). The Umuarans' relative indifference to the British can also be explained by the assertion that colonial authorities set the grounds for the debate but could not take away the villagers' capacity to tell their own story. Political imperialism should be differentiated from cultural imperialism.
How did the British acquire power over Africans? A common Weberian explanation attributes European ascendancy to peculiar cultural qualities. If culture and identity are constantly being invented through a process of negotiation, the most successful negotiators are those who can make unforeseen circumstances and even foreign ideological structures fit their own narratives. Stephen Greenblatt describes improvisation as the dual ability "to capitalize on the unforeseen and to transform given materials into one's own scenario" (227). Greenblatt argues that improvisation is a skill that is not valued everywhere and that came into its own during the European Renaissance. The second British Empire, which included Nigeria, was explicitly founded on improvisation in Greenblatt's sense. The policy of indirect rule presumed that the British could enter into African political and psychic structures and use those structures to rule Africans.
Greenblatt's notion of improvisation assumes both a structural homology between the improviser and the improviser's other, such as the one that exists between the cultures of the British and the Umuarans, and an absence of reciprocity: the British study the Igbo and fit them into a British narrative, not the other way around. Achebe makes clear, however, that the psychic structures of Africans are not fixed and that both the British and the Africans attempt to fit the other into a self-serving narrative. The problem Winterbottom encounters in his attempts to manipulate Igbo culture is that the "natives … are great liars" (38).7 How can one enter into another's psychic structures if the other will not stand still long enough for those structures to be defined? Winterbottom recognizes that the system of warrant chiefs, the linchpin of British improvisation in Igboland, is a terrible failure, for the appointed men exploit the British power structures for their own ends. One chief, James Ikedi, threatens to demolish compounds to make way for new roads in order to extract bribes from wealthy villagers (57). He even uses his British-awarded title to have himself declared king among a people who have always abominated kings (58).
Inserting oneself into the consciousness of another, which is part of Greenblatt's definition of improvisation, is not the sole preserve of the colonizer. Ezeulu recognizes the need to enter into British structures; thus the defender of the worship of Ulu sends his son Oduche to the missionary school. The colonized who fulfills British expectations for natives and the colonized who imitates British codes both play roles, and sometimes the same person plays both roles. This role-playing may take the form of selfish manipulation, as with James Ikedi, and it may also serve larger, political purposes. Moses Unachukwu, who has lived for ten years among the whites in Onitsha before his return to Umuaro to take up the role of translator, knows how to address different audiences. At the end of the novel, Unachukwu gets a clerk in Okperi to write a letter on behalf of the priest of Idemili to the bishop on the Niger: "Being the work of one of the knowledgeable clerks on Government Hill the petition made allusions to such potent words as law and order and the King's peace" (214).
Like Greenblatt's improviser, the British and the Umuarans fit the unforeseen, the apparently random, and the meaningless into their own narratives. In Arrow of God the unforeseeable is figured by sudden illness and death. The people of Umuaro interpret sickness as a wrestling match between the patient and the forces that seek to do the patient harm. The British think of sickness as the product of an imbalance, the result of intemperance. When Winterbottom is struck down by fever after having Ezeulu arrested, there are rival interpretations: "Perhaps it was Captain Winterbottom's rage and frenzy that brought it on; perhaps his steward was right about its cause [and the fever was Ezeulu's revenge]" (149). Achebe's narrative dwells less on whether the fever is the result of personal immoderation or an enemy's magical power than on the fever's function as an unforeseen event that tests the characters' ability to fit the world into their own narrative. The person closest to Winterbottom, the missionary doctor Mary Savage, breaks down in tears and panic, but others respond strategically. Winterbottom's incapacity thrusts Tony Clarke into a position of authority and aggravates an existing crisis in Umuaro. Ezeulu is able to turn his prolonged incarceration to his own account: he fits the British into his own narrative of divine retribution for Umuaro.
At the end of the novel Ezeulu's son Obika dies suddenly and unexpectedly while carrying the mask of the ogbazulobodo. Those closest to Obika do not know how to react: Ezeulu despairs, believing that the death presages "the collapse and ruin of all things" (229). The rest of Umuaro sees in Obika's death the abandonment of the stubborn priest by his god. The death is clearly overdetermined. Shortly before his death, Obika challenges the power of a feared medicine man, lifting him up and throwing him into the bush in front of a great crowd gathered for a festival (198). The festival is subsequently marred by a bad omen when a ram offered in sacrifice is not killed with the first blow (201). There is, however, another possible explanation. Obika agrees to carry the mask despite a fever, goaded by the thought that the villagers will blame him if he does not (224): the suggestion is that the fever kills him. The significance of an unforeseen event such as Obika's death is precisely that it can be fitted into rival narratives.
Ezeulu is unable to respond to Obika's death, for it comes at a moment of great stress—"At any other time Ezeulu would have been more than a match to his grief. He would have been equal to any pain not compounded with humiliation" (229)—and he is driven mad. In Achebe's novel madness can be defined as the incapacity to insert oneself into the consciousness of others: Ezeulu ends his days isolated from others and from the world. Ezeulu's demise is open to multiple interpretations, however: "Perhaps it was the constant, futile throbbing of these thoughts that finally left a crack in Ezeulu's mind. Or perhaps his implacable assailant … stepped on him as on an insect and crushed him under the heel in the dust" (229). Moreover, since Ezeulu's mother has also gone mad, it is possible to view his behavior as hereditary.
Ezeulu's collapse is fitted into narratives that serve others' purposes. The Christians, led by Goodcountry, invite the disenchanted and hungry worshipers of Ulu to join the church and to eat the yams that Ezeulu has forbidden. The people of Umuaro agree so that they can harvest their yams and preserve the community. Who is using whom? Under pressure to redraw its boundaries, the community risks splitting apart. The mass conversion to Christianity conspicuously redraws the boundary between the sacred and the profane; however, other boundaries are subtly redrawn along reassuringly familiar lines. The distinction between real programs and moral objects, for instance, is strengthened: the community turns from Ulu to a god that will bless the harvest of the yams. So, too, the distinction between intentionality and inevitability remains relatively constant. Ezeulu's demise allows the community to evade direct responsibility for the mass apostasy by blaming the gods. It is not the community that abandons Ulu but Ulu who abandons his people: "For a deity who chose a moment such as this to chastise his priest or abandon him before his enemies was inciting people to take liberties; and Umuaro was just ripe to do so" (230).
Another way the community avoids final responsibility for its apostasy is by redrawing the boundary between reason and madness that defines the space in which meaningful discourse takes place. At the end Ezeulu really is mad; that is, he is unable to insert himself into the consciousness of others. Yet both Clarke and Nwaka believe that Ezeulu was already mad when he refused the position of warrant chief (175-76). At the same time most Umuarans consider Ezeulu's rejection of the British offer a courageous model of meaningful discourse. Afterward, however, they interpret Ezeulu's final madness not as a break with what has come before but as the fulfillment of something that has always been at least potentially present. Midway through the novel the priest's laugh disturbs his friend Akuebue because it sounds like a madman's: Akuebue "was given no chance to examine this strange feeling of fear closely. But he was to have it again in future and it was only then he saw its meaning" (131). Akuebue does not at first understand that Ezeulu's laughter is a sign of madness for the good reason that the laughter of deities can be equally fearful. Eventually, however, the meaning of the laugh is understood, and Ezeulu's final madness is traced back to his tenure as priest of Ulu. Although Ezeulu's sanity is shattered by the silence of his god when his son dies, others later assume that Ezeulu was already mad when he conversed with his god. Two different kinds of madness are conflated here: that of the absence of God and that of the presence of God.
The distinctions that constitute identity are created by rituals, symbolic acts "performed for expressive rather than purely instrumental purposes" (Wuthnow 140). Two kinds of ritual are depicted in Arrow of God. Organized, regularly recurring ritual occasions, such as the Festival of the Pumpkin Leaves, provide participants with the opportunity to discharge moral obligations and thereby to acquire a sense of moral worth. This kind of ritual is not a means of knowing but an expression of what is already known: for some, like the five wives of Nwaka, the festival is as much an occasion to display wealth as it is an opportunity to fulfill moral duties (68). When the moral order comes under stress, however, extemporized rituals that dramatize the crisis are felt to be more meaningful than organized, recurring rituals are. Oduche's imprisonment of the python is a ritual in this second sense, a symbolic-expressive dramatization of the conflict that engulfs the community. Responses to this ritual event, which derives its meaning from the particular historical moment, are stronger (and less unanimous) than are responses to the annual Festival of the Pumpkin Leaves.
Ezeulu's final madness is also a ritual of this second kind, an expressive manifestation of the passing of the old and the drawing of new symbolic boundaries. Ezeulu recapitulates at a single unrepeatable moment the scapegoat role that he plays every year at the Festival of the Pumpkin Leaves: taking the sins of the community on himself so that the community can be renewed. Ezeulu makes possible the community's mass conversion to Christianity by conspicuously drawing onto himself all the cultural features that stand in the way of that move and then suffering immolation.
The community interprets Ezeulu's final madness and expulsion as a ritual tragedy. Umuaro and its leaders read in Ezeulu's fate the gods' punishment of his ambition and stubbornness and the vindication of the wisdom "that no man however great [is] greater than his people" (230). Casting Ezeulu's story as a tragedy allows the community to render intelligible its own changing identity at a moment of historical crisis. What is at stake in Arrow of God is not any particular cultural values but the capacity of a collectivity to generate a satisfying narrative.
As Achebe says in his preface to the second edition of the novel, Ezeulu's defeat operates like a rite of passage. For Wuthnow, "[r]ites of passage … dichotomize the continuous progression of real time into two distinct periods as far as social time is concerned" (113-14), a division that is artificial. Ezeulu's defeat is not the death of a single complete and internally consistent culture, but the story is told that way. The validity of this telling lies not in its correspondence to objective reality but in its status as a symbolic expression of an Umuaran self that has been reinvented in colonial times.
The conversion to Christianity does not necessarily mark the death or falling apart of a culture, for culture does not have an ontological existence apart from what cultural agents do. John Tomlinson argues against the conception of cultural imperialism as the spread of false behavior and false consciousness, against the presumption that people are something more than what they do. More accurately, cultural imperialism deprives cultural agents of the spiritual resources or institutional space necessary to generate meaningful collective narratives. Achebe's Igbo suffer political imperialism but are able to resist cultural imperialism, for they retain a "collective will-formation" (Tomlinson 165) and a capacity to account for their experience and their place in the world through narrative.8
The Umuaran narrative is, of course, a tragedy about the loss of authenticity. Tragedy, however, is not the only possible mode for the community's story. If continuity rather than discontinuity were stressed, the experience of colonization might be figured as a heroic narrative of resistance, or if the discontinuity were rendered more absolute, the narrative might trace the integration of a subsistence economy into a capitalist world order. Tragedy is accepted as the most appropriate narrative configuration because it is that part of the reservoir of available cultural elements that proves most useful for Umuaran self-definition.
Greenblatt writes that improvisation, the manipulative role-playing favored by the West ever since the Renaissance, requires seeing the other's culture as an ideological construct but does not risk—and may actually strengthen—one's own worldview. And yet the narrative strategies of Achebe's Igbo characters presume a self-conscious awareness of the constructed nature of all cultural systems: the people of Umuaro never forget that Ulu is their own creation.
Andrew Apter contends that the deep or secret knowledge of the guardians of Yoruba ritual is the human invention of their practices. Achebe's model of double consciousness among the Igbo in Arrow of God represents a more democratic view: the guardian of ritual forgets that Ulu is a human creation, but the rest of the community remembers.9
Achebe's model more closely reflects Karin Barber's analysis of Yoruba religion, which focuses not on the priests' deep knowledge but on the devotees' worship. In Barber's study of praise songs Yoruba devotees of an orisa, or god, are well aware that their god is a function of human belief and acknowledge that the relation between god and devotee is characterized by mutual dependence. Devotees rely on the orisa to answer their needs; the orisa in turn requires worship for prestige and existence. If one orisa fails, the devotee is always free to experiment with another; there is plenty of room for innovation and adjustment. For Barber, the reception of Christianity and Islam in Yorubaland was facilitated by this openness. The presence of other religions enlarged the devotee's choices instead of inspiring skepticism, as a religion's claims to a complete and all-inclusive account of the world might have done. Barber's account of elastic paganism can be usefully applied to Arrow of God,10 which illustrates not the collapse of one religion and the triumph of another but the flexibility of Igbo beliefs. Gods are abandoned and in effect cease to exist when they do not satisfy their devotees; other, more accommodating gods are adopted if they can better answer the needs of worshipers.
I do not mean to suggest that Igbo religion is a consistent whole resilient enough to triumph over all vicissitudes. The tragic narrative told by the people of Umuaro makes possible the redrawing of symbolic boundaries and distinctions necessary for the community's survival. Yet it is inaccurate to speak of the survival of the community, because that phrase implies an internally consistent identity. At the end of the novel, worship is addressed no longer to a local patron deity but to the Christian God, and the identity of the people of Umuaro is subtly dissolving within a more general Igbo identity. In Njaka's terms, the ikwu 'field of which one is a member' is expanding to include Igboland and perhaps even all of Africa, while the ibe 'world of the other' is shifting from Okperi to the British and the white man more generally (54). Cultural agents change who they are as they change what they do. Arrow of God describes how the people of Umuaro become Igbo and African. Umuaro is only a fictional place, but Igboland and Africa define identities that Achebe shares with many readers.11
Although Arrow of God celebrates a paganism sufficiently elastic to contain Christianity. Achebe's novel is not itself pagan, any more than Barber's or Apter's anthropological analyses are.12 Only once is Ulu shown speaking to his priest, and on that occasion Ulu's laughter suggests that the god is the projection of a madman: "I say who told you that this was your own fight to arrange the way it suits you? You want to save your friends who brought you palm wine he-he-he-he-he!" (191). And in the second edition of the novel Achebe adds the comment that "[o]nly the insane could sometimes approach the menace and mockery in the laughter of deities." (191). Achebe's world is made by humans, not by gods or by transcendental forces
Ezeulu's tragedy is the narrative configuration that the people of Umuaro give to colonization. The configuration that Achebe gives is more radically self-reflexive: colonization is a tragedy because the colonized write it as a tragedy, complete with cathartic release, and the capacity of the colonized to fit their experience into a narrative indicates the community's resilience. Writing for the citizens of the newly independent Nigeria, Achebe in turn constructs a narrative that explains their low status in the world order but that also offers possibilities for collective self-definition and action. Arrow of God presents self-fulfilling evidence that Nigerians are capable of generating a meaningful narrative. Achebe's narrative is not a tragedy but a realist novel about the telling of a tragedy, a novel in which Africans are not the victims but the makers of their own history. They do not always make what they intend, of course—"Our eye sees something; we take a stone and aim at it. But the stone rarely succeeds like the eye in hitting the mark" (171)—but then neither do the British.
Although Achebe makes changes in the second edition of Arrow of God that implicitly side with reformers rather than purists, in the introduction to that edition he declares himself ready to "salute those who stand fast, the spiritual descendants of that magnificent man, Ezeulu." Achebe admires Ezeulu's steadfastness even though Arrow of God shows that the priest himself has drawn the line at which he stands fast. Achebe explores how people use appeals to tradition or to change to invent themselves.
Authenticity and creolization are accounts of culture that do what Walter Benn Michaels calls "cultural work" (682). Michaels argues that attributing a culture to someone who does not practice it implicitly ascribes culture to genes, blood, or the collective unconscious and commits a racist fallacy. My point is related but different: neither authenticity nor creolization has ontological validity, but both are valid as metaphors that permit collective self-fashioning.
In rejecting the notion of pure, uncontested cultures, I may appear to side with advocates of creolization against supporters of authenticity. Objections to authenticity's ontological status do not, however, negate its force as an enabling metaphor. One may not be able to return to the world of one's ancestors, but one can claim to be doing so, with political effect. Tradition has an ontological existence, not in the past but in the present, where it affects people's self-images and their behavior. Uzo Esonwanne writes that "[a]s with the history of any other peoples, the history of Africa's 'past' derives its ideological and cultural valence from the current struggles of its peoples" (124); this assertion has always been true.
Appeals to authenticity are neither regressive nor progressive in themselves. Ezeulu's "tradition" serves his own will to power, in opposition to that of his rival Nwaka, but can also advance the purposes of those in Umuaro who are more democratic. In the service of, say Mobutu in Zaire, authenticity is mere obfuscation in the service of tyranny. But Ng g 's call for a return to the language that he learned at his mother's knee, made in the name of decolonizing the mind, serves a Marxist-inspired project of social change by directly addressing the classes who could not read his novels if they were written in English.
Like authenticity, hybridization is a metaphor that does not define a particular political program. Hybridization is most often invoked by advocates of pluralism and tolerance, but it can also underwrite imperialism. "The intersection of races and the blending of opposed civilizations are the most powerful auxiliaries of liberty," writes Jules Michelet, a nationalist and believer in France's imperial mission (Todorov 241). Michelet claims that the blending of races makes France manifestly superior to other nations, which are less exposed to outside influences, purer, and therefore weaker. Creolization, like authenticity, is a rallying standard in intracommunal debate. What is really at stake in such debates is not authenticity or creolization but democracy as opposed to totalitarianism (Amselle 11).
My own attempt to subsume authenticity and hybridization within a single discussion is, of course, part of a current North American debate that has uncertain meaning for African debates. That I have eschewed the division usually drawn between imperialist capitalist modernity and precapitalist tradition makes possible a vision of the equality of cultural identities but precludes explanation of why some collectivities achieve power over others. A neo-Marxist narrative of late capitalist modernity's expansion and its integration of the globe in an unjust order might offer a response. What my own narrative offers is a reminder that political and economic imperialism is not necessarily synonymous with the overtaking of one national culture by another. Authenticity and creolization are best regarded as valuable rhetorical tools that can be made to serve liberation. It may also be liberating to remember that these constructions are effectively rhetorical.
1. It will be obvious to readers that this essay is indebted to James Clifford's The Predicament of Culture and to the essays collected by Clifford and George Marcus in Writing Culture.
2. In postcolonial literary circles, the epitome of the false self is often V. S. Naipaul. Françoise Lionnet argues that there is a binary opposition between assimilation and authenticity, between sameness and difference, that creolization or "transculturation" is able to transcend. I am sympathetic to her values, but I would point out the binary opposition between authenticity and creolization. Creolization cannot be understood without a notion of cultural purity to which it stands opposed. Assimilation, however, is a position that is usually attributed to others and rarely espoused. Writers who are prepared to accept the label "assimilationist," such as Naipaul and Nirad Chaudhuri, are lone pessimists who signal that they have left behind a community.
3. Gikandi acknowledges that the novel illustrates "Achebe's concern with contradictions and cosmic dualities," a concern informed by the Igbo process of artistic production known as mbari, but he believes that the novel is essentially predicated on "the loss of narrative and linguistic authority" (52).
4. Goodcountry is from the Niger Delta (46), an area that suffered colonization decades earlier than Igboland but that Achebe's readers in 1964 would have though of as close to Igboland and falling within the same national and even state divisions.
5. Amselle would go so far as to say that nothing is less traditional than so-called primitive societies (57); tradition is the result of contact with the literate European ethnographer.
6. "It is not the existence of different cultures that produces comparative ethnology, but comparative ethnology that constitutes cultures as different" (Amselle 51).
7. For Winterbottom to see the Igbo as truth tellers would require that the truth be singular and stable and that colonizer and colonized agree on that truth. Of course Winterbottom believes that the colonized are liars before they open their mouths.
8. I do not deny the possibility of cultural imperialism (slavery, dispossession, and genocide have deprived people of the ability to generate meaningful narratives). I am suggesting that political imperialism is not always cultural imperialism.
9. Apter points to a critical practice at the heart of ritual that "sanctions self-conscious awareness of the role of human agency in rewriting official illusions of legitimacy, of the practical role which ritual fulfils in the unmaking and remaking of hegemony" ("Que Faire?" 100).
10. If an analogy can be drawn between Barber's description of Yoruba beliefs and Achebe's depiction of the worship of Ulu in Umuaro, it is not because the Yoruba and the Igbo are Africans and therefore the same. Barber herself contrasts the Yoruba beliefs she describes with the beliefs of the Tallensi of northern Ghana. I apply Barber's analysis because it is suggestively parallel to the depiction of Umuaro in ways that Apter's analysis of Yoruba religion, for instance, is not.
11. The notion that ethnic identity in Africa is an invention can be found in the essays collected by Jean-Loup Amselle and Elikia M'bokolo. For the argument that Africa and the Negro race are inventions, see V. Y. Mudimbe, as well as Kwame Anthony Appiah.
12. In Black Critics and Kings Apter does suggest what a pagan critical philosophy would look like.
Achebe, Chinua. Arrow of God. 1964. London: Heinemann, 1986.
Amselle, Jean-Loup. Logiques métisses: Anthropologie de L'identité en Afrique et ailleurs. Paris: Payot, 1990.
Amselle, Jean-Loup, and Elikia M'bokolo, eds. Au coer de l'ethnie: Ethnies, tribalisme et état en Afrique. Paris: Découverte, 1985.
Appiah, Kwame Anthony. In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 1992.
Apter, Andrew. Black Critics and Kings: The Hermeneutics of Power in Yoruba Society. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1992.
――――――. "Que Faire? Reconsidering the Inventions of Africa." Critical Inquiry 19 (1992): 87-104.
Barber, Karin. "How Man makes God in West Africa; Yoruba Attitudes towards the Orisa." Africa 51 (1981): 724-45.
Clifford, James. The Predicament of Culture. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988.
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SOURCE: "Okonkwo As Yeatsian Hero: The Influence of W. B. Yeats on Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart," in The Literary Criterion, Vol. XXX, No. 4, pp. 1-14.
[In the following essay, Criswell traces thematic parallels between Things Fall Apart and Yeats's play On Baile's Strand, focusing on conceptual similarities that characterize the tragic hero in each work.]
The title of Chinua Achebe's first novel, Things Fall Apart, is taken from W. B. Yeats's poem, "The Second Coming." Many critics, such as Judith Gleason and A. G. Stock, have commented on the influence of Yeats's view of history and time (his notion of the cyclical nature of existence symbolized by his "gyres," or intertwining cones, illustrated in such poems as "The Double Vision of Michael Robartes," "The Phases of the Moon," and "The Second Coming") on Achebe's novel. However, Chinua Achebe may have found in the writings of W. B. Yeats more than merely a shared view of the rise and fall of civilizations (as A. G. Stock suggests); it is possible that Achebe was influenced by the way Yeats utilized Irish folklore to dramatize his interpretation of the historical process. Yeats found the legends of the Irish hero, Cuchulainn, to be an especially useful vehicle for his cosmological paradigm and his notion of the tragic hero's place within that cosmology. One such legend, "The Death of Aife's One Son," seems to have served as the inspiration for certain events in Things Fall Apart. Several parallels between the Irish legend and Achebe's novel suggest that the Nigerian novelist was inspired by the "The Death of Aife's One Son" and, more specifically, by Yeats's version of the legend, and in comparing Yeats's play as well as certain poems with Achebe's novel, it appears that in creating Okonkwo, his novel's hero, Achebe has constructed an Igbo version of the Yeatsian tragic hero.
"The Death of Aife's One Son," from the Ulster cycle of Irish myths, legends, and tales, began as an orally-transmitted legend and was eventually recorded in the Yellow Book of Lecan (a fourteenth-century monastic manuscript) as one of the pre-tales, or remscela, of the Irish Epic, the Tain Bo Cuailnge (Kinsella x). The legend recounts an episode in the life of the Tain's hero, Cuchulainn, who according to Ulster legends was trained in arms in by Scathach, the warrior queen of Alba (Scotland). While under Scathach's tutelage, Cuchulainn aids his teacher in defeating a rival warrior queen, Aife, whom Cuchulainn defeats in single combat. In exchange for her life, Aife agrees to bear Cuchulainn's child. Cuchulainn returns to Ulster before the child is born, but before departing, he tells Aife to name the child Connla (or Conloach). He gives her a gold ring and tells her that when the boy's finger has grown to fit the ring, she must send him to Ulster.
Years pass, and Aife receives word that Cuchulainn has married someone else. Jealous, Aife vows to get revenge through her and Cuchulainn's son. She sends Connla, who by now has grown into a young man and, like his father, possesses extraordinary strength and ability, to Ulster. Before Connla leaves, Aife gives him three commands:
The first never to give way to any living person, but to die sooner than be made turn back; the second, not to refuse a challenge from the greatest champion alive, but to fight him at all risks, even if he [is] sure to lose his life; the third, not to tell anyone his name on any account, though he might be threatened with death for hiding it. (Gregory 658)
When Connla arrives on Ulster's shore, the high-king, Conchubar, sends one warrior after another to intercept the boy and get his name. When he refuses to reveal his name, the boy is challenged to single combat by the warriors, each of whom Connla easily defeats. Finally, Cuchulainn, seeing that the young man should prove to be a worthy opponent, challenges Connla. The two warriors fight equally in strength and skill, but Cuchulainn eventually uses his secret weapon, the gae bolga, the terrible javelin that only Cuchulainn can use. The gae bolga's blow is fatal, but before the young man dies, he reveals his name and shows his father the gold ring that Cuchulainn had given to Aife. Cuchulainn becomes maddened with rage and grief. Fearing that the crazed hero will turn on his fellow warriors, King Conchubar orders his druids to bewitch Cuchulainn into taking his rage out on the sea. The druids' spell takes hold of Cuchulainn, and he fights the waves for three days and nights until he is eventually exhausted.
W. B. Yeats retells this legend in his play, On Baile's Strand (1903), making several changes to the story in order to use the legend to dramatize his conception of history. In A Vision, which Yeats published in 1925, the poet outlines his complicated and at times mystical system of history. According to his system, history moves in cycles, or gyres, from objectivity (the "primary gyre") to subjectivity (the "antithetical gyre") and from subjectivity back to objectivity. The period of the subjective age emphasizes the individual, the heroic, passion, worldly glory, and human achievement; the objective age is marked by service to others, passivity, civil concerns, conformity, and uniformity. When the objective age reaches its zenith and soon begins its decline, the subjective age begins its ascension, and vice-versa. As Yeats explains in A Vision:
Each age unwinds the thread another age has wound, and it amuses one to remember that before Phidias, and his westward-moving art, Persia fell, and that when full moon came round again, amid east-ward moving thought, and brought Byzantine glory, Rome fell; and that at the outset of our westward-moving Renaissance Byzantium fell; all things dying each other's life, living each other's death. (271)
According to Yeats, as one civilization or age begins to fall (for example, the Greco-Roman period), an age or civilization with opposing or antithetical concerns (in this case, Christianity) begins to grow.
In On Baile's Strand Yeats reworks the legend of "The Death of Aife's One Son" to illustrate the decline of one age—the subjective age, represented by the self-determined, physically powerful Cuchulainn—and the rise of another—the objective age, represented by the civic-minded leader of the society, King Conchubar. While the plot of Yeats's play superficially follows the ancient Irish legend, Yeats makes specific deliberate alterations to the story. In his version, the story opens with Conchubar's having called Cuchulainn to a meeting of the kings of Ireland. Conchubar convinces Cuchulainn to swear obedience to him and his state. In the growing objective age, the subjective hero is feared and distrusted and must be brought under civil control. Conchubar explains to Cuchulainn:
Look at the door and what men gather there—
Old counselors that steer the land with me,
And younger kings, the dancers and harp-players
That follow in your tumults, and all of these
Are held there by one anxiety.
Will you be bound into obedience
And so make this land safe for them and theirs? (29)
Cuchulainn yields to Conchubar's command, reflecting on the days when men "praised whatever life could make the pulse run quickly," and realizing "that's all over" (32). Cuchulainn understands that the gyre of the heroic age is winding down.
The first order that Conchubar gives Cuchulainn is to defeat the young man who has just arrived on Ulster's shore. As in the legend, Yeats's Cuchulainn does not know that the boy is his son, but he admires his strength and prowess. At first the hero refuses Conchubar's command, but his warrior's pride soon gets the better of him. He fights and kills the boy. When he soon discovers that he has killed his own son, he flies into a rage. But in Yeats's version it is unclear if Cuchulainn is tricked into attacking the waves, or if he chooses to do so, having no one else upon whom to exact his revenge. The play ends with the image of Cuchulainn foolishly but tragically, even heroically, fighting the sea, the "invulnerable tide" (Poems 36) which serves as a symbol of the endless process of change. It is this process, or cycle, that is the source of Cuchulainn's pain. Cuchulainn, in the ultimate heroic act, takes up arms against the eternal process that potentially makes all heroism meaningless. He cannot stop the rise of the objective age, but he can remain true to his heroic nature and stand against the process of change, though it means his defeat.
Yeats takes this heroic, but often futile, stand against the inevitable as his theme in a number of his poems and plays. Some of his most memorable, and anthologized, poems honour doomed but determined heroes. Probably Yeats's most famous doomed hero, Major Robert Gregory, the airman of "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death," knows his fate; he knows that his death will not change the lives and futures of his countrymen:
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan's poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
However, Gregory confronts death freely for one moment of self-determination:
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove me to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death. (135)
As Jahan Ramazani has pointed out in Yeats and the Poetry of Death, "The airman affirms this intense life of death as his chosen fate and freedom" (85). Otto Bohlmann has noted that Yeats's Cuchulainn is "of the same breed as Robert Gregory" (145), as are the tragic heroes of the Easter Rising commemorated in Yeats's "Easter 1916." In an age and place "where motley is worn" and people spend their days at "counter or desk" (85), Yeats celebrates the doomed leaders of the seemingly futile Easter Rebellion, who displayed the heroism of an earlier age:
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born. (180)
The heroic act transcends and transfigures history. Standing courageously with self-determination even in the face of death, the Yeatsian hero rises above the endless gyres of existence that inevitably seem to make all heroism meaningless. In On Baile's Strand Yeats's Cuchulainn, in Maeve Good's words, "battle[s] against a world hostile to the heroic temperament" (13), but like the leaders of the Easter Rebellion, he behaves heroically in an unheroic age and stands against the inevitable process that has created this age.
It is this tragic-heroic stand against change, along with the motif of infanticide, that most clearly links Yeats's play with Achebe's Things Fall Apart. Obviously, Achebe was inspired to some degree by Yeats, taking the title of his novel from Yeats's "The Second Coming" A. G. Stock, in her article "Yeats and Achebe," examines the relationship between Things Fall Apart and the poem that provided the novel's title. She notes specifically the similarities between Yeats's and Achebe's concept of history:
It is startling to find the Yeatsian pattern traced most closely where Yeats himself was least likely to look for it, in an imaginary village of the lower Niger…. [Yeats] looks at Europe with its two-thousands-year-old tradition of Christian civilization, which itself once made chaos of the values that proceeded it and is now collapsing before the onset of something new, something more frightening because it is nameless, being all that our inherited civilization has incapacitated us from understanding. Achebe is … primarily interested in Europe: from the standpoint of Umuofia the western world is itself the fabulous formless darkness. But his instrument of interpretation is the same; his Umuofia is a civilization in miniature, and the chaos finds its way in through slight flaws in its structure, murmurs that might have remained inaudible if they had not found an echo in the darkness. (106)
While she makes the important observation that Christianity and, more significantly, the British raj, are to Okonkwo's village "mere anarchy let loose on the Umuofian world" (110) and she shows how this idea is played out in the novel, Stock limits Yeats's influence on Achebe's novel to a shared view of history and, of course, to the novel's title. Judith Gleason in her study of African novels, This Africa, also notes the influence of Yeats's conception of the historical process on Achebe's first novel: "For Things Fall Apart comes from the world of Yeats' cataclysmic vision, and how the Irish Poet would have appreciated the wild Old Nigerian" (132). While most critics acknowledge, at least to some degree, the influence of Yeats's concept of history on Things Fall Apart, few if any see Yeats as having any further influence. However, if it is clear that in writing his first novel, Achebe had in mind Yeats's poem and the view of history which it dramatizes, then it is reasonable to assume that Achebe was familiar with and possibly inspired by Yeats's other works, particularly On Baile's Strand. Both works contain the key plot elements of the hero murdering his own son (or in the case of Okonkwo his fosterson), which in thematic terms becomes, for both works, the destruction of the future of the protagonists' way of life and the hero's final futile stand against inevitable change. While these motifs are by no means limited to these two stories, the pairings of the motifs and the theme which they both develop seem unique to these two works.
The first motif, the murder of the hero's son at the hands of the hero himself, plays itself out in Things Fall Apart somewhat differently than in Yeats's play; however, the contexts and results of the action are similar. Okonkwo does not kill his own son, Nwoye, but rather Ikemefuna, the hostage-child who becomes part of Okonkwo's family and, for all practical purposes, his foster-son. Achebe describes Ikemefuna's feelings for Okonkwo, stating "he could hardly imagine that Okonkwo was not his real father" (58). Like Cuchulainn with his son, Okonkwo admires Ikemefuna's qualities ("manly" qualities that Okonkwo himself possesses and that he fears are lacking in his own son, Nwoye) and regrets having to kill him. Unfortunately the village has decided that the boy must die, and fearing that the community might think him weak, Okonkwo refuses not to participate in Ikemefuna's execution. Okonkwo, like Cuchulainn, is so driven by his pride that he willingly kills his own foster-son, and in the process he destroys the possibility of continuing his way of life. Ikemefuna, like Connla, embodies, if only in rudimentary form, many of his father's ideals of manhood, ideals antithetical to those of the fast-approaching new order. Though killing Ikemefuna does not drive him mad, Okonkwo's participation in this act seems to initiate his eventual downfall, culminating in his final actions—the killing of the messenger and his subsequent suicide—actions which could be perceived as insane, but which nevertheless have tragic-heroic quality to them.
These final actions of the novel's protagonist closely parallel, thematically, the actions of Cuchulainn at the conclusion of On Baile's Strand. Okonkwo is faced with the collapse of his whole way of life. The arrival of the Christian missionaries signals the beginning of a new way of life contrary to Umuofia's old order. The process of change that Okonkwo faces is "incomprehensible, uncomprehending, invincible" (Stock 109), and completely unsympathetic toward Okonkwo's old ways. The District Commissioner best represents not only the power of the British Empire, but also this indifference of the process of change: he tells Okonkwo and others in his community:
We shall not do you any harm … if only you agree to cooperate with us. We have brought a peaceful administration to you and your people so that you may be happy … in the dominion of our queen, the most powerful ruler in the world. (178)
Okonkwo must choose between accepting this powerful new order or standing firmly, but perhaps futilely, against it. He chooses to fight though he realizes that the days of Umuofia's heroes are over. Like Cuchulainn, Okonkwo recalls the "days when men were men," but realizes "worthy men are no more" (184). He takes the only opportunity for action open to him and kills one of the "white man's" messengers. His actions seem unreasonable to the other villagers: "He heard voices asking: 'Why did he do it?'" The only response Okonkwo gives to their questions is to hang himself. However, Okonkwo's friend, Obierika, provides the answer, telling the British officials, "That man was one of the greatest men in Umuofia. You drove him to kill himself" (191). The source of Okonkwo's suffering and his seemingly incomprehensible actions lies in the coming of the British to Umuofia, or more accurately to the process of change their arrival represents. Like Yeats's Cuchulainn, Achebe's Okonkwo recognizes the inevitable end of his old way of life, but he chooses to act against the process of change and commit some act of self-determination, even if his only choice is suicide. Charles E. Nnolim has pointed out that "in committing suicide Okonkwo displays another Igbo characteristic—a characteristic that slave traders discovered to their chagrin—that of resorting to suicide as a way out of difficulties in which every other alternative leads to personal humiliation and defeat" (60). While suicide is an offence against the Earth-goddess, it does not seem to have for the Igbo the same sense of weakness or shame often associated with it in the West (In fact, Nnolim, in arguing that Things Fall Apart is an Igbo epic, cites Okonkwo's suicide as one of the characteristics that makes him an epic hero.), and in the novel Okonkwo's suicide has an air of martyrdom, like Yeats's description of the Rebellion leaders' suicidal stand against the British, or his description in "Parnell's Funeral" of the deaths of Irish nationalists Robert Emmet, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, and Wolfe Tone (Emmet was executed by the British, Fitzgerald wounded and eventually died, and Tone committed suicide while awaiting execution).
One further element connects Achebe's novel with Yeats's works: the effects of colonialism. Much of Yeats's work is, in tone and substance, often nationalistic and even at times propagandistic. Yeats's poetry and plays, like Achebe's works, are situated historically in a colonial and post-colonial context, and as Edward Said has noted, "It is helpful to remember that 'the Anglo-Irish conflict' with which Yeats's poetic oeuvre is saturated was a 'model of twentieth-century wars of liberation'" (235). While A. G. Stock criticizes Yeats for his "nostalgia for the lost Hellenic world" (111), Said argues that Yeats's historic concerns were for his country's present situation, its struggle against colonial oppression:
His greatest decolonizing works concern the birth of violence, or the violent birth of change … Yeats situates himself at that juncture where the violence of change is unarguable but where the results of the violence beseech necessary, if not always sufficient, reason. His greatest theme … is how to reconcile the inevitable violence of the colonial conflict with the everyday politics of an ongoing national struggle." (235)
Said points out that one of the ways that Yeats treats this theme is by taking the "inevitable violence" and the "disorder" of the colonial conflict "back to the colonial intervention in the first place—which is what Chinua Achebe did in 1959 in his great novel Things Fall Apart" (235). One of the purposes of both writers' works is to reconnect their countrymen and women with their pre-colonial past and restore their dignity and identity, for as Frantz Fanon has noted:
Colonialism is not simply content to impose its rule upon the present and the future of a dominated country. Colonialism is not satisfied merely with holding a people in its grip and emptying the native's brain of all form and content. By a kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of the people, and distorts, disfigures and destroys it. (210)
Yeats attempted to reconnect himself and his fellow Irish to their past and their culture, in part, through his use of Irish folklore and mythology, especially the tales of Cuchulainn, and his celebration of those Irish men and women who stood against British rule. Achebe, in much the same way, has dealt with this issue; he has said:
African people did not hear of culture for the first time from Europeans;… their societies were not mindless but frequently had a philosophy of great depth and value and beauty,… they had poetry, and above all, they had dignity. It is this dignity that many African people all but lost during the colonial period and it is this that they must regain. The worst thing that can happen to any people is the loss of their dignity and self-respect. The writer's duty is to help them regain it by showing them in human terms what happened to them, what they lost. ("The Role of the Writer" 8)
In Things Fall Apart, Achebe succeeds in showing "what happened," and in creating Okonkwo, Achebe gives his Nigerian readers a pre-colonial hero who is the epitome of dignity and self-respect, and as Judith Gleason notes, "Okonkwo alone defies the disintegrative effects of colonial occupation" (81). Achebe has constructed a figure like Yeats's Cuchulainn, a warrior from "the heroic past" (Nnolim 56), who, though defeated in the end, tragically and heroically confirms "the fundamental worth of the personality of the nation" (55).
While A. G. Stock seems to suggest that Yeats and Achebe are too different in "their minds, their perspectives, and their fields of vision" for Yeats to have had a direct effect on Achebe's novel (She makes a point of stating that Things Fall Apart does not "smell of discipleship" ), the parallels between Achebe's novel and Yeats's On Baile's Strand suggest that Things Fall Apart owes something to Yeats's play and its ancient Irish source, and the thematic similarities—from their shared concepts of history to their similar portrayals of the tragic hero to their concern with the effects of colonialism—between Achebe's novel and much of Yeats's work suggest that Achebe found in Yeats's poetry more than just the title of his first book. More importantly, however, examined together Achebe's novel and Yeats's poetry and plays illuminate each other, bringing out in both the essential idea of the tragic-heroic stand against the inevitable eternal processes of history.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6043
SOURCE: "The Metamorphosis of Piety in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart," in Research in African Literatures, Vol. 27, No. 2, Summer, 1996, pp. 128-38.
[In the following essay, Mackenzie details the transformation of indigenous religious beliefs and practices in Things Fall Apart, comparing it to the relatively static portrayal of religion in Arrow of God.]
Matters of religion are thematically central to Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God. Both novels reflect revisions in the nature of traditional worship, and both attest to the demise of traditional mores in the face of an aggressive and alien proselytizing religion. The disparities between the two novels are equally significant. Possibly for reasons of historical setting, Things Fall Apart differs from Arrow of God in its presentation of the status of indigenous beliefs and in its precise delineation of the evolutionary process of those beliefs—a process not articulated in any detail in the later novel. The shifts of belief in Things Fall Apart are marked by the pragmatic transference of old pieties for new, a metamorphosis demanded by the realities of a revised socio-economic hierarchy.
The first mention of the religious beliefs of Umuofia in Things Fall Apart is a reference to the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves. It is a decisive allusion, correlating the will of the Oracle with the life and direction of the clan, and leaving no doubt as to the significance of the divine agency and of the necessity of obedience to it:
… in fairness to Umuofia it should be recorded that it never went to war unless its case was clear and just and was accepted as such by its Oracle—the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves. And there were indeed occasions when the Oracle had forbidden Umuofia to wage a war. If the clan had disobeyed the Oracle they would surely have been beaten, because their dreaded agadi-nwayi would never fight what the Ibo call a fight of blame. (9)
That the Oracle is perceived as supreme there can be no doubt. The sacrifice of the boy Ikemefuna is undertaken expressly because the "Oracle of the Hills and the Caves has pronounced it" (40). Though the execution may run counter to clan feelings of attachment to the youngster, a profound sense of individual and collective religious belief lends to the sacrifice an inexorable determination. It is a mysterious decision but the Umuofia, for the maintenance of the universal well-being, must comply with it. Not even the most powerful paternal feelings of Okonkwo can stand in the way of the expression of religious duty and faith.
Opposition of a sort comes only from Obierika who asserts a defiant passivity in response to Okonkwo's charge that he appeared to be questioning the authority of the Oracle: "… [I]f the Oracle said that my son should be killed I would neither dispute it nor be the one to do it" (47). Lekan Oyeleye suggests this indicates that "Obierika's loyalty to the community gods is not as over-zealous and thoughtless as Okonkwo's brand of loyalty" (22). But the issue of Obierika's exceptionalism is stronger than this. Achebe's narrative characterizes Obierika's inaction as being not only at variance with Okonkwo's view of things but with the received canon of traditional deific lore. Obierika claims that "the Oracle did not ask me to carry out its decision" (46), but this is a spurious absolution since, as a member of the clan, he is as responsible as the next clansperson for the execution of the Oracle's instructions.
His impiety is further censured by the source of the rebuke, since even the iron-willed Okonkwo, who has by this time himself transgressed against the earth goddess Ani in the beating of his wife, has duly and humbly atoned for his crime.1 Had Obierika's unapologetic misgivings found any sympathetic ear one might have thought it would have been that of his friend—but not so. True, part of Okonkwo's interrogative tone stems from his own inner turmoil about the death of Ikemefuna but, on a more significant level, as a penitent transgressor he speaks for the devotional mores of the clan in asserting the preeminence of collective obedience and action.
Okonkwo has been mentioned and, since he tends to dominate most critical deliberations on Things Fall Apart, it is worth offering an explanation of his diminished role here. Undoubtedly, Okonkwo's relation to the deific system is important, but it may not be as pivotal as some critics have contended. Bonnie Barthold, for example, believes that the "narrative structure of Things Fall Apart is defined by Okonkwo's relationship with the earth goddess, Ani, and the ever-increasing seriousness of the offenses he commits against her" (56).2 The Ani-Okonkwo colloquy is intriguing but in fact most of the novel's allusions to deities come from persons other than Okonkwo and, as shall be argued. Achebe goes to some lengths to construct a religious pantheon that ranges beyond any single god or goddess. It is significant, too, that the initial religious allusions of the novel locate themselves firmly in the territory of an Oracle-clan discourse, and that, subsequently, the spiritual experiences of individuals are repeatedly referenced to that all-pervading dialogue.
Elsewhere in the novel, the strength of other oracles is attested. A group of fugitives who have found sanctuary in Umuofia recount the story of the arrival of the first white man in their village. The elders of the village consulted their Oracle. It foretold the demise of the clan and the arrival of more strangers: "It said that other white men were on their way. They were locusts, it said, and that first man was their harbinger sent to explore the terrain. And so they killed him" (97-98). All true, of course, and all the more reason for the clan to believe in the efficacy of oracular worship and counsel. The role of the Oracle in Umuofia at the outset of Things Fall Apart is unambiguous, unequivocal, certain.
In Achebe's other novels there is little reference to oracles. Arrow of God, the most religious of these, is steeped in traditional belief but focuses essentially on the Chief Priest, Ezeulu. He is given some oracular functions: for instance, it is for him to name the day of the Festival of Pumpkin Leaves (3)—but for the most part, there is articulated no elaborate ritual of oracular consultation. The world of Arrow of God has the feel of a monotheistic world, as its title suggests. Personal "chi" are mentioned, but Ulu stands firmly as the tutelary god; and Ezeulu is, essentially, the agent of Ulu rather than an intermediary priest who brings back divine messages from places of holy conference.
This may seem a minor, even insignificant, distinction between the two novels but it is important. After all, it is made clear in Things Fall Apart that Chielo, who at first dominates belief and worship in Umuofia, is the priestess of Agbala. Yet, the religious pantheon of Things Fall Apart is essentially polytheistic. Agbala is divine, but the novel explicitly styles him as only one of many divinities who are material to the life of the clan. Achebe, in fact, goes to some lengths to reveal a cosmology of deities in the novel. The notion of personal gods, or "chi," is established early (10); the narrator offers an account of the dispute between the sky and earth (38); their presence and that of Amadiora, the divine thunderbolt, is forcefully reiterated (102-3); the gods and goddesses of the traditional system are a source of disparagement on the part of the Christian intruders (103); a group of converts derisively repudiates the clan's worship of more than one god (110); the clansman Okika reminds the clan of their constellation of gods and goddesses: Idemili, Ogwugwu, Agbala, "and all the others" (143).
This is not necessarily to infer that the setting of Things Fall Apart is a more "traditional" setting or a more authentic religious setting than that of Arrow of God. But it does indicate differences in the indigenous theistic designs of the two works. These may be traced further. In Arrow of God, the powers of the Chief Priest of Ulu, Ezeulu, are considerably less than his equivalent in Things Fall Apart—the priestess of Agbala, Chielo. On the question of going to war, an option expressly raised in both novels, oracular authority of the priest in Arrow of God is notably less secure than it is in the earlier work. Here, for example, is how Nwaka advocates war against the Okperi (a course of action opposed by Ezeulu):
Nwaka began by telling the assembly that Umuaro must not allow itself to be led by the Chief Priest of Ulu. 'My father did not tell me that before Umuaro went to war it took leave from the priest of Ulu,' he said. 'The man who carries a deity is not a king. He is there to perform his god's ritual and to carry sacrifice to him….' (27)
In Things Fall Apart we are told that there can be no war without validation from the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves. This, as Cook rightly maintains, "is not a rationalisation of weakness but takes its stand from a position of strength" (72). In Arrow of God, the oracular right of Ezeulu to forbid war is diminished by personal slanders as to his true earthly intentions. Obligations of divine belief have been weakened by the doubts and meanderings of mortal integrity. That Nwaka is at least partially successful in his argument is evidenced by the narrator's assertion that "Umuaro was divided in two" (27) on the matter.
The disparities between the two novels may be partially explained by the variant time frame that separates the events they describe. Things Fall Apart is located at points immediately before and after the arrival of the colonialists. The work is a third over before white people are even mentioned (51), and even there the allusion is merely a trivial speculation about whether they have toes or not. The novel is more than two-thirds over before a white person actually appears in Umuofia—an occasion that brings out every man and woman in the village (101). Arrow of God, on the other hand, presents not simply a single white missionary but an entire colonial community within the opening three chapters. Here, white people are not fantastical rumors but a familiar and integral part of the social landscape. Their leader, Captain T. K. Winterbottom, has already spent fifteen years in the African colonial service and is now firmly entrenched in his bungalow atop "Government Hill" (29).
Clan attitudes towards the indigenous religion in Arrow of God have been tempered, before the novel has even started, by contact with a dominant, monotheistic creed—and one which, though regarded with hostility by many clanspeople, has not yet seriously challenged the supposedly inviolate nature of indigenous belief and worship. By way of contrast, Things Fall Apart presents the process of attitudinal beliefs in relation to the indigenous religion prior to the socio-historical point at which Arrow of God begins. It appears that the arrival of Christianity not only secures native converts but also distorts, even among hostile clan non-converts, responses to and perceptions of indigenous beliefs. This goes beyond what some critics have called a simple "hybridization of culture" (Ashcroft 129). Hybridization implies a compromise of differences, a common meeting ground. It cannot of itself encapsulate the spirit and movement of Achebe's representation. Homi Bhabha has written incisively of "the cultural and historical hybridity of the postcolonial world … as the paradigmatic place of departure" (21; emphasis added). It is that point of "departure" in which Achebe seems acutely interested. He seeks to move beyond espousal of a dualist model of cultural attrition and inter-adaptation, to a delineation of the metamorphosis of faith-oriented traditional pieties into economically-driven "new world" pieties.
Once the first white person has arrived in Umuofia (101), a repudiation of indigenous clan religious beliefs follows almost immediately:
At this point an old man said he had a question [for the white man]. 'Which is this god of yours,' he asked, 'the goddess of the earth, the god of the sky, Amadiora of the thunderbolt, or what?'…
'All the gods you have named are not gods at all. They are gods of deceit who tell you to kill your fellows and destroy innocent children. There is only one true God and He has the earth, the sky, you and me and all of us.' (102-03)
After this, the notion of the traditional "Oracle," so strong hitherto, disappears without a trace from the novel. It is never again mentioned, or even intimated. There are many opportunities when it could have been. The killing of the royal python is one. Achebe makes clear to us that the python is "the emanation of the god of water" (12) and therefore sacred. Accidental killing of such an animal could be atoned through sacrifices and an expensive burial ceremony. But because no one has ever imagined that someone would knowingly kill a python, there is no statutory sanction for the crime. A decision about action, even if it is to be that no action should be taken, is required by the clan. What is interesting is the nature of the consultative process leading to that decision, and what does not happen rather than what does.
Chielo, the priestess, is not consulted. In fact, after she has called the clan's Christian converts "the excrement of the clan" (101), we hear nothing more from or about her in the novel. A priestess, the high priestess of Agbala, who has hitherto played a central role in the process of traditional life, takes no further part in the story or the events it describes. Certainly no one suggests that the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves should be consulted over the killing of the python. The clan's first instinct is to resolve the issue through human discussion:
… the rulers and elders of Mbanta assembled to decide on their action. Many of them spoke at great length and in fury. The spirit of war was upon them…. (112)
We know from the first chapter of the novel that the clan never went to war unless its cause was confirmed as just by the Oracle9. Why is it that consultation of the Oracle is now not even mooted as an option? Indeed, divine conference with the Oracle, once so integral a part of clan life, is suddenly abandoned to a new order of things—to a secular consultative context in which those wishing to go to war are opposed by those who do not wish to go to war. The reasons put forward by the latter are interesting:
'It is not our custom to fight for our gods,' said one of them. 'Let us not presume to do so now. If a man kills the sacred python in the secrecy of his hut, the matter lies between him and the god. We did not see it….' (113)
In other words, the gods can look after themselves, why should we do their fighting for them? A fascinating modification of devotion has occurred here. The cosmology of deities, the very cornerstone of clan being, has suddenly become distanced from the actuality of the existence of Umuofia. At one time an integral weave in the fabric of clan life, the indigenous religious order has abruptly become remote and distant. It is now located in a schemata of parallel activities in which the divinities of an ordered universe and the mortals of an ordered world function independently, avoiding interference in each other's affairs and linked only by a respectful cordiality of verbal oblation on the part of the traditional worshipper.
The transformation is dramatic and arresting. But is the new equation of relation plausible? In a sense and for a time, yes. It looks as if it is working in the case of the slaying of the royal python, an act which has apparently precipitate consequences. Okoli, a prime suspect in the crime, falls ill and dies: "His death showed that the gods were still able to fight their own battles. The clan saw no reason then for molesting the Christians" (114). Perhaps Obierika's thesis of godly acceptance and human inertia, of belief and oblation without enactment, was a credible modus vivendi after all?
The assumption is false. The narrative rapidly and subtly undermines any thoughts that divine sanction comes without a reciprocation of mortal action. Okoli had, in fact, denied the crime and Achebe is careful to present no evidence against him. Not long after, we learn that Enoch was most likely the real offender (131). What is significant is not whether Okoli is guilty or innocent but that his death enables the clanspeople to seize upon a bogus exemplar of divine self-help in order to reassert the new order of things—to withdraw to the sanctuary of a piety that is passive, undemanding and removed, one which places no burden of sacrifice or atonement or forceful action upon the celebrant.
To the chagrin of Okonkwo, the spokesperson of the old faith now as he had been earlier in the face of Obierika's heretical passivity, the most the clan can offer against the Christians for the slaying of the emanation of the god of water is ostracization. It is an action calculated not to avenge the outrage against the god, but rather to distance the village from the crime that has been committed: "We should do something. But let us ostracise these men. We would then not be held accountable for their abominations" (113). And the death of Okoli, be it fortuitous or not, removes from a grateful clan even that necessity.
This sense of wily self-preservation which now characterizes the clan may be usefully compared, for example, to their response earlier in the novel to Okonkwo's beating of his youngest wife. During the beating, his first two wives and a host of neighbors beg him to stop since this is a sacred week—and "it was unheard of to beat somebody during the sacred week" (21). Ezeani, the priest of the earth goddess, Ani, visits Okonkwo to rebuke him, and refuses to eat "in the house of a man who has no respect for our gods and ancestors" (21). His is not a humanitarian concern but a religious one:
'The evil you have done can ruin the whole clan. The earth goddess whom you have insulted may refuse to give us her increase, and we shall all perish.' His tone now changed from anger to command. 'You will bring to the shrine of Ani tomorrow one she-goat, one hen, a length of cloth and a hundred cowries.' (22)
The whole episode is marked by certainties of transgression, of censure, of atonement. At the center of this process stands the priest, the intermediary between deity and mortal. There is no questioning of his position, no doubt about his authority, no possibility of his denial. Just as in the killing of Ikemefuna, there is no ambiguity or blurring of responsibilities and significances. The progress of the clan, divinely guided and humanly effected through the collective obedience of the clanspeople, is distinct and emphatic.
How rapidly things change. The only decisive communal action that occurs in the last third of the book is the burning of Mr Smith's church (130-35). This act, in revenge for the unmasking of an egwugwu (131), an ancestral spirit and therefore part of the indigenous religious cosmology, fills Okonkwo with something approaching happiness (136). We are told:
When the egwugwu went away the red-earth church which Mr Brown had built was a pile of earth and ashes. And for the moment the spirit of the clan was pacified. (135)
The destruction of the church is framed in terms of a human victory. Immediately after the burning of the building, we learn that Okonkwo's clan "which had turned false on him appeared to be making amends" (136); Okonkwo himself rejoices that it was "like the good old days again, when a warrior was a warrior" (136); and a few lines later we learn that "[e]very man in Umuofia went about armed with a gun or a machete" (136). There is a sense of the clan's human destiny having been reasserted as the prerogative of the clan itself. No one thanks the gods for the building's destruction; no one even credits them with a hand in it.
Yet, why should this be? It is, after all, the egwugwu who have burned down the church. The egwugwu are explicitly linked, through their patronizing deity, with the world of the godly immortals:
'All our gods are weeping. Idemili is weeping. Ogwugwu is weeping, Agbala is weeping, and all the others….' (143)
Technically, it is not the living clanspeople at all who have been responsible for the action. Though the egwugwu masks are worn by living beings, according to traditional doctrine a transmigration of flesh and spirit occurs in which the human impersonators become unearthly spirits. If the victory over the church is a victory of the deific world (and we are told, after all, that "the spirit of the clan was pacified") how is it that the clan itself interprets the destruction of the church as a human act and never alludes to it in terms of divine intervention?
One explanation may be that they are no longer convinced of the divinity of the egwugwu, regarding the ritual of the nine spirits as no more than an historic re-enactment of people and actions from times past. Whether this is the case or not, the clanspeople appear not to covet further the idea that the path to community survival is traceable irrevocably to the cosmology of indigenous gods. If they did they would surely have left the issue of the egwugwu unmasking to the gods. Instead, they take up arms, apparently without any kind of oracular consultation, and steel themselves for the worst.
Adewale Maja-Pearce has speculated that one of Achebe's purposes in Things Fall Apart is to assert that "the spiritual values of pre-colonial Africa were in no way inferior to those of Europe, merely different" (10). That difference became a source of vulnerability. The religious codes and practices of Umuofia, unchallenged for centuries and perhaps millennia, had not evolved strategies for adaptation or confrontation. Like the sacred python, no one ever thought their sacredness would or could ever be challenged. The real power of missionary proselytization lay in the breaking down of community norms. The evil forest became no longer evil; the outcasts became no longer outcasts; the objects and rituals of traditional sacrament were destroyed.
Despite this, some Umuofians yet seek an accommodation, a hybridization perhaps, with the new theology. As he struggles to find a compromise between the religion he has always known and that which has suddenly arrived, the village elder Akunna debates the issue of the gods with the missionary Mr. Brown:
'You say that there is one supreme God who made heaven and earth,' said Akunna on one of Mr. Brown's visits. 'We also believe in Him and call Him Chukwu. He made all the world and the other gods.'
'There are no other gods,' said Mr. Brown. 'Chukwu is the only God and all others are false….' (126-27)
Mr. Brown is no intercessor, no hybridizer. He spurns the idea that he is the earthly representative of his God, leading Akunna to exclaim, aghast, "but there must be a head in this world among men" (127). There is no compromise on offer. Mr. Brown rejects not only the central indigenous notion of a multi-deity system, but also the pivotal function of a high priest or priestess within a religious framework.
It may be possible to see in Arrow of God how both of these crucial tenets of traditional worship—polytheism and priestly intercession—have been corrupted in the revised perception of traditional lore. As noted earlier, not only is Ulu a rather "singularized" god, but his earthly messenger, Ezeulu, is emphatically disrobed of the trappings of infallible or absolute authority by the clanspeople. Further, the clan's attitude towards Ulu becomes less than coherent in the latter stages of the novel. When Ezeulu says he cannot enact a ritual that will enable new yams to be planted because Ulu has not sanctioned it, a clan delegation urges him to perform the rites anyway and to lay the blame on them (208). When he refuses, a new choice is mooted:
So the news spread that anyone who did not want to wait and see all his harvest ruined could take his offering to the god of the Christians who claimed to have power of protection from the anger of Ulu. (216)
The contest is styled as a battle of singularities, one god versus another. It is an essentially Biblical construct; a binary contest between feast and famine, between protection and threat, between the knight and the dragon—and, implicitly, between good and evil. Traditional theology has been undermined by Christian mythology, and subsumed into a Biblical schemata of loss and salvation. Gone are the ordinances of seasonal and festive celebration; gone the multiplicities of divine representation, of elemental hierarchies, of ancestral phantasm and conference. The shape and detail of traditional beliefs have evaporated. Ulu, disconnected from his deific order, must battle for authority in the pavilion of his foe. Of course Ulu will lose. He may offer only the mysterious piety of suffering; Christianity, as it is unfolded and displayed in Arrow of God, offers the clear piety of economics, a simple exchange of spiritual faith for material prosperity.
Joseph Swann speculates that the demise of Ulu may have been self-willed, "not for any reason of cultural dissatisfaction, but as a simple historical necessity, to safeguard the bare existence of the clan" (194). But what is existence without faith? In the clan's ancient frame of things it should be as nothing. The fact that it is now feasible attests to a shift in the devotional perspective of the clan members. Knowingly or otherwise, they are trapped into a revisionist interpretation—in effect, a Christianization—of their traditional beliefs. Where once they might have accepted the ruling of the divinity, and starved in the certainty of a mysterious but painful purpose, now an alien creed offers an alluring alternative.
Things Fall Apart reveals a time when this was not so, and goes on to present the temporal nexus point between the ways of the old religion and the ways of a new world order. On the face of it, the new order seems more logical and democratic, and, to contemporary sensibilities, humane. The clanspeople meet and discuss their tactics; the imperatives of action are no longer handed down to them by unseen deities who communicate imperiously through their human emissaries. It is, of course, a superficial freedom. In truth, they now act under a new and equally powerful imperative, a colonial imperative. This new relationship, however, is not founded on mystical ordination or divine machination. It is a relationship of pragmatism and commodity.
That point is made abundantly clear in the abduction of the six clanspeople by the District Commissioner's officers (137-39). This may be compared with the abduction of Okonkwo's child, Ezinma, by Agbala's priestess Chielo (70-76). After a bizarre odyssey, the child is returned unharmed, and without explanation (77). The six men, on the other hand, are ransomed. Either the clan pays up the requisite cowrie fine or the six will be hanged. Just as no one questions the motives of Chielo, so no one questions the motives of the District Commissioner. But the reasons for the silences are quite different. Chielo is not challenged because the ways of the gods are beyond mortal comprehension; the District Commissioner is not challenged because, by contrast, his position is abundantly comprehensible. He goes to some lengths to explain the readily discernible economics of commodity transfer: the freedom of six human beings for two hundred bags of cowrie shells. It is a logical, business transaction, and the clan finds it as compelling as it did obedience to the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves.
There is no talk of gods or goddesses or holy wars. The clan's financial penance is part of the new order that has enveloped their traditional life. An egwugwu has been unmasked; their six leaders have been captured through false promises of parley; an extortionate ransom demand has been made—yet the response of the clan is pragmatic. The men of the clan meet at the marketplace and agree to raise the fine without delay (139). The matter is settled on a commodity basis. Faith in oracular arbitration has been replaced by faith in a new kind of fiscal logic. This eclipse is signed by the fact that the night preceding their decision is a night of the full moon. Normally a time of sacred and secretive communal ritual, it is on this occasion presented as a time of desolation and emptiness (139).
The economics of religious school education provide momenta no less forceful than the exchange of prisoners for money. This is how the novel describes the impact of Mr. Brown, a missionary educator, on the life and times of the village:
Mr. Brown's school produced quick results. A few months in it were enough to make one a court messenger or even a court clerk. Those who stayed longer became teachers; and from Umuofia labourers went forth into the Lord's vineyard. New churches were established in the surrounding villages and a few schools with them. From the very beginning religion and education went hand in hand. (128)
Mr. Brown's school offers advantages to its enrolment and to the work of the missionary himself. For the local participants it promises advancement within the prevailing socio-economic system; for Mr. Brown it accords the opportunity to convert to Christianity those who have entrusted their education to his care. But the benefits come at a price. The need for court messengers or court clerks, or indeed for people who can read or write, is one generated by the demands of a colonial hegemony, not by the requirements of clan administration. The knowledge and understanding that Mr. Brown's school seeks to promulgate is openly abrasive to the organization and culture of the clan.
Eustace Palmer argues that "[a]s long as a reasonable person like Mr. Brown is in charge of the mission station, coexistence is possible between the new religion and traditional society" (58). In fact, the interrelation between the two can never be characterized in terms of co-existence, because the economics of Mr. Brown's religion demand ideological substitution, not concurrence or hybridization. In Things Fall Apart, Christianity, like colonialism in general, is depicted as offering a clear rationale of "exchange" for Umuofia. In return for adherence to Christian doctrine, the church offers explicit routes for individual economic advancement.
As the meaning and decisiveness of that interaction dawns on the clan it corrupts the ancient way of things. What use is there in praying to Agbala for the white people to go away when the new order presents so persuasively the dimensions of its power that only co-operation and attempted advancement within its structure seems practicable? Achebe's irony, of course, is that the Umuofia come to believe in the supremacy of the missionary colonizers as devoutly as they once had in their own theater of gods. But these are devotions engendered by quite different experiences: the former, through the compulsion of physical aggression and economic inducement; the latter, through the magnificence and munificence of faith. In the end, the metamorphosis of piety is not a change from belief in one religious system to belief in another religious system but rather a switch from faith in a world where life is given, to commitment to one where security and achievement are measured and earned very differently.
Authors write novels for a multiplicity of reasons, not all of them obvious or cogent. It is possible, as Theo D'haen has suggested, that some postcolonial literatures seek to "take revenge upon the mother country, among other things by means of their shared post-colonial literatures" (16). But Things Fall Apart is not about revenge—though Achebe misses few opportunities to satirize the colonial presence. The Nigerian poet Tanure Ojaide offers another possibility:
Literature might be devoted to leisure in other cultures, but for us Africans who are experiencing the second half of the twentieth century, literature must serve a purpose: to expose, embarrass, and fight corruption and authoritarianism…. It is understandable why the African artist is utilitarian. We do not have the luxury of some Western writers, who are apolitical and can afford to write art for art's sake and be confessional (a euphemism for self-therapy). (17)
While no one may accuse Achebe of complacency, Ojaide's premise of utilitarianism is more difficult to decipher in Things Fall Apart. The problem is that once things have irrevocably fallen apart, once a unique and intricate construct of a matured civilization has been irreversibly dismantled, then rehearsing the indiscretions of the past can easily be regarded as motiveless reminiscence. Yet, there is clearly a purpose to Things Fall Apart and it may be discernible as much in the need for personal therapy as in the quest for historical truth. Achebe perceives a gap between how things were and how things are. The intercessionary phase has been typically fashioned as the sublimation of one culture by another. This is a neat enough postcolonial aphorism but without the detail and minutiae of human circumstance, its veracity can remain only intuitive.
Things Fall Apart, and Arrow of God after it, provide the detail, the historical glimpses, of a traditional and colonial past. These are not concurrent glimpses, and not even consecutive. But, in a sense, their temporal dislocations are all the more informative. In particular, the shifting time frame of Umuofia in Things Fall Apart delineates not only how things fell apart but theorizes on why they fell apart. It bestows no ebullient credit; it lays no absolute onus of blame. As Aijaz Ahmad has written, history cannot decisively resolve theoretical debate because "[t]he difficulty with theoretical debate … is that it can neither ignore the facts nor be simply settled by them; thought … tends always to exceed the facts" (287). Obscurities of absolution and blame are of themselves the ironically definitive truths of history. The decline of Umuofia was a decline effected by a concatenation of unfortunate and calamitous and mysterious circumstances. It cannot be argued that the learning of this past is overtly utilitarian for what has been lost will not exist again and therefore cannot be lost again. What can be said is that the novel reconstructs the detail of grand and momentous events, rejecting nineteenth-century ahistorical polarities of Africa and Occident, and asserting a process of metamorphosing piety against a backdrop of seemingly irresistible social and economic imperatives.
1. For a discussion of Okonkwo's transgressions against the earth goddess, see Maja-Pearce 10-16 and Barthold 56-58.
2. See, as well, Lindfors, who explores Okonkwo's relationship with his chi (78-79).
Achebe, Chinua. Arrow of God. London: Heinemann, 1974.
――――――. Things Fall Apart. London: Heinemann, 1962.
Ahmad, Aijaz. In Theory. London: Verso, 1992.
Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. The Empire Writes Back. London: Routledge, 1989.
Barthold, Bonnie J. Black Time: Fiction of Africa, the Caribbean and the United States. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1981.
Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994.
Cook, David. African Literature: A Critical View. London: Longman, 1977.
D'haen, Theo. "Shades of Empire in Colonial and Post-Colonial Literatures." Shades of Empire In Colonial and Post-Colonial Literatures. Ed. C. C. Barfoot and Theo D'haen. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1993. 9-16.
Lindfors, Bernth. Folklore in Nigerian Literature. New York: Africana, 1973.
Maja-Pearce, Adewale. A Mask Dancing: Nigerian Novelists of the Eighties. London: Hans Zell, 1992.
Ojaide, Tanure. "I Want To Be An Oracle: My Poetry and My Generation." World Literature Today 68 (1994): 15-21.
Oyeleye, A. Lekan. "Things Fall Apart Revisited: A Semantic and Stylistic Study of Character in Achebe." The Question of Language in African Literature Today. Ed. Eldred Durosimi Jones. Trenton, NJ: Africa World, 1991. 15-23.
Palmer, Eustace. An Introduction to the African Novel. London: Heinemann, 1972.
Swann, Joseph. "From Things Fall Apart to Anthills of the Savannah: The Changing Face of History in Chinua Achebe's Novels." Crisis and Creativity in the New Literatures in English. Ed. Geoffrey V. Davis and Hena Maes-Jelinek. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1990. 191-203.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7251
SOURCE: "Achebe's Sense of an Ending: History and Tragedy in Things Fall Apart," in Studies in the Novel, Vol. XXIX, No. 3, Fall, 1997, pp. 396-411.
[In the following essay, Begam describe's three distinct conclusions to Things Fall Apart in relation to three different conceptions of history produced by reading the narrative in a post-colonial context, arguing that the novel offers various responses to tragedy as an art form as well.]
One of the more notable consequences of cultural globalization has been the exchange that has occurred over the last decade or so between what we have come to call postmodernism and postcolonialism.1 This meeting of First World and Third World has inspired more controversy than consensus, but on one point there seems to have been wide agreement: if we want to understand colonialism, then we must understand how it is represented. As Hayden White has argued, speaking of historiography in general, the "form" is the "content," and this means that the language, vocabulary, and conceptual framework in which the experience of colonialism is produced inevitably determine what can and cannot be said about it.2 To borrow Homi K. Bhabha's formulation, "nation" and "narration" are not easily separated—the one implies the other.3
The present paper explores the intersection between narrative construction and colonial representation by focusing on an aspect of literary form that has received little attention in postcolonial studies—namely, the question of closure or ending. It is puzzling that this subject, which has generated so much commentary in modern and postmodern studies, has gone virtually unexamined in the area of postcolonial literature. Yet it is certainly reasonable to assume that a literature that identifies itself as postcolonial and defines itself in terms of the aftermath of colonialism, will have a passing interest in the way endings are narratively achieved, in what they mean and how they are fashioned. Of particular interest in this regard is the highly problematic relation that postcolonial literature has to its own past and, more specifically, to the writing of its own history.4
We may begin to appreciate some of the difficulties entailed in this relation by considering a number of connected questions. First, where do postcolonial writers locate their past? Is it to be found in the colonial, precolonial, or postcolonial period? Second, can we neatly separate the different historical strands that traverse and intersect these various epochs? Can we confidently assign to them decisive beginnings and conclusive endings? Third, what historical stance should postcolonial writers assume toward their own history, especially if they wish to forge a sense of national identity after colonization? To what extent does "critical history," of the sort described by Nietzsche, become a luxury that the postcolonial writer cannot afford?5
In examining these questions, I want to take up the case of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart because, as an exercise in historical recuperation, it is necessarily concerned with issues of formal shaping and narrative closure. Of course, at first glance, the novel appears to have a perfectly transparent narrative line: it tells the tragic story of Okonkwo's rise and fall among the Igbo people, concluding with that least ambiguous of all endings, the death of the hero. With only a few exceptions, critics have understood the novel in precisely these terms, seeing its closing pages as entirely unproblematic.6 Yet any straightforward reading of Achebe's ending must reconcile itself with the fact that the novel describes a situation of profound cultural entropy, a society in which the norms of conduct and institutions of governance are in the process of "falling apart." What is more, while Achebe's novel movingly elegizes the passing away of traditional Igbo culture, the long view it adopts—looking ahead to the future establishment of Nigeria—suggests that Achebe's own position on the modernization of Africa is, at the very least, complicated. Given the subject of Achebe's novel and his own divided response to it, we would expect a fairly open-ended conclusion, one that acknowledges its own closure as tentative, even contingent.
In what follows, I will argue that Things Fall Apart resists the idea of a single or simple resolution by providing three distinct endings, three different ways of reading the events that conclude the novel. At the same time, I will relate these endings to three different conceptions of history, especially as it is produced within a postcolonial context. First, Achebe writes a form of nationalist history. Here the interest is essentially reconstructive and centers on recovering an Igbo past that has been neglected or suppressed by historians who would not or could not write from an African perspective. As Achebe observed in 1964, four years after Nigerian independence: "Historians everywhere are re-writing the stories of the new nations—replacing short, garbled, despised history with a more sympathetic account."7 Nationalist history tends to emphasize what other histories have either glossed over or flatly denied—namely that "African people did not hear of culture for the first time from Europeans; that their societies were not mindless but frequently had a philosophy of great depth and value and beauty, that they had poetry and, above all, they had dignity."8 Second, Achebe writes a form of adversarial history. Here the emphasis falls not on the reconstruction of an authentic past that has been lost, but on the deconstruction of a counterfeit past that has been imposed. Adversarial history enables Achebe to write against what he himself has called "colonialist" discourse, against the attitudes and assumptions, the language and rhetoric that characterized British colonial rule in Nigeria. Third, Achebe writes a form of metahistory. This kind of history calls attention to itself as a piece of writing, a narrative construction that depends on principles of selection (what material will be included?), emphasis (what importance will be attached to it?) and shaping (how will it be organized and arranged?).9
Yet Things Fall Apart is concerned not only with writing history, but also with fashioning tragedy. Achebe himself made this point in an interview with Robert Serumaga, in which he discussed the political implications of tragedy and explicitly referred to his novel as an example of that genre.10 A good deal of the critical literature has focused on this issue, addressing the question of whether the novel is indeed a tragedy and, if so, what kind of tragedy. Thus, Bruce Macdonald and Margaret Turner maintain that Things Fall Apart fails as an Aristotelian tragedy; Alastair Niven asserts that it succeeds as "modern" tragedy; while Afam Ebeogu treats it as an example of Igbo tragedy, and Abiola Irele considers it more generally as an instance of cultural and historical tragedy.11 It will be my contention that much of the disagreement over generic classification has resulted from a failure to identify Achebe's multi-perspectival approach to the problem—a failure to recognize that he has written three distinct endings. Hence, I also want to argue that the novel offers us a variety of responses to tragedy, as well as history. According to the model I shall develop, nationalist history is associated with classical or Aristotelian tragedy; adversarial history is associated with modern or ironic tragedy; and metahistory is associated with critical discourse. My larger purpose in pursuing this line of analysis is to suggest that Things Fall Apart demands what is, in effect, a palimpsestic reading, a kind of historical and generic archaeology, which is designed to uncover, layer by layer, those experiences that have accreted around colonialism and its protracted aftermath.
The first of the novel's three endings centers on Okonkwo's killing of the messenger, his failed attempt to rouse his people to action, and his subsequent suicide. This ending presents the events of the novel largely from an African perspective, equating Okonkwo's demise with the collapse of Igbo culture. The idea that Okonkwo is a great man whose destiny is linked with that of his people is immediately established in the novel's celebrated opening:
Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievements. As a young man of eighteen he had brought honor to his village by throwing Amalinze the Cat. Amalinze was the great wrestler who for seven years was unbeaten, from Umuofia to Mbaino. He was called the Cat because his back would never touch the earth. It was this man that Okonkwo threw in a fight which the old men agreed was one of the fiercest since the founder of their town engaged a spirit of the wild for seven days and seven nights. (p. 7)
In this passage history recedes into myth, as the narrator presents the seven-year reign of Amalinze and the seven-day struggle of the founder of the village in epic terms (here seven obviously functions as a conventional rather than a naturalistic number12). The passage also serves both to connect Okonkwo with the beginnings of Umuofia (through his wrestling exploits he is compared with the village's symbolic progenitor) and to look forward to his own and his people's end (the "spirit of the wild," representing Nature, will be replaced by the more powerful alien force of British imperialism.) In a few deft strokes, Achebe illustrates how Okonkwo has come to personify the destiny of his community, extending from its earliest origins to its final destruction.13
The larger effect of Achebe's opening is to establish Okonkwo as a particular kind of tragic protagonist: the great warrior who carries with him the fate of his people. Seen from the standpoint of the first ending, he is, as Michael Valdez Moses has argued, a Homeric hero cast in a distinctly Achillean mold:
Like Achilles, Okonkwo is "a man of action, a man of war" (p. 7). His "fame" among the Igbo rests "on solid personal achievements" (p. 3), foremost of which are his exploits as the greatest wrestler and most accomplished warrior of the nine villages. He is a man renowned and respected for having brought home from battle five human heads; and on feast days and important public occasions, he drinks his palm wine from the skull of the first warrior he killed.14
Okonkwo is, in other words, identified with his community to the extent that it esteems the martial ethos he embodies, and while his village certainly does more than make war, it especially prizes those men who win distinction on the battlefield ("in Umuofia … men were bold and warlike" [p. 151]).
This is not to say, however, that Okonkwo epitomizes all the virtures of Igbo culture, or that he is himself without fault. On the contrary, Achebe himself understands that, within an Aristotelian framework, his hero is necessarily a flawed character, guilty of errors in judgement—guilty, to use the Greek term, of hamartia. As Achebe has observed in an interview with Charles Rowell: "[The tragic protagonist is] the man who's larger than life, who exemplifies virtues that are admired by the community, but also a man who for all that is still human. He can have flaws, you see; all that seems to me to be very elegantly underlined in Aristotle's work."15 Obviously Okonkwo is "larger than life" ("He was tall and huge, and his bushy eyebrows and wide nose gave him a very severe look" [p. 7]) yet his epic proportions carry a figurative as well as a literal significance: they indicate the difficulty he experiences fitting within the boundaries of any social order. So it is that as a "man of action," a great athlete and warrior, he is excessive both in his high-spiritedness, what the Greeks called thymos ("whenever he was angry and could not get his words out quickly enough, he would use his fists" [p. 8]), and in his prideful arrogance, what the Greeks called hybris ("The oldest man present said sternly [to Okonkwo] that those whose palm-kernels were cracked for them by a benevolent spirit should not forget to be humble" [p. 28]). Indeed, like many of the heroes of classical tragedy, Okonkwo's immoderate behavior consistently places him at cross-purposes not merely with his fellow Umuofians, but with the gods themselves ("Okonkwo was not the man to stop beating somebody half-way through, not even for fear of a goddess" [p. 31]), and it comes as no surprise when, in the second part of the novel, he is sent into temporary exile for offending Ani, the Earth deity. Nevertheless, if we are to appreciate the tragedy of the first ending—something that Achebe clearly intends—then we must recognize that Okonkwo's faults are essentially virtues carried to an extreme, and that while he is obviously not perfect, he nevertheless represents some of the best qualities of his culture.16 As Obierika remarks near the novel's end, "That man was one of the greatest men in Umuofia" (p. 191).17
The crisis of the novel comes in the penultimate chapter when an impudent messenger, sent by the colonial authorities, orders a tribal meeting to disband. Okonkwo the warrior is moved to action:
In a flash Okonkwo drew his machete. The messenger crouched to avoid the blow. It was useless. Okonkwo's machete descended twice and the man's head lay beside his uniformed body.
The waiting backcloth jumped into tumultuous life and the meeting was stopped. Okonkwo stood looking at the dead man. He knew that Umuofia would not go to war. He knew because they had let the other messengers escape. They had broken into tumult instead of action. He discerned fright in that tumult. He heard voices asking: "Why did he do it?"
He wiped his machete on the sand and went away. (p. 188)
The scene is presented with a devastating simplicity. From the perspective of the first ending, the people of Umuofia have deserted Okonkwo and in the process betrayed themselves, but the wiping of the machete is the only eloquence he permits himself. It is an ordinary and everyday gesture, yet in the present context it acquires special significance: Okonkwo remains true to the martial ethos that his people have abandoned, here represented by the warrior's care of his weapon; at the same time, he symbolically dissolves his connection with his people, wiping away the blood bond that has joined them. This gesture is especially resonant because, as critics have pointed out, in killing the messenger he is shedding the blood of a fellow Igbo.18
The suicide that follows is itself a profound violation of Igbo law, which strictly prohibits acts of self-destruction. The question of how we should respond to Okonkwo's final deed has been examined in detail by Kalu Ogbaa and Damian Opata, but with strikingly different results. For Ogbaa the suicide grows out of Okonkwo's failure to act with sufficient piety toward the Igbo gods and traditions, while for Opata it is a consequence of the Igbos' refusal to rally around Okonkwo and join him in resisting the British.19 As was the case with discussions of the novel's tragedy, the disagreement arises in the first place because the reader has difficulty establishing Achebe's position on a number of issues—difficulty knowing, for example, where he stands on the question of violent resistance to the British. Of course, this interpretive problem largely disappears once we begin to read the novel palimpsestically as a layering of diverse perspectives on history and tragedy. Hence, understood within the terms of the novel's first ending, Okonkwo's suicide is the logical and necessary consequence of an idealistic and absolutist position. Both nationalist history and heroic tragedy demand that he remain unyielding and that the Igbos honor their cultural heritage by refusing assimilation. Even in this final gesture, then, Okonkwo functions as the true representative of his people. For, as he sees it, Igbo culture has willingly succumbed to its own annihilation, committing what is a form of collective suicide by submitting to the British. In taking his own life, Okonkwo has simply preceded his people in their communal destruction. Once again he has led the way.
The novel's second ending, which I associate with adversarial history, views events from the heavily ironized perspective of the District Commissioner. Igbo culture is now presented not from the inside as vital and autonomous, but from the outside as an object of anthropological curiosity, and its collapse is understood not as an African tragedy but as a European triumph. As the final scene of the novel unfolds, the Igbos take the District Commissioner to the place where the suicide was committed:
Then they came to the tree from which Okonkwo's body was dangling, and they stopped dead.
"Perhaps your men can help us bring him down and bury him," said Obeirika. "We have sent for strangers from another village to do it for us, but they may be a long time coming."
The District Commissioner changed instantaneously. The resolute administrator in him gave way to the student of primitive customs.
"Why can't you take him down yourselves?" he asked.
"It is against our custom," said one of the men. "It is an abomination for a man to take his own life." (p. 190)
What is particularly noteworthy in this episode is the way the District Commissioner effortlessly shifts from the "resolute administrator" to the "student of primitive customs." Here Achebe demonstrates that, within a colonial context, the Foucauldian power-knowledge nexus is much more than a speculative theory—it is an inescapable and omnipresent reality. Thus, those who wrote historical and anthropological accounts of the Igbos were typically either representatives of the British government or their semi-official guests, and the colonial administration not only helped to enable such research by "opening up" various regions, but also relied upon it in determining local policy.20 In the case of Igboland, the earliest anthropological studies were written by P. Amaury Talbot, himself a District Commissioner, and G. T. Basden, a missionary whose safety and well-being literally depended on the colonial office. As Robert M. Wren has shown, both Talbot and Basden were, by the standards of the day, sympathetic observers of the Igbos—indeed, the latter was a personal friend of Achebe's father—but this did not prevent them from expressing in their published writings typically European attitudes towards the Africans.21 By way of illustration we might consider how the scene with the District Commissioner continues:
"Take down the body," the Commissioner ordered his chief messenger, "and bring it and all these people to the court."
"Yes, sah," the messenger said, saluting.
The Commissioner went away, taking three or four of the soldiers with him. In the many years in which he had toiled to bring civilization to different parts of Africa he had learned a number of things. One of them was that a District Commissioner must never attend to such undignified details as cutting a hanged man from the tree. Such attention would give the natives a poor opinion of him. In the book which he planned to write he would stress that point. (p. 191)
Achebe makes much the same point himself, though obviously to very different effect, in his essay, "Colonialist Criticism":
To the colonialist mind it was always of the utmost importance to be able to say: "I know my natives," a claim which implied two things at once: (a) that the native was really quite simple and (b) that understanding him and controlling him went hand in hand—understanding being a pre-condition for control and control constituting adequate proof of understanding.22
Yet notice how carefully Achebe has chosen his words: it is important for the colonialist mind not to know the natives but to be able to say "I know my natives." What the District Commissioner ultimately achieves is not genuine understanding but the illusion of understanding that comes with the power to control:
Every day brought him some new material. The story of this man who had killed a messenger and hanged himself would make interesting reading. One could almost write a whole chapter on him. Perhaps not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph, at any rate. There was so much else to include, and one must be firm in cutting out details. He had already chosen the title of the book, after much thought: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger. (p. 191)
With these words, Things Fall Apart completes its passage from the heroic tragedy of the first ending to the biting irony of the second ending. In his well-known essay on Heart of Darkness, Achebe argues against European accounts of Africa that have reduced its people to—I quote Achebe quoting Conrad—"rudimentary souls" capable only of "a violent babble of uncouth sounds."23 In presenting Okonkwo's epic story, epitomized by the first ending, Achebe offers a powerful counter-statement to the "dark continent" idea of Africa. But with the second ending he does something more. By ironically undermining the perspective of the District Commissioner, by exposing the latter's personal ignorance (not a "whole chapter" but a "reasonable paragraph") and political interests (the "pacification" of the Lower Niger), Achebe seeks to confront and finally to discredit the entire discourse of colonialism, those quasi-historical, quasi-anthropological writings that have treated Africa as nothing more than—again I quote Achebe—"a foil to Europe, a place of negations."24
At the same time, the second ending begins to redefine our point of view on the tragic events of the novel. Although this ending is clearly meant to undermine the District Commissioner's position, indeed to portray him as a fool, it nevertheless substantially alters the tone and mood of Achebe's resolution. Obviously the novel would read very differently—and its tragedy function very differently—if it concluded with, say, a heroic recitation of Okonkwo's suicide by Obeirika. In other words, the final chapter of Things Fall Apart serves not as a simple denouement—one that helps us sort out a rather messy climax—but as a significant qualification of what has gone before, a distinctly new ending that complicates our sense of Achebe's approach to both history and tragedy.25 In this regard, it is important to remember what Achebe himself has observed in interviews and essays: that while the passing away of traditional Igbo culture involved profound loss, it also held out the possibility of substantial gain. Thus, when he was asked about returning to pre-colonial society, the kind of world Okonkwo inhabited before "things fell apart," Achebe responded, "It's not really a question of going back. I think if one goes back, there's something wrong somewhere, or else a misunderstanding."26 In another interview, he pushed this position further, arguing that colonization was a multifaceted phenomenon, which had produced benefits as well as burdens: "I am not one of those who would say that Africa has gained nothing at all during the colonial period, I mean this is ridiculous—we gained a lot."27 Finally and most tellingly, he has insisted that, despite his own ambivalence on the subject, modernization is a necessary and essential part of Africa's future: "The comprehensive goal of a developing nation like Nigeria is, of course, development, or its somewhat better variant, modernization. I don't see much argument about that."28
What all of this means is that Achebe's response to colonization is far more nuanced, far more complex, than most critics have recognized or been willing to acknowledge. How such complexity expresses itself, and how it modifies Achebe's sense of tragedy, is further explored in the third ending.
What I shall identify as the third ending is located in No Longer At Ease, the sequel to Things Fall Apart. No doubt, the assertion that one text contains the ending of another will immediately strike some readers as dubious. Such a claim begins to gain credibility, however, when we remember that Achebe originally conceived of his two novels as the first and third sections of a single work.29 In other words, the compositional history of Things Fall Apart and No Longer At Ease provides some justification for treating the latter as a continuation of the former, an extension that qualifies Okonkwo's story, even redirects its course. Indeed, there is good reason to argue that No Longer At Ease is not only a continuation of Things Fall Apart but also a rewriting of it, one that essentially recapitulates the action of the earlier novel, though in a markedly different setting. Hence, both novels tell the story of a representative of the Igbo people who takes a stand on a question of principle and is destroyed in the ensuing collision between African and European values. To paraphrase one critic, the fall of Okonkwo's machete is replaced by the fall of the judge's gavel, as we are transported from a heroic to a legalistic world, but the narrative outline remains essentially the same. The very structure of No Longer At Ease indicates, then, that Okonkwo's story has not reached its end, that the tragic destiny it implies continues to be lived out.
This does not mean, however, that in writing Things Fall Apart and No Longer At Ease as independent works Achebe somehow betrayed the internal logic of his own narrative. On the contrary, the decision to treat Okonkwo's and Obi Okonkwo's stories separately contributes to what I have called Achebe's palimpsestic effect, the sense that the same or similar events acquire new meanings in different contexts. It is therefore not surprising that in moving from the first novel to the second, we observe Okonkwo's traditional tragedy transform itself into Obi's modern tragedy, as the heroic gives way to the ironic.
The point of intersection between the two novels, the scene in which I locate the third ending of Things Fall Apart, occurs when Okonkwo's grandson, Obi, a university-educated civil servant, finds himself discussing tragedy with a British colonial officer. Obi advances the opinion—of special interest given the first ending of Things Fall Apart—that suicide ruins a tragedy:
Real tragedy is never resolved. It goes on hopelessly forever. Conventional tragedy is too easy. The hero dies and we feel a purging of the emotions. A real tragedy takes place in a corner, in an untidy spot, to quote W. H. Auden. The rest of the world is unaware of it. Like that man in A Handful of Dust who reads Dickens to Mr. Todd. There is no release for him. When the story ends he is still reading. There is no purging of the emotions for us because we are not there.30
Obi draws a distinction in this passage between two kinds of tragedy. In traditional or Aristotelian tragedy, there is a clear resolution, an aesthetic pay-off that comes in the form of catharsis; but in modern or ironic tragedy, the tragedy described in Auden's "Musée des Beaux Arts," the fall from a high place is likened to Brueghel's famous painting of Icarus. In the foreground the ploughman ploughs his field; in the background a ship sails on its way. And it is only after careful inspection that we are able to discover the place of tragedy: there in the corner, barely perceptible, we see Icarus's two legs breaking the surface of the water, sole testimony of his personal catastrophe.
While the point of departure for Obi's discussion of tragedy is Graham Greene's The Heart of the Matter, his observations have an obvious application to Things Fall Apart. Okonkwo's story as viewed from the Igbo perspective presents history in the form of classical or heroic tragedy. Okonkwo's story as viewed from the District Commissioner's perspective presents history in the form of modern or ironic tragedy. One of Obi's remarks is particularly apposite: there is no purging of the emotions in modern tragedy, because "we are not there." These words perfectly describe the situation of the District Commissioner. He "was not there" in the sense that he was never in a position genuinely to understand Okonkwo, to appreciate who he was and what he represented.
It is important to stress, however, that the novel's first ending is not in some way compromised because it is associated with the "conventional," while the novel's second ending is in some way enhanced because it is associated with the "real." Indeed, if Achebe provides us with any controlling point of view, it comes with the third ending, which illustrates the vexed and ambiguous relation in which the postcolonial stands to its own past. For with his remarks on tragedy, Obi is offering a narrative analysis of what is literally his own past. In describing a tragedy that ends in suicide, he is describing his grandfather's tragic fall and its significance for Igbo culture after it was lost, after "things fell apart."
What the novel's third ending illustrates, then, is that the boundaries between the "conventional" and the "real," the heroic and the ironic, are not clearly or cleanly drawn. From Obi's perspective—and, for that matter, the reader's—Okonkwo functions both as a literary persona and a living person, an epic hero and an historical anachronism. Yet the novel does not invite us to select one of these alternatives so much as to understand the various, though decidedly distinctive, truths they articulate. In other words, we are not meant to choose from among three possible endings, but to read all of them, as it were, simultaneously and palimpsestically. If we are able to do this, we shall see how Achebe's sense of an ending is intimately bound up with his sense of cultural loss; how the tragedy of the past necessarily depends on the perspective of the present; and how history is inevitably written for both the "they who were there" and the "we who are not there."
At the beginning of this paper I asked three questions about the relation of postcolonial literature to the writing of history. I would now like to propose, however provisionally, some answers to these questions. First, where do postcolonial writers locate their past? There is certainly no single or definitive response to this question, but a writer like Achebe is acutely aware of how problematic are the issues it raises. For this reason Things Fall Apart and No Longer At Ease not only situate themselves in periods of historical transition (Nigeria at the turn of the century and in the late 1950s) but also superimpose these periods on each other through a series of intertextual connections, suggesting that postcolonial writers are the products of all the historical periods through which their cultures have lived. Second, can we confidently assign decisive beginnings and conclusive endings to the various epochs of colonial and postcolonial history? It is not immediately apparent how Achebe would answer this question, but his experiment in extended closure reminds us that the narrative shaping that necessarily comes with beginnings and endings in a human creation—a product of what Richard Rorty calls "contingency"—rather than a naturally occurring or divinely given reality.31 So it is that each of the three endings with which Achebe concludes Things Fall Apart grows out of different interests, different assumptions, different intentions, and none of these is, ultimately, true in itself. Finally, what historical stance should postcolonial writers assume to ward their own history? This is a particularly difficult problem and one that cannot be fully treated in the space that remains. Still, it is worth observing that Achebe has not only qualified the kind of nationalist history with which his work is so often associated, but also that he has shown a willingness to criticize traditional Igbo culture. While Achebe urgently feels the need to recuperate an African past that has been lost or overlooked, to tell the story that has not been told, he nevertheless recognizes the importance of maintaining a sense of intellectual and historical integrity:
The question is how does a writer re-create this past? Quite clearly there is a strong temptation to idealize it—to extol its good points and pretend that the bad never existed … [But] The credibility of the world [the writer] is attempting to re-create will be called into question and he will defeat his own purpose if he is suspected of glossing over inconvenient facts. We cannot pretend that our past was one long technicolour idyll. We have to admit that like other people's pasts ours had its good as well as its bad sides.32
The last general point I would like to make touches upon methodology. Too often the literature we call postcolonial has been read as little more than an exercise in political thematics. Such an approach is not surprising, given the enormous historical pressure out of which this literature was born, but it has led many critics to ignore crucial issues of form and technique. Yet, as I have sought to show, we can only begin to appreciate how a writer like Achebe envisions his past, both as history and tragedy, if we understand how he narratively shapes his material, how he achieves his sense of an ending. Attention to formal organization is particularly important in the case of Achebe, because he conceives of history neither in teleological nor positivistic terms, but as something human beings create, a series of stories built around beginnings and endings, a narrative construction. This is not to say that Achebe is fundamentally a postmodern writer, but neither is he exclusively a postcolonial writer. Or rather, to put the matter more precisely, he is a postcolonial writer insofar as he is a product of cultural globalization, insofar as he is an African who has grown up and continues to live at "the crossroads of cultures."33
Obviously, life at the crossroads is not easy. As a student of classical tragedy—not to mention a sometime rebellious son—he is aware of the perils, as well as the possibilities, that await us at those places of Oedipal intersection: "the crossroads does have a certain dangerous potency; dangerous because a man can perish there wrestling with multiple-headed spirits, but also because he might be lucky and return to his people with the boon of prophetic vision."34 But if forebears like Okonkwo, and alter egos like Obi, have been vanquished wrestling the demons of multiplicity, Achebe has emerged from these spiritual contests with a deeper and more comprehensive sense of what it means to inhabit the alternate worlds of postcolonialism, worlds that are at once aristocratic and democratic, heroic and ironic, ancient and contemporary. We are all of us the heirs of Achebe's prophetic vision, grappling with the problems and promises of a globalized modernity, working our way through its diverse scenarios, its different endings.
1. For a discussion of "globalization" and "postcolonialism," see Michael Valdez Moses, The Novel and the Globalization of Culture (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1995). The relation between "postmodernism" and "postcolonialism" has produced an exhaustive, not to say exhausting, bibliography: some of the better known essays are Kwame Anthony Appiah's "The Postcolonial and the Postmodern," in Appiah's book In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1992); Reginald Berry's "A Deckchair of Words," Landfall 40 (1986): 310-23; Diana Brydon's "The Myths that Write Us: Decolonising the Mind," Commonwealth 10.1 (1987): 1-14; Simon During's "Postmodernism or post-colonialism today," Textual Practice 1.1 (1987): 32-47; Linda Hutcheon's "'Circling the Downspout of Empire'; Post-Colonialism and Postmodernism," Ariel 20.4 (1989): 149-75; and Helen Tiffin's "Post-Colonialism, Post-Modernism and the Rehabilitation of Post-Colonial History," Journal of Commonwealth Literature 23.1 (1988): 169-81.
2. See Hayden White. The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1987).
3. Bhabha discusses the connection between "nation" and "narration" in the introductory essay of Nation and Narration (London: Routledge, 1990).
4. On narrative closure and postcolonial history, see Homi K. Bhabha, Nation and Narration, pp. 1-3 and Robert Young, White Mythologies (London: Routledge, 1990), pp. 33-41, 65-67, 137-40, 156: on historiography and postcolonialism, see Stephen Slemon, "Post-Colonial Allegory and the Transformation of History," The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 23.1 (1988): 157-68 and Helen Tiffin, "Post-Colonialism, Post-Modernism and the Rehabilitation of Post-Colonial History."
5. In "On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life," the second section of Untimely Meditations (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1983), Nietzsche argues that there are three different species or kinds of history: the "monumental," which celebrates the past; the "antiquarian," which investigates the past; and the "critical," which condemns the past.
6. Helen Tiffin, Simon Gikandi, and Michael Valdez Moses are among the few critics who have seen the ending of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart (New York: Fawcett, 1969) as less than straightforward. In "Post-Colonialism, Post-Modernism and the Rehabilitation of Post-Colonial History," Tiffin maintains that Achebe's novel "resists linear narrative techniques" (p. 174) until the British appear in Umuofia and asserts that the novel as a whole works against "closure" and "British textual containment" (p. 174). While I am not persuaded that the novel may neatly be divided into a linear, European narrative vs. a non-linear, African narrative, I agree with Tiffin's larger argument—namely, that the novel deliberately plays with the narrative conventions of linearity, chronology, and closure. While neither Gikandi nor Moses has focused on the novel's ending, both have suggested how the narrative shift to the District Commissioner's perspective introduces important complications into the novel's closing pages; see Gikandi, Reading Chinua Achebe: Language and Ideology in Fiction (London: James Currey, 1991), pp. 49-50 and Moses, pp. 132-33.
7. Chinua Achebe, "The Role of the Writer in a New Nation," African Writers on African Writing, ed. G. D. Killam (Evanston: Northwestern Univ. Press, 1973), p. 7.
8. Ibid., p. 8.
9. Such a conception of history may initially appear to be more postmodern than postcolonial, but it is closely related to the figure of the griot, the African storyteller who combines the functions of historian and poet. Achebe discusses the griot in an interview with Charles Rowell: "the role of the writer, the modern writer, is closer to that of the griot, the historian and poet, than any other practitioner of the arts"; Charles H. Rowell, "An Interview with Chinua Achebe," Callaloo 13.1 (1990): 86.
10. Robert Scrumaga, "Interview," African Writers Talking: A Collection of Interviews, Dennis Duerden and Cosmo Pieterse, eds (London: Heinemann, 1972), pp. 16-17.
11. For a discussion of tragedy in Things Fall Apart, see Afam Ebeogu, "Igbo Sense of Tragedy: A Thematic Feature of the Achebe School," The Literary Half-Yearly 24.1 (1983): 69-86; Abiola Irele, "The Tragic Conflict in Achebe's Novels," Introduction to African Literature: An Anthology of Critical Writing from "Black Orpheus". ed. Ulli Beier (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1970); Roger L. Landrum, "Chinua Achebe and the Aristotelian Concept of Tragedy," Black Academy Review 1.1 (1970): 22-30; Bruce F. Macdonald, "Chinua Achebe and the Structure of Colonial Tragedy," The Literary Half-Yearly 21.1 (1980): 50-63; Michael Valdez Moses, The Novel and the Globalization of Culture; Alastair Niven, "Chinua Achebe and the Possibility of Modern Tragedy," Kunapipi 12.2 (1990): 41-50; Chinyere Nwahuananya, "Social Tragedy in Achebe's Rural Novels: A Contrary View," Commonwealth Novel in English 4.1 (1991): 1-13; Clement A. Okafor, "A Sense of History in the Novels of Chinua Achebe," Journal of African Studies 8.2 (1981): 50-63: Margaret E. Turner, "Achebe, Hegel, and the New Colonialism," Kunapipi 12.2 (1990): 31-40.
12. Both Gikandi and Innes observe how Achebe's manipulation of time in the novel's opening scene points the reader toward issues of history and myth: see Gikandi, pp. 29-30 and C. L. Innes, Chinua Achebe (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990), pp. 36-37.
13. I am of course referring to the fact that colonization destroyed the premodern culture described in Umuofia. Obviously the Igbo people survived the arrival of the British, but their ethical, social, and religious systems ceased to exist as they had in the nineteenth century.
14. Moses, pp. 110-11.
15. Rowell, "An Interview With Chinua Achebe," p. 97. Achebe's views on Okonkwo as an example of an Aristotelian tragic hero are complicated, suggesting that any single theory of tragedy is not adequate to describe how the novel handles its tragic material. Thus, while Achebe rejects the idea that Okonkwo is, tout court, an Aristotelian hero, he goes on to explain at length how Things Fall Apart can be read in Aristotelian terms: "Rowell: How do you respond to critics reading Okonkwo as a hero in terms of Aristotle's concept of tragedy?" "A: No. I don't think I was responding to that particular format. This is not, of course, to say that there is no relationship between these. If we are to believe what we are hearing these days the Greeks did not drop from the sky. They evolved in a certain place which was very close to Africa … I think a lot of what Aristotle says makes sense" (p. 97). Achebe then proceeds to make the comment I quote in the body of this paper.
16. A number of critics, arguing against the tragic elements of Things Fall Apart and, reading the novel from a postheroic, Western perspective, contend that Okonkwo is not representative of his tribe—indeed, that he is fundamentally hostile to its interests and traditions; see, for example, Harold Scheub, "'When A Man Fails Alone,'" Présence Africaine 72.2 (1970): 61-89.
17. I agree with Moses when he maintains that Obierika's "assessment of Okonkwo's end is only partially correct" (p. 132); it is "correct" within the terms of the novel's first ending.
18. Kalu Ogbaa, "A Cultural Note on Okonkwo's Suicide," Kunapipi 2.3 (1981): 133-34.
19. See Kalu Ogbaa's "A Cultural Note on Okonkwo's Suicide," pp. 126-34, and Damian Opata's "The Sudden End of Alienation: A Reconsideration of Okonkwo's Suicide in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart," African Marburgensia 22.2 (1989): 24-32.
20. Achebe offers a memorable example of the power-knowledge nexus in Arrow of God (New York: Anchor Books, 1989, [pp. 32-33]) when he shows a colonial officer reading The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger by George Allen, the District Commissioner in Things Fall Apart. For Michel Foucault's treatment of power-knowledge, see Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), and Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972–1977, ed. Colin Gordon (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980); for critiques of Foucault's application of this idea to Western democracies, see Richard Rorty, "Moral Identity and Private Autonomy: The Case of Foucault," Philosophical Papers, Vol. 2: Essays on Heidegger and Others (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1991), and Michael Walzer, "The Lonely Politics of Michel Foucault," The Company of Critics: Social Criticism and Political Commitment in the Twentieth Century (New York: Basic Books, 1988).
21. Robert M. Wren, Achebe's World: The Historical and Cultural Context of the Novels (Washington, DC: Three Continents, Press, 1980), pp. 17-20.
22. Achebe, Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays (New York: Anchor Books, 1989), p. 71.
23. Achebe, "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness," Heart of Darkness: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources, Essays in Criticism, edited by Robert Kimbrough (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1988), p. 255.
24. Ibid., pp. 251-52. As Simon Gikandi has written, "whenever [Achebe] looked around him, he was confronted by the overwhelming hegemony of colonialist rhetoric on Africa—what he called 'the sedate prose of the district-officer-government-anthropologist of sixty or seventy years ago'—which the African intellectual has had to wrestle, like Jacob and the angel, at almost every juncture of our contemporary history. To invent a new African narrative was then to write against, and decentre, this colonial discourse as a prelude to evoking an alternative space of representation"; Reading Chinua Achebe, p. 6.
25. Moses is the only critic who has argued that Achebe is not simply ironizing the District Commissioner: "While Achebe's irony invites us to dismiss the District Commissioner as the unfeeling and pompous representative of a racist and imperialist perspective, the novel ultimately subsumes rather than rejects the official British view" (p. 133).
26. Kalu Ogbaa, "An Interview with Chinua Achebe," Research in African Literatures 12.1 (1981): p. 6.
27. Interview with Serumaga, p. 13.
28. Achebe, Hopes and Impediments, p. 155.
29. See, for example, Achebe's interview with Serumaga, p. 16.
30. Achebe, No Longer At Ease (New York: Fawcett, 1969), pp. 43-44, my emphasis.
31. For a discussion of "contingency," see Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989), especially Chapter One, "The Contingency of Language."
32. Achebe, "The Role of the Writer in a New Nation," p. 9.
33. Achebe, Hopes and Impediments, p. 34.
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Aji, Aron and Kirstin Lynne Ellsworth. "Ezinma: The Ogbanje Child in Achebe's Things Fall Apart." College Literature 19, No. 3 (October 1992): 170-5.
Details the narrative significance of Ezinma in Things Fall Apart, emphasizing the feminine principles and cultural resilience that informs the character's purpose in the novel.
Brooks, Jerome. "The Art of Fiction CXXXIX: Chinua Achebe." Paris Review 36 (Winter 1994): 142-66.
An interview with Achebe in which he discusses his education, his work as a broadcaster in Nigeria, his views on other writers, his audience, and the political situation in Nigeria.
Carey-Webb, Allen. "Heart of Darkness, Tarzan, and the 'Third World': Canons and Encounters in World Literature, English 109." College Literature 19, No. 3 (October 1992): 121-41.
Addresses the reception and contextualization of "Third World" or "post-colonial" literature by comparing the contemporary canonical significance of Heart of Darkness, Tarzan, and Things Fall Apart.
DePriest, Tomika. "Women's Social Roles in the Novels of Chinua Achebe." Mount Olive Review 8 (Winter-Spring 1995–1996): 138-43.
An examination of the social roles of women and Achebe's treatment of female characters in his various novels.
Fabre, Michel. "Chinua Achebe on Arrow of God." In Conversations with Chinua Achebe, edited by Bernth Lindfors, pp. 45-51. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1997.
An interview with Achebe in which he discusses his work Arrow of God.
Fleming, Bruce. "Brothers under the Skin: Achebe on Heart of Darkness." College Literature 19, No. 3 (October 1992): 90-9.
Reevaluates Achebe's charge of racism against Conrad in his essay, "An Image of Africa," focusing on similarities between the novelists' representational techniques.
Gikandi, Simon. Reading Chinua Achebe: Language and Ideology in Fiction (Studies in African Literature), 176 p. London: James Currey, 1991.
Gikandi reveals the nature of Achebe's creativity, its complexity and richness, and its paradoxes and ambiguities in his book. He places Achebe's writing in a wider context than former books by integrating Achebe's critical and theoretical writings.
Hall, Tony. "I Had to Write on the Chaos I Foresaw." In Conversations with Chinua Achebe, edited by Bernth Lindfors, pp. 18-26. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1997.
An interview originally published in Sunday Nation (Nairobi, Kenya), on January 15, 1967, in which Achebe addresses his literary reputation in Africa, political aspects of his novels, his personal politics, and the literary challenges of representing Africa.
Lindfors, Bernth. South Asian Responses to Chinua Achebe, edited by Bala Kothandaraman, 198 pp. New Delhi: Prestige, 1993.
Critical articles by South Asian scholars on Chinua Achebe.
Ogede, "Ode S. Achebe and Armah: a unity of shaping visions." Research in African Literatures 27 (Summer 1996): 112-27.
A comparison of the literary strategies employed by Achebe in A Man of the People and Ayi Kwei Armah in The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. Ogede argues that although much of the tone of Armah's work is bitter, trenchant, and somber, its vision of rebirth and renewal offers a more positive picture than Achebe's novel.
Quayson, Ato. "Realism, Criticism, and the Disguises of Both: A Reading of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart with an Evaluation of the Criticism Relating to It." Research in African Literatures 25 (Winter 1994): 117-36.
Quayson evaluates criticism relating to Achebe's work in general, and then offers a reading of Things Fall Apart, examining the treatment of patriarchy, women, and femininity in the novel.
Sengova, Joko. "Native Identity and Alienation in Richard Wright's Native Son and Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart: A Cross-Cultural Analysis." The Mississippi Quarterly 50 (Spring 1997): 327-51.
Sengova explores the use of "native" identity and "alienation" as literary themes in Wright's novel Native Son and in Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart. Sengova examines the case of Achebe's hero, Okonkwo, in a comparison with Wright's hero, Bigger Thomas, both of whom are alienated from their society and community.
Thomas, Clara. "Close Encounters: Margaret Laurence and Chinua Achebe." Journal of Canadian Studies 32 (Spring 1997): 163-66.
Thomas discusses the differences between the perspectives of the mid-1970s and mid-1980s, drawing on her involvement in and memory of the encounters between authors Margaret Laurence and Chinua Achebe.
Watford, Joyce. "Techniques of the Fantastic in Two West African Novels." In Contours of the Fantastic, edited by Michele K. Langford, pp. 65-74. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990.
Compares various uses of traditional Nigerian fantasy elements in Amos Tutuola's The Palm-Wine Drinkard and Things Fall Apart as the means to dramatize real-world concerns.