Chinua Achebe Achebe, Chinua (Vol. 26) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Chinua Achebe 1930–

(Born Albert Chinualumogu) Nigerian novelist, poet, short story writer, and essayist. See also Chinua Achebe Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 3, 5, 7, 11, 127.

Achebe is considered one of the finest of contemporary African writers. In his novels he explores traditional tribal values and the cultural changes resulting from European colonization. To present these themes, Achebe fuses ancient proverbs and idioms of his native Ibo people with the political ideologies and Christian doctrines emerging in modern Nigeria.

Achebe's first novel, Things Fall Apart, is praised by Charles R. Larson as "the archetypal African novel" because it traces the beginnings of European colonization in Nigeria and the developing conflict between tribal and Christian cultures. Arrow of God examines the breakdown and inevitable failure of traditional tribal customs in resisting colonial rule. No Longer at Ease and A Man of the People discuss the materialistic influence of Western culture on Nigeria's youth and the corrupt forces behind the country's victory as an independent state.

Achebe's writings in other genres also reveal the turmoil of Nigeria. Christmas in Biafra and Other Poems is highly regarded for its ironic simplicity in describing the anguish of the Nigerian civil war. Girls at War and Other Stories bitterly reflects a disillusionment with war and nationalism.

Commenting on his work, Achebe has stated that a writer in an emergent nation could not afford to pass up the opportunity to educate his fellow countrymen. Despite this urgency to teach, however, Achebe's work is also considered by most critics to be good reading.

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mr. Achebe is a young Nigerian. In Things Fall Apart, his first novel, he draws a fascinating picture of tribal life among his own people at the end of the nineteenth century. His literary method is apparently simple, but a vivid imagination illuminates every page, and his style is a model of clarity. He has chosen a very cunning way of getting as much authentic background into his story as he can, by making his hero a powerful and egocentric social climber who exploits every possibility of tribal life….

The great interest of this novel is that it genuinely succeeds in presenting tribal life from the inside. Patterns of feeling and attitudes of mind appear clothed in a distinctively African imagery, written neither up nor down…. We are made to share the African's experience of his masked gods, his oracles, and even his weather.

Only at the end of the book, when the European missionaries appear on the scene, does some confusion of attitude prevail. For Mr. Achebe himself owes much to missionary education, and his sympathies are naturally more with the new than the old. His picture of the collapse of tribal custom is perhaps less than compassionate.

"The Centre Cannot Hold," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1958; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 2938, June 20, 1958, p. 341.∗

Phoebe-Lou Adams

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The breakup of African tribal society is the subject of [Things Fall Apart]…. This theme has been discussed before with the same melancholy conclusions, but Mr. Achebe's book is distinctive in that most of it concerns African life before any European interference occurs.

Mr. Achebe's hero and his environment are described with care, and no attempt is made to disguise their unlovable aspects. Even by the standards of his own people, Okonkwo is not a particularly attractive man: hard working and a good provider, but overambitious, short tempered, heavy handed, humorless, and self-important. (p. 101)

To Okonkwo's credit, he is honest, conscientious in his civic duties (he has risen to the honorable office of representing one of the ancestral spirits during their masked appearances in public), fond of his wives and children despite his bullying manner, and devoted to his gods. He also has physical courage, although he is short of nerve on moral questions and always takes the easy, conventional way out.

This is the portrait of any ordinary, proper, businesslike citizen, and Mr. Achebe has been very clever in building it up in terms of mud-walled compounds, yams, and human sacrifice…. These affairs permit Mr. Achebe to record the habits, jokes, stories, work, and festivities of the tribesmen in detail, until the structure of their society rises as clearly as his hero's character.

Okonkwo's world is brutal in some respects, very gentle in others, highly organized but quite incapable of contending with jails and policemen. These arrive hard on the heels of the first missionary, and everything is thrown topsy-turvy. Okonkwo, a born conservative, fights for the old gods and is beaten at once. He becomes a paragraph in a projected book on The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger, to be written by a man who does not understand any more about the society he is busily destroying than Okonkwo does about bookkeeping. (p. 102)

Phoebe-Lou Adams, "The Onslaught of Civilization," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1959, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 203, No. 2, February, 1959, pp. 101-02.

John Coleman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Obi, the educated young Nigerian hero [of No Longer at Ease], sits in a government office in Lagos and reflects on his English boss:

He must have come originally with an ideal—to bring light to the heart of darkness, to tribal head-hunters performing weird ceremonies and unspeakable rites. But when he arrived Africa played him false. Where was his beloved bush full of human sacrifices?

And yet Okonkwo, Obi's grandfather, had severed heads, as readers of Chinua Achebe's previous novel [Things Fall Apart] may recall, and the darkness lay all around. (p. 616)

No Longer at Ease is Obi's contemporary story, another grim one. The pacification has been long completed and Nigerian independence isn't far off. The brilliant local boy returns, after several years' study in England, to find himself at odds with both his family and the well-wishers—the Umuofia Progressive Union—who subscribed to send him away. He falls in love with Clara, an osu or 'untouchable,' and makes himself unpopular by refusing to take the traditional bribes in his new job. But his salary is inadequate to cover his commitments…. Mr. Achebe's novel moves towards its inevitable catastrophe with classic directness. Nothing is wasted and it is only after the sad, understated close that one realises, once again, how much of the Nigerian context has been touched in, from...

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Robert C. Healey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["No Longer at Ease"] is the bourgeois tragedy, African style, of the promising young urban executive who succumbs to temptation when he is no longer able to keep up appearances and make ends meet. Obi Okonkwo, the mixed-up young hero who is no longer at ease, is the grandson of the tough tribal chief who fought to the death against the white man and his ways in Chinua Achebe's first novel, "Things Fall Apart." Unlike his single-minded grandfather, Obi has become thoroughly confused in his loyalties and allegiances, and the white man is only indirectly to blame.

Obi has too much status, too much to live up to even on a handsome salary. He is a "been-to," the only person in his village who has been to England for a university education…. As a university graduate he enjoys a select civil service status and naturally has to live in a suitable European apartment and keep up a car and a chauffeur. He has certain obligations to his family in the village, and there is also Clara, another "been-to" he is most anxious to marry. As the bills and obligations pile up, little wonder that he begins to heed the siren song of the bribes that seem so much a part of the atmosphere around him.

Outwardly this might be the plight of any ambitious junior executive continually strapped for cash. But this is Lagos, and Obi, so much at home in English literature, is a halfway child ill at ease in a culture which has sedulously adopted the outer trappings of the white man without surrendering all of its old ideas….

Compared to his heroic grandfather, Obi cuts a rather sorry figure and he is intended to. But Achebe is at his best in sketching significant details and backgrounds, the metropolitan bustle and temptations of Lagos or the dignified formality of a village which could adopt the white man's formal invitation for its feasts but interpret the RSVP as "Rice and Stew Very Plenty." Wholly declarative and bare of rhetorical subtlety, "No Longer at Ease," which was apparently written several years before Nigerian independence, is primitive storytelling in the best sense. Its very artlessness is its greatest asset and charm.

Robert C. Healey, "Between Two Worlds," in Lively Arts and Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), April 30, 1961, p. 28.


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In A Man of the People Achebe] illuminates today's confused events along the opaque waters of the Niger. Life imitates art, but seldom so promptly on cue. Achebe's book sounds the obituary drums for "the fat-dripping, gummy, eat-and-let-eat regime" that history has extinguished, and makes clear why his still unstable nation should turn to military government. In fact, his novel ends with just such a military coup, the first of many, it seems….

Achebe tells his story through the mouth of Odili Samalu, a sprightly rapscallion—part idealist, part young man on the make—whom it would be tempting to call a colored Candide, except that Odili has no innocence at all, only a naiveté that makes a farce both of his convictions and his ambition. He is, in fact, perhaps the most engaging character in fiction about Africa since the hero of Joyce Cary's Mister Johnson, who was factotum to a white colonial official. (p. 80)

But times change. The white man has gone, and Odili must emerge with his emergent nation and attach himself to black power in the person of a cynical grafter named Chief Nanga. So begins a comedy of Freedom Now….

Later he joins a reform party to put Chief Nanga and his grafters out of office. It ends in debacle. Odili is beaten nearly to death by the chief's forthright constituents, and it is back to the village for him. But all is well. A military coup deposes Nanga's gang, and, with a more or less good conscience, the convalescent Odili is able to pay the "bride price" for [Nanga's] now redundant "parlor wife." He does it from party funds.

No American Negro writer has approached the comic posture that Chinua Achebe has achieved toward his own people. His book is worth a ton of documentary journalism. Indeed, he has shown that a mind that observes clearly but feels deeply enough to afford laughter may be more wise than all the politicians and journalists. (p. 84)

A review of "A Man of the People," in Time (copyright 1966 Time Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission from Time), Vol. 88, No. 8, August 19, 1966, pp. 80, 84.

Phoebe-Lou Adams

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Arrow of God] is not comfortable reading, nor is it easy to keep track of three dozen minor characters with names like Ofuedu and Amoge, but Arrow of God is worth the effort. It is enormously informative. It crackles with ironic contrasts and the sour comedy of reciprocal misunderstanding. Old Ezeulu and his unreliable sons are vividly living people whose unfamiliar principles gradually become comprehensible and worthy of respect. One even grows fond of their proverbs.

Phoebe-Lou Adams, in her review of "Arrow of God," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1967, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 220, No. 6, December, 1967, p. 150.

Ronald Christ

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Before he opens ["Arrow of God"], the American reader will be well advised to ask himself two basic questions. Is he about to read it because it's a new novel—or because it's written by a prominent Nigerian about Nigeria? Will he judge it as fiction, or as ethnic reporting of ancient customs in conflict with new politics? In both cases, the second approach will prove more rewarding—though even then the rewards will be on the meager side….

Not that Mr. Achebe's new book lacks plot in the conventional sense. Here, once again, we have the story of the native ruler (Chief Priest Ezeulu, "god" of six Ibo villages) in conflict with the British District Officer (Captain Winterbottom). Ezeulu finds his...

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Charles Miller

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In reading Arrow of God, it's not … necessary to know that there is such a place as the African continent to recognize at once that you are in the presence of an extraordinarily mature literary artist.

In fact, I don't think it extravagant to say that the book brings to mind Joyce Cary's African novels. It must be added, however, that if Achebe should ever happen to read this he would probably dissent vigorously and take the comparison as affront rather than honor. More than once he has said, in so many words, that Cary got away with murder, that he had no real knowledge of his subject, that his characters (notably Mister Johnson) were merely caricatures, and so forth. But whether or not...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Chinua Achebe's powerful feeling for a lost civilization has really nothing to do with that other West African turning back to tradition—that is, the NEGRITUDE of the French-language writers. It is not reversion: it is not a desire to return. It is a contemporary writer's examination of the past, made so that he may better understand himself in the present…. As has been oft-noted, the title of Achebe's first and finest novel, Things Fall Apart … is significantly from Yeats, and is clearly indicative of the novelist's concern with the coherence of a former life….

What is perhaps most striking about Achebe in Things Fall Apart is that he does not neglect the ugliness, the iron...

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Kate Turkington

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Achebe's first three novels, Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease and Arrow of God have been published as a trilogy. His last novel to date (and surely, now, there must come a book about the recent Nigerian/Biafran conflict) is Man of the People. Superficially, however, the novels fall into two camps. Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God are "traditional" novels in that they are situated firmly in the past, in the traditional Ibo culture and way of life. No Longer at Ease and Man of the People are present-day situation novels, dealing as they do with educated young men versus corrupt politicians. The differences are superficial, however, because the main theme as it seems...

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Adrian A. Roscoe

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Achebe's declared aims as a writer] are twofold: to teach his people, and to satirise them; or, as he puts it, 'to help my society regain its belief in itself' and 'to expose and attack injustice'. The first is part of his contribution to the task of giving back to Africa the pride and self-respect it lost during the years of colonialism, to repair 'the disaster brought upon the African psyche in the period of subjection to alien races'. In this way, he takes his place alongside the band of historians, anthropologists, and political scientists who are hard at work on the massive task of African rehabilitation.

The second, the satirist's vocation, is in a sense loftier than the first, since it can...

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Bruce King

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It could be argued that the real tradition of Nigerian literature in English begins with Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart…. It begins a tradition not only because its influence can be detected on subsequent Nigerian novelists, such as T. M. Aluko, but also because it was the first solid achievement upon which others could build. Achebe was the first Nigerian writer to successfully transmute the conventions of the novel, a European art form, into African literature. His craftsmanship can be seen in the way he creates a totally Nigerian texture for his fiction: Ibo idioms translated into English are used freely; European character study is subordinated to the portrayal of communal life; European economy of...

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John Povey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Chinua Achebe is very clearly the best novelist in that group of writers who at Ibadan in the fifties contrived the birth of West African literature in English. He may lack the easy grace and wit of that urbane dramatist Wole Soyinka, yet his work has a structural strength and architectural coherence unmatched by other novelists…. So close are many African novelists to the events they record that there is none of that artistic distance which is the basis for the writer's art. Plots mirror the autobiographical information proffered in the fly-leaf of the book's dust-jacket and this causes the balance of events to be seen only through the single self-satisfied vision of the protagonist, and the end, unless it has the...

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The New Yorker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The stories in "Girls at War and Other Stories"] show, among other things, how British colonialism, the disintegration of tribal ways, modern education, and the Biafran war have affected Nigerian life. The excellent title story is about a proud young Ibo girl who becomes completely demoralized by the war. In another story, "The Voter," old rituals and new money are used to fix a local election. Mr. Achebe's writing has a kind of serene, grandfatherly quality—especially his humor, which comes at unexpected moments. These are worldly, intelligent, absorbing stories, whose only flaw is a superfluity of untranslated Ibo words and phrases….

A review of "Girls at War and Other...

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Ifeanyi A. Menkiti

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The mood [of Christmas in Biafra and Other Poems] is as varied as the subject matter. The opening section deals with the years immediately before the Nigerian Civil War, and the second section (from which the book's title is taken), with the war period. Then there are "Poems Not About War"—about you and me, and about gods and the things they do to men. Achebe writes with grace and clarity. The poems, throughout, reflect the attachments of a man whose roots run deep into the Ibo soil.

Ifeanyi A. Menkiti, in his review of "Christmas in Biafra and Other Poems," in Library Journal (reprinted from Library Journal, May 1, 1973; published by R. R. Bowker Co. (a...

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The New York Times Book Review

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Girls at War" is ironic, witty and complex in its consideration of various ways in which the old Africa interacts with the new.

In "Dead Man's Path," one of the best and most representative of the stories, an ambitious and "modern" young teacher is assigned to take over the school in a provincial village. A path runs through the school grounds, connecting the village with the ancestral graveyard; the teacher considers it an eyesore, and closes it off. "Look here, my son," he is told by the village priest, "this path was here before you were born and before your father was born. The whole life of this village depends on it…." The teacher scoffs ("The whole purpose of our school … is to eradicate...

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Joseph Bruchac

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Christmas in Biafra], Chinua Achebe's first book of poetry, may turn out to be, like Things Fall Apart, a landmark in African writing…. Written during the long period of his silence as a novelist, the poems are a chronicle of the difficult years of a man and his nation, as well as a truly unified book of poetry which has much to offer for both African and Western readers. Divided into 5 sections, the book takes us on a journey which begins with dark omens of disaster, progresses into the nightmare of a fratricidal war, passes through the difficult transition period when both the writer's own voice and the nation of Nigeria were being reborn, and finally rises to the point where the poet has returned,...

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Francis M. Sibley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Chinua Achebe's four novels] are all set in Nigeria. Read as a tetralogy, they reveal a theme of tragedy together with intense moral concern. The tragedy and moral concern are not just for the fictional characters in the novels, nor are they just for the people of Nigeria, who experience extreme changes in their lives as a result of colonialism and internal strife. Rather, these novels, as they focus upon tragedy and morality, transcend their setting. By being extremely provincial, Achebe projects a picture of human experience with universal applicability. His art entertains, but it entertains in order to instruct, and it instructs about the nature of tragedy and about workable morality in fiction and in life. Of...

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G. D. Killam

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Achebe's short stories in Girls At War] reveal the same interests as the longer fiction….

[The stories] fall into two classes: those which show an aspect of the conflict between traditional and modern values—for example, 'The Sacrificial Egg', 'Dead Man's Path', and 'Marriage is a Private Affair' (originally called 'The Beginning of the End')—and those which display the nature of custom or religious belief without attempting to probe or explain their meanings. In fact such a separation is arbitrary; in the best stories the conflict between the traditional and the modern has its base in the general beliefs which underlie the former.

To these may be added a third...

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Jonathan Peters

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A Man of the People, Achebe's fourth novel, embodies a major new feature in his development as a novelist. It is a first person narrative told from the limited point of view of one of the principal participants in the story, and the accounts are given not very long after the final catastrophe. The major personal conflict in the book is between Chief the Honourable M. A. Nanga, M.P., and Odili Samalu, his former pupil. In his capacity as narrator Odili begins his story with a deliberately sarcastic statement about Nanga. This sarcasm sets the tone for the satire which sometimes involves Odili himself…. (p. 143)

[It] is part of the novel's irony that as narrator of the incidents which lead to...

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Bruce King

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

With the publication of Things Fall Apart (1958) Nigeria had the classic book that would serve as a point of reference and comparison for future writing. The novel was not only more competent than anything that had preceded it, but it also introduced techniques that liberated future African novelists from having to imitate the conventions of a western literary genre. The omniscient narrator of the opening paragraphs is representative of the voice of the community and introduces the story with simple, somewhat repetitive sentences in an approximation of a story-teller, thus associating the novel with Igbo traditional oral literature. In contrast to the literary device of a first-person narrator which makes us...

(The entire section is 2483 words.)