Things Fall Apart: A Valuable Source of African Literature
As the most widely read work of African fiction, Things Fall Apart has played an instrumental role in introducing African literature to readers throughout the world. In particular, Achebe's fiction has contributed to world literature by retelling African history, as well as the history of European colonization, from an Afro-centric perspective rather than a Euro-centric one. By shifting the narrative focus from the perspective of the colonizer to the perspective of the colonized, Achebe's novels reveal and correct many of the biased assumptions found in previous historical and literary descriptions of Africa. Specifically, they reaffirm the value of African cultures by representing their rich and complex cultural traditions instead of stereotyping them as irrational and primitive. As Achebe explains in his frequently quoted essay, "The Novelist as Teacher," his novels seek to teach Africans that "their past—with all its imperfections—was not one night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God's behalf delivered them." To say that Achebe affirms African culture and history, however, is not to imply that he simply inverts European ethnocentrism by romanticizing African culture as perfect or vilifying European cultures as entirely corrupt. Instead, Achebe presents a remarkably balanced view of how all cultures encompass both good and bad dimensions.
In addition to re-interpreting African culture and history from an African perspective, Things Fall Apart is also significant because of its mastery of literary conventions. In fact, many critics argue that it is the best African novel ever written, and they specifically praise its sophisticated development of character, tragedy, and irony. Okonkwo, in particular, is a complex character, and consequently there are many ways to interpret his role in the novel. On one level, he can be interpreted psychologically in terms of the oedipal struggle that he has with his father and the very different oedipal struggle that his son, Nwoye, has with him. As each son rejects the example of his father, these three generations form a reactionary cycle that ironically repeats itself: when Nwoye rejects Okonkwo's masculinity, he ironically returns to the more feminine disposition that Okonkwo originally rejected in his father. Many of the major events of the novel, including both Okonkwo's tragic drive to succeed and Nwoye's eventual conversion to Christianity, largely result from the inter-generational struggle created when each son rejects his father.
Another way to analyze the psychological dimensions of Okonkwo's character is to examine how he constructs his sense of gender by asserting a strong sense of masculinity and repressing any sense of femininity Just as there is an external psychological conflict between Okonkwo and his father, there is also an internal psychological conflict between the masculine and feminine sides within Okonkwo. While Okonkwo's hyper-masculinity initially enables him to achieve success as a great wrestler and warrior, his refusal to balance this masculine side with feminine virtues eventually contributes to his later destruction. At virtually every turn in the novel, his excessive masculinity nudges him toward new troubles. Because of his contempt for unmanliness, he rudely insults Osugo, destroys his relationship with his own son Nwoye, and lets himself be pressured into sacrificing Ikemefuna in spite of Ezeudu's warning. Moreover, Okonkwo's lack of respect for women is equally pervasive and problematic. He ignores the wisdom found in women's stories, he frequently intimidates and beats his wives, and he can only relate to his daughter Ezinma because he thinks of her as a boy. Consequently, Okonkwo is a man out of balance who has only developed one half of his full serf because he only accepts the masculine side of his culture.
In addition to noting how gender influences Okonkwo's behavior within the story, many critics also note that gender influences Achebe as an author. Feminist critics, in particular, have criticized Things Fall Apart both for suggesting that men are representative of all Africans and for focusing too exclusively on masculine activities and male characters. Though it is perhaps inevitable that Achebe would write his novel from a male perspective, these critics raise interesting questions about how Achebe's male perspective might ignore and misrepresent the experiences of African women. Nevertheless, despite Achebe's male bias, there are moments in the novel when Achebe emphasizes female characters and valorizes (heir perspectives. It is the women who pass on many of the cultural traditions through stories, and it is Okonkwo's daughter, Ezinma, not his son, Nwoye, who understands Okonkwo in the end. Moreover, Okonkwo's wife, Ekwefi, shows more courage and parental love in defending the life of her daughter, Ezinma, than Okonkwo...
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