Last Updated on January 4, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1993
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 Afrocentric...
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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 Afrocentric perspective rather than a Eurocentric 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 reinterpreting 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 intergenerational 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 hypermasculinity 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, Okonkwo's 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 does in participating in the sacrifice of Ikemefuna Consequently, even though Achebe might emphasize male characters and perspectives, he does not simply represent men as superior to women. In fact, there are many ways in which Achebe critiques Okonkwo's inflated sense of masculinity.
Another way to interpret Okonkwo's character is to focus less on his internal personality and look instead at how this personality is shaped by the various social and historical contexts in which he lives. From such a perspective, Things Fall Apart does not explore oedipal conflicts or gender identity as much as it explores the tension between pursuing individual desires and conforming to the community's values and customs. In many ways, Okonkwo's tragic death results directly from his inability to balance these competing demands of individuality and community. At first, Okonkwo seems an ideal representative of his community's values. He earns honor and respect from his people by developing the physical strength, manly courage, and disciplined will valued by his Igbo culture. As the novel progresses, however, Okonkwo's success gradually develops into a dangerous sense of individualism that flagrantly disregards the community's rules and decisions. For example, he beats his wife during the sacred Week of Peace, and he attempts to single-handedly attack the British instead of waiting for and accepting the community's collective decision. In fact, many critics have argued that this individualistic disregard for the community is Okonkwo's primary tragic flaw, though it is perhaps difficult to separate this individualism from Okonkwo's other character flaws such as inflexibility, hyper-masculinity, and an obsessive reaction against his father.
In an even broader context, Achebe adds yet another dimension to Okonkwo's tragedy by situating it within the historical context of British colonial expansion. As the novel progresses, the initial focus on Okonkwo's psychological struggles enlarges to include Okonkwo's political struggle against British colonialism By situating the personal tragedy of Okonkwo's suicide within (his larger historical tragedy of colonial domination, Things Fall Apart develops a double-tragedy. Moreover, this double-tragedy further complicates the interpretation of Okonkwo's character because the external tragedy of colonial domination largely provokes Okonkwo's internal aggression. Although both Okonkwo and his society are responsible for their own destruction to some degree, there is also another sense in which they are destroyed by forces beyond their control. While the reader might condemn Okonkwo's rash outburst of violence, the reader also sympathizes with and perhaps even justifies the rage that Okonkwo feels while watching foreign invaders unjustly accuse and dominate his people. Even though Okonkwo's final act of resistance is ineffective and perhaps even misguided, it exemplifies how Africans and other colonized peoples have courageously resisted colonialism instead of passively accepting it Consequently, Okonkwo's character is both tragically flawed and tragically heroic, and instead of separating the intermixed heroism and destructiveness that defines Okonkwo throughout the novel, Achebe's conclusion only emphasizes' how Okonkwo's strengths and weaknesses are interrelated Thus, Achebe's conclusion brings together a masterful sense of character, tragedy, and irony.
In addition, Things Fall Apart is also important stylistically because it develops a hybrid aesthetic form that creatively fuses European and African cultural forms. At the simplest level, Achebe does this through his use of language. By introducing numerous African terms throughout the novel, he develops a hybrid language that mixes Igbo and English words. While some of these words may be confusing at first, by the end of the novel the reader learns to recognize many basic Igbo words like chi (fate), obi (hut), and osu (outcast). At a more complex level, however, Achebe also integrates African cultural traditions into the structure of the novel through his use of proverbs and folktales. Many of the insights developed in the novel are presented either through proverbs or through stones drawn from the rich oral traditions of Igbo culture. These stories, like the story about Mosquito's marriage proposal to Ear and the story about Tortoise's attempt to trick the birds out of their feast, function as stories-within-the-story, and they add additional layers of meaning to the main plot of the novel.
In addition to its literary and political value, Things Fall Apart is also a novel rich in anthropological detail. In many ways, it can be read as an anthropological description of the daily life and customs of the Igbo people because Achebe blends his description of Okonkwo's tragedy with a richly detailed description of Igbo culture before European colonization. Throughout the novel, Achebe describes numerous aspects of daily life in a traditional Igbo community ranging from methods of farming and forms of entertainment to dietary practices, clan titles, kinship structures, and marriage customs. In addition, he also describes a wide variety of Igbo religious beliefs and ceremonies such as the Week of Peace, the Feast of the New Yam, the ozo dance, ogbanje spirit-children who keep dying and being reborn, the Evil Forest, and various gods and goddesses. This comprehensive, detailed description of African customs not only helps the reader understand the daily activities and religious beliefs of the Igbo people, but it also helps the reader begin to understand an Igbo world view. Consequently, it represents not only how Igbo people live but also what they believe and how they think and feel.
Finally, Achebe adds yet another dimension to Things Fall Apart by concluding the novel with a strong critique of how Western colonial histories have been written from biased, ethnocentric perspectives. While this historical dimension of the novel may not be readily apparent at first, Achebe makes it unmistakably clear in the concluding paragraph, which describes the District Commissioner's callous response to Okonkwo's suicide. In addition to being generally apathetic to Okonkwo's death, the District Commissioner seems even more inhuman because he takes interest in Okonkwo's suicide only because it will give him "new material" for his book. After the reader has read Achebe's detailed and moving description of Okonkwo' s life, the District Commissioner dismisses this story as only worth a "reasonable paragraph" because there is "so much else to include, and one must be firm in cutting out the details." At this point, Achebe begins to turn the reader's attention from the District Commissioner's lack of compassion to his historical ignorance, which grossly underestimates the long and complex history leading up to Okonkwo's tragic death. Moreover, the District Commissioner's decision to title his book The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger demonstrates both his inability to think of African people as anything other than primitive and his inability to recognize how he has brought violence instead of peace to the Lower Niger.
By ending the novel with the District Commissioner's complete misinterpretation and miswriting of the scene of colonial conflict, Achebe suggests that his novel is not simply about the colonial encounter between two cultures. At a deeper level, it is also about how the story of that encounter is told. It is a story about the telling of history itself. By drawing attention to the District Commissioner's erroneous sense of history, Achebe reminds the reader that western descriptions of Africa have largely been written by men like the District Commissioner. Consequently, Things Fall Apart seeks to correct such erroneous historical records by retelling African history from an African perspective that intimately understands Okonkwo's pain and outrage, even if it does not completely condone Okonkwo's violent actions.
Source: Robert Bennett, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1997. Bennett is a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Last Updated on January 4, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2482
That Achebe sees the best of Igbo village life as offering something of the ideal is suggested by an interview in 1988 with Raoul Granqvist (in Travelling: Chinua Achebe in Scandinavia. Swedish Writers in Africa, Umea University, 1990). Achebe, talking of the importance of ideals, refers to the example of village life based on a land of equality. "This," he says,
is what the Igbo people chose, the small village entity that was completely self-governing . . . The reason why they chose it [this system] was because they wanted to be in control of their lives. So if the community says that we will have a meeting in the market place tomorrow, everybody should go there, or could go there. And everybody could speak.
Since Achebe is not the first to write of Africa, he must dispel old images in order to create a true sense of his people's dignity. Works such as Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness see Africans as primitives representing Europeans at an earlier stage of civilization, or imaging all humanity's primal urges which civilization hides. Firsthand European accounts of the colonial period, such as the district commissioner's Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger in Things Fall Apart, reduce the African experience to an anthropological study told from the white man's point of view. Achebe reveals that the Europeans' ideas of Africa are mistaken. Perhaps the most important mistake of the British is their belief that all civilization progresses, as theirs has, from the tribal stage through monarchy to parliamentary government.
The Igbos, on the other hand, have developed a democratic system of government. For great decisions the ndichie, or elders, gather together all of Umuofia. The clan rules all, and the collective will of the clan can be established only by the group. Further, as is appropriate in a democracy, each man is judged on his own merits, "according to his worth," not those of his father, as would be appropriate in an aristocracy or an oligarchy.
Within this system the Igbos as a whole reveal themselves more tolerant of other cultures than the Europeans, who merely see the Igbos as uncivilized. In other words, the Igbo are in some ways superior to those who come to convert them. Uchendu, for example, is able to see that "what is good among one people is an abomination with others," but the white men tell the Igbos that Igbo customs are bad and that their gods are not true gods at all. Unlike the Europeans, the Igbos believe that it "is good that a man should worship the gods and spirits of his fathers" even if these gods are not the Igbos' gods. While the European tradition allows men to fight their brothers over religion, the Igbo tradition forbids them to kill each other: it is an abomination to kill a member of the clan. Further, the long history of Crusades and holy wars and of religious persecution in Europe occurs because men can fight for gods, but it is not the Igbo "custom to fight for [their] gods." Rather, heresy is a matter only between the man and the god.
The Christian missionary in Mbanta objects to the Igbo gods on the belief that they tell the Igbos to kill each other, and, in fact, the gods are invoked in the fighting of wars against another village—though not indiscriminately, only when the war is just. At times the oracle forbids the Umuofians to go to war. The Europeans in Things Fall Apart, however, kill far more in the name of religion than the Igbos: the British, for example, wipe out the whole village of Abame in retaliation for the killing of one white man.
The Igbos do not fight each other because they are primitive. Achebe implies the existence of the conditions in Nigeria which historically led to the need for war as a matter of survival. The land, consisting of rock underlying an almost nonexistent topsoil, was very poor and thus would not support large numbers of people. Planting soon depleted the soil, and so villagers were forced to move further and further afield to find land which would yield a crop to support them. Okonkwo's father, the lazy Unoka, has little success planting yams because he sows on "exhausted farms that take no labor to clear." Meanwhile, his neighbors, crossing "seven rivers to make their farms," plant the "virgin forests." As the population of Nigeria increased, land and food were insufficient to provide for everyone The novel seems to make the turning point in the alteration from plenty to scarcity some time between the generation of Okonkwo's Uncle Uchendu and that of Okonkwo, for Uchendu speaks of "the good days when a man had friends in distant clans." Although the state of constant warfare was hardly desirable, at least it provided a means for survival.
The Christian missionary, then, is mistaken about the perversity of the Igbo religion: some wars are inevitable if the clan is to survive, but war is not indiscriminate. Religion is a factor both in limiting war and in supporting it when it is just. In the latter case war might be seen as a deterrent to future crimes against Umuofia. Neighboring clans try to avoid war with Umuofia because it is "feared" as a village "powerful in war," and when someone in Mbaino kills a Umuofian woman, "even the enemy clan know that" the threatened war is "just."
In fact, the Igbo have a highly developed system of religion which works as effectively as Christianity. The Igbo religion and the Christian religion are equally irrational, but both operate along similar lines to support morality. To the Christians it seems crazy to worship wooden idols, but to the Igbos it seems crazy to say that God has a son when he has no wife. Both systems of religion look to only one supreme god, Chukwu for the Umuofians. Both supreme gods have messengers on earth, Christ for the British and the wooden idols for the Igbos. Both religions support humility; the Igbos speak to Chukwu through messengers because they do not want to worry the master, but they deal with Chukwu directly if all else fails. Both gods are vengeful only when disregarded. If a person disobeys Chukwu, the god is to be feared, but Chukwu "need not be feared by those who do his will."
In addition to revealing that the original Igbo religion is not inferior to Christianity, Achebe makes it clear that the demoralizing current state of political affairs in Africa is the result of European interference rather than simply the natural outgrowth of the native culture. The Igbos have a well-established and effective system of justice which the British replace with the system of district commissioners and court messengers. Disputes in the tribe which cannot be resolved in other ways come before the egwugwu, the greatest masked spirits of the clan, played by titled villagers. Hearing witnesses on both sides, for example, the tribunal comes to a decision in the case of Uzowulu, who beat his wife, and his indignant in-laws, who took his wife and children away. In this dispute the egwugwu try to assuage each side. They warn Uzowulu that it "is not bravery when a man fights a woman" and tell him to take a pot of wine to his in-laws; they tell Odukwe to return Uzowulu's wife if he comes with wine. The system helps to dispel hard feelings by refusing "to blame this man or to praise that"; rather, the egwugwu's duty is simply "to settle the dispute."
Although the conditions in Nigeria require warlike men for the survival of the village, the Igbos have realized the danger of such men to their own society. Warriors must be fierce to their enemies and gentle to their own people, yet spirited men can bring discord to their own societies. The tribe has institutions to control the anger of its own men. For instance, there is a Week of Peace sacred to the earth goddess. Moreover, as indicated earlier, killing members of one's own clan is forbidden, and even inadvertent death such as Okonkwo's killing of Ezeudu's son must be expiated. Recognizing the need for Okonkwo to distinguish between friends and enemies, Ogbuefi Ezeudu calls on Okonkwo to tell him to have nothing to do with the killing of Ikemefuna because the boy is too much like a family member: "He calls you his father."
In addition to supplying a workable system of government and institutions supporting moderation and morality, the Igbos have an economic system which redistributes wealth in a manner preventing any one tribesman from becoming supreme. As Robert Wren asserts (in Achebe's World, 1981), ozo requires that every ambitious man of wealth periodically distribute his excess. In order to take any of the titles of the clan, a man has to give up a portion of his wealth to the clan. Okoye, in Things Fall Apart, is gathering all his resources in preparation for the "very expensive" ceremony required to take the Idemili title, the third highest in the land. As Achebe explains in Arrow of God, long ago there had been a fifth title among the Igbos of Umuaro—the title of king:
But the conditions for its attainment had been so severe that no man had ever taken it, one of the conditions being that the man aspiring to be king must first pay the debts of every man and every woman in Umuaro.
Along with the representation of the viability of Igbo institutions in a world without Europeans, Achebe gives a sense of the beauty of Igbo art, poetry and music by showing how it is interwoven with the most important institutions of the clan and by creating a sense of the Igbo language through his own use of English. The decorating of walls and bodies or the shaving of hair in "beautiful patterns" recurs in various ceremonies. Music and dancing are a part of Igbo rituals which call for talent such as that of Obiozo Ezikolo, king of all the drums. Stones become the means of inciting men to strength, of teaching about the gods, and of generally passing on the culture.
In addition to portraying the dignity of Igbo village life, Achebe makes it clear that the Igbos did not need the white man to carry them into the modern world. Within the Igbo system change and progress were possible. When old customs were ineffective, they were gradually discarded. Formerly the punishment for breaking the Week of Peace was not so mild as that meted out to Okonkwo, an offering to Ani. In the past "a man who broke the peace was dragged on the ground through the village until he died. But after a while this custom was stopped because it spoiled the peace which it was meant to preserve." Such changes were likely to be brought about by men who, like Obierika, "thought about things," such as why a man should suffer for an inadvertent offense or why twins should be thrown away.
Although Achebe has the Igbo culture meet certain standards, he does not idealize the past. Probably the most troubling aspect of Igbo culture for modern democrats is the law that requires the killing of Ikemefuna for the sins of his clan. Achebe's description of Ikemefuna makes him a sympathetic character, and it is difficult not to side with Nwoye in rebelling against this act. Nevertheless, Igbo history does not seem so different from that of the British who think they are civilizing the natives. A form of the principle of an eye for an eye is involved in Mbaino's giving Mbanta a young virgin and a young man to replace the "daughter of Mbanta" killed in Mbaino. It is the Old Testament principle cast in a more flexible and gentler mold, for the killing of Ikemefuna is dependent on the Oracle and thus is not, like the Old Testament law, inevitable. Further, the sacrifices of the virgin to replace the lost wife and of the young boy become a way to "avoid war and bloodshed" while still protecting one's tribe from injustices against it. Achebe, then, seems to depict this episode in terms which relate it to the development of the British, while also sympathizing with the impulses to change in Obierika and with the revulsion of Nwoye against the sacrifice which to him is so like the abandonment of twins in the Evil Forest. The sacrifice of the virgin, of course, is also a reminder of the sacrifices of young virgins in the classical literature which is so basic a part of the British heritage.
Although Achebe depicts the treachery and ignorance and intolerance of the British, he does not represent the Europeans as wholly evil. Both the Igbo and the British cultures are for Achebe a mixture of types of human beings. Okonkwo and Mr. Smith are warrior types who will not compromise when their own cultures are threatened. Okonkwo favors fighting the Christians when in Abame one of them kills the sacred python, and he favors war with the Christians in Umuofia. In the end he cuts down the court messengers who come to disband the meeting in Umuofia. Likewise, the Reverend James Smith is against compromise: "He saw the world as a battlefield in which the children of light were locked in mortal conflict with the sons of darkness."
Mr. Brown, on the other hand, is more like Akunna or Obierika. He and Akunna are willing to learn about the other's beliefs even if they are not converted to them. He and Obierika are thoughtful defenders of their own cultures. Mr. Brown recognizes the difficulty with a frontal attack on the Igbo religion, and so he favors compromise and accommodation. Obierika realizes that if Umuofia kills the Christians, the soldiers from Umuru will annihilate the village.
Achebe's novel, then, depicts for both Africans and Americans the actual and potential sources of modern Nigerian dignity. Things Fall Apart suggests that the perpetual human types recur in all cultures and that all effective civilizations must learn to deal with those types. Revealing the Igbo ability in precolonial times to incorporate the variety of humans in a well-functioning, culture, Achebe refers his Igbo society to a series of standards which both Africans and Americans can seek as goals—a degree of redistribution of wealth, a combining of male and female principles, compelling art and poetry and music, tolerance, democracy, morality, a sound system of justice and, perhaps most important, the capacity for meaningful change. Lending veracity to his depiction of Igbo history by remaining clearsighted about cultural weaknesses which need correction, Achebe depicts a worthy precursor of a healthy and just modern civilization.
Source: Diana Akers Rhoads, "Culture in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart," in The African Studies Review, Vol. 26, No. 2, September, 1993, pp. 61–72.
Last Updated on January 4, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1485
Written about the past of Africa by a novelist who sees himself as a "teacher," Things Fall Apart encompasses several worlds, several experiences, sometimes complex, all altered or mixed. Achebe is never a mere reporter of public events. Talking of Things Fall Apart, he said, "I now know that my first book was an act of atonement with my past, the ritual return and homage of a prodigal son" (Achebe in Morning Yet on Creation Day, Heinemann, 1975). The past that Chinua Achebe describes so beautifully in Things Fall Apart is a past that Achebe himself had to rediscover. It is a past that was largely lost as a result of twentieth-century Europeanization. This rediscovery of the suppressed past is an act of faith and religious revival. Achebe, like the majority of African writers today, wants his writings to be functional, to serve as oral literature did in traditional Africa, reflecting the totality of actual experience. As David Cook tells us,
Close study of a passage from Things Fall Apart out of context is particularly likely to lead to pedantic fault-finding and to have little relation to the full impact the novel makes upon us since . . . the achievement of this work is essentially an epic achievement in which the whole is greater than the parts and in which the parts cannot be appreciated properly when separated from the whole. (African Literature. A Critical View, by David Cook, Longman, 1977)
John Mbiti similarly sees the holistic and communal nature of African culture in his statement: "I am because we are and since we are therefore I am" (in African Religions and Philosophy, by John Mbiti, Anchor Books Doubleday, 1970). This communal sense makes it necessary to see Okonkwo as something other than just a tragic hero in the usual Western sense—a lonely figure who passes moral judgment the group.
The "we" of Achebe's story is the Ibo society of Umuofia, which has no centralized authority or king. The tribal setup is very different from most tribal societies in Africa, because of its respect for individualism and its rejection of any inherited or hierarchical system of authority. The Ibo people's highly individualistic society may have developed partly because of geography, for they lived in forest areas which were difficult to penetrate, and each village lived separated from the next. These natural obstacles are described by another Ibo writer, Elechi Amadi, in his novel The Concubine (Heinemann, 1982):
Only the braves could go as far as Alyi. It was a whole day's journey from Omokachi. The path went through forests and swamps and there is no knowing when and where headhunters would strike. When there was any message to be relayed to Alyi two strong men ran the errand.
In spite of its isolation, Umuofia society is proud, dignified, and stable. It is governed by a complicated system of customs, traditions, and rituals extending from birth through marriage to death. It has its own legal, educational, and religious system and conventions governing relations between men and women, adults and children, and the various generations. The first part of the book allows us to see the customs, rituals, and traditions of Umuofia (e.g., consultation of oracles, the Week of Peace, the New Yam Festival) and to see the myths operating in the clan (e.g., 0gbanje, or a child that repeatedly dies and returns to the mother to be reborn, the exposure of twins, and taboos about shedding the blood of one's clansmen).
In addition, we are shown a society that is competitive and materialistic. A man's prestige is in direct proportion to the size of his barns and his compounds, to the number of titles he has taken. As Things Fall Apart shows the first impact of European invasion upon the old Ibo society, Achebe presents, in a very fair and objective way, the strengths and weaknesses of this society. Contrary to the views of the District Commissioner who plans to write a book, The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger, Achebe presents an Ibo culture which is neither "primitive" nor "barbaric." Even though his ambition to prove that "African peoples did not hear of culture for the first time from Europeans" might seem to cast doubt on his objectivity, he does not romanticize the Ibo society, but reveals instead the bad side as well as the good. He acts as the conscientious teacher he wants to be. Nothing is left aside.
To his credit, Achebe does not merely describe these traditions, values, and customs; he brings the ceremonial to life, presenting events and conversations dramatically. In so doing, he presents convincingly a rich Ibo culture which is not static, but clearly in a state of transition. Outwardly, Umuofia is a world of serenity, harmony, and communal activity, but inwardly it is torn by the individual's personal doubts and fears. At times, the reader is faced with contradictions. For example, although the child is valued more than any material thing in Umuofian society, an innocent child named Ikemefuna is denied life by traditional laws and customs that demand his life in return for that of a Umuofian who was killed by his people. But Ibo society is full of contradictions. It is a world in which the spiritual dimension is a part of daily life, but also a world in which a man's success is measured by his material goods. It is a world which is at once communal and individualistic, a world in which human relations are paramount, but in which old people and twins are left in the forest to die. It is a male-dominated society, in which the chief goddess is female and in which proverbial wisdom maintains "Mother is supreme." This sustained view of the duality of the traditional Ibo society intensifies the wider tragedy and reveals the dilemma that shapes and destroys the life of Okonkwo.
In providing a context for interpreting Okonkwo's relationship with his society, the novel's use of proverbs plays an important role. They reveal the clan's dependence upon traditional wisdom and help to present the whole way of life. Many critics have demonstrated the power of proverbs in the work of Achebe in general and in Things Fall Apart in particular. Bernth Lindfors sums up the role of the proverbs in Achebe's fictions when he declares,
Proverbs can serve as keys to an understanding of his novels because he uses them not merely to add a touch of local color but to sound and reiterate themes, to sharpen characterization, to clarify conflict, and to focus on the values of the society he is portraying. (Folklore in Nigerian Literature, by Bernth Lindfors, Africana Publishing, 1973)
Such an understanding of the subtleties of language by the reader is possible only through personal effort linked with open-mindedness. It is, unfortunately, those elements which are lacking among many of the characters in the novel and which have led also to cultural misunderstanding among its readers. Achebe is using English, a worldwide language, to translate African experience. In other words, English, a tool in the hands of all those who have learnt to master it, can be submitted to different kinds of use Critics of African literature must keep this fact in mind and try to grasp all the riches of the Ibo language and rhetoric that Achebe, as a son of the tribe, has tried to translate. With such an attitude, the critic will contribute to consolidating and widening our experience, the human experience. Hasn't the reader grown into accepting, for instance, that the natural world is penetrated by the supernatural, thanks to Achebe's ability to make us live (with the characters) the various stages of their cultural life?
Things Fall Apart, the title of which is an allusion to W. B. Yeats's poem "The Second Coming," is a novel in which Achebe is interested in analyzing the way things happen and in giving language to the Ibo experience. He offers a larger view of history and of individual life:
No civilization can either remain static or evolve forever towards a more inclusive perfection. It must both collapse from within and be overwhelmed from without, and what replaces it will appear most opposite to itself, being built from all that it overlooked or undervalued. (In Critical Perspectives on Achebe, edited by C. L. Innes and Bernth Lindfors, Three Continents Press, 1978)
The novel, therefore, celebrates stability in human affairs despite its apparent "anarchy" (to use a word from Yeats's poem). Ibo culture, even while changing, is very much alive. Despite the tragic loss of Okonkwo, the society of the Ibos, because of its flexibility, survives. Despite the loss, "the center holds."
Source: Ndiawar Sarr, "The Center Holds—The Resilience of Ibo Culture in Things Fall Apart," in Global Perspectives on Teaching Literature, Shared Visions and Distinctive Visions, Sandra Ward Lott, Maureen S. G. Hawkins, Norman McMillan, eds., National Council of Teachers of English, 1993, pp. 347–55.