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Things Fall Apart

by Chinua Achebe

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Jeffrey Meyers (essay date 1969)

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SOURCE: "Culture and History in Things Fall Apart," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. 11, No. 1, 1969, pp. 25–32.

[In the following essay, Meyers discusses Achebe's presentation of both the positive and negative elements of tribal society in Things Fall Apart.]

The novels of Chinua Achebe, the best of the new generation of West Africans writing in English,1 begin with the coming of the white man to the bush and end in contemporary Lagos, and show the process of moral and cultural disintegration that results from colonialism. The novels reveal the changing perspectives of each succeeding generation, which have also been described by the Nigerian leader Awolowo before independence: "Our grandfathers with unbonded gratitude adored the British. . . . Our immediate fathers simply toed the line. We of today are critical, unappreciative, and do not feel that we owe any debt of gratitude to the British. The younger elements in our group are extremely cynical, and cannot understand why Britain is in Nigeria."2 Achebe's first and best novel, Things Fall Apart (1958), re-interprets the European view of African culture and history prevalent since the zenith of imperialism. Basil Davidson declares that "Even within the last ten years the former Governor of Nigeria could write that 'for centuries, while all the pageant of history swept by, the African remained unmoved—in primitive savagery'. . . This belief that Africans had lived in universal chaos or stagnation . . . [was] exceedingly convenient in imperial times"3 and provided the necessary justification for conquest and exploitation. This historical view is still voiced today by such prominent men as Sir Alan Burns, former Governor-General of the Gold Coast and author of a standard history of Nigeria, who continues in the antiquated though unbroken tradition of Lugard's pronouncement—"the Animism and Fetish of the pagan represent no system of ethics and no principles of conduct"4—and who asserts of pre-colonial Nigeria:

in the bad old days under tyrannical indigenous rulers the unfortunate peasants had no chance to cultivate their land properly and little opportunity to reap for their own benefit what they had sown. . . . Free men also suffered from the cruelty and rapacity of indigenous rulers. They were liable, at the whim of a chief or through the instigation of a fetish-priest, to indescribable tortures and brutal punishments. Trade was hampered by bad communications and the depredations of robbers and pirates who plundered and murdered peaceful traders. Tribal warfare caused much loss of life and destruction of property.5

The two corollaries of this historical misconception are Burns' claim that "the inhabitants of these [African] territories as a whole stood aside during the fighting and willingly accepted British rule," and the traditional "defense of colonies"—"At its lowest assessment British rule was the lesser of two evils."6

We have put a stop to slavery and human sacrifice, we have checked the cruelty and corruption of indigenous rulers, we have stamped out certain diseases and reduced the incidence of others, we have brought a measure of education to people who were generally illiterate. We have developed backward countries by the construction of roads and railways, we have opened up mines and improved on the primitive agriculture of the past. We have allowed trade to develop under the protection of a firm administration.7

The patronizing and self-righteous speech of Achebe's District Commissioner echoes Burns' claim:

we have brought a peaceful administration to your people so that you may be happy. If any man ill-treats you we shall come to your rescue. But we will not...

(This entire section contains 2958 words.)

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allow you to ill-treat others. We have a court of law where we judge cases and administer justicejust as it is done in my own country under a great queen.8

This speech illustrates the central defect of British rule: a cultural ethnocentrism that denies the validity, and even the existence, of African customs, law and morality. The DC employs court messengers who are both brutal and corrupt, and judges cases in total ignorance. He does not understand African customs, for, as one elder asks, "How can he when he does not even speak our tongue? But he says that our customs are bad" (p. 160).

One of the themes of this novel is the need for cultural relativity, which the Africans possess but the British lack. "What is good among one people is an abomination with others" (p. 127), says one of the African leaders; and another elder states, "he does not understand our customs just as we do not understand his. We say he is foolish because he does not know our ways, and perhaps he says we are foolish because we do not know his" (p. 172). This simple language expresses an important idea first expounded by Edmund Burke: that societies evolve organically, upon the basis of their own traditions and necessities, and that to impose alien institutions and controls undermines stability and the restraining force of the moral code.

The frustration and violence of the hero Okonkwo are a mute expression of what has been stated by the most eloquent African leaders and intellectuals. Nkrumah says that "The white man arrogated to himself the right to rule and to be obeyed by the non-white; his mission, he claimed, was to 'civilise' Africa. Under this cloak, the Europeans robbed the continent of vast riches and inflicted unimaginable suffering on the African people."9 Mphahlele asserts that "Capitalist economy has for a long time now been battering on African traditions. Our traditional forms of communism and communal responsibility in which the land belongs to the people under the chief's trusteeship, co-operative farming, and so on, are fast going."10 And Kaunda declares that "The Western way of life has been so powerful that our own social, cultural and political set-up has been raped by the powerful and greedy Western civilization. . . . The result is . . . moral destruction."11

When asked about the moral view of Things Fall Apart, Achebe replied: "I feel that this particular society had its good side—the poetry of the life; the simplicity, if you like; the communal way of sharing in happiness and in sorrow and in work and all that. It also had art and music. But it had this cruel side to it and it is this that I think helped to bring down my hero."12 There is a dichotomy, then, between the traditions, rituals and ceremonies of tribal life that Achebe celebrates with dignity and pride, and the cruelty that he narrates with honesty and restraint.

More than half the novel describes the life and customs of the clan, for as Achebe says, "I think I'm basically an ancestor worshipper; if you like. Not in the same sense as my grandfather would probably do it, pouring palm wine on the floor for the ancestors . . . With me it takes a form of a celebration, and I feel a certain compulsion to do this."13 During the Feast of the New Yam, for example, he describes the woman who "set about painting themselves with cam wood and drawing beautiful black patterns on their stomachs and backs. The children were also decorated, especially their hair, which was shaved in beautiful patterns" (p. 34). Achebe celebrates the bonds of kinship in family life, the respectful and ceremonial visits, the worship of the ancestral spirits, the veneration of the Oracle and of the elders; the virgin's confession, the arrangement of the bride price, the feasts of marriage, of harvest, and of farewell; the singing, the drumming, the dancing and the wrestling; the village councils and oratory, the courts of justice and the last rites for the dead. The proverbs and folk tales that richly endow the novel represent the very essence of cultural traditions and homely wisdom, for "Among the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten" (p. 6).

But tribal life is not entirely idyllic. Human heads are captured in war, the diseased are abandoned to their solitary death agonies in the Evil Forest, slaves are kept, human being are sacrificed, twins are murdered and babies are mutilated. It is this cruel side of tribal life that drives the sensitive Nwoye, Okonkwo's oldest son, out of the clan and into the church:

The hymn about brothers who sat in darkness and in fear seemed to answer a vague and persistent question that haunted his young soul—the question of the twins crying in the bush and the question of Ikemefuna who was killed. He felt a relief within as the hymn poured into his parched soul. The words of the hymn were like the drops of frozen rain melting on the dry palate of the panting earth (p. 134).

Despite these cruelties, the fundamental and intrinsic belief that "the law of the land must be obeyed" (p. 63) underlies every aspect of this tribal life. Offenses against the moral sanctions of the law inevitably lead to tragedy, and are committed by Okonkwo, by the entire clan and by the white missionaries and their followers.

Okonkwo is the ambitious and impetuous son of a weak and indolent father. He is a great wrestler, a brave warrior, an industrious worker and a respected leader, who venerates the ancient customs and glories of his people. "He mourned for the clan, which he saw breaking up and falling apart, and he mourned for the warlike men of Umuofia, who had so unaccountably become soft like women" (p. 165). Okonkwo's offenses against the law magnify and intensify as the novel progresses, and his destructive path leads from disturbing the week of peace and shooting at his wife, to participating in the sacrifice of his adopted son Ikemefuna, accidentally killing a clansman, deliberately killing the messenger of the whites and finally hanging himself.

The central episode in these tragic events and the best scene in the novel is the death of Ikemefuna, who the Oracle suddenly declares must be sacrificed. Okonkwo is warned by his friend, "That boy calls you father. Do not bear a hand in his death" (p. 51), but he accompanies his clansmen into the forest where the sacrifice is to be performed. The music and dancing from a nearby village that the executioners hear suggests the mixture of good and evil, joy and terror in the world; and the "giant trees and climbers which perhaps had stood from the beginning of things, untouched by the axe and the bush-fire" (p. 53) symbolize the primitive element in the tribal customs that demands the slaughter of the innocent victim. Though Ikemefuna's cry, "My father, they have killed me!," recalls the last words of the crucified Christ, the sacrifice is a re-enactment of the trial of Abraham and Isaac in the land of Moriah (when Nwoye, Ikonkwo's son and Ikemefuna's adopted brother, converts, he takes the name of Isaac)—but without the intervention of a harsh but just God. "Dazed with fear, Okonkwo drew his machete and cut him down. He was afraid of being thought weak" (p. 55).

The tragedy of the clan, like that of Okonkwo, begins with the sacrificial murder of Ikemefuna. It is followed by the murder of the first white man who unexpectedly appears on a bicycle; and then by the destruction of the mission church, which is provoked by the white missionaries and the British government that stands behind them.

The missionaries appear in the second part of the novel, while Okonkwo is in exile for the accidental murder of a clansman, and their insidious progress works like a subtle poison to undermine the solidarity of the tribe. They first attract the undesirables, oppose the animist gods, thrive in the Evil Forest despite its fatal reputation (and thereby enhance their own), rescue abandoned twins, admit the outcasts and destroy the sacred python. They then begin to attract more worthy men, divide the tribe, bring trade, prosperity and education, and sacrilegiously kill the ancestral spirits. Finally, the British arrest, humiliate and torture the leaders, and drive Okonkwo to murder and suicide.

Achebe's novel reflects the deliberate destructive policy of the missionaries who, writes James Coleman,

did not seek to preserve traditional society, but rather to transform it14 . . . included among the preconditions for entry into the Christian fold [were] the abandonment of such customs as initiation ceremonies (a crucial phase in the African system of education), dancing (a vital part of the esthetic and recreational life of the African), marriage payment (a bond linking the families of the bride and the groom), polygyny (at the core of the entire African family system), secret societies (very often key institutions in the traditional political system), and ancestor worship (the symbol of community which linked the individual to a larger whole through time), not to mention so-called witch-doctoring, semi-nudity, African names, and traditional funeral ceremonies. . . . The main consequences of the early negative approach of missionaries were the undermining of parental authority, the weakening of traditional sanctions, the general alienation of Christian elements from the balance of the community, and the inculcation of disrespect for traditional cultures.15

When Okonkwo returns from his maternal village he finds the tribe in chaos and despair. "He saw himself and his fathers crowding round their ancestral shrine waiting in vain for worship and sacrifice and finding nothing but ashes of bygone days, and his children the while praying to the white man's god" (p. 139).16 The unity of the tribe has been destroyed for "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" (p. 183). Okonkwo realizes that the white man "has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart" (p. 160). As he mourns for his friends and tribesmen, "It seemed as if the very soul of the tribe wept for a great evil that was coming—its own death . . . All our gods are weeping . . . Our dead fathers are weeping because of the shameful sacrilege they are suffering and the abomination we have all seen with our eyes" (pp. 168, 182–83). In the midst of a futile clan meeting to decide what action should be taken against the whites, messengers appear to break up the gathering. While his tribesmen cower in fear and confusion, Okonkwo alone is capable of action. He restores his dignity as a man and a warrior by decapitating a messenger, though this violence and vengeance must lead to the final abomination of suicide.

Things Fall Apart, then, is about the destruction of a traditional culture and society after the impact of a more powerful western civilization and technology; and it is a celebration of and nostalgia for the virtues of that society, and a mourning for its extinction. This novel opposes Burns' materialistic views and demonstrates the existence, the beauty and the value of the African culture. It shows how the Africans opposed white domination, which, when forcibly established, was in many ways worse, not better, than pre-colonial life. Achebe's conservative vision represents African tradition. He recreates the vital rhythms of the ageless life in the bush, the animist religion and the popular feasts, that are the very sources of cultural and spiritual vitality in the life of the people. Achebe's book reveals that no amount of material progress and law and order can compensate for lack of liberty and personal dignity, a lack that degrades every aspect of personal, cultural, social and moral life.


  1. See Achebe's "The English Language and the African Writer," Moderna Spraak (Sweden), LVIII (Dec. 1964), 438–446, where he defends Africans' use of English as a common world language.

  2. Quoted in James Coleman, Nigeria: Background to Nationalism (Berkeley, 1958), p. 412.

  3. Basil Davidson, The Lost Cities of Africa (Boston, 1959), pp. viii–ix.

  4. Quoted in The New Statesman, LXX (9 July 1965), 56.

  5. Sir Alan Burns, In Defense of Colonies (London, 1957), pp. 63, 67.

  6. Ibid., p. 42. Michael G. Smith, Government in Zazzau (Northern Nigeria) (Oxford, 1960), p. 199, refutes this view: "In 1897 British forces of the Royal Niger Company under the command of Sir George Goldie overpowered the Fulani kingdom of Nupe and overawed its neighbor, Ilorin." Josiah Kariuki, Mau-Mau Detainee (Baltimore: Penguin, 1964), pp. 48–49, expresses the modern African viewpoint, now generally accepted in the West, when he writes of Kenya, "The Kikuyu rightly felt that their uneducated forefathers had not understood the nature and implications of the requests forced on them by the early administrators and settlers, nor had they the weapons or power to refuse any demand that was pressed really hard."

  7. Ibid., p. 23.

  8. Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1958), p. 175. Italics mine. Subsequent page references will be cited in parentheses after the quotation.

  9. Kwame Nkrumah, I Speak of Freedom (New York: Praeger, 1961), p. IX. Albert Schweitzer, On the Edge of the Primeval Forest (London: Fontana, 1961), p. 124, also criticizes the human and moral degradation of colonialism and asks, "Who can describe the injustice and the cruelties that in the course of centuries they have suffered at the hands of Europeans? . . . Anything we give them is not benevolence but atonement."

  10. Ezekiel Mphahlele, The African Image (New York: Praeger, 1962), p. 21.

  11. Kenneth Kaunda, Zambie Shall Be Free (London: Heinemann, 1962), p. 114.

  12. Quoted in Louis Nkosi, "Some Conversations with African Writers," Africa Report, IX (July 1964), 19.

  13. Ibid., p. 20.

  14. Coleman, p. 91. A very progressive view, which opposes this policy, is expressed by Mary Kingsley, West African Studies (London, 1899), p. 383: "The knowledge of native laws, religion, institutions, and State-form would give you the knowledge of what is good in these things, so that you might develop and encourage them."

  15. Ibid., pp. 97, 100.

  16. See Chinua Achebe, Arrow of God (London, 1964), pp. 104–105, 286: The chief priest laments, "there is no escape from the white man. . . . As daylight chases away darkness so will the white man drive away all our customs. . . . What could it point to but the collapse and ruin of all things? Then a god, finding himself powerless, might take to his heels."


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Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

(Full name Albert Chinualumogu Achebe) Nigerian novelist, essayist, poet, short story writer, and children's writer.

The following entry presents criticism on Achebe's Things Fall Apart (1958). For further information on his life and works, see CLC Volumes 1, 3, 5, 7, 11, 26, and 127.

Things Fall Apart (1958) is one of the most widely read and studied African novels ever written. Critics have viewed the work as Achebe's answer to the limited and often inaccurate presentation of Nigerian life and customs found in literature written by powers of the colonial era. Achebe does not paint an idyllic picture of pre-colonial Africa, but instead shows Igbo society with all its flaws as well as virtues. The novel's title is taken from W. B. Yeats's poem "The Second Coming."

Plot and Major Characters

Things Fall Apart traces life in the Igbo village of Umuofia, Nigeria, just before and after its initial contact with European colonists and their Christian religion. The novel focuses on Okonkwo, an ambitious and inflexible clan member trying to overcome the legacy of his weak father. The clan does not judge men on their father's faults, and Okonkwo's status is based on his own achievements. He is a great wrestler, a brave warrior, and a respected member of the clan who endeavors to uphold its traditions and customs. He lives for the veneration of his ancestors and their ways. Okonkwo's impetuousness and rigidness, however, often pit him against the laws of the clan, as when he beats his wife during the Week of Peace. The first part of the novel traces Okonkwo's successes and failures within the clan. In the second part he is finally exiled when he shoots at his wife and accidentally hits a clansman. According to clan law, his property is destroyed, and he must leave his father's land for seven years. He flees to his mother's homeland, which is just beginning to experience contact with Christian missionaries. Okonkwo is anxious to return to Umuofia, but finds upon his return—the third part of the novel—that life has also begun to change there as well. The Christian missionaries have made inroads into the culture of the clan through its disenfranchised members. Shortly after his return, Okonkwo's own son leaves for the mission school, disgusted by his father's participation in the death of a boy that his family had taken in and treated as their own. Okonkwo eventually stands up to the missionaries in an attempt to protect his culture, but when he kills a British messenger, Okonkwo realizes that he stands alone, and kills himself. Ironically, suicide is considered the ultimate disgrace by the clan, and his people are unable to bury him.

Major Themes

The main theme of Things Fall Apart focuses on the clash between traditional Igbo society and the culture and religion of the colonists. Achebe wrote the novel in English but incorporated into the prose a rhythm that conveyed a sense of African oral storytelling. He also used traditional African images including the harmattan (an African dust-laden wind) and palm oil, as well as Igbo proverbs. In an effort to show the clash between the two cultures, Achebe presented traditional Christian symbols and then described the clan's contrasting reactions to them. For instance, in Christianity, locusts are a symbol of destruction and ruin, but the Umuofians rejoice at their coming because they are a source of food. The arrival of the locusts comes directly before the arrival of the missionaries in the novel. Transition is another major theme of the novel and is expressed through the changing nature of Igbo society. Several references are made throughout the narrative to faded traditions in the clan, emphasizing the changing nature of its laws and customs. Colonization is a time of great transition in Umuofia and the novel focuses on Okonkwo's rigidity in the face of this change. Other themes include duality, the nature of religious belief, and individualism versus community.

Critical Reception

Reviewers have praised Achebe's neutral narration and have described Things Fall Apart as a realistic novel. Much of the critical discussion about Things Fall Apart concentrates on the socio-political aspects of the novel, including the friction between the members of Igbo society as they are confronted with the intrusive and overpowering presence of Western government and beliefs. Ernest N. Emenyonu commented that "Things Fall Apart is indeed a classic study of cross-cultural misunderstanding and the consequences to the rest of humanity, when a belligerent culture or civilization, out of sheer arrogance and ethnocentrism, takes it upon itself to invade another culture, another civilization." One of the issues that critics have continued to discuss is whether Okonkwo serves as an embodiment of the values of Umuofia or stands in conflict with them. This discussion often centers around the question of Okonkwo's culpability in the killing of the boy, Ikemefuna. Many critics have argued that Okonkwo was wrong and went against the clan when he became involved in killing the boy. Other reviewers have asserted that he was merely fulfilling the command of the Oracle of the Hills and Caves. Several critics have compared Things Fall Apart to a Greek tragedy and Okonkwo to a tragic hero. Aron Aji and Kirstin Lynne Ellsworth have stated, "As numerous critics have observed, Okonkwo is at once an allegorical everyman figure embodying the existential paradoxes of the Igbo culture in transition, and a great tragic hero in the tradition of Oedipus, Antigone, and Lear." Some critics have complimented Achebe's choice to write in the language of the colonizers, lauding his artful use of the English language. Several reviewers have also noted his use of African images and proverbs to convey African culture and oral storytelling. Arlene A. Elder has asserted, "Achebe's use of proverbial language enhances the richness of Things Fall Apart, and the author points out that '[a]mong the Igbo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten.'"

Solomon O. Iyasere (essay date Spring 1974)

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SOURCE: “Narrative Techniques in Things Fall Apart,” in New Letters, Vol. 40, No. 3, Spring, 1974, pp. 73–93.

[In the following essay, Iyasere analyzes the complexity of the narrative technique in Things Fall Apart.]

No West African fiction in English has received as much critical attention as Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe's first and most impressive novel. In defending its importance, most critics link its value solely to its theme, which they take to be the disintegration of an almost Edenic traditional society as a result of its contact and conflict with Western practices and beliefs. These enthusiastic critics, such as Gleason and Killam, are primarily interested in the socio-cultural features of the work, and stress the historical picture of a traditional Ibo village community without observing how this picture is delimited, how this material serves the end of art. This approach, which cannot withstand critical scrutiny, does great violence to the text and denies it the artistic vitality they so vigorously claim for it.

Overemphasizing the ways in which Okonkwo represents certain values fundamental to the Umuofia society, Killam turns Okonkwo into an embodiment of the values of this society, averring, “Okonkwo was one of the greatest men of his time, the embodiment of Ibo values, the man who better than most symbolizes his race” (The Novels of Chinua Achebe, 17). Eustace Palmer, a moralistic critic, presents a similar interpretation but extends Okonkwo's role from champion to victim:

Okonkwo is what his society has made him, for his most conspicuous qualities are a response to the demands of his society. If he is plagued by fear of failure and of weakness it is because his society put such a premium on success. … Okonkwo is a personification of his society's values, and he is determined to succeed in this rat-race.

(An Introduction to the African Novel, 53)

The inaccuracies of this view derive from disregarding the particularities of the rhetoric of Achebe's controlled presentation. Killam and Palmer take as authoritative Okonkwo's vision of himself as a great leader and savior of Umuofia and so fail to realize that this vision is based on a limited perception of the values of that society. Nowhere in the novel is Okonkwo presented as either the embodiment or the victim of Umuofia's traditional laws and customs. To urge that he is either, as do Killam and Palmer, is to reduce the work to a sentimental melodrama, rob Okonkwo of his tragic stature, and deny the reader's sympathy for him.

More responsive to the novel's simultaneous sympathy for and critical judgment of Okonkwo, David Carroll observes:

As Okonkwo's life moves quickly to its tragic end, one is reminded forcibly of another impressive but wrongheaded hero, Henchard in The Mayor of Casterbridge. They share in obsessive need for success and status, they subordinate all their private relations to this end, and both have an inability to understand the tolerant, skeptical societies in which their novel single-mindedness succeeds. … Viewed in the perspective of the Wessex, rustic way of life, Henchard is crass, brutal, and dangerous; but when this way of life as a whole is threatened with imminent destruction, then his fierce resistance takes on a certain grandeur. The reader's sympathy describes a similar trajectory as it follows Okonkwo's career. By the values of Umuofia his inadequacies are very apparent; but when the alien religion begins to question and undermine these values, Okonkwo, untroubled by the heart-searching of the community, springs to its defense and acts.

(Chinua Achebe, 62–63)

Carroll's comment is to the point in directing our attention to the crucial limitations Okonkwo places on his relationship to and acceptance of Umuofia's standards. But simply focusing attention on this matter is not sufficient; we must see how Achebe is able to achieve this control of sympathy for Okonkwo.

Things Fall Apart seems a simple novel, but it is deceptively so. On closer inspection, we see that it is provocatively complex, interweaving significant themes: love, compassion, colonialism, achievement, honor, and individualism. In treating these themes, Achebe employs a variety of devices, such as proverbs, folktales, rituals, and the juxtaposition of characters and episodes to provide a double view of the Ibo society of Umuofia and the central character, Okonkwo. The traditional Ibo society that emerges is a complex one: ritualistic and rigid yet in many ways surprisingly flexible. In this society, a child is valued more than any material acquisition, yet the innocent, loving child, Ikemefuna, is denied love, denied life, by the rigid tribal laws and customs. Outwardly, Umuofia is a world of serenity, harmony, and communal activities but inwardly it is torn by the individual's personal doubts and fears. It is also a society in which “age was respected … but achievement was revered.” It is this sustained view of the duality of the traditional Ibo society that the novel consistently presents in order to create and intensify the sense of tragedy and make the reader understand the dilemma that shapes and destroys the life of Okonkwo.

No episode reveals more dramatically the concomitant rigidity and flexibility of the society than the trial scene in which the domestic conflict between Uzowulu and his wife Mgbafo is settled. Uzowulu has beaten his wife so often and so severely that at last she has fled to her family for protection from him. While such conflicts are usually settled on a personal level, Uzowulu is the kind of man who will listen only to the judgement of the great egwugwu, the masked ancestor spirits of the clan. This ceremony proceeds with marked ritual (Things Fall Apart [hereafter cited as TFA] 85).

The ritualistic procedure of this event reflects the seriousness and formality with which the people of Umuofia deal with internal problems, even trivial ones, that undermine or threaten the peaceful coexistence of the clans. The stereotyped incantatory exchange of greeting, the ceremonious way in which the spirits appear, the ritual greeting, “Uzowulu's body, I salute you,” and Uzowulu's response, “Our father, my hand has touched the ground,” even the gestures of these masked spirits, define the formality of the society and dramatize the fact that the peace of the tribe as a whole takes precedence over personal considerations. The decrees of the gods are always carried out with dispatch, even if it means a ruthless violation of human impulses, as in the murder of Ikemefuna or the throwing away of twins. But this formality does not preclude dialogue, probing, and debate, aptly demonstrated in that the parties involved in the conflict are allowed to present their opposing, even hostile views. The way this domestic issue is resolved reveals the unqualified emphasis the people of Umuofia place on harmony and peaceful coexistence (TFA, 89).

The formality of this event, the firmness with which the society controls impending disorder, becomes even more apparent when contrasted with the spontaneous communal feasting that precedes it—the coming of the locust. This sudden occurrence aptly demonstrates the joy and vitality of the society when it is not beleaguered by internal disharmony (TFA, 54–55).

The overabundance of locusts provides an equal measure of joy for Umuofia. While the people restrain themselves enough to heed the elders' instructions on how to catch the insects this control of happiness is momentary, and no one spares either time or effort in responding to this unexpected feast. For the moment, Umuofia is at peace; Okonkwo and his sons are united in sharing the joy which envelops the community. Against the joyfully harmonic rhythm of this event, the withdrawn, controlled formalism of the judgement of the egwugwu stands in sharp relief. By juxtaposing these events, Achebe orchestrates the modulating rhythms of Umuofia, the alternating patterns of spontaneous joy and solemn justice. This modulation of rhythms developed out of the juxtaposition contrasting events open as well within the framework of the same episode. The suddenness with which the locusts descend on the people, bringing joy, is matched by the suddenness with which that joy is taken away. The very moment that Okonkwo and his sons sit feasting, Ezeudu enters to tell Okonkwo of the decree of the Oracle of the Hills and Caves (TFA, 55–56).

Just as Okonkwo's response to the celebration of feasting is controlled by the almost simultaneous announcement of the doom of the innocent child, Ikemefuna, so the narrator modulates the reader's response to the contrasting values and customs of Umuofia. On the very day Ikemefuna sits happily with his “father,” Ezeudu somberly states, “Yes, Umuofia has decided to kill him.”

Similarly, in order to articulate and call attention to the rigidity of the Ibo code of values in requiring the exile of Okonkwo for the inadvertent killing of Ezeudu's son, Achebe skillfully orchestrates the circumstances of the boy's death. In presenting this scene, Achebe emphasizes the atmosphere, the action, and the situation without individualizing Okonkwo's role. Such deliberate attention to the circumstances that day intensifies the sense of accidental occurrence. The death of Ezeudu's son comes as a result of the situation, of the circumstances, not as any deliberate act on Okonkwo's part. With this sense of chance established, the scene makes more apparent the rigidity of the tribal laws in dealing with this accidental event:

The only course open for Okonkwo was to flee from the clan. It was a crime against the earth goddess to kill a clansman, and a man who committed it must flee from the land. The crime was of two kinds, male and female. Okonkwo had committed the female because it had been inadvertent. He could return to the clan after seven years.

(TFA, 117)

In probing and evaluating this code whose rigidity negates circumstantial and human considerations, the thoughtful Obierika questions, “Why should a man suffer so grievously for an offense he had committed inadvertently?”

Obierika's thoughts reflect the submerged fears of the village elders, particularly Uchendu, Okonkwo's uncle, and Ezeudu, as well as the doubts and questions of Okonkwo's wives and even his son Nwoye. Indeed, he gives voice to the very question the reader himself asks.

The inflexibility of this tribal code and its application is revealed not only in the formal decrees of the Oracles and the judgments of the egwugwu but also in the small details of every day life. The simple act of a cow getting loose in the fields is met with a harsh penalty (TFA, 108–109). Since the preservation of crops is essential in an agricultural society, the imposition of a severe fine on those whose animals destroy the produce is understandable. But the crucial point the narrator stresses here is that the laws are applied with absolute rigidity, with no regard for mitigating circumstances. Even though the responsible party in this instance was only a small child being watched by his father, who does not usually watch the children, while the mother was busy helping another prepare a feast to ensure the proper observance of the marriage ceremonies, the same penalty is exacted. Just as Okonkwo is harshly punished for an inadvertent act which occurred while he was observing the proper funeral rites of the clan, so is Ezelagbo's husband punished for an offense his small child committed both unintentionally and unknowingly. In these subtle ways, Achebe succeeds in presenting the inflexibility of the code of values of Umuofia as it responds to any threat, no matter how small, to the overall stability of the clan.

Yet to insist that this code is entirely inflexible is to present only one-half of the picture. The people of Umuofia can adapt their code to accommodate the less successful, even effeminate men, like Okonkwo's father, Unoka, despite the fact that according to their standards of excellence, solid personal achievement and manly stature are given unqualified emphasis. This adaptability to changing or different situations is further demonstrated in Ogbeufi Ezeudu's comment on the punishment meted out to Okonkwo for his violation of the sacred Week of Peace.

“It has not always been so,” he said. “My father told me that he had been told that 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.”

“Somebody told me yesterday,” said one of the younger men, “that in some clans it is an abomination for a man to die during the Week of Peace.”

“It is indeed true,” said Ogbuefi Ezeudu. “They have that custom in Obadoani. If a man dies at this time he is not buried but cast into the Evil Forest. It is a bad custom which these people observe because they lack understanding. They throw away large numbers of men and women without burial. And what is the result? Their clan is full of evil spirits of these unburied dead, hungry to do harm to the living.”

(TFA, 33)

It seems clear from this instance that in some ways the social code of Umuofia is responsive to change; if the people find elements of the code contradictory, they will alter them, provided such modification does not conflict with the will of the gods. This receptivity to change is coupled with a willingness to accept and accommodate even those who do not perfectly conform to their ways, in accordance with the proverbial wisdom, “Let the kite perch and let the eagle perch too. If one says no to the other, let his wing break” (TFA, 21–22). Though Unoka was the subject of jest, he was not cast out, and even the albinos, whom the Ibos of Umuofia consider aliens, were accepted members of the clan, for, as Uchendu indicates to Obierika, “‘There is no story that is not true,’ said Uchendu. ‘The world has no end, and what is good among one people is an abomination with others. We have albinos among us. Do you not think that they came to our clan by mistake, that they have strayed from their way to a land where everybody is like them?’” (TFA, 130). Throughout the novel, this complex, dualistic nature of the customs and traditions of the Ibo society of Umuofia is made clear. This duality is well presented through Achebe's technique of skillfully juxtaposing contrasting events, events which define and articulate the code of values of the tradition oriented people. On the one hand, we see the villagers actively engaged in a spontaneous communal activity, such as enjoying a marriage feast, or in gathering and sharing the locusts, while, on the other hand, we see the rigid application of tribal laws and decrees of the gods which often deny and violate human responses.

These elements are set in opposition to one another to give a complete, if self-contradictory, view of the society. To accept and emphasize only one aspect is to oversimplify and defend, as does Okonkwo, a limited perception. It is against this balanced view of the proud traditional Ibo society that the novel invites us to evaluate the actions and tragic life of the central character, Okonkwo. Only through such examination do the problems of Okonkwo's relationship to the culture of his people become clear.

As a careful reading of Things Fall Apart reveals, one of Achebe's great achievements is his ability to keep alive our sympathy for Okonkwo despite our moral revulsion from some of his violent, inhuman acts. With Obierika, we condemn him for participating in the killing of the innocent boy, Ikemefuna. We despise him for denying his son, Nwoye, love, understanding, and compassion. And we join the village elders in disapproving Okonkwo's uncompromisingly rigid attitude toward unsuccessful, effeminate men such as his father, Unoka, or Usugo. Yet we share with the narrator a sustained sympathy for him. We do not simply identify with him, nor defend his actions, nor admire him as an heroic individual. We do give him our innermost sympathies because we know from his reactions to his own violence that deep within him he is not a cruel man. It is this contrasting, dualistic view of Okonkwo that the narrator consistently presents. On the one hand, we see Okonkwo participating in the brutal killing of Ikemefuna, his “son,” but on the other, we see him brooding over this violent deed for three full days. In another instance, we see him dispassionately castigating his fragile, loving daughter, Ezinma, and deeply regretting that she is not a boy, while on another occasion we see him struggling all night to save her from iba or returning again and again to the cave to protect her from harm at the hands of Chielo, priestess of Agbala.

Throughout the novel, Okonkwo is presented as a man whose life is ruled by one overriding passion: to become successful, powerful, rich, found a dynasty, and become one of the lords of the clan of Umuofia. And Okonkwo's unflagging commitment is not without cause, for

… his 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, the fear of the forest, and of the forces of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw. 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. And so Okonkwo was ruled by one passion—to hate everything that his father Unoka had loved. One of those things was gentleness and another was idleness.

(TFA, 16–17)

Emphasis here is placed on Okonkwo's divided self, especially on his inner struggle to control and suppress his fears of failure which arise in reaction to his father's disastrous life and shameful death. In some respects, the reader's initial reaction is to identify with Okonkwo, to join with him in severe condemnation of his father, for “Unoka the grown up was a failure. He was poor and his wife and children had barely enough to eat. People laughed at him because he was a loafer, and they swore never to lend him any more money because he never paid back” (TFA, 9). In modulating this initial response, the narrator also makes it quite clear that among these same people, “a man was judged according to his worth and not according to the worth of his father,” and that while achievement was revered, age was respected. In violently repudiating all that his father represented, Okonkwo repudiates not only his undignified irresponsibility, but also those positive qualities of love and compassion and sensitivity (TFA, 8, 10). Many of the qualities which to Okonkwo were marks of femininity and weakness are the same qualities which were respected by the society Okonkwo wished to champion. In a larger sense, Okonkwo's rigid repudiation of his father's “unmanliness” violates a necessary aspect of the society's code of values. We come to see that in suppressing his fears and those attributes which he considers a sign of weakness, Okonkwo denies as well those human responses of love and understanding which Umuofia recognizes as requisite for greatness.

This obsession with proving and preserving his manliness dominates Okonkwo's entire life, both public and private: “He ruled his household with a heavy hand. His wives, especially the youngest, lived in perpetual fear of his fiery temper, and so did his little children” (TFA, 16). Even in the informal, relaxed story-telling sessions, Okonkwo sees a threat to himself and his “dynasty,” for these stories will make women of his sons, make them like their grandfather rather than like their father. So, at those times, “Okonkwo encouraged the boys to sit with him in his obi, and he told them stories of the land—masculine stories of violence and bloodshed” (TFA, 52).

No episode in the novel dramatizes Okonkwo's desire to assert his manliness more clearly than the killing of Ikemefuna whom Okonkwo loves as his own. It is the closeness of this father-son relationship, reiterated in the feasting on the locusts, that Ezeudu interrupts to tell Okonkwo that Ikemefuna must die. But Ezeudu provides more than this stark message; as a respected elder of the clan he also advises Okonkwo on his conduct in heeding the decree, “‘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. But I want you to have nothing to do with it. He calls you his father.’” Though his feeling for the boy comes through in his effort to cloak the grim reality from the youth's eyes—“later in the day he called Ikemefuna and told him that he was to be taken home the next day” (TFA, 56)—Okonkwo nevertheless disregards Ezeudu's advice and accompanies the men in their brutal task—“Okonkwo got ready quickly and the party set out with Ikemefuna carrying the pot of wine” (TFA, 56–57). This same mixture of feelings controls Okonkwo's actions on that mission. He walks behind the others and gradually draws to the rear as the moment of execution arrives; indeed, he looks away when one of the men raises his machete to strike the boy. But he is forced by his own dogged insistence on masculinity to deal the fatal blow. The child runs to Okonkwo for protection but finds instead the cold, hard steel of Okonkwo's machete: “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” (TFA, 59). He does so, as the narrator affirms, because “he was afraid of being thought weak.” So extreme is his desire that he might not appear weak, that he might not be like his father, that Okonkwo blinds himself to the wisdom of the advice of the elder Ezeudu, the wisdom Obierika reasserts, “‘If I were you I would have stayed at home … if the Oracle said that my son should be killed I would neither dispute it nor be the one to do it’” (TFA, 64–65). So determined is his effort to be known for achievement, which his society reveres, that Okonkwo gives no heed to the wisdom of age, which his society respects. The way which both Ezeudu and Obierika espouse is the way of compromise, of blending the masculine and feminine, but this is a compromise of which Okonkwo is incapable.

For the most part, Okonkwo resorts to violence in order to maintain control of a situation and assert his manliness. Even in his relationship to his chi, or personal god, Okonkwo exerts force to mold his chi to his will. But in wrestling with his chi, in coercing it into submission to his will, Okonkwo violates the conventional, harmonious relationship one has with his personal god: “The Ibo people have a proverb that when a man says yes, his chi says yes also. Okonkwo said yes very strongly, so his chi agreed. And not only his chi, his clan, too” (TFA, 29). On all levels, then, Okonkwo must dominate and control events; by sheer force and, if necessary, brutality, Okonkwo bends to his will his chi, his family, and his clan. If “things fall apart,” it is because “the center cannot hold”—because Okonkwo cannot maintain the precarious tension which forcefully holds in place chi, family, and clan.

Yet Okonkwo is not wholly a brute force. Even at the very moment of his violence against Ikemefuna we glimpse the humanity locked inside: “As the man who had cleared his throat drew up and raised his machete, Okonkwo looked away.” Okonkwo looks away not because he is a coward, nor because, like his father, he could not stand the sight of blood; after all, “in Umuofia's latest war he was the first to bring home a human head,” (TFA, 14), his fifth. Okonkwo looks away because this brutal act is too much even for his eyes and his “buried humanity” struggles to express itself.

The narrator includes these subtle details which emphasize the submerged human responses of Okonkwo to explore Okonkwo's tragic dilemma and modulate our responses to him. Reemphasizing these positive human aspects which Okonkwo possesses but which he struggles to stifle lest he appear weak, the narrator sympathetically relates Okonkwo's reaction to his own violence, without approving the violent act itself:

Okonkwo did not taste any food for two days after the death of Ikemefuna. He drank palm-wine from morning till night, and his eyes were red and fierce like the eyes of a rat when it is caught by the tail and dashed against the floor.

He did not sleep at night. He tried not to think about Ikemefuna, but the more he tried the more he thought about him. Once he got up from his bed and walked about his compound. But he was so weak that his legs could scarcely carry him. He felt like a drunken giant walking with the limbs of a mosquito. Now and then a cold shiver descended on his head and spread down his body.

In private, unguarded moments like this, Okonkwo cannot but allow his “buried humanity” to express itself. But he does not allow his reaction to Ikemefuna's death to lead to self-pity and, in so doing, does not allow our sympathy for him to degenerate into pity. In his rigid view, any brooding, introspection, or questioning is a sign of weakness: “Okonkwo was not a man of thought but of action” (TFA, 66). For this reason, on the morning of the third day of brooding over Ikemefuna, Okonkwo calls for food and answers his brooding with action. His attitude these three days brings him to question himself, but these questions do not investigate motive nor justify his deed; instead, they chastise him for his weakness in responding so to the death of his “son.” “He sprang to his feet, hung his goatskin bag on his shoulder and went to visit his friend, Obierika” (TFA, 63). It is now daytime and no one must see Okonkwo submit to the human feeling of grief.

Publicly, especially among the members of his own clan, Okonkwo struggles to maintain the image of an unusually calm and stalwart individual, a man worthy to be a lord of the clan. It is only in private—and often in the dark—that Okonkwo spontaneously reveals the love and warmth he feels for his family. In the dark, he rushes to protect his daughter from harm by Chielo; without thought, he rushes to save her from iba. Ironically, it is with the same quickness that Okonkwo prepared for the killing of Ikemefuna that he attends to the dying Ezinma (TFA, 72–73).

For Okonkwo, the conflict between private self and public man is the conflict between the feminine and masculine principles. His inability to comprehend the fact that those feminine attributes he vigorously suppresses in himself are necessary for greatness is revealed in his näive comments on the deaths of Ogbuefi Ndulue and his eldest wife, Ozoemena (TFA, 65–66).

The sudden, willed death of Ozoemena is strange, as Ofoedu, Obierika, and Okonkwo agree. Yet, as is characteristic of Okonkwo, he can perceive and respond only to the obvious and well-defined. What Okonkwo cannot understand in this episode, despite Obierika's explanation, is the full significance of Ozoemena's death, especially as it is a willed response to her husband's death. The union in life and in death of Ndulue and Ozoemena is a symbolic dramatization of the union of the masculine and feminine attributes essential in a great man. Ndulue was a great warrior and a great man, the respected elder of his village, because he was able to find that balance of strength and sensitivity, of masculine and feminine principles. And it is this union men as Ndulue and Ezeudu are able to achieve and which Umuofia respects and seeks in its leaders. For Okonkwo, one is either a man or a woman; there can be no compromise, no composite. He is baffled by Ndulue's relationship to Ozoemena, for to him a strong man would in no way depend on a woman. This one-sided concept of what it takes to be a man determines Okonkwo's actions and attitudes, and can be seen clearly in his thoughts about his children. To him, Ezinma should have been a boy and Nwoye has “too much of his mother in him” (TFA, 64).

Okonkwo has held this monochromatic view of what people should be, with men and women performing sexually-defined tasks and exhibiting equally well-defined characteristics, since his youth. Traumatized by his father's failure as owing to his gentleness and idleness, Okonkwo determines to be all that his father was not—firm and active. But in living up to this design, Okonkwo becomes inflexible and his action allows no room for reflection. Throughout his life he clings to this pattern steadfastly and without question. Such a rigid commitment to a code of behavior and design for action thwarts Okonkwo's personal development. He does not grow and change with age and experience; as a man he is dedicated to the same stereotypes he formed in his youth. Even after his code fails him and necessitates his exile, Okonkwo cannot see the limitations of that code in its denial of the “feminine” principles. While in exile in his mother's land, Mbanta, Okonkwo is lectured on the importance of these feminine principles by the elder Uchendu, but still Okonkwo cannot see:

“Can you tell me, Okonkwo, why it is that one of the commonest names we give our children is Nneka, or ‘Mother is Supreme’? We all know that a man is the head of the family and his wives do his bidding. A child belongs to its father and his family and not to its mother and her family. A man belongs to his fatherland and not to his motherland. And yet we say Nneka—‘Mother is Supreme.’ Why is that?”

There was silence. “I want Okonkwo to answer me,” said Uchendu.

“I do not know the answer,” Okonkwo replied.

Through probing questions, Uchendu deliberately attempts to lead Okonkwo to an understanding of the importance of the feminine qualities which Okonkwo seeks to deny: he reminds Okonkwo that the consequence of this denial which has already resulted in Okonkwo's alienation from his clan, his family, and himself, is doom. But Okonkwo is not the type of man who does things half way, “not even for fear of a goddess.” He is too “manly,” too single-minded to deal with subtleties which do not fit easily into his well-defined code of action. For this reason, he cannot respond to Uchendu's questions, for they directly threaten his rigid philosophy of life.

Uchendu, like Ndulue and Ezeudu, represents the traditional way of life which allows for flexibility and compromise within its exacting system. And in rejecting compromise and flexibility, Okonkwo rejects the values of the society he determines to champion. In contrasting these two antithetical modes of perception and patterns of action, the narrator illustrates the extent to which Okonkwo has alienated himself from his society. The contrasting modes of action determine the different reactions of Uchendu and Okonkwo to Obierika's tales of the killing of the white man on the iron horse, in Abame, which in turn led to the death of a large number of villagers. Hearing this tale of disaster and death, Uchendu ground his teeth together audibly and then burst out, “Never kill a man who says nothing. Those men of Abame were fools. What did they know about the man?” (TFA, 129). As is characteristic of a wise and prudent man, Uchendu blames the people of Abame for not being cautious and for fighting a “war of blame” which the society condemns. But Okonkwo sees the whole situation as supporting his method of turning to violence for a solution to all problems. Instead of questioning and seeking a compromise between conflicting views, Okonkwo demands a violent action, “‘They were fools,’ said Okonkwo after a pause. ‘They had been warned that danger was ahead. They should have armed themselves with their guns and their machetes even when they went to market’” (TFA, 130).

Throughout his life then, Okonkwo is bound to violence. He rigidly commits himself to a code of values which negates human response and severs him from his traditional roots. Even at crucial moments when all indications point to the limitation and inadequacy of his rigid system, Okonkwo still holds firmly to these values, even to his death. The failure of his code is clear in his attitude toward Nwoye and in his son's subsequent rejection of him. The feelings of tenderness and affection Okonkwo has so long suppressed erupt as violence. When he is confronted by the limitation of his values in responding to human needs, especially manifest in Nwoye's turning to Christianity for an answer to these needs, Okonkwo's recourse to violence is even more extreme:

It was late afternoon before Nwoye returned. He went into the obi and saluted his father, but he did not answer. Nwoye turned round to walk 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 left hold of Nwoye, who walked away and never returned.

(TFA, 141)

The bondage in which Okonkwo has kept his “feminine” qualities is the bondage in which he has tried to keep Nwoye. Coercing, cajoling, threatening, and even beating his son into conforming to his ways, Okonkwo alienates the “dynasty” his actions sought to insure. For Nwoye will not be kept enslaved to Okonkwo's ways; he seeks release from bondage in the new religion of the white man.

Okonkwo's tragedy is not merely that he fails to understand the needs of his son Nwoye but that he also cannot comprehend certain of the society's values. Unable to change himself, he will not accept change in others, in the world around him, in the people of Umuofia. When he returns from exile, Okonkwo faces an altered society, a society that in its flexibility has allowed a place for the white Christian missionaries. Like the recalcitrant Rev. Smith, Okonkwo views the situation in terms of absolute, irreconcilable antipodes.

When the entire clan gathers to decide how to deal with the inroads established by the missionaries, Okonkwo's response is predictable. He will brook no compromise and demands a violent repulsion of the new religion. But this recourse to violence is not the view of this society any more now than it was in the past. Indeed, Okonkwo's views set him apart from his clan at this moment as earlier in his exile: but it is too late for Okonkwo to change now. If the society will not violently repel this threat, Okonkwo will. Compelled by his own uncompromising attitudes as they confront and clash with the equally adamant positions of Rev. Smith, Okonkwo turns to the only means he knows—violence—to solve the problem:

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.

(TFA, 187–188)

When the society does not respond as he does, Okonkwo comes to the sudden, belated realization that he is all alone, set apart from his clan by the values he holds. This most recent act of violence severs finally the precarious link between Okonkwo and his people. And, as before with the killing of Ikemefuna and the beating of Nwoye, Okonkwo's brutal force creates for him an even greater dilemma than the one he resorted to violence to solve. If at the edge of Umuofia before this last violent act, Okonkwo is now pushed outside his society. He cannot return. He cannot begin again. Having no place in this new Umuofia, driven out by his own inability to bend and change, Okonkwo ends his life as he lived it—by violence.

This act of violence against himself ironically fulfills Obierika's “request” of several years ago:

“I do not know how to thank you.”

“I can tell you,” said Obierika. “Kill one of your sons for me.”

“That will not be enough,” said Okonkwo.

“Then kill yourself,” said Obierika.

“Forgive me,” said Okonkwo, smiling. “I shall not talk about thanking you any more.”

(TFA, 131–132)

Okonkwo's suicide is, as Obierika explains (TFA, 190–191), an offense against the earth, an abomination. Okonkwo's clansmen cannot touch him, cannot bury him, cannot consider him one of their own. In death, as in life, Okonkwo's commitment to achievement through violence ostracizes him from the very society he sought so desperately to champion and honor.

On the other hand, we do not justify Okonkwo's killing of the messenger in an effort to save the doomed way of life of his beleaguered clan, a way of life whose subtle codes Okonkwo does not understand. Nor do we approve his unflagging commitment to his own code which does not provide for life. Yet we sympathize with him, even in his death, though perhaps not so emotionally as Obierika who, at this moment, loses all sense of objectivity. Temporarily blind to Okonkwo's limitations, Obierika seems to make Okonkwo the innocent victim of the brutal laws of the white missionaries. Prior to this dramatic confrontation with the white missionaries, the narrator has made it inevitable that Okonkwo's violent actions will lead him to his doom. At the same time, this knowledge does not deny him our innermost sympathies, especially when we evaluate his actions as juxtaposed against the actions of the “purist,” Rev. Smith, who “saw things as black and white. And black was evil. He saw the world as a battlefield in which the children of light were locked in mortal combat with the sons of darkness. He spoke in his sermons about sheep and goats and about wheat and tares. He believed in slaying the prophet of Baal” (TFA, 169). Rev. Smith's approach was, in all respects, antithetical to that of his predecessor, Rev. Brown, and Achebe shows Rev. Smith to be a far more vicious, brutal, and violent man than Okonkwo.

There was a saying in Umuofia that as a man danced so the drums were beaten for him. Mr. Smith danced a furious step and so the drums went mad. The over-zealous converts who had smarted under Mr. Brown's restraining hand now flourished in full favor.

Following Rev. Smith's cue, an over-zealous convert, Enoch, likewise resorts to extreme actions and goes so far as to unmask an egwugwu, throwing Umuofia into confusion (TFA, 170). In retaliation, the egwugwu swarm into the church and level it: “Mr. Smith stood his ground. But he could not save his church. When the egwugwu went away the red-earth church which Mr. Brown had built was a pile of ashes. And for the moment the spirit of the clan was satisfied” (TFA, 175). Replacing Rev. Brown's law of peace and love with his own code of aggression and hatred, Rev. Smith undoes the good Rev. Brown had accomplished. Rather than convert the heathen ways to Christian purpose, Rev. Smith determines to destroy the traditional practices. He will force the villagers to accept his ways and humiliate or eliminate those who don't.

Working through the District Commissioner, the new law of the land, Rev. Smith has the egwugwu, including Okonkwo, disgraced and humiliated, their heads shaved in testimony to their dishonor. Rev. Smith's malice goes far beyond Okonkwo's rigidity in ruthlessly dishonoring the customs of the Umuofia people and instigating an unprovoked attack on their religion. We are invited to condemn Rev. Smith's ruthless methods in converting these supposed heathens to his religion. Because we see Rev. Smith in such a negative light, we almost come to see his religion in the same terms. For these reasons, we sympathize with Okonkwo while we see the pointlessness of his violent action in killing the messenger and taking his own life.

Though Rev. Smith's actions tend to obfuscate the positive aspects of Christianity, we can still recall its essentially valuable tenets as lived and spread by Rev. Brown. This religion, with its emphasis on individual salvation and love responded to a need deeply felt by certain people in Umuofia, such as Obierika and Nwoye, but never openly expressed. Christianity answered these private fears and doubts over the arbitrariness of the gods' decrees, decrees which deny personal or human considerations in their application. Christianity is then the catalyst but not the primary cause of things falling apart. Umuofia was already disintegrating and re-forming, for Christianity would not have spread if it did not fill a pre-existing need. This new religion takes root and flourishes in the very place where the twins are thrown away and Ikemefuna was killed, the Evil Forest outside Umuofia.

From Achebe's juxtaposition of conflicting values and actions emerge the paradoxes and ironies of Things Fall Apart. The flexibility of Umuofia allows room for Christianity which in turn contributes to the passing of the traditional ways in fulfilling the needs the inflexibility of Umuofia left unanswered. For a time the traditional and the Christian can exist side by side in peace, before the coming of Rev. Smith and the return from exile of Okonkwo. Each man believes himself to be the champion of his society's religion and customs but each, in his extremism, distorts that religion and those customs so that ultimately—and paradoxically—he negates the very values he seeks to defend. This technique of juxtaposition works well in articulating the complexities and contradictions of Umuofia, of Okonkwo, and of the dilemma which arises when they confront Christianity.

Principal Works

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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

Christmas in Biafra and Other Poems (poetry) 1973

Morning Yet on Creation Day (essays) 1975

The Trouble with Nigeria (essays) 1983

Anthills of the Savannah (novel) 1987

The Voter (novel) 1994

Another Africa (poetry and essays) 1997

Conversations with Chinua Achebe (interviews) 1997

Home and Exile (novel) 2000

Richard Priebe (essay date 1976)

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SOURCE: “Fate and Divine Justice in Things Fall Apart,” in Neo-African Literature and Culture: Essays in Memory of Janheinz Jahn, edited by Bernth Lindfors and Ulla Schild, Institut für Ethnologie und Afrika-Studien, 1976, pp. 159–66.

[In the following essay, Priebe discusses Achebe's use of proverbs in Things Fall Apart to portray the role of divine justice in Igbo society.]

Perhaps the least controversial statement one could make in the field of African literature is that Chinua Achebe is a didactic writer. By his own statements and through his work, Achebe clearly shows his belief in the role of the artist as teacher. The pejoration of the word “didactic” in Western criticism, however, makes this statement rather misleading for many readers. Achebe's artistic concerns are with presenting a holistic view of the ethos of his people in an entirely vital, dynamic mode that is expressive of his culture in terms of form no less than content. His works progress in a linear manner and are set in an historical framework that reveals the persistence of cultural continuity despite internal and external threats to the society. Yet there is never a mere photographic rendering of the world he gives us. We confront what I call an ethical consciousness, an authorial presence that leads us into the societal structures of Ibo life and proceeds in a realistic, linear and historical manner, while revealing the depth and breadth of strategies open to the individual and society for coping with reality. Achebe's works are didactic, but not in the manner of a facile, two-dimensional realism where all ethical choices are clear-cut.

Kenneth Burke has suggested that complex literary works can be considered “proverbs writ large.”1 On more than one level Achebe is clearly engaged in writing proverbs. As Burke has explained, the proverb is a very primary unit through which we can see art as equipment for living. Proverbs name and encompass ranges of strategies or attitudes for handling recurrent situations. A strategy, if it is worth anything, must be functional and realistic—in other words it must size things up rather accurately. Above all, the proverb must have vitality:

The point of issue is not to find categories that “place” the proverbs once and for all. What I want is categories that suggest their active nature. Here is no “realism for its own sake.” Here is realism for promise, admonition, solace, foretelling, instruction, charting, all for the direct bearing that such acts have upon matters of welfare.2

Few who have seriously looked at Achebe's work would argue with the aptness of Burke's comment on the proverb as a description of the activity Achebe has been engaged in. That Achebe artistically employs proverbs in his writing is not even the central question; it merely underscores the point that is being made here about the complexity of the ethical consciousness reflected in his work.

For the non-African reader the subtleties and complexities of Achebe may indeed be rather difficult to perceive at first. The clues are there, however, and careful reading can lead to an understanding of a great deal that is distinctly African, though comprehensible within Western terms.

In a monograph entitled Oedipus and Job in West African Religion, Meyer Fortes explores the way fate and divine justice operate in West African religion.3 The title sounds arrogantly ethnocentric, but Fortes is careful to avoid any superficially descriptive comparisons of the kind Sir James Frazer made. Instead, he considers the stories of Oedipus and Job from an analytical perspective and shows how they together form a useful paradigm for understanding the paradoxically contradictory and complementary concepts of prenatal fate or destiny and supernatural justice in West Africa. We shall see that this paradigm is one we can also extract from Achebe's Things Fall Apart. The point is not to reduce an aspect of Achebe's work to a Eurocentric archetype for we are actually pulling two rather disparate ideas together to create a metaphor that will facilitate an understanding of a religious strategy artistically rendered by an African writer. A tighter argument might be made by taking an emic approach and first going into Ibo religious thought, but the justification for our etic approach lies in what such exegesis will reveal about the accessible pattern in this novel.

A common observation by Western critics has been that Things Fall Apart is very much like a Greek tragedy. Okonkwo, like his Greek counterpart, appears to be brought down by a fatal flaw that is beyond his control. Without any doubt Oedipus is the victim of Destiny; personal responsibility or guilt has nothing to do with what happens to him. We also find that Okonkwo's chi, his personal god, has quite a lot to do with his destiny, but we are stopped at the very beginning of the novel from pursuing a descriptive comparison for we are told that a man can, in part, shape his own destiny: “If ever a man deserved his success, that man was Okonkwo. At an early age he had achieved fame as the greatest wrestler in all the land. That was not luck. At the most one could say that his chi or personal god was good. But the Ibo people have a proverb that when a man says yes his chi says yes also. Okonkwo said yes very strongly; so his chi agreed. And not only his chi but his clan too, because it judged a man by the work of his hands.”4

Having learned that a man can assert control over his chi, we learn a few pages later that the chi controls the man. Okonkwo is compared to “the little bird nza who so far forgot himself after a heavy meal that he challenged his chi.” (p. 28) As there are limitations on how strong the “yes” can be, we are left with an apparent contradiction, a contradiction that seems to raise questions about the nature of Okonkwo's tragedy. How much can he be held responsible for his end and how much can be attributed to an overpowering Destiny?

Keeping in mind these problems let us return for a closer comparison of the structural parallels in the lives of Oedipus and Okonkwo. The summary Meyer Fortes gives of Oedipus's life clearly shows where these parallels lie. Oedipus enters life with an ominous foreboding of an evil Destiny as he is rejected by his parents who physically cast him away. Only for brief moments in his life does he ever escape being an outcast; ultimately his fate overwhelms him. “His tragedy can be described as that of a man blindly seeking to achieve his legitimate place in society, first as son, then as husband, father and citizen against the unconscious opposition of an inborn urge to avenge himself by repudiating his parents, his spouse, and his children. When in the end, he succumbs to this fate he shows his revulsion against himself by mutilating his own eyes and so blotting out his relationship with his kind and his society. He dies in exile, almost like a ghost departing from this world rather than like an ordinary man.”5

With a few changes of detail, Meyer Fortes could have been talking about Okonkwo. By material standards Okonkwo's father, Unoka, is an outcast in Umuofian society, and by any spiritual measure, he dies one: “He had a bad chi … and evil fortune followed him to the grave, or rather to his death, for he had no grave.” (p. 16) Okonkwo spends his life trying to avoid his father's fate only to succumb to a death that also severs him spiritually from his society. In the course of his life, while attempting to repudiate the “feminine” characteristics of his father, he is respectively alienated from his father, one of his wives, his son, Nwoye, and finally his clan. He treats the memory of his father with contempt; he beats Ojiugo during the Week of Peace; he is horrified by Nwoye's attraction to Christianity; and he is physically exiled when he accidentally kills a young man. His suicide, moreover, is a clear correlative to Oedipus's self-mutilation.

Granted, we are still operating on a rather tenuous descriptive level, but behind both men there is definitely a strong force of Destiny controlling their lives, their parents and their children.6 With Oedipus this control is complete and with Okonkwo it is partial, though in both cases “it serves to exonerate both society and the sufferer by fixing ultimate responsibility on the ancestors and on a pre-natal, that is pre-social, event.”7 No careful reader of Things Fall Apart, any more than a character within Umuofian society, could hold Okonkwo to blame for his fate despite the fact that a good argument can be made for the idea that there are implicit authorial criticisms of both Okonkwo and his society. Within that society we are shown that a man can have either a good or a bad chi—Okonkwo's life is simply controlled by an evil Destiny.

Yet such knowledge about a man's fate can only be known for certain after the fact. Moreover, neither the novel, the society, nor Okonkwo's life is all that simple. As Bernth Lindfors has very cogently shown, a very large proportion of the proverbs used by Achebe in Things Fall Apart have to do with achievement.8 Many of these proverbs confirm the idea that in Ibo society a man is not necessarily foredoomed by an evil chi. Providing he acts in the appropriate manner, he can say “yes” to a chi that says “no”: “the sun will shine on those who stand before it shines on those who kneel under them”; (p. 7) “if a child washed his hands he could eat with kings”; (p. 8) “a man who pays respect to the great paves the way for his own greatness”; (p. 16) “as a man danced so the drums were beaten for him.” (p. 167)

These proverbs encompass strategies for individual equity that are antithetical to the closed system of prenatal destiny we find in the story of Oedipus. They are, however, rather incisive leads into another dimension of the religious framework of Okonkwo's society—a dimension that can be understood in terms of the patterns of divine justice we find in Job.

Nothing has been pre-established for the course of Job's life. He is free to choose between good and evil, and whatever consequences result from his choices are the rewards and punishments of an omnipotent God. Though personified, and ultimately just and merciful, this God cannot always be comprehended in terms of what the individual perceives as just. Job never admits, nor does he need to admit, any “guilt in the sense of responsibility for actions that are wicked by ordinary human standards. What he admits is having placed himself on a footing of equality with God, judging for himself what conduct is righteous and what wicked. This wrong relationship was his sin … Job's sufferings are like severe measures of discipline that a father might use to correct a son who, while exemplary in his conduct, was getting too big for boots and arrogating to himself a status equal to his father's; and Job's salvation might be compared to the son's realizing and accepting his filial dependence.”9

As we are dealing with a paradigmatic and not a simple descriptive comparison, it might help to momentarily reverse perspectives. Job, in other words, can be seen as one who wrestled with his chi, realized his mistake before it was too late, and took the necessary steps to rectify his relationship with his God. Again, the idea here is not in some missionary-like manner to find one-sided “universal” correspondences, but to show that the Western reader should be able to get into the aesthetic complexity of Achebe's work. No injustice to the integrity of the work need be committed by this artificial atomizing so long as we see the process only as a key to a holistic understanding of a work that in its totality is very unlike either the work about Oedipus or Job.

The parallel between Job and Okonkwo that is significant to us is the idea that the ancestors, like Job's God, can be angered or pleased in such a way that they either confirm or override an individual's Destiny, bringing him disaster or good fortune. In discussing this in relation to the religious thought of the Tale, Meyer Fortes makes three generalizations about Tale ancestral belief that we can also draw out of Things Fall Apart.10 These generalizations concern “axiomatic values from which all ideal conduct is deemed to flow. The first is the rule that kinship is binding in an absolute sense. From this follows the second rule, that kinship implies amity in an absolute sense. The third rule is the fundamental one. It postulates that the essential relationship of parent and child, expressed in the parent's devoted care and the child's affectionate dependence, may never be violated and is, in that sense, sacred. It is indeed the source of the other rules.11 Thus, when Okonkwo is exiled from Umuofia he must flee to the village of his mother. He must accept his relatives there, and they are bound to accept him in complete friendship. Moreover, they are seen almost literally as living extensions of his mother.

Beyond any strict legalistic adherence to these values it is imperative that one have a proper attitude towards the moral relationships that follow from them. Like Job, Okonkwo is an upright and honest man guilty not of any willfully unjust actions, but of an unbending self-righteousness in his relations with his gods, his ancestors and his kin. Moreover, he cannot accept the suffering he is forced to bear. While in exile he is angrily castigated by his kinsman, Uchendu:

You think you are the greatest sufferer in the world. Do you know that men are sometimes banished for life? Do you know that men sometimes lose all their yams and even their children? I had six wives once. I have none now except that young girl who knows not her right from her left. Do you know how many children I have buried—children I begot in my youth and strength? Twenty-two. I did not hang myself, and I am still alive. If you think you are the greatest sufferer in the world ask my daughter, Akueni, how many twins she has borne and thrown away. Have you not heard the song they sing when a woman dies?

“For whom is it well, for whom is it well?

There is no one for whom it is well.”

(p. 122)

Though Job's relation to his god is unilaterally contractual and Okonkwo's relation is a bilateral one of mutual dependence, the attitudes of both men pose a threat to the religious fabric of their society. God had a bet with Satan that had to be won; Umuofia had its very survival at stake in its confrontation with the white man. This survival of gods, ancestors and kin was more important than the inflexible will of one man: “What the ancestors demand and enforce on pain of death is conformity with the basic moral axiom in full-filling the requirements of all social relationships; and these are the counterpart, in the domain of kinship, of the obligations posited between persons and their ancestors in the religious domain.”12

The first thing we learn about Okonkwo is that “his fame rested on solid personal achievements.” (p. 3) It is noteworthy that this is followed by our seeing that “he had no patience with his father.” (p. 4) Considering the value placed on personal achievement in his society, Okonkwo certainly had no obligation to have patience with his father, who had no rank at all in the society. But there is a more fundamental kinship value that Okonkwo ignores. In a very subtle manner Achebe introduces this tension between individual and communal values and carefully orchestrates its buildup. The proverb that “age was respected … achievement … revered” (p. 5) lays emphasis on achievement, but indicates a balance between respect and reverence that Okonkwo ignores. His father praises him for his proud heart, but warns him of the difficulty in failing alone (p. 23), advice that Okonkwo is unable to accept. When a joke is made about a man who refused to sacrifice a goat to his father, Okonkwo is uncomfortable, ironically because it reminds him of his father's poverty and not of his own neglect of his father's memory. An old man commenting on Okonkwo's success quotes the proverb “Looking at a king's mouth … one would think he never sucked at his mother's breast.” (p. 24) The proverb is not used here in any derogatory manner, but is one more sign to the reader that Okonkwo lives much of his life as if he had no kin.

All this is revealed within the first few chapters. The subsequent action sharpens our insight into the tragic ordering of values that should be complementary, but in Okonkwo becomes completely oppositional. Communal and individual values must be in carefully ordered balance. In his extremist actions Okonkwo shows “no respect for the gods of the clan.” (p. 28) Though he may feel contrite, as he did after beating his wife during the Week of Peace, he never shows it. The group itself must adjust and change when it is threatened by its customs; it expects no less of the individual. This point is indirectly, but firmly underlined by Ezeudu's recounting of the heavy punishments that were once exacted whenever the Week of Peace was broken. After a while the custom had to be altered as it destroyed what it was intended to protect.

Without going very far into a Lévi-Straussian type of structural analysis, it is very obvious that we have here yet another aspect of Okonkwo than can be understood in terms of the Oedipal paradigm, namely the underrating of blood relations.13 Unlike Oedipus in his incestuous relationship with his mother, Okonkwo never overrates blood relations. Yet comparable to Oedipus's parricide is Okonkwo's rejection of his father and all things feminine. Okonkwo continually acts in a manner that leads to an absolute rejection of his autochthonous origin. In his participation in the killing of Ikemefuna and in his reluctant acceptance of his exile in his mother's land, he shows a willful refusal to submit to the Earth Goddess; in his beating of his wife during the Week of Peace and in his accidental killing of the boy during Ezeudu's funeral, he commits overt offenses against the goddess.

During a feast at the end of Okonkwo's exile, an old kinsman rises to give a speech to thank Okonkwo for the great banquet. Very discreetly, however, he gives a talk on the strength of kinship bonds, while a general warning to the clan must also be construed as a specific warning to Okonkwo: “A man who calls his kinsman to a feast does not do so to save them from starving. They all have food in their own homes. When we gather together in the moonlit village ground it is not because of the moon … We come together because it is good for kinsmen to do so.” (p. 152) The words, in effect, are beyond Okonkwo's comprehension. When he returns to Umofia, he is entirely out of step with his clan. A clear, inexorable logic thus leads him to ultimate offense against the Earth Goddess, his own suicide.

The logic, however, was inexorable only because of Okonkwo's unbending will. Had he submitted to the will of the clan, a will dictated by survival, he too might have avoided a tragic end. Okonkwo's daughter, Ezinma is born with an evil Destiny. A diviner is consulted and he informs the family that the child is an ogbanje, a spirit that continually returns to the mother's womb in a cycle of birth and death. Once the proper ritual measures are taken, the evil chi is propitiated and survival from its threat is insured. The implication is clear—Okonkwo never fully propitiates his chi.

What Meyer Fortes had noted in a general way we can see very specifically, namely an Oedipal predisposition figuratively transformed into a Jobian fulfillment.14 Okonkwo is a strong man, but he has limited vision and is caught in the singleminded pursuit of his ambitions and escape from his fears. Only in the end, after he has killed the messenger, does he achieve some tragic recognition: “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 … He wiped his matchet on the sand and went away.” (p. 184) But even then, Okonkwo sees only the futility of his own course of action. Complete understanding would entail the perception that “The system as a whole is impregnable, particularly since the criterion invoked is ritual service, not conduct that can be judged by men themselves. Whatever the ancestors do must therefore be, and is, accepted as just, and men have no choice but to submit.”15

Two scenes that the Western reader is likely to find annoyingly inexplicable can be easily understood in relation to the function they serve in underscoring the need to submit to ancestral control. No reason is given for the Oracle's decision that Ikemefuna must be sacrificed—nor is any reason given for the Oracle's decision to take Ezinma to Agbala's cave for an evening and then bring her home. A boy appears to be senselessly killed and a young girl taken on a seemingly meaningless journey. The point is, however, that man's understanding cannot encompass the ancestor's justice. When Okonkwo attempts to interfere with the Oracle's decision and prevent her from taking his daughter, the priestess warns: “Beware, Okonkwo! … Beware of exchanging words with Agbala. Does a man speak when a god speaks? Beware!” (p. 91)

We can see, then, that while prenatal destiny and divine justice appear to be completely oppositional, even antithetical concepts, they are in fact complementary aspects of a logical, well-balanced system in which masculine and feminine values as well as individual and communal values are incorporated without any sense of contradiction. Okonkwo's tragedy is that he fails to recognize this. Like the tortoise in the folktale narrated by Ezinma's mother, Okonkwo tried to have everything his own way. His greed may not be as devious as that of the tortoise who calls himself “All of you,” but in the same fundamental sense of selfish desire he sets himself against the group. Likewise, he rejects everything that is feminine in his own nature and others; the group is left with no recourse but to reject him. On the other hand, the imposition of Christianity and the incursion of the European colonial administration afford a great shock to the system, but they do not shatter it.

To return to Burke's idea of novels as proverbs writ large, we can see that Things Fall Apart names a strategy for dealing with change. Divine justice and prenatal destiny, the basic components of this strategy, are also the woof and warp of an extremely flexible social fabric. Okonkwo in his political conservatism and obsession with status, poses a threat to the fabric. Existing almost entirely on a physical, material plane and concerned solely with maintaining the status quo, Okonkwo gets into a death lock with his chi. The strategy, and mainly the component of prenatal destiny, insures for society that survival is accepted over stasis. It is worth taking note that the last proverb in Things Fall Apart is about the bird who is always on the wing: “Men have learnt to shoot without missing their mark and I have learnt to fly without perching on a twig.” (p. 183)


  1. Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form (New York, 1961), p. 256.

  2. Ibid., p. 255. Proverbs are often structured around a metaphor, but if the proverb is to function when used in a social context, the analogue to the real situation must be readily apprehended by those to whom the proverb is directed. Obviously, not all complex literary works are written in a realistic mode. While it takes us beyond the range of this paper, we might note that Burke's idea could be further refined by our thinking not only of “proverbs writ large,” but also of riddles writ large. In contrast to the proverb, the riddle is problematic rather than normative, confusing rather than clear. It creates artificial conflict and opens speculation whereas the proverb smoothes over conflict and closes further thought. Thus, Amos Tutuola, Wole Soyinka and other writers who employ a very expressionistic mode in their work might be considered riddlers rather than proverb users.

  3. (London, 1959).

  4. (London, 1962), p. 25. Subsequent references are to this edition.

  5. Meyer Fortes, pp. 70–71.

  6. This is borne out in the other two Theban plays of Sophocles and also in Achebe's No Longer at Ease.

  7. Meyer Fortes, p. 71.

  8. “The Palm Oil with Which Achebe's Words Are Eaten,” African Literature Today, 1 (1968), 8.

  9. Meyer Fortes, pp. 17–18.

  10. The level of generalization is high enough that it should be apparent we are not getting into any of the dangers of cross-cultural comparisons.

  11. Meyer Fortes, p. 53.

  12. Ibid., p. 54.

  13. See Claude Lévi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, trans. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf, 2nd ed. (New York, 1967), p. 211.

  14. Meyer Fortes, p. 74.

  15. Ibid., p. 59.

B. Eugene McCarthy (essay date Spring 1985)

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SOURCE: “Rhythm and Narrative Method in Achebe's Things Fall Apart,” in Novel, Vol. 18, No. 3, Spring, 1985, pp. 243–56.

[In the following essay, McCarthy explores Achebe's use of the English language in Things Fall Apart to simulate the oral quality of African storytelling.]

Before the publication of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart in 1958 public awareness in the West of fiction from Africa was confined chiefly to white writers such as Doris Lessing, Alan Paton, or Nadine Gordimer. Thus Achebe's first novel, written in English, though he is himself a Nigerian of the Igbo people, was a notable event. More noteworthy was the fact that it was a very good novel and has become over the years probably the most widely read and talked about African novel, overshadowing the efforts of other West African novelists as well as those of East and South Africa. Its reputation began high and has remained so, stimulating critical analysis in hundreds of articles, many books, and dissertations. Its story describes, whatever one may expect from its Yeatsian title, the life of a traditional Igbo rural village and the rise of one of its gifted leaders, Okonkwo, before colonization, and then observes the consequences for the village and the hero as they confront the beginnings of the colonial process. Achebe's subsequent three novels, more or less related but not sequential, No Longer at Ease (1960), Arrow of God (1964), and A Man of the People (1966), though all respected, have not matched its success. Achebe's fiction established firmly that there is an African prose literature—poetry had probably been well known since Senghor in the 1940s—even when written in English. Not that there has not been debate over and criticism of Things Fall Apart, and from Achebe's standpoint a good deal of misunderstanding through refusal of readers to take its African character seriously; but as a recent study confirms he continues to be “the most widely read of contemporary African writers.”1 His first novel has been “as big a factor in the formation of a young West African's picture of his past, and of his relation to it, as any of the still rather distorted teachings of the pulpit and the primary school,”2 and of course he has influenced his fellow writers just as significantly in finding their own subject matter and voice.

When beginning Chinua Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart, readers are often struck by the simple mode of narration and equally simple prose style, which critics have seen as Achebe's desire to achieve an “English … colored to reflect the African verbal style [with] stresses and emphases that would be eccentric and unexpected in British or American speech.”3 He reshapes English in order to imitate the “linguistic patterns of his mother tongue,” Igbo.4 I would like, as a further means of understanding this special quality of Achebe's prose, to propose a way of reading and of understanding the novel through the concept of rhythm, within the oral tradition.

In the opening passage of the novel, the narrator's repetition of words and phrases, both verbatim and synonymous, and his mode of emphasis and patterning suggest a deliberateness and complexity well beyond the surface simplicity:

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 honour 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.

The drums beat and the flutes sang and the spectators held their breath. Amalinze was a wily craftsman, but Okonkwo was as slippery as a fish in water. Every nerve and every muscle stood out on their arms, on their backs and their thighs, and one almost heard them stretching to breaking point. In the end Okonkwo threw the Cat.5

The narrator's repetitions in this passage are a technique of the traditional oral storyteller, sitting talking to a group of listeners (though he is not a griot, or oral historian).6 For example, the subject “A” repeats four times, the modifier “a” repeats but varies to add meanings; other words, such as those about the intensity of the fight, likewise are repeated to emphasize their importance and to vary meanings. Walter Ong refines our understanding of oral thought and expression in prose by pointing out that the oral narrator's “thought must come into being in heavily rhythmic, balanced patterns, in repetitions and antitheses, in alliterations and assonances, in epithetic and other formulary expressions. …” Such primary devices for memory (“for rhythm aids recall”) and communication simplify the story so that the listeners can grasp characters and events graphically and surely. More specifically, oral expression is “additive rather than subordinative,” “aggregative rather than analytical,” “redundant or ‘copious,’” that is, “backlooping” by means of “redundancy, repetition of the just-said.”7 The additive and redundant elements are apparent in the above passage, when Achebe's narrator repeats a phrase, for example, “Amalinze the Cat,” then carries it forward with new information. Once a name or event is introduced he proceeds by moving forward, then reaching back to repeat and expand, moving onward again, accumulating detail and elaborating: “well known” advances to “fame” and to “honour,” just as “It was this man that Okonkwo threw” repeats what has gone before and underlines its importance. Karl H. Bottcher calls the narrator's method “afterthoughts,”8 but Ong's “backlooping” conveys better the active methodology of the narrator.

The style is not “aggregative” for key epithets are not attached to characters, no doubt because the novel is written, not spoken. A more important departure from strict oral procedure is the narrator's distance from his characters and his reluctance to intrude his views, for as Ong tells us, empathy and participation are elements of orality, objectivity a consequence of writing.9 For the most part the narrator reveals only what was done or said by others: “a fight which the old men agreed was one of the fiercest …,” “it was said that, when he slept …,” “he seemed to walk on springs, as if. …” We understand an apparent intrusion such as the following as reflecting not the narrator's bias but the way the people thought: “When Unoka died he had taken no title at all and he was heavily in debt. Any wonder then that his son Okonkwo was ashamed of him? Fortunately, among these people a man was judged according to his worth and not according to the worth of his father” (6).

The patterning and repetition in Achebe's novel are characteristics of the self-conscious artistry of oral narrative performance, where plot moves by repetition and predictability. Harold Scheub argues the “centrality of repetition in oral narratives as a means of establishing rhythm.”10 Such rhythmic textures establish the narrative method as imitative of the African oral rather than the English “literary” tradition. Indeed rhythm is a quality at the heart of African culture. Léopold Sédar Senghor has written: “Rhythm is the architecture of being, the inner dynamic that gives it form, the pure expression of the life force.” The dramatic interest of a work is not sustained, he writes, by “avoiding repetition as in European narrative …, [but] is born of repetition: repetition of a fact, of a gesture, of words that form a leitmotiv. There is always the introduction of a new element, variation of the repetition, unity in diversity.”11 In the text where he quotes this statement, Jahnheinz Jahn illustrates prose rhythms with a passage from Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola's Palm-Wine Drinkard: “the rhythmical kind of narrative in which the repetition intensifies the dramatic quality of the action, makes. Tutuola's story oral literature.”12

As Robert Kellogg tells us, there are many sorts of rhythm, “phonic, metrical, grammatical, metaphoric, imagistic, thematic”;13 and modern studies have argued that prose as well as verse has its rhythms, usually found first in syntax.14 The repetitions of syntactic patterns of word and phrase underscore emphases (sometimes vocal) and stresses of meaning. Thus Roger Fowler describes in passages from David Storey the syntactic repetitions by which “syntax becomes rhythmical” and finds “sentence- and phrase-rhythms” there like “‘thickening, deepening, then darkening’”: “When syntax is repetitious, highlighting by reiteration a small number of patterns,” he argues, “a palpable rhythm is established through the regularity of voice tunes.”15 Such repetition is the most obvious stylistic feature we notice in the passage from Achebe's novel.

Syntactically, these repetitions stress key words, often polysyllables in contrast to the predominating one or two syllable words, chiefly subject nouns, object nouns, pronouns and modifiers of these nouns, and verbs, with occasional stress on time or place. Though emphasis may be difficult to assess uniformly—e.g., “through the NINE villages,” or “through the NINE VILLAGES,” or even possibly “through the nine VILLAGES”—there are some evident emphases on subjects, objects, or verbs; for example, “In the end Okonkwo threw the Cat” stresses all three. Parallelism enhances the repetitions and strengthens the rhythms: the parallel subject-verb sentence opening: “Okonkwo was” with “fame rested,” or “Amalinze was” with “he was” with “It was.” In the third (unquoted) paragraph, the parallel repetitions become insistent, as the verbs become increasingly active: “he was tall,” “he breathed,” “he slept,” “he walked,” “he seemed to walk,” “He was going,” “he did pounce,” “he had,” and finally, “He had no patience. …” Alliteration too accents these repetitions: “called” and “Cat”; “fight,” “fiercest,” and “founder”; “Spirit,” “seven,” and “seven.” One may even discern a distinct metrical rhythm in some lines, such as, “The drums beat and the flutes sang and the spectators held their breath,” which could be marked, short, long, long; short, short, long, long, and so on. The third paragraph summarizes with a strongly trochaic, blues-like line: “That was many years ago, twenty years or more,” but the near domination of metric regularity changes to “and during this time, Okonkwo's fame …” If there is such a thing as a dominant meter in prose (English is considered to be naturally iambic),16 Achebe's prose would seem to be largely anapestic: “It was this / man that Okon / kwo threw / in a fight / which the old / men agreed / was one / of the fierc / est since the found / er of their town / engaged a spir / it of the wild / for sev / en days / and sev /en nights,” ending with a series of four iambs. Note another anapestic line: “Every nerve / and every mus / cle stood out / on their arms / on their backs / and their thighs.” The point here is not to scan the lines but to show the rhythmical quality of the prose, more markedly rhythmical than traditional English prose, closer to an oral African quality.

I will explore now further levels of rhythm in the novel, moving from the stylistic to the structural, and then to the thematic, for not only the style but the entire narrative method can be considered rhythmical. Critics have mentioned the structuring of events in the novel in terms of rhythm. According to David Carroll, “the narrator then moves from this larger rhythm of the generations to the rhythm of the seasons, to Okonkwo and his sons repairing the walls; … yet the compassionate narrative voice seems to establish another rhythm, contrapuntal to Okonkwo's success.”17 S. O. Iyasere says, “Against the joyfully harmonic rhythm of this event [the locusts], the withdrawn, controlled formalism of the judgment of the egwugu stands in sharp relief. By juxtaposing these events, Achebe orchestrates the modulating rhythms of Umoufia.”18 The structural tightness of the novel has been demonstrated by critics such as Robert Wren on the novel as a whole,19 and Karl Bottcher on the narrator's voice and other stylistic techniques.20 The narrative procedure that we see in the opening passages, involving a regular introduction of new materials, a little at a time, awaiting further amplification, is similar to African polymetric rhythms in which various meters are heard simultaneously, though not introduced at one time.21 This is not a rhythm of percussive stress or beat, but an accentuation by word, phrase or theme. As our awareness is sharpened to the introduction of new materials—the “additive” element of orality—we become aware of the multiple rhythms at work: words that emulate the “redundant” aspect of orality by early or late repetition (e.g. “breathe,” “seven”), themes that are briefly expanded or developed later (e.g. fierceness, wrestling), and those such as masculine and feminine that evolve slowly but consistently. We thus become more conscious of the process of development of words, phrases, and themes, and are less likely to overemphasize one and miss another. We will also see that the narrative makes increasingly evident a connection between these rhythmic elements of style and form and the basic rhythm of clan life, with the result that rhythm becomes significant thematically to Okonkwo's response to clan life and to the ultimate breaking of that life. I will sketch the pattern of the thirteen chapters of Part One to show how the narrative is laid before us, like pieces of a complex puzzle that slowly reveal coherence.

In Chapter One we meet Okonkwo as a man of great achievement and greater potential, and we see the heritage of his father the failure, a heritage Okonkwo wishes to flee. But as Okonkwo hastens to achieve his goals he inadvertently becomes involved with the hostage, the boy Ikemefuna whom the narrator refers to as “doomed” and “ill-fated,” though we are unsure why at this point. The pacing of Chapter Two is particularly suggestive of the narrative method used thereafter in the novel. Set in three parts the chapter begins with Okonkwo, about to go to bed, hearing “a clear overtone of tragedy in the crier's voice.” We drift briefly from that motif to hear lore of the night before we continue the episode of Ikemefuna's arrival in Umuofia into the care of Okonkwo. The second part turns abruptly to the character of Okonkwo, “dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness,” specifically of being thought an “agbala,” a woman, or a man with no titles, like his father. “And so Okonkwo was ruled by one passion—to hate everything that his father Unoka had loved. One of those things was gentleness and another was idleness” (10). When in the third part the chapter returns to details of Ikemefuna's arrival—as Bottcher says, “the point of departure is resumed almost word by word”22—we have in a nutshell the whole novel: Okonkwo's passions, hatred of weakness or womanliness, his success and strengths, his connection with the hostage, and the overtones of tragedy.

The three parts of Chapter Two offer an episodic advancement of the plot, both adding to what has been mentioned and reflecting on the parts to which they are juxtaposed for commentary and contrast, as well as introducing new materials, all in the oral-rhythmic process of addition of new and amplification of old themes. Chapter Three, also of three parts (though the chapters vary generally from one to four parts), begins with Agbala, not the scornful title of “woman” but the Oracle whose priestess people visit “to discover what the future held … or to consult the spirits of their departed fathers” (12). Agbala had once told Unoka why he was a failure. Now, to overcome the disadvantages of a useless father, Okonkwo visits not Agbala but, more practically, a wealthy man for a loan of yams to start his own farm. Part Three then reverses the trend of the story thus far, for Okonkwo fails, and establishes the possibility of things going badly to the point of suicide. “The year had gone mad,” and all his seed yams have been destroyed. One man hangs himself, but Okonkwo survives because of “his inflexible will.”

Having established Okonkwo's direction, the narrator wishes to expand the context of the novel and offer several correctives, for the implications of the incident of Okonkwo's “survival” are not resolved until Chapter Four. “‘Looking at a king's mouth,’ said an old man, ‘one would think he never sucked at his mother's breast.’ He was talking about Okonkwo” (19), who had indeed forgotten his maternal life, and preferred “to kill a man's spirit” by calling him “woman.” Okonkwo's fear of weakness is here qualified as specifically antifeminine: “To show affection was a sign of weakness,” so he beats his hostage, and in the next part beats one of his wives in violation of the Week of Peace dedicated to the Goddess Ani, an evil act that “‘can ruin the whole clan. The earth goddess whom you have insulted may refuse to give us her increase, and we shall all perish’” (22).

The importance of the feminine element in the culture could be overlooked because of the emphasis Okonkwo places on masculine virtues and achievements for which he is justly celebrated. But the novel steadfastly points to the centrality of the feminine.23 Okonkwo's masculine sensibility terrorizes his son Nwoye whom he wishes to be “a great farmer and a great man” (23), and enhances his affection for the already manly Ikemefuna, who significantly entertains such “womanly” traits as telling (24) and hearing (42) folk tales. Okonkwo's emphasis on “his inflexible will” as the cause of his survival is corrected here when the narrator explicitly states, “the personal dynamism required to counter the forces of these extremes of weather would be far too great for the human frame” (24).

One new element is introduced in this chapter, the concern with customs. Since Okonkwo had violated the custom of the Week of Peace, the discussion is appropriate, but its importance here is in revealing that the clan's customs are not absolute: “the punishment for breaking the Peace of Ani had become very mild in their clan.” The men mock those clans who do not alter customs as they see fit: “they lack understanding.” If we think too much on change as things-falling-apart, we are apt to miss the ameliorative process of change which is inherent in the clan. Throughout the story several old men and some young men ponder the sanity of customs, such as the particularly agonizing one of killing twins, and we are conscious that eventually it too would be changed. Desire for change, founded in emotional distress, is what brings Nwoye to Christianity for solace.

Chapter Five returns to another feast of the Earth Goddess to elaborate her position. The “source of all fertility[,] Ani played a greater part in the life of the people than any other deity. She was the ultimate judge of morality and conduct” (26). During her feast, for which the local women inscribe themselves and their huts with detailed patterns, and to which visitors come from the motherland (and reportedly spoil the children!), the violence of Okonkwo once more erupts. He rages that a tree has been killed—“As a matter of fact the tree was very much alive”—and then shoots at his wife, the one who (as we later learn) had left her husband out of admiration for Okonkwo's excellence as a wrestler. The implications of this wild act of shooting eventually become clear for though there was no formal violation of the harvest festival, Okonkwo here mishandles a gun as he will later do in fatefully killing a boy.

The remainder of Chapter Five is filled with the wonderful power of the drums, like the rhythmic pulse of the heart of the clan, sounding insistently behind the action—“Just then the distant beating of drums began to reach them” (30), “The drums were still beating, persistent and unchanging” (31), “In the distance the drums continued to beat” (32). They are a pulse countered only by Okonkwo's roaring at his daughter Ezinma whom he wished were a boy. At this point rhythm takes on thematic dimensions as the narrator contrasts Okonkwo's eccentric or asymmetrical behavior with the rhythmic spirit of the clan. The significance of the drum beat is amplified in the following chapter (Six) where the chief entertainment of the clan, wrestling, takes place on the ilo, the village circle, a dramatic space where the central physical and cultural acts of the people occur (recall the spiritual “dark, endless space in the presence of Agbala,” 12). Later (Chapter Ten) judgments are passed there on major legal cases, and finally (Chapter Twenty-three) when the clan is disrupted and the imagery is of coldness and ashes, no acts take place: “the village ilo where they had always gathered for a moon-play was empty” (139). Our attention is drawn inexorably to the ilo by the drums so that by the time the celebration begins, we watch the people drawn in every sense together by the drums, for the drummers are literally “possessed by the spirit of the drums” (33) and their “frantic rhythm was … the very heart-beat of the people” (35–36). Rhythm is central. We are to see this celebration as the focal dramatic act of the dramatic space which is the center of the people—harmonic life—as if we as visitors to the clan must see at least once what rhythm means in its fullest articulation, must be reminded what it was like when, as the novel opened, Okonkwo threw the Cat, and when now, in almost exact repetition for Okonkwo, for his wife, for the clan, “The muscles on their arms and their thighs and on their backs stood out and twitched, …

Has he thrown a hundred Cats?

He has thrown four hundred Cats.”


This is the cultural center of the novel—the ilo becomes a metaphor for the dramatic space of the novel, the cultural locus upon which Okonkwo performs, first as wrestler, then as tragic actor. In Achebe's World Robert Wren also emphasizes this chapter: the novel's twenty-five chapters “are upon closer analysis divided into four groups of six chapters each, with one pivotal chapter, XIII, where Okonkwo accidentally kills Ezeudo's son and must flee.”24 Wren goes on to note that Part One actually “has two six-chapter units plus the pivotal chapter.” The stress then is on Chapter Six, the drum chapter, as a center of this Part (for with Seven we move to the killing of Ikemefuna), so there is an imbalance with Chapter Thirteen: the “alternating chapters show Okonkwo in crisis”: VII, IX, XI and XIII.25

Hereafter in Chapter Seven as things begin to break down, we can view Okonkwo's eventual tragedy as a violation of this harmony. We notice how he stands obnoxious and restless against the festival of drums: “never … enthusiastic over feasts,” he picks a quarrel over the “dead” tree, shoots at his wife, jealously sees Obierika's son become wrestling hero instead of his son (34). Playwright and critic Wole Soyinka tells us that a person must constantly attempt to bridge the gulf between the area of earthly existence and the existence of deities, ancestors and the unborn by “sacrifices, the rituals, the ceremonies of appeasement to those cosmic powers which lie guardian to the gulf … Tragedy, in Yoruba traditional drama, is the anguish of this severance, the fragmentation of essence from self.”26 Achebe's narrator underscores the same sense of cosmic responsibility in Chapter Thirteen: “A man's life from birth to death was a series of transition rites which brought him nearer and nearer to his ancestors” (85). Achebe's is not Yoruba fiction, but Soyinka's description gives, I think, an important clue to Okonkwo's tragedy: separation from what the clan adheres to as value, specifically here the rhythmic center of life.

In Chapter Seven the actions run together without division and there is a symbolic heightening of word and action as if we are continuing from the previous chapter with specially meaningful narrative. As Okonkwo told Nwoye and Ikemefuna “masculine stories of violence and bloodshed … they sat in darkness,” a terrible symbolic image, especially in contrast to Nwoye's love of “stories his mother used to tell,” folk tales of mercy and pity at which “he warmed himself” as Vulture did in the tale (38). (Note that Okonkwo almost inadvertently remembers in detail his mother's folk tale, 53.) Then the locusts came, destroyers later identified with “the white man” (97). Okonkwo is warned “to have nothing to do with” killing Ikemefuna, for “He calls you his father.” But then—in the suddenly symbolic phrasing of the narrator, “in the narrow line in the heart of the forest,” the narrow line between obedience to the Oracle or obedience to humanity and the advice of Obierika, a line which crossed either way would be destructive—“Dazed with fear, Okonkwo drew his matchet and cut him down. He was afraid of being thought weak” (43). And Nwoye, knowing what his father had done, felt “something … give way inside him,” just as he did before when he “heard the voice of an infant crying in the thick forest,” thrown there to die in a pot. “It descended on him again, this feeling, when his father walked in, that night after killing Ikemefuna” (43).

The rhythm of the narrative does not end here with the broken rhythm of Okonkwo's life. The style continues much as before; Wilfred Cartey observes Achebe's repetition of images in Part Two: “When the rain finally came, it was in large, solid drops of frozen water which the people called ‘the nuts of the water of heaven’” (92); similarly, Nwoye feels Christianity “like the drops of frozen rain melting on the dry palate of the panting earth” (104).27 In the first chapter of Part Two, Okonkwo is instructed through a kind of repetition or review of his life from childhood to manhood, for the purpose of renewing his way of seeing. The first truth he is taught is the role of the female; not only has Okonkwo committed a female crime of inadvertently killing a boy when his gun exploded, but his penalty is seven (the number we saw in the opening passage) years exile in his motherland:

Can you tell me, Okonkwo, why it is that one of the commonest names we give our children is Nneka, or ‘Mother is Supreme’? We all know that a man is the head of the family and his wives do his bidding. A child belongs to its father and his family and not to its mother and her family. A man belongs to his fatherland and not to his motherland. And yet we say Nneka. …

You do not know the answer? So you see that you are a child. … Listen to me. … It's true that a child belongs to its father. But when a father beats his child, it seeks sympathy in its mother's hut. A man belongs to his fatherland when things are good and life is sweet. But when there is sorrow and bitterness he finds refuge in his motherland. Your mother is there to protect you. She is buried there. And that is why we say that mother is supreme.


In spite of the additive qualities of the motherland (D) as sympathy, refuge and protection, Okonkwo's course is clear cut: he will eschew the feminine and, unchanged, act towards others as he acted before. Though the rhythms of the clan are by no mean perfect, he refuses to respond to their fulfillment and direction, and refers later to these years as “wasted.” “He cannot see the wise balance,” Ravenscroft writes, “in the tribal arrangement by which the female principle is felt to be simultaneously weak and sustaining.”28 But the newly introduced element of the white men will alter his course much further. As subtle as the colonists' entrance is the narrator's addition of a feature at a time: at first an unknown, the white men become a joke, then formidable missionaries, then government, then place of judgment, then “religion and trade and government” and prison (123).

For all the disruption wrought by the whites, Christianity is not itself necessarily bad. The customs of the clan, which had been considered by some to be foolish or baneful and would in time be altered as others had, are accelerated to change by Christianity. Nwoye accepts the religion primarily because it answers a felt need. “It was the poetry of the new religion, something felt in the marrow,” like the folk tales he loved earlier. “The hymn about brothers who sat in darkness and in fear seemed to answer a vague and persistent question that haunted his young soul [just as he and Ikemefuna had sat in darkness listening to Okonkwo's tales of the past]—the question of the twins crying in the bush and the question of Ikemefuna who was killed” (104). Christianity speaks directly to Nwoye's needs, not in rational or doctrinal terms but in mercy and comfort of spirit. Nor does it seem that his reaction is destructive of any of the prior values of the clan; certainly Ikemefuna was a richly responsive human, lacking neither masculine strength nor feminine mercy, and the only counter to Nwoye's inclinations was Okonkwo's insistence on masculinity. Christianity itself is greatly varied by its practitioners, the missionaries, for whereas Brown (midway between black and white) actually tried to understand African belief and respond with some sensitivity to the people (he is still obtuse: “a frontal attack … would not succeed,” 128), another, with the nondescript name of Smith, “saw things as black and white. And black was evil” (130). Such dogmatic cruelty had not appeared in the novel until this missionary; and of course he succeeds because he is inflexible and tyrannical, while complex persons of compassion are overcome or bypassed.

Seven years was a long time to be away from one's clan. A man's place was not always there, waiting for him. As soon as he left, someone else rose and filled it. The clan was like a lizard; if it lost its tail it soon grew another.

Okonkwo knew these things. He knew that he had lost his place among the nine masked spirits who administered justice in the clan. He had lost the chance to lead his warlike clan against the new religion, which, he was told, had gained ground. He had lost the years in which he might have taken the highest titles in the clan. But some of these losses were not irreparable. He was determined that his return should be marked by his people. He would return with a flourish, and regain the seven wasted years.

Even in his first year of exile he had begun to plan for his return. The first thing he would do would be to rebuild his compound on a more magnificent scale. He would build a bigger barn than he had before and he would build huts for two new wives. Then he would show his wealth by initiating his sons in the ‘ozo’ society. Only the really great men in the clan were able to do this. Okonkwo saw clearly the high esteem in which he would be held, and he saw himself taking the highest title in the land.


The rhythms are clearly evident with the beat of key words and tenses and voices: “he knew” (twice), “he had lost” (three times), and so on to “he would return,” “he would build,” “he would show,” “he would be held,” and “he saw.” One of the peculiar effects of this repetition is that “he” is doing all the acting and thinking so that the repetitions advance with very little return to the beginning for elaboration. The “redundancy” lacks the element of “addition.” Okonkwo marches forward, dreaming, not reflecting, not in fact building upon the prior words and thoughts. His mind works from knowing in truth to seeing in fantasy, from knowledge of loss to determination to overcome and excel. The repetitions mirror the stress between Okonkwo's linear mentality and the clan's circular, rhythmic mode of repetition. For Okonkwo personally nothing has changed at home: he curses his son Nwoye from the family and wishes Ezinma were a boy, “She understood things so perfectly” (122). Socially, however, outside Okonkwo's mind, there is now the new religion, trade, government; and everyone knew the white man “‘has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart’” (124–25).

The rhythmic coherence of the novel is sustained through to the end, at least when the narrator is describing the actions of the clan. The words of the District Commissioner, however, or words describing his actions, appear to be syntactically and philosophically different. For instance, in the final chapter we read the complex sentence:

When the District Commissioner arrived at Okonkwo's compound at the head of an armed band of soldiers and court messengers he found a small crowd of men sitting wearily in the obi. He commanded them to come outside, and they obeyed without a murmur.


The sentences are “subordinative” and sequential in narration of facts—this happened and then that—not at all in the “additive” rhythmic manner of accumulation of detail by repetition.29 We are confronted by the difference between his speech and the clan's speech when the Commissioner complains to himself, “One of the most infuriating habits of these people was their love of superfluous words,” for redundancy or copiousness is indeed one of the marks of oral speech. Rhythmic language follows as Obierika and his fellows approach Okonkwo's body hanging from a tree:

There was a small bush behind Okonkwo's compound. The only opening into this bush from the compound was a little round hole in the red-earth wall through which fowls went in and out in their endless search for food. The hole would not let a man through. It was to this bush that Obierika led the Commissioner and his men. They skirted round the compound, keeping close to the wall. The only sound they made was with their feet as they crushed dry leaves.

The passage features assonance of the “o” to depict the “round hole,” the now-familiar parallelism, repetition, specificity of detail and images, and continual expansion of the scene by repetition and addition. The verb “to be” dominates the sentences—“There was,” “the opening … was,” “it was”—and the weight of meaning is carried by objects, “bush,” “compound,” “hole,” as if one's actions are relatable chiefly to stable poles of identification in the village rather than to one's personal activities.30 The monosyllabic detail of the words quoted above gives them a symbolic tone, as if that little hole were the impossible fissure through which Okonkwo had passed by suicide into non-existence. The rhythmic phrasing stands sharply against the closing words of the Commissioner which are again logical and process-oriented, analytical, unsuperfluous, and non-African, with weight on verbs: he “arrived,” “found,” “commanded … and they obeyed.” His arrogant dismissal of Okonkwo's story as deserving a bare paragraph in his book is mirrored in the straightforward, one-dimensional prose.

The style of the novel and its structure thus draw attention to the exquisite tension between traditional English prose and the unique African and/or Igbo quality Achebe has created; it is, as Lloyd Brown says, “a total cultural experience, … the embodiment of its civilization.”31 Achebe himself is keenly aware of this quality of African style, as he points out in a passage from a Fulani creation myth: “You notice … how in the second section … we have that phrase became too proud coming back again and again like the recurrence of a dominant beat in rhythmic music?”32 In a discussion of his own prose, he illustrates “how I approach the use of English”:

‘I want one of my sons to join these people and be my eyes 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. My spirit tells me that those who do not befriend the white man today will be saying had we known tomorrow.’

Now supposing I had put it another way. Like this for instance:

‘I am sending you as my representative among these people—just to be on the safe side in case the new religion develops. One has to move with the times or else one is left behind. I have a hunch that those who fail to come to terms with the white man may well regret their lack of foresight.’33

Though Achebe does not spell out the differences between these passages, he seems fully conscious that the repetition of the “if” clauses creates that quality of rhythm which is missing in the “English” version, the metaphorical phrasing which, we should observe, is used in a colloquial rather than philosophical or proverbial sense. Rhythm, as Achebe seems well aware, thus can range from a stress within a phrase or sentence, to the structuring principle of a paragraph, to the form of an entire work. Through such a reading we may learn about the nature of rhythm and orality, and about the form of the novel, but especially we may better see the unique English Achebe has created and realize its African tone in order “to understand another whose language” one, as a non-African, “does not speak.”34


  1. C. L. Innes and Bernth Lindfors, eds., Critical Perspectives on Chinua Achebe (Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1978), p. 1.

  2. Ibid., p. 5, quoting from TLS in 1965.

  3. John Povey, “The English Language of the Contemporary African Novel,” Critique XI, 3 (1969), 93.

  4. Ihechukwu Madubuike, “Achebe's Ideas on African Literature,” New Letters 40, 4 (1974), 87.

  5. Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (London: Heinemann, 1958), p. 3. All subsequent quotations from the text are from this edition. Note: the word “men” above is written “man” in the text, which seems inconsistent with the referent “founder of their town.”

  6. Meki Nzewi, “Ancestral Polyphony,” African Arts 11, 4 (1978), 94: “But Chinua does not see a link between the modern Igbo novelist and the traditional storyteller.” According to Professor Chidi Ikonne of Harvard University the narrator is not a griot (from private conversation). Yet Kofi Awoonor, The Breast of the Earth (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1976), p. 257, adds, there is a “straight-forward simplicity about the language … that recalls the raconteur's voice.”

  7. Walter J. Ong, S. J., Orality and Literacy (London: Methuen, 1982), pp. 34, 37–40. Ong says Achebe's No Longer at Ease “draws directly on Ibo oral tradition … [providing] instances of thought patterns in orally educated characters who move in these oral, mnemonically tooled grooves,” p. 35.

  8. Karl H. Bottcher, “The Narrative Technique in Achebe's Novels,” New African Literature and the Arts 13/14 (1972), 7.

  9. Ong, pp. 45–46. See Bottcher on narrator's distance, pp. 1–5.

  10. Unpublished essay as quoted by Ron Scollon, “Rhythmic Integration of Ordinary Talk,” in Analyzing Discourse: Text and Talk, ed. Deborah Tannen (Georgetown: Georgetown University Press, 1982), p. 337. See also Emmanuel Obeichina, Culture, Tradition and Society in the West African Novel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), p. 174: “The main impulse in [Nigerian novelist Gabriel Okara's] The Voice obviously derives from the oral tradition … especially his deliberate repetitions, his metaphorical and hyperbolic elaborations and his colloquial rhythm.”

  11. Quoted in Jahnheinz Jahn, Muntu (New York: Grove Press, 1961), pp. 164–66. See original, Senghor, “L'Esthétique Négro-Africaine,” Liberté I, Négritude et Humanisme (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1964), pp. 211–12; and his premise: “Image et rythme, ce sont les deux traits fondamentaux du style négro-africain,” p. 209. See also Obeichina: “The most striking feature of Okara's art is the repetition of single words, phrases, sentences, images or symbols, a feature highly developed in traditional narrative,” p. 173; and Daniel P. Biebuyck, Hero and Chief, Epic Literature from the Banyanga (Zaire Republic) (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), p. 79: “Somewhat related to the formulaic system are the innumerable repetitions that add emphasis, effect, clarity and thus give fullness to the description [and] lend sonority, additional rhythm, and emphasis to the statements.”

  12. Ibid., p. 168.

  13. Robert Kellogg, “Literature, Nonliterature, and Oral Tradition,” New Literary History 8 (Spring, 1977), 532. This issue of NLH has a valuable collection of essays on “Oral Cultures and Oral Performances.”

  14. Roger Fowler, Linguistics and the Novel (London: Methuen, 1977), p. 28: “the surface structure of a text (which is a sequence of sentences) has, like the surface structure of a sentence, qualities such as sequence, rhythm, spatial and temporal expressiveness.” Raymond Chapman, The Language of English Literature (London: Edward Arnold, 1982), pp. 84–85: “We have seen that the traditional metres of English poetry have some connection with the rhythms of ordinary speech. … Rhythm of course is not confined to poetry … prose can have its distinctive cadences.” Richard Ohmann, “Generative Grammars and the Concept of Literary Style,” in Linguistics and Literary Style, ed. Donald Freeman (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970; previously published 1964), p. 260: “let me state this dogmatically—in prose, at least, rhythm as perceived is largely dependent upon syntax, and even upon content, not upon stress, intonation, and juncture alone.”

  15. Fowler, pp. 60, 63. See also Michael Riffaterre, “Criteria for Style Analysis,” in Essays on the Language of Literature, eds. Seymour Chapman and Samuel Levin (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1967), pp. 428–29.

  16. Raymond Chapman, p. 43: “One of the most common metrical lines in English poetry is the iambic pentameter. … It follows very closely the pattern of everyday speech. … The iambic pentameter can be given many variations, but it remains close to what sounds ‘natural’ in English.”

  17. David Carroll, Chinua Achebe (New York: Twayne, 1970), pp. 37, 47.

  18. Solomon O. Iyasere. “Narrative Techniques in Things Fall Apart,New Letters 40, 3 (1974), 76. See also Iyasere, “Oral Tradition in the Criticism of African Literature,” Journal of Modern African Studies 13, I (1975), 111–14.

  19. Robert Wren, Achebe's World (Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1980), pp. 23 ff.

  20. Bottcher, pp. 1–12.

  21. Cf. Jahn, p. 165; and J. H. Kwabena Nketia, The Music of Africa (New York: Norton, 1974), p. 136: “the crucial point in polyrhythmic procedures … is the spacing or the placement of rhythmic patterns that are related to one another at different points in time so as to produce the anticipated integrated structure.” All of Chapter 12 is relevant here. Isadore Okpewho, The Epic in Africa: Toward a Poetic of Oral Performance (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979), pp. 61–2, asks, “What is the nature of this musical element in African heroic song?” and responds, “one fundamental aspect, its polyrhythmic nature, is relevant here. … Polyrhythms … vary as one moves from east to west, with West Africa as the region of greatest complexity.”

  22. Bottcher, p. 7.

  23. For discussions of the feminine, see Ernest Champion, “The Story of a Man and his People,” NALF 6 (1972), 274; G. D. Killam, The Novels of Chinua Achebe (New York: Africana, 1969), pp. 20 ff.; Iyasere, “Narrative …,” pp. 79 ff.; Wilfred Cartey, Whispers from a Continent (New York: Random House, 1969), Chapter 1, “Mother and Child.” Awareness of the masculine/feminine element is now widely manifested by critics.

  24. Wren, p. 23.

  25. Ibid., p. 24.

  26. Myth, Literature, and the African World (Cambridge: University Press, 1976), pp. 144–45.

  27. Cartey, p. 100.

  28. Arthur Ravenscroft, Chinua Achebe (London: Longmans, Green, 1969), p. 13.

  29. Cf. Senghor, p. 214: “Il y a plus, la structure de la phrase négro-africaine est naturellement rythmée. Car, tandis que les langues indo-européennes usent d'une syntaxe logique de subordination, les langues négro-africaines recourent, plus volontiers, à une syntaxe intuitive de coordination et de juxtaposition.” See also Robert Kauffman, “African Rhythm: A Reassessment,” Ethnomusicology 24, 3 (1980), 402, 406.

  30. In the quotation from p. 123 the repetition of “he” and active verbs—“He knew,” “he would do,” “he would rebuild.”—confirms our sense that Okonkwo is operating outside the cultural rhythms of the clan. Marjorie Winters in “An Objective Approach to Achebe's Style,” Research in African Literatures 12, 1 (1981), 55–68, describes the length of the narrator's sentences, his spare use of adjectives and adverbs, the “unusual” number of “introductory demonstratives,” the clarity achieved by his “redundancy of connective signposts” (‘and so’), “as well as other repetitious elements.” Her approach differs from mine but her results do not oppose conclusions drawn here.

  31. Lloyd Brown, “Cultural Norms and Modes of Perception in Achebe's Fiction,” Critical Perspectives on Nigerian Literature, ed. Bernth Lindfors (Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1976), p. 133.

  32. Chinua Achebe, “Language and the Destiny of Man,” Morning Yet on Creation Day (New York: Doubleday, 1975), pp. 56–7.

  33. Achebe, “The African Writer and the English Language,” Morning Yet on Creation Day, pp. 101–02.

  34. Achebe, “Where Angels Fear to Tread,” Morning Yet on Creation Day, p. 79.

Further Reading

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Champion, Ernest A. “The Story of a Man and His People: Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart.Negro American Literature Forum 8, No. 4 (Winter 1974): 272–77.

Champion explores how Achebe portrays the character Okonkwo's relationship to the Igbo tradition in Things Fall Apart.

Egar, Emmanuel Edame. “Rhetorical Implications of the Theme in Things Fall Apart.” In The Rhetorical Implications of Chinua Achebe's “Things Fall Apart,” pp. 1–12. New York: University Press of America, 2000.

Egar discusses Achebe's attempt to use English to translate the Igbo rhetorical form in Things Fall Apart and his belief in the artist's secular vision as demonstrated throughout his work.

———. “Rhetorical Implications of Women and Their Pain in Things Fall Apart.” In The Rhetorical Implications of Chinua Achebe's “Things Fall Apart,” pp. 17–26. New York: University Press of America, 2000.

Egar explores how Achebe and other writers call attention to the plight of women in their novels.

Emenyonu, Ernest N. “Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart: A Classic Study in Colonial Diplomatic Tactlessness.” In Chinua Achebe: A Celebration, edited by Kirsten Holst Petersen and Anna Rutherford, pp. 83–88. Sydney: Heinemann, 1990.

Emenyonu is a professor of English and Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of Calabar, Nigeria. He reads Things Fall Apart as a political treatise against the mistakes of colonialism instead of as a character study as many critics do.

Jabbi, Bu-Buakei. “Fire and Transition in Things Fall Apart.Obsidian 1, No. 3 (Winter 1975): 22–36.

Jabbi argues that the main theme of Things Fall Apart is that of transition and that fire is the overriding symbol of the novel.

Jones, Eldred. “Language and Theme in Things Fall Apart.Review of English Literature 5, No. 4 (October 1964): 39–43.

Jones praises Achebe's melding of the English language and African themes in Things Fall Apart.

Omoyele, Idowu. “Forty Years since Things Fall Apart.West Africa, No. 4188 (16–29 March 1998): 349–50.

Omoyele explores how Things Fall Apart functions as Achebe's answer to the previously inaccurate portrayal of Africa and Africans in literature.

Pati, Madhusudan. “Things Fall Apart: An Enquiry into Rasa-Configuration.” Literary Criterion 26, No. 1 (1991): 40–53.

Pati analyzes Achebe's Things Fall Apart from the critical perspective of rasa theory.

Wright, Derek. “Things Standing Together: A Retrospect on Things Fall Apart.” In Chinua Achebe: A Celebration, edited by Kirsten Holst Petersen and Anna Rutherford, pp. 76–82. Sydney: Heinemann, 1990.

Derek Wright teaches at the University of the Northern Territory, Darwin, Australia, and is a specialist in African literature. He asserts that the character Okonkwo stands in opposition to Igbo culture—even as he fights to preserve it—in Things Fall Apart.

Additional coverage of Achebe's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: African Writers; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 15; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 1; Black Literature Criticism, Vol. 1; Black Writers, Vols. 2 and 3; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 20; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1–4R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 6, 26, 47; Contemporary Novelists; Contemporary Poets; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 117; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied, Multicultural, and Novelists; Exploring Novels; Exploring Short Stories; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 2; Literature for Developing Nations for Students, Vol. 1; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1 and 2; Novels for Students, Vol. 2; Reference Guide to English Literature; Reference Guide to Short Fiction; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 3 and 13; Something About the Author, Vols. 38 and 40; St. James Guide to Children's Writers; World Literature and Its Times, Vol. 2; and World Literature Criticism.

Damian U. Opata (essay date Spring 1987)

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SOURCE: “Eternal Sacred Order versus Conventional Wisdom: A Consideration of Moral Culpability in the Killing of Ikemefuna in Things Fall Apart,” in Research in African Literatures, Vol. 18, No. 1, Spring, 1987, pp. 71–79.

[In the following essay, Opata argues that the character Okonkwo was not morally culpable when he killed Ikemefuna in Things Fall Apart because he was following the sacred order of the oracle.]

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. He was afraid of being thought weak.

(Things Fall Apart 43)

Okonkwo's killing of Ikemefuna—his knottiest moral dilemma in the novel—has generally been seen by critics as an unconscionable act that is tantamount to an offense against the gods of the land. After Ikemefuna's death, Okonkwo's closest friend, Obierika, tells him that what he did “will not please the Earth” because “it is the kind of action for which the goddess wipes out whole families” (46). Earlier, Ezeudu, “the oldest man” in Okonkwo's own quarter of Umuofia, had told Okonkwo not to have anything to do with the killing of Ikemefuna. He said, “That boy calls you father. Do not bear a hand in his death” (40). The authorial voice which follows after the killing of Ikemefuna ascribes a psychological motive of fear to Okonkwo's actions.

Following these tips from the text, many critics have been unequivocal in alleging that Okonkwo committed an offense by having a hand in the killing of Ikemefuna. David Carroll (1970, 44; 1980, 42–43), Charles Nnolim (58), Oladele Taiwo (118), G. D. Killam (20), and Robert M. Wren (44) share this view that Okonkwo committed an offense by taking part in the killing of Ikemefuna. Solomon Iyasere (102) sympathizes with Okonkwo for the humane qualities that he showed by looking away as Ikemefuna was about to be killed, but Iyasere neither exonerates Okonkwo nor holds him culpable for the death of Ikemefuna. From the available critical literature I have examined regarding Okonkwo's role in the killing of Ikemefuna, no critic has seen fit to exonerate Okonkwo for killing Ikemefuna. The attempt of this paper shall be to establish that, although Okonkwo felt some temporal sense of moral revulsion after he had killed Ikemefuna, he cannot thereby be said to have committed any offense against Earth. This defense of Okonkwo shall be looked at from two levels: from internal evidence in Things Fall Apart and from what critics have made of some of the evidence available in the text.

Ikemefuna—a sacrificial lamb—is first introduced to us as “a doomed lad,” “an ill-fated lad” (6). The young virgin, with whom he is brought to Umuofia as appeasement from the people of Mbaino who had killed a daughter of Umuofia, is not even mentioned by name. All we are told about her is that she belongs to Ogbuefi Udo, the man whose wife was murdered by the people of Mbaino. Ikemefuna, on the other hand, is a communal property, but Okonkwo is asked to look after him as “there was no hurry to decide his fate (9).” Because he was regarded as a sacrificial lamb, Ikemefuna's death was already a fait accompli, at least in the eyes of Mbaino people. Under Okonkwo's roof, Ikemefuna is treated as any other member of Okonkwo's family, and he soon starts to address Okonkwo as his father. Had Okonkwo not extended the same fatherly love he has for all his children to Ikemefuna, but treated him as a captive and an object of sacrifice—which he actually was—he would probably not have endeared himself to Okonkwo to the extent of calling him “Father.” Indeed, if he lost memories of his own home, it was because of the humane way in which he was integrated into Okonkwo's household. But at the end of three years, the people of Umuofia decided to kill him. As Ogbuefi Ezeudu says:

“Yes, Umuofia has decided to kill him. The Oracle of the Hills and the Caves has pronounced it. They will take him outside Umuofia as is the custom, and kill him there. But I want [you] to have nothing to do with it. He calls you father.”


Ogbuefi Ezeudu's warning is significant because he is the oldest man in Okonkwo's quarter of Umuofia, and he is, by tradition, a representative of the collective spiritual conscience of the people as well as a mediator between the living and the dead. His advice should be seen as authoritative and well-intentioned. His injunction is, on a general plane, premised on the conventional wisdom that a man should not kill another who is his father, or who calls him father. Here, conventional wisdom is in agreement with the traditional sacred order. All this is well under normal circumstances. In the case under consideration, Umuofia is asked to carry out a divine command. We are not told much about the people whose function it is to carry out this type of command, but from the description on page 40 (“a group of elders from all the nine villages of Umuofia”) and from the reference to this group on page 41 (“The next day, the men returned with a pot of wine”), we may conclude that it is the duty of the elders. Earlier we had been told that because of Okonkwo's personal achievements, he had already joined the group of elders (6). If Ikemefuna had been kept in a household other than Okonkwo's, Okonkwo would probably have been one of the elders to go to that household to convey the decision of Umuofia to kill Ikemefuna in accordance with the wish of the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves.

What options were open to Okonkwo after Ezeudu had spoken to him? Is it possible for us to find out his reaction to Ezeudu's warning? We shall take the latter question first. Ezeudu's advice is delivered like a command: “That boy calls you father. Do not bear a hand in his death”; later on, the warning is restated thus: “I want [you] to have nothing to do with it. He calls you father.” Okonkwo's opinion is not sought; he is given an injunction. Since Ezeudu is the oldest man in Okonkwo's own quarter of Umuofia, he can be seen as the direct representative of the ancestors of that particular quarter. His words, therefore, have the force of law. Because Okonkwo did not protest or even argue with Ezeudu, we may feel safe to assume that he accepted Ezeudu's advice. This assumption is borne out later in the novel. When the people set out to kill Ikemefuna, Okonkwo was walking directly behind him (42), but by the time they arrived at the outskirts of Umuofia, where Ikemefuna would be killed, Okonkwo had withdrawn to the rear. The passage reads:

One of the men behind him cleared his throat. Ikemefuna looked back, and the man growled at him to go on and not stand looking back. The way he said it sent cold fear down Ikemefuna's back. His hands trembled vaguely on the black pot he carried. Why had Okonkwo withdrawn to the rear? Ikemefuna felt his legs melting under him. And he was afraid to look back.


What is the proper interpretation of Okonkwo's decision to withdraw to the rear? It is plausible to believe that he did so in order not to “bear a hand in the death” of Ikemefuna (40). His decision to withdraw to the back can be seen as willingness on his part to listen to the advice of Ezeudu. If we also add to this the fact that he “looked away” when the man who had earlier growled “drew up” to kill Ikemefuna (43), we can say that Okonkwo neither wanted to “bear a hand” in Ikemefuna's death nor see him cut down (43). It may be that Okonkwo would have taken this decision if Ezeudu had not spoken to him, but since he did, we can assume that it was a way of reacting positively to Ezeudu's advice.

We now return to the first question: What were the options open to Okonkwo when Ezeudu came to warn him that he should have nothing to do with the killing of Ikemefuna? We shall consider the choice open to Okonkwo at two levels. When “the men returned” the following day to take Ikemefuna to the place where he would be killed (41), what were the things he could have elected to do? He could have chosen to do one of two things: either accompany the elders or stay behind. The latter will eventually turn out to be Obierika's counsel. Okonkwo, however, did not stay behind. Are we then to condemn him for not staying behind? Before we answer yes or no to this question, we should be reminded that Okonkwo is one of the elders of Umuofia. It was the elders who came to convey the message of the decision of Umuofia to kill Ikemefuna. The same group of elders returned the following day to take Ikemefuna away. It is possible that one of Okonkwo's reasons for deciding to accompany them is that he is one of them. But there is a more important reason: it might have simply been a question of strategy. After Okonkwo had been informed of the decision to kill Ikemefuna, he had told Ikemefuna that he was to be taken home the following day. After all, even pious Abraham in a somewhat related situation had to pretend to Isaac. Moreover, Okonkwo is the person who went to Mbaino “as the proud and imperious emissary of war” (9) to ask for “a young man and a virgin as compensation” (8) for the murder of Ogbuefi Udo's wife. In addition, Okonkwo had acted as guardian and foster father to Ikemefuna for three years. It is then proper that if Ikemefuna were to be taken home, Okonkwo should be one of those to accompany him on the journey.

From all this, Okonkwo's decision to follow the elders can be seen to be predicated on role and strategy: as a member of the elders he was supposed to go, and he also had to be there in order to let it seem to Ikemefuna that he was really being taken home. From Okonkwo's later actions when they reached the outskirts of Umuofia, where Ikemefuna would be killed, we can speculate that after Ezeudu's advice, Okonkwo, while leaving with the other elders, was thinking along these lines: “I accept Ezeudu's advice, but since I am one of the elders and since I was the person who went to Mbaino to bring Ikemefuna here and have lived with him for three years, I must accompany the elders in order to create the impression that he is actually being taken home. However, when we reach the place where he is to be killed, I shall withdraw to the rear and let the others kill him.”

When they arrive at the place where Ikemefuna is to be killed, what is the turn of events? Again, what options are open to Okonkwo? We have already seen how he withdrew to the rear when they reached Ikemefuna's Golgotha, thereby leaving the others to kill the boy. The events of Ikemefuna's death are described in the following way:

As the man who had cleared his throat drew up and raised his matchet, 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 matchet and cut him down. He was afraid of being thought weak.


We have already established that the men who returned the following day to take Ikemefuna away are “elders from all the nine villages of Umuofia” (40). Given this fact, we then have at our hands a minimum of nine elders who were to see to the killing of Ikemefuna. When it was time to kill Ikemefuna, the man who we may assume was chosen for the deed either delivered a weak blow or missed his aim entirely. As Ikemefuna “ran towards” (43) Okonkwo for help and protection, none of the other men did anything: neither those immediately behind him nor the two who earlier had gone in front of him. It is clear that Okonkwo was not immediately behind Ikemefuna, for otherwise the author would not have used the phrase “ran towards.” During the brief interval that he was running toward Okonkwo, none of the other elders did anything. They simply failed to do their duty.

When Ikemefuna ran to Okonkwo for protection, what choice had Okonkwo? He could have done any of the following things: (1) give Ikemefuna the desired protection, (2) take him and like Pilate wash his hands of the matter and hand him back to be killed, or (3) kill him himself. The first option is ruled out, as adopting it would have amounted to an open defiance of the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves. It would also have been an affront to all the people of Umuofia. Regarding the second option, one may argue that Okonkwo should have followed the example of Pilate, for this would have been a more humane line of action. Okonkwo's position, however, is quite unlike Pilate's. Pilate was operating within the world of human order. In Okonkwo's case, the oracle had commanded that Ikemefuna should die. Okonkwo was not excluded from bringing about the death of Ikemefuna. It would undoubtedly have been very humane of Okonkwo to behave like Pilate, but the consequence would have been different. To take Ikemefuna and to hand him back to be killed would be as if Okonkwo said to the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves. “I don't dispute what you have said, but I refuse to be the instrument that will bring about what you have decreed.” This too would have amounted to a defiance of the oracle. The situation is comparable to that of citizens who feel that a particular law is morally revolting; although they would not prevent others from obeying the law, they themselves would not obey it. We are then left with the third option. Okonkwo killed Ikemefuna.

After Okonkwo had killed Ikemefuna, the authorial voice tells us that Okonkwo's reason for killing Ikemefuna is his fear of being thought weak. The authorial voice is always final, but one doubts whether it is equally always masterful. Okonkwo's killing of Ikemefuna is instinctive. No time was left for him to consider his action. 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 fates. 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. Thus far, we can conclude from the evidence before us that by the beginning of the novel, Ikemefuna's death was already a fait accompli, that Okonkwo's action in killing him is not premeditated, and that the circumstances which led to his killing of Ikemefuna forced the act on him.

We now turn our attention to our second level of analysis; namely, what critics have made out of the evidence available in the text. After the killing of Ikemefuna, Okonkwo's closest friend, Obierika, blames Okonkwo for taking part in the killing of Ikemefuna. When Okonkwo accuses him of not coming along with them when they went to kill Ikemefuna, the following conversation ensues between the two of them:

“You know very well, Okonkwo, that I am not afraid of blood; and if anyone tells you that I am, he is telling a lie. And let me tell you one thing, my friend. If I were you I would have stayed at home. What you have done will not please the Earth. It is the kind of action for which the goddess wipes out whole families.”

“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,” Obierika agreed. “But if the Oracle said that my son should be killed I would neither dispute it nor be the one to do it.”


Many critics have taken a clue from this and blamed Okonkwo for killing Ikemefuna. For them, Okonkwo committed an offense by killing Ikemefuna. Okonkwo sees his action differently. The difference between Okonkwo's view and Obierika's (and by implication the view of Okonkwo's critics), can be summarized as the difference between rigid adherence to a sacred order and the questioning of this sacred order by bringing in considerations of conventional morality or wisdom. Obierika and Okonkwo's critics are applying the standards of conventional wisdom to a situation which entirely transcends it. But for Okonkwo, strict adherence to the eternal sacred order takes precedence and allows of no human rationalization. Hence he tells Obierika that the Earth cannot punish him for obeying her messenger. Obierika concedes this point to Okonkwo. His later statement: “If the Oracle said that my son should be killed, I would neither dispute it nor be the one to do it” (47) is then no more than sheer conventional sentimentality and hypocrisy. Did he not throw away his own twin children because tradition commanded him to? (87). Of course, the tradition which sees twin children as abominable does not state that it is the father of the twin children that must throw them away. Was Obierika not going to take part in razing Okonkwo's house and demolishing everything there? (87). Here again, custom simply demands that the house of any person who commits a female ochu (“inadvertent murder”) should be destroyed. It does not compel every person to take part in such demolitions. In taking part in these two activities, Obierika commits the same offense (if offense it may be called) for which he holds Okonkwo guilty.

Furthermore, we need to consider whether a person who kills a condemned man can be said to have committed an offense and also to consider under what circumstances the person may or may not be exonerated. The oracle said that Ikemefuna should be killed. It did not say that Okonkwo should not take part in carrying out its wish. In the context under consideration, there is no traditional hangman whose role it is to kill people in Ikemefuna's predicament. By killing Ikemefuna, therefore, Okonkwo has not usurped any person's role. He is included in the possible list of those who can kill Ikemefuna. He kills Ikemefuna. The oracle's wish has been obeyed; by whom is of no material significance. The application of conventional practical wisdom to a transcendent, eternal sacred order is again seen to be inappropriate. We do not apply the same normative rules with which we deal with ourselves to our dealings with our gods and ancestors, except where there is no conflict in the application of such rules to both spheres. And where a conflict exists, the gods take precedence. This is exactly the situation in which Okonkwo kills Ikemefuna.

Critics are also quick to point out that Okonkwo begins to suffer many reverses after his killing of Ikemefuna. They see these reverses as a type of punishment from the gods. Carroll, Nnolim, and Killam, in the references already cited, appear to share this view. At this stage it is sufficient to point out that there is no logical implication between Okonkwo's reversal of fortunes and his killing of Ikemefuna. They are two different entities separated in space and time, and no causal link can be established between them. More confounding and illogical is Oladele Taiwo's claim that

when one considers the trend of events, and it turns out later that it is in the funeral ceremony of Ezeudu (who had warned Okonkwo to have no part in Ikemefuna's death) that Okonkwo is involved in an accidental killing that exiles him from Umuofia, one begins to wonder whether Obierika's has not been the voice of reason; whether in fact, Okonkwo has not misinterpreted the will of the gods. … We are confronted with an ironic situation in which Okonkwo, in his attempt to uphold “the authority and decision of the Oracle” displeases the earth goddess.


The chasing of literary motifs is as interesting as it is complex, but sometimes it backfires. The curious logic which links Okonkwo's subsequent tragedies with the killing of Ikemefuna fails to link the death of Ezeudu and his son with his part in warning Okonkwo not to have anything to do with the killing of Ikemefuna. It may well be argued that Ezeudu's death was not unexpected, since he was the oldest man in that quarter of Umuofia; however, we should not lose sight of the fact that we do not die in time sequence according to our chronological age. It may be pertinent for us to know why it is not long after he warned Okonkwo that Ezeudu dies. It is also significant to remark that in traditional belief such an accident as befell Ezeudu's son does not just happen. Traditionally, such deaths are associated with some type of offense against the gods of the land. Why is it that when Okonkwo's gun explodes, it is Ezeudu's son who is killed, not some other person? Why must it be at Ezeudu's funeral that his own son gets killed?

We may never have a final answer to these questions because here we are confronted with causation at a supernatural level. Nevertheless, it is certainly tragic that Ezeudu's son should be killed during the funeral of his own father. For Ezeudu, it is not indicative that the gods are pleased with him. It is equally tragic for Okonkwo that his gun should explode and kill a person, but it may or may not be the case that the gods are pleased with him. Okonkwo's type of accident is usually, at least in traditional belief, attributed to ajo chi (“capricious fates”). It may well be that if the gods are displeased with Okonkwo, it is for a different reason. He claims that he was simply obeying the messenger of the Earth, but his hubris would not allow him let the matter rest at that. After experiencing a momentary sting of conscience, he seems to have taken an uncanny pleasure in his action. He even boasts of it before his friend, Obierika, by declaring, “If we were all afraid of blood, it would not be done. And what do you think the Oracle would do then?” (46). Because of his peculiar psychological disposition, he introduces the consideration of courage and manly valor into a situation where Obierika is considering the propriety of his (Okonkwo's) action. Earlier in the novel, he had mused thus:

“When did you become a shivering old woman,” Okonkwo asked himself, “you are known in all the nine villages for your valour in war? How can a man who has killed five men in battle fall to pieces because he has added a boy to their number? Okonkwo, you have become a woman indeed.”


Here again, Okonkwo is not considering his action within an eternal sacred order paradigm; instead, his pride and psychological disposition must be brought into a situation where he should be considering the propriety of his action. If Okonkwo is to be held guilty of any offense, it is not that of killing Ikemefuna (i.e., carrying out the wish of the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves) but that of taking an uncanny pride in his action, thereby removing the act from its proper domain or locale. His offense is that of hubris.

Finally, it can be argued that if Okonkwo had committed an offense by killing Ikemefuna, he would have been reprimanded or punished according to established rules. For an offense like the breaking of the Week of Peace, he was reprimanded. For the involuntary killing of Ezeudu's son, he suffers the appropriate punishment: the demolition of his entire compound and a seven-year exile for him and his entire family. If by traditional ethos, he committed an offense by killing Ikemefuna, then he would have been punished. He is not told to perform any cleansing rites. He is not told to offer sacrifices to the Earth goddess or to any other goddess for that matter. He is not deprived of his exalted position among the elders. Undoubtedly, within the level of private morality, his action is unconscionable, but that does not necessarily mean that he has committed an offense. Actions could be unconscionable without ipso facto being offenses, and in the near-fatalistic world view with which we are dealing, we have unconscionable acts that our failure to execute could constitute an offense against the gods. A classic example in African literature is the fate of Shanka in Gabre-Medhin's Oda-Oak Oracle. Okonkwo's killing of Ikemefuna is an unconscionable act, but we cannot logically go beyond that to establish that by killing Ikemefuna he committed an offense.

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. London: Heinemann, 1958, 1965.

Carroll, David. Chinua Achebe. New York: Twayne, 1970; London: Macmillan, 1980.

Iyasere, Solomon. “Narrative Technique in Things Fall Apart.Critical Perspectives on Chinua Achebe. Ed. C. L. Innes and Bernth Lindfors. London: Heinemann, 1978. 92–110.

Killam, G. D. The Writings of Chinua Achebe. Rev. ed. London: Heinemann, 1977.

Nnolim, Charles E. “Achebe's Things Fall Apart: An Igbo National Epic.” Modern Black Literature. Ed. S. Okechukwu Mezu. New York: Black Academy, 1977. 56–60.

Taiwo, Oladele. Culture and the Nigerian Novel. London; Macmillan, 1976.

Wren, Robert W. Achebe's World: The Historical and Culture Contexts of the Novels of Chinua Achebe. Washington: Three Continents, 1980.

Arlene A. Elder (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: “The Paradoxical Characterization of Okonkwo,” in Approaches to Teaching Achebe's “Things Fall Apart,” edited by Bernth Lindfors, Modern Language Association of America, 1991, pp. 58–64.

[In the following essay, Elder analyzes Okonkwo's character in terms of his relationship to Igbo society in Things Fall Apart.]

Why does Okonkwo end tragically? This question haunts every reader of Things Fall Apart, for we sense that a satisfactory answer would explain not only Chinua Achebe's complex protagonist but also the writer's larger concern about the destruction of traditional African society during the period of colonization. Students used to typical Western protagonists struggle to classify Okonkwo as either a hero or an antihero and to discover the tragic flaw that leads to his defeat. Through a sensitive reading of the novel and an introduction to Achebe's critical judgment of his hero, an instructor can help students detect the writer's ambivalence both toward Igbo society at the time of colonial contact and toward Christianity and the British governmental structures. A fruitful way to analyze Okonkwo, therefore, is to have students determine, through internal and external evidence, how easily he fits into the Igbo community, whether he exemplifies its values, and why he takes an isolated stand against the colonizers. Such an examination reveals a paradoxical protagonist who, by his people's judgment and his own, is a trustworthy representative of the traditions of his clan but whose individualism finally leads to his defeat.

Things Fall Apart spans the volatile transition period when British missionaries and colonial officials were making rapid inroads into western Nigeria. Achebe's refusal to place blame for the destruction of Igbo society completely on the West provides students with a context for the historical events depicted in his work. In response to the question, “Who do you really blame?” Achebe replies:

[T]he coming of the missionaries is very complex, and I cannot simply assign blame to this man or that man. The society itself was already heading toward destruction … [but] Europe has a lot of blame. … [T]here were internal problems that made it possible for the Europeans to come in. Somebody showed them the way. A conflict between two brothers enables a stranger to reap their harvest.

(Egejuru 125)

This dual view of the causes of colonial destruction provides some of the most interesting tensions in Achebe's books. Moreover, in Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo, characterized both as a typical Igbo man and as an individualist acting in a very complicated way in and on his community, is a microcosm of the conflicting energies in Igboland, catalyzed by the antagonistic intrusion of the Europeans.

One possible explanation for Achebe's duality in assigning historical guilt is his own dual African and Western background. He has called Things Fall Apart “an act of atonement with my past, the ritual return and homage of a prodigal son” (Morning 70). This statement indicates his intention to educate Nigerian readers about their traditions and reveals, in its biblical allusion, his grounding in Christianity. Achebe's father was a church teacher, and his grandfather welcomed the first missionaries to his village of Ogidi. “All this is part of my inheritance,” Achebe realizes, “and I try to interpret all of it” (Egejuru 80). Like his creator, Okonkwo is a man of dualities; his tensions, however, can best be understood as social and psychological rather than historical.

The first step in examining Okonkwo as both a typical Igbo man and an individualist is to determine which basic Igbo qualities he demonstrates. Moving from general cultural considerations to a specific examination of character is a useful and appropriate approach to all novels, especially African works like Things Fall Apart whose historical background may not be well known to Western students.

Although we recognize the day-by-day unity of Igbo traditional life, for purposes of analysis we can classify the clan's characteristics as occupational, social, and spiritual, and, in every instance, Okonkwo seems the perfect expression of them. Achebe pictures the Igbo as an agricultural people who prosper through hard work. Okonkwo, when we first meet him, is a farmer, wealthy enough to have taken a third wife, happiest when he is laboring on his land. Physical strength is honored among these people, and Achebe's hero—“tall and huge” (3)—has won fame not only as the greatest wrestler in the nine villages but as a great warrior in intertribal conflicts, having brought home five heads. Achebe's use of proverbial language enhances the richness of Things Fall Apart, and the author points out that “[a]mong the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten” (5). At first, his protagonist strikes us as too much the man of action, too impatient, to share this linguistic facility with his people, but a closer reading reveals that even the laconic Okonkwo occasionally delights in the Igbo love of language. To justify the elaborate feast he gives as a farewell to his mother's people after his exile, he explains, with a well-known saying, “I cannot live on the bank of a river and wash my hands with spittle” (117).

Moreover, Okonkwo achieves success among his people by earning two titles and being chosen to become an egwugwu, a representative of one of the clan's ancestors. “Age was respected among his people,” we are told, “but achievement was revered”; Okonkwo's “fame rested on solid personal achievements” (3, 6). His great passion is “to become one of the lords of the clan. That had been his life-spring” (92). Even toward the end, in a passage subtly indicating a disruption of Igbo cohesiveness, Okonkwo is praised as an upholder of the traditions. One of the oldest residents of Mbanta congratulates him by nothing, “It is good in these days when the younger generation consider themselves wiser than their sires to see a man doing things in the grand, old way” (118).

Nevertheless, despite Okonkwo's adherence to tradition and his honor in the clan, his life is filled with sometimes inexplicable, misfortunes, most significantly his accidental killing of Ezeudu's son, which lead to his seven-year exile from Umuofia. Like Obierika, his closest friend, we feel compelled to make sense of such bad luck to better understand the meaning of not only Okonkwo's life but life in general. To do so, we must again contextualize, this time recalling Igbo metaphysics, specifically the concept of a personal god, or chi. Ruminating over what has happened to him, Okonkwo laments:

Clearly his … chi was not made for great things. A man could not rise beyond the destiny of his chi. The saying of the elders was not true—that if a man said yea his chi also affirmed. Here was a man whose chi said nay despite his own affirmation.


We recognize Okonkwo's conclusion here as evidence of his depression and self-pity rather than as a valid criticism of Igbo teaching, which admits, “a man may struggle with all his power and say yes most emphatically and yet nothing he attempts will succeed” (Morning 97).

Understandably self-absorbed after his banishment, Okonkwo forgets his people's complex perception of the mysterious struggle between destiny and the individual will. The Igbo live with the paradox inherent in this metaphysical problem, but Okonkwo fastens onto an interpretation that makes him feel the most powerful and the most unfairly treated. His continuing self-pity in Mbanta evokes a telling rebuke from his uncle, Uchendu, who warns against a kind of negative individualism:

You think you are the greatest sufferer in the world. … Have you not heard the song they sing when a woman dies?

“For whom is it well, for whom is it well?

There is no one for whom it is well.”


To help students understand Okonkwo's character, which troubles them from the beginning, and to clarify Achebe's intentions, the instructor needs to leave contexts, for a moment, as resonating forces in the background and concentrate on the protagonist as an individual. among the Igbo, we must remember, “a man was judged according to his own worth and not according to the worth of his father” (6). Yet Okonkwo is a man “possessed by the fear of his father's contemptible life and shameful death” (13). He is “ruled by one passion—to hate everything that his father Unoka had loved. One of those things was gentleness and another was idleness” (10). His fear of idleness leads to his productivity, and his fear of gentleness leads to a brusqueness with less successful men—“Okonkwo knew how to kill a man's spirit”—and to a domination of his household, which he rules “with a heavy hand” (9, 19). The subordination of women to men in the Igbo social system is not unique to Okonkwo's compound, of course. The novel offers us the general wisdom, “No matter how prosperous a man was; if he was unable to rule his women and his children (and especially his women) he was not really a man” (37).

As we focus on the protagonist, however, it becomes obvious that we must continually relate our interpretation of his ideas and actions to the values of his society. For instance, we begin to suspect that Okonkwo's harsh, tyrannical nature signifies more than a simple attempt to make him appear unsympathetic and overbearing when, in a rage, he violates a taboo by beating his youngest wife during the Week of Peace. The high priest warns him, “‘The evil you have done can ruin the whole clan.’ … And so people said he had no respect for the gods of the clan” (22). In settling another household's domestic dispute, Evil Forest, who speaks for the egwugwu, declares “It is not bravely when a man fights with a woman” (66). This judgment of the ancestors on an action like Okonkwo's indicates that, although Okonkwo is an egwugwu himself, his insecurity and bad temper frequently lead him to act contrary to his society's values, even to the extent of endangering his people. His subsequent killing of Ikemefuna, a heart-rending result of precisely the same weakness and an act readers find more horrible than the prior wife-beating, is actually not as serious because, in this instance, Okonkwo has chosen (questionably, it is true) to participate in the judgment of the clan.

The individualism that leads Okonkwo to profane the Week of Peace becomes a key factor in his characterization, and his refusal to be guided by the clan's traditions and wishes becomes most significant in the third part of the novel. After he returns to Umuofia he finds that, since the advent of the white settlers, “[t]he clan had undergone such profound change … that it was barely recognizable” (129). At this point, ironically, Okonkwo's symbolic link to his people shows most clearly. His personal misfortune at the end of part 1 seems a harbinger of the decline of all the Igbo. Like Okonkwo, his clan seems unfairly visited by ill fortune since it adheres to the ancient religious and social codes that supposedly guarantee protection by the gods. Yet, the white colonists come and remain, an inexorable force, promising the destruction of these very gods. Teachers should point out this prophetic aspect of Achebe's hero as a typical Igbo, since it complicates the themes of social representativeness and personal individualism noted earlier.

From the start, Okonkwo urges violence against the missionaries. His view, it is true, resembles that of traditional figures like Chielo, the priestess of Agbala, who “called the converts the excrement of the clan” (101). Okonkwo disagrees with the majority, however, who believe the gods can defend themselves, and, significantly, with the growing number of ordinary people in Umuofia, who enjoy the wealth the colonists' trading store brings and who listen to the missionaries' arguments about the practicality of educating Igbo children.

That his unyielding rejection of the whites links him to an ever-weakening past is not initially clear to Okonkwo. When he successfully convinces the clan to use violent retribution to revenge Enoch's unmasking of an egwugwu, “[i]t was like the good old days again, when a warrior was a warrior” (136). But Obierika's prophetic warning, “It is already too late,” becomes vividly true when the henchmen of the District Commissioner punish Okonkwo and the other clan leaders (124). Personally humiliated, Okonkwo resolves, in a characteristic desire to reclaim power, to take individual action against the whites if necessary. “If Umuofia decided on war, all would be well. But if they chose to be cowards he would go out and avenge himself” (141). His nostalgic thoughts, “Worthy men are no more. … Those were days when men were men,” suggest his anachronistic, isolated position as surely as the incongruity of his raffia war dress (141).

Okonkwo realizes that Umuofia will not go to war. He murders the court messenger in an individualistic act not at all representative of the wishes of his people—“He heard voices asking: ‘Why did he do it?’” (145)—and one guaranteed to bring down the wrath of the colonial administration on Umuofia, as it had come down on Abame, which was no more.

Okonkwo's subsequent suicide strikes us as both terrifying and richly ambiguous. By such an act, he ironically brings on himself a shameful death like his father's, a fate he has expended tremendous energy all his life to avoid. Achebe leaves us asking why Okonkwo engages in irrevocable self-destruction that contradicts everything he has lived for. This problem offers a splendid opportunity for students to examine Achebe's use of ambiguity. One explanation of the suicide could be that Okonkwo recognizes, finally, that he is a man out of time. His values no longer resemble those of his society; therefore, no honorable life remains for him. Another possibility is that since a proud man would be galled at the inevitable capture and punishment by the despised whites, his death cheats them of their revenge. Of course, he may also intend his suicide as a mocking commentary on what he perceives as the present, debased values of his clan. Although the Igbo have abandoned the standards of their fathers, Okonkwo's self-murder might provide a “shock of recognition” that forces them not only to realize that at least one of their traditions—the refusal to touch the bodies of suicides—is still operative but also to confront the inconsistency of their position. Possibly, the suicide is simply a contemptuous “pox on both their houses.” Some students may suggest that suicide is madness and that, by the end, Okonkwo is not thinking rationally at all; his death merely reflects his mental and emotional destruction.

Whatever Okonkwo's final violent act signifies—that he recognizes his failure, that he knowingly condemns his people and the colonizers, or that he is, ultimately, mad and personally meaningless—his motivation is finally beside the point. His suicide represents an individualistic response that ironically coincides with the flaws Achebe considers responsible for the rapid inroads made by colonialism. Uchendu, the elder of Mbanta who advocates traditional ways, believes that the encroachment of the Christians results from the weakening of kinship ties among the younger generation: “[Y]ou do not understand how strong is the bond of kinship. You do not know what it is to speak with one voice. And what is the result? An abominable religion has settled among you” (118). Achebe has observed that the

concept of the worth of the individual is always limited by another concept, the concept of the voice of the community. For instance, Okonkwo's extreme individualism leads to working against the will of the people and to self-destruction. And anybody who wanders off beyond what is accepted as appropriate for the individual, or a person who sets himself in opposition, quite often is heading for destruction.

(Egejuru 123)

Achebe recognizes, however, that strong individuals like Okonkwo often cause a society to analyze its generally accepted views. After the ritual slaughter of Ikemefuna, such analysis occurs when Obierika ponders the unquestioned destruction of innocents. He wonders about his acceptance of the decree to “throw away” twins, whom the Igbo consider an abomination to the earth. As Achebe notes, “At least some questioning of the system is taking place and that is because a man has held up the values of the society to itself and sort of said, ‘This is what you say you approve of. Do you really approve or not?’” (Egejuru 124).

Despite his appreciation of such challenges to established practices, however, Achebe, finally, is not ambivalent about Okonkwo's actions: “no man,” he says, “can be greater or wiser than his community no matter how important he is” (Egejuru 126). As the protagonist in Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo does not function as a singular hero or antihero, arousing love or hatred; instead, he is a figure deliberately designed to raise the very questions readers are prompted to ask: “What did he stand for? What was the destruction about? What are the echoes that are left in the society?” (Egejuru 129). The paradoxical treatment of Okonkwo reflects not only the author's interest in the protagonist's psychological complexity but also a concern about the fragmenting danger of individualism, a flaw that Achebe sees as responsible, at least partially, for the devastation of colonialism. “That man was one of the greatest men in Umuofia …,” laments Obierika, “and now he will be buried like a dog” (147). To help students account for this apparent injustice, teachers should encourage them not to concentrate exclusively on the frequently contradictory personal qualities of Okonkwo—his insecurity as opposed to his arrogance, for instance. Students should also avoid focusing on the irony of the decline in Okonkwo's personal fortune as well as on their response of liking or disliking him. Instead they should recognize his larger symbolic function in the novel as representative of the suicidal fragmentation of Igbo society.

Aron Aji and Kirstin Lynne Ellsworth (essay date October–February 1992–1993)

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SOURCE: “Ezinma: The Ogbanje Child in Achebe's Things Fall Apart,” in College Literature, Vol. 19–20, No. 3–1, October–February, 1992–1993, pp. 170–75.

[In the following essay, Aji and Ellsworth examine how the character Ezinma operates on both a cultural and a literary level in Things Fall Apart.]

Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart (1959) is commonly read as a testimony of the cultural confrontation during the period of British colonialism.1 For the non-African it is an obvious beginner's text to discover the West African, specifically Igbo, culture. The book is at once a cultural resource, a historical novel, a morality tale, and above all a great literary work that celebrates its own cultural milieu and renders it familiar to others. Although written in English, Things Fall Apart is an African storyteller's story, making greater use of African folktale elements than of Western narrative conventions. In the Igbo village-clan Umuofia, time is measured by generations, seasons, lunar cycles, planting, and harvest festivals. The past exists concurrent with the present in the tales told by parents to children, by elders to youngsters, through the egwugwu processions where ancestral spirits preside over domestic disputes. Dwarfing the physical world is a spiritual expanse where the living constantly interact with their ancestors, with personal chis and nature deities under the watchful eyes of Chukwu, the supreme god. But the novel's strength can also be its Achilles' heel. Because Things Fall Apart is full of delightful exposition of Igbo life, it tempts us to use it as a cultural guide. Indeed, we learn a great deal about Igbo society: its history, wars, religion, rituals, music, and social customs before and during the early phase of colonialism. Yet this material is inextricably bound up with Achebe's vivid characterizations, which carry the human story and thus define the book as first and foremost a novel.

Achebe's central characters bridge the literary and cultural contexts. Their cultural identity is fully integrated with their characterization as literary figures, and it influences the nature and outcome of their actions, personal conflicts, and relationships with other characters. The most noticeably integrated character is Okonkwo, the novel's protagonist. As numerous critics have observed, Okonkwo is at once an allegorical everyman figure embodying the existential paradoxes of the Igbo culture in transition, and a great tragic hero in the tradition of Oedipus, Antigone, and Lear (see Iyasere). Less obvious, though neither less complex nor less compelling, is the synthesis Achebe achieves in Ezinma's characterization. Although the ogbanje child appears primarily in Part One (we only catch brief glimpses of her in the rest of the novel), her character resonates throughout Things Fall Apart. Ezinma belongs at once to Achebe's luscious cultural tapestry and to the literary context of his novel. A complex character in her own right, she also reinforces the notion of the primacy of the female principle, which Achebe offers as a counterpoint to the traditionally nearsighted masculine value system of Okonkwo: As importantly, Ezinma functions as a symbol for the resilience of the Igbo traditions in the face of staggering changes during British colonialism.

In cultural terms Ezinma's story allows Achebe to describe the ogbanje as a phenomenon of traditional Igbo life. Considered a “living dead,” the ogbanje cycles back and forth between the worlds of humans and spirits. Alive for only a few years, the troublesome child can continue the cycle indefinitely. While the phenomenon offers a comforting and sublime explanation for the high rate of infant mortality in Igbo societies, the woman carrying an ogbanje must nevertheless suffer the troubles that the journeying “repeater” causes. She must, as Ekwefi does, devote herself entirely to the care and nurturing of this special child, making sure not to tempt his or her death. A village might scar or mutilate such infants so that they will be marked upon return. However, ending the movement of the child between the two worlds is beyond ordinary human control. Only a medicine-man or a priest who can communicate with the spiritual realm can force an ogbanje to stay. Such a person may be able to locate and destroy the ogbanje's iyi-uwa, a stone that the ogbanje buries upon arrival and that serves as the link between human and spirit worlds.

But Ezinma's ogbanje nature can only partly explain her prominence in the novel, since Achebe does not present her as merely a cultural “artifact.” Rather she develops, as do most literary characters, by means of the relationships she has with the people around her. And appropriately, her relationships with Ekwefi, Chielo, and Okonkwo are mutually significant and contribute to the characterization of each.

As would be expected of a girl, Ezinma spends much of her life among the womenfolk, even though she has an unusually close relationship with her father. With her mother, Ezinma is more forthright and inquisitive than her brother and sisters. In a typical scene with Ekwefi, she notices that her mother is able to lift a pot from a fire with bare hands. “Ekwefi,” she asks, “is it true that when people are grown up, fire does not burn them?” After Ekwefi replies with a weary “yes” and notes that her daughter “was only ten years old but she was wiser than her years,” Ezinma continues her questioning. She announces that her eyelid is twitching. “It means you are going to cry,” answers her mother. “No,” says Ezinma, “it is this eyelid, the top one.” Ekwefi's reply, “That means you will see something,” does not pacify the girl. “What will I see?” she demands. “How can I know?” answers an exasperated Ekwefi, perhaps with more meaning than she realizes (41). After all, Ezinma does have an unsettling sense of her environment; she is privy to the mysteries of both the human and the spirit realms.

Ezinma also knows that she can push her mother for attention and favors. Ekwefi has devoted her life to ensuring that the ogbanje she has brought into the world remains there. The perpetually tenuous existence of her daughter causes Ekwefi great anxiety, and she must accept that Ezinma's stay is not guaranteed, no matter how well Ezinma is nurtured. As a result, Ekwefi treats her daughter less as a child than as a creature that needs to be appeased. She grants her daughter an intimacy that is uncommon between the other mothers and children in Okonkwo's compound. She allows Ezinma to call her by her first name. She secretly permits Ezinma to eat eggs, which Okonkwo has expressly forbidden any of his children to have. (And true to form, “After her father's rebuke [Ezinma] developed an even keener appetite for eggs” [73].) The extent of Ekwefi's self-sacrificing love is most apparent when she disobeys social and spiritual customs and decides to follow Chielo, the priestess of Agbala, and her daughter during the night journey to the cave:

And so when the priestess with Ezinma on her back disappeared through a hole hardly big enough to pass a hen, Ekwefi broke into a run as though to stop them. As she stood gazing at the circular darkness which had swallowed them, tears gushed from her eyes, and she swore within her that if she heard Ezinma cry she would rush into the cave to defend her against all the gods in the world. She would die with her.


As Ekwefi mothers her unusual child, she realizes that she is not Ezinma's only caretaker. Ezinma has strong connections with Umuofia's earthly representatives of the spirit world. The most important of these bonds is that between her and Chielo, Oracle of the Hills and the Caves. Chielo often meets Ekwefi at the market and shows a special interest in Ezinma, whom she calls “my daughter” (48). She counsels Ekwefi in matters regarding the child. Chielo, who leads a double existence as a widowed mother of two and as a priestess, is in a sense a second, spiritual mother to Ezinma. Both she and Ekwefi love her, but Chielo shares with Ezinma the ability to see beyond human existence and to understand that other dimension that so affects the girl. In one intriguing scene Chielo asks Ekwefi how Ezinma is. “She has been very well for some time now. Perhaps she has come to stay,” answers Ekwefi. “I think she has,” Chielo says; “They usually stay if they do not die before the age of six” (48). While the villagers know that ogbanjes who survive infancy usually live, Chielo's words have a deeper meaning. Soon after this conversation, after the child has become ill, she comes to take Ezinma on the mysterious night journey to the oracle. This turns out to be a journey of healing and release for Ezinma, the last one she takes to the spirit world. After Chielo brings her back to Ekwefi and Okonkwo, Ezinma appears to stabilize. She grows into a healthy and beautiful woman. Perhaps the only surviving ogbanje characteristic is Ezinma's periodic moodiness, when the only person she can tolerate is her father (159).

In her relationship with Okonkwo, Ezinma seems aware that her father's uncommonly loving attitude toward her is partly due to his troubled relationship with the spirit world. Because of her peculiar spirituality as an ogbanje, Ezinma's love can give great comfort to a man who has offended the deities by beating his wife during the Week of Peace and by killing Ikemefuna, who called him “father.” However, their relationship also involves strong natural parent-child ties that bring out his emotional, “feminine” side.

Okonkwo has grown up ashamed of his own father's parasitism and lack of “manliness” and is determined to live a very different life—one where he will be in control of his money, his crops, and his women. This desire to be strong and well respected pushes Okonkwo to become a man of great stature in Umuofia. Okonkwo treats Ezinma as would any father who remembers the trauma he and Ekwefi have gone through in coping with the “repeater” infant. After 10 rebirths, when Ezinma seems inclined to stay, Okonkwo accepts the child who comes after such struggle; he admires her gift for survival, her strength to resist wandering between the spiritual and human worlds: “If Ezinma had been a boy I would have been happier. She has the right spirit,” Okonkwo tells his friend Obierika (63). For this daughter the normally stoic Okonkwo will do things he would never do for anyone else. Only Ezinma can awaken Okonkwo's suppressed qualities. On account of her, he is tender, nurturing, and submissive. During his remorseful isolation after stabbing Ikemefuna, Okonkwo allows only Ezinma to enter his hut to bring him food and tolerates her mother-like scolding: “You have not eaten for two days,” she criticizes him, “so you must finish this” (61). He instigates, albeit in a blustery manner, the search for Ezinma's iyi-uwa. He even comes into Ekwefi's hut the night Ezinma falls ill and tends to his daughter himself—a display of warmth out of character for Umuofia fathers. On the night when Chielo takes Ezinma on a spiritual journey to the Oracle's cave, Okonkwo disobeys the priestess and, like his wife, secretly follows his daughter. When he cannot find his wife and daughter after several searches, he admits that he “had become gravely worried” (106). And when the couple finally find one another at the mouth of the cave, Okonkwo takes Ekwefi in his arms, the only act of uninhibited love he allows himself throughout the novel.

The intimacy Achebe establishes between Ezinma and her father is particularly noteworthy because it confirms Okonkwo's ambivalent attitude toward the female, which the author hints at throughout the novel. On the one hand, we see Okonkwo stubbornly suppressing both the women around him and what he views as feminine traits—expressions of emotion, romance, lack of physical strength, failures in authority and reason, and so on. A stern husband, he responds disapprovingly to Obierika's story of the old married couple who “had one mind” (66). He dismisses as “a woman's tale” the folktale about the Ear and the Mosquito, which celebrates the primacy of women (72). And he attributes his son Nwoye's lack of interest in warfare and stories of heroism to the too many hours Nwoye has spent listening to his mother's stories. On the other hand, Achebe shows us that Okonkwo himself is not immune to emotional excesses, as evident in his abuse of his wives over trivial disagreements. Similarly, he seeks refuge in his “motherland” when he commits a “female” crime by mistakenly killing a boy during Ezeudu's funeral (117). Above all, the child who pleases him the most is not his son but his daughter Ezinma. These ironic juxtapositions of Okonkwo's manliness and the circumstances of his life ultimately betray the fallacy of an exclusively masculine ethos. If Ezinma is a source of comfort for Okonkwo throughout his troubled life, it is because she subdues his manhood, balancing the masculine and the feminine attributes to make him a full person.2

With the exception of Okonkwo, Ezinma is the most pivotal character in Things Fall Apart. Grappling with her own tentative nature and the anxiety of others, she not only displays a unique personality but serves to reveal the psychological depth of those characters with whom she interacts—Okonkwo, Ekwefi, and Chielo. However, just at the peak of her prominence at the end of Part One, Achebe pushes Ezinma into the background and focuses instead on Okonkwo's exile and the cultural upheaval in Umuofia after the arrival of Christian missionaries. The author allows us glimpses of Ezinma on only a few occasions, as if to suggest that his undermining of the ogbanje child is deliberate and significant. Indeed it is. While Ezinma may become relatively peripheral to plot and character development after Part One, she assumes a complex symbolic identity—one that is crucial to Achebe's message.

Ezinma loses her prominence partly because the culture that validates her identity is seriously challenged by the introduction of the alien values of Christianity. In traditional Umuofia, prior to the arrival of the Europeans, the ogbanje child has been the tangible evidence of the intertwined Igbo cosmos, unifying the human and the spiritual in one earthly body. The missionaries replace Chukwu with the Judeo-Christian God, personal chis with Christ, the medicine-men and priestesses with Christian ministers. As a result the unity of the Igbo cosmos is threatened by the Christian theology, which prescribes a strictly mediated communion between the human and the divine. In this context the ogbanje can be little more than a reminder of the past.

Yet for Achebe this reminder is ultimately crucial. He places a great deal of faith in the power of the past to heal the wounds of the present. Ezinma is a vivid expression of his faith. Amid pervasive change, she stands out as a symbol of hope, renewal, and continuity for both Okonkwo and Umuofia. After all, the ogbanje's cycle of births and deaths attests as much to cosmic unity as it does to the human determination to survive even in the gravest adversity. During his exile in Mbanta, Okonkwo views Ezinma as his most permanent link to his native village. He may lose Nwoye to Christianity, but he can count on Ezinma as a kindred spirit. She shares his bitterness about being away from home. During the family's last harvest in Mbanta, she goes about violently uprooting cassava tubers, blaming the small crop on the “poor soil” of exile (153). On Okonkwo's request she agrees to turn down her many suitors in Mbanta in order to marry in Umuofia (159). Ezinma will be her father's offering to Umuofia, enabling him “to return with a flourish and regain the seven wasted years” (157).

Regarding Umuofia's uncertain destiny, the ogbanje child again bears the promise of continuity and renewal. With the arrival of the Christian mission, the Umuofia residents become like “living dead” themselves, on the one hand suffering the clash of the alien with the traditional, and on the other trusting their determination to transcend the chaotic present with a renewed sense of cultural identity. In this context the pattern of the ogbanje child becomes the pattern of the life and history of Nigeria—one that trusts and celebrates cyclical renewal against the linear, “progressive” course of history introduced by Western culture.

Ezinma offers us a wonderful symbol for Achebe's novel as a narrative that exploits the peculiar dynamics between culture and literature. While the book derives much of its energy from the cultural circumstances that prompted its conception, it also attempts to supersede these circumstances in order to claim a life of its own. The literary work lends form and permanence to its inherently transient cultural milieu. In turn, to read Things Fall Apart as solely a cultural document is to extract what is inextricable: like the ogbanje the novel embodies both the cycle of rebirths (which is essentially cultural history) and the child who ultimately lives.


  1. We thank the staff of the interdisciplinary Change and Tradition program at Butler University, Indianapolis, for invaluable input and encouragement.

  2. As one of the College Literature reviewers suggests, Okonkwo and Ezinma's relationship contributes to the larger dynamics between male and female principles that Achebe explores throughout the novel. We thank the reviewer for this insight.

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Fawcett, 1988.

Iyasere, Solomon O. “Narrative Techniques in Things Fall Apart.Critical Perspectives on Chinua Achebe. Washington: Three Continents, 1978. 92–110.

Biodun Jeyifo (essay date Fall 1993)

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SOURCE: “Okonkwo and His Mother: Things Fall Apart and Issues of Gender in the Constitution of African Postcolonial Discourse,” in Callaloo, Vol. 16, No. 4, Fall, 1993, pp. 847–59.

[In the following essay, Jeyifo explores issues of gender in Things Fall Apart.]

In the oral tradition, we often do not know whether the storyteller who thought up a particular story was a man or a woman. Of course when one examines the recorded texts, one might wonder whether a myth or story doesn't serve particular interests in a given society.

(Mineke Schipper)

The Chielo-Ezinma episode is an important sub-plot of the novel [Things Fall Apart] and actually reads like a suppressed larger story circumscribed by the exploration of Okonkwo's/man's struggle with and for his people. In the troubled world of Things Fall Apart, motherhood and femininity are the unifying mitigating principles, the lessons for Africa and the world.

(Carole Boyce Davies)

So Okonkwo encouraged the boys to sit with him in his obi, and he told them stories of the land—masculine stories of violence and bloodshed. Nwoye knew that it was right to be masculine and to be violent, but somehow he still preferred the stories that his mother used to tell him, and which she no doubt still told to her younger children—stories of tortoise and his wily ways, and of the bird eneke-nti-oba who challenged the whole world to a wrestling contest and was finally thrown by the cat … That was the kind of story that Nwoye loved. But he now knew that they were for foolish women and children, and he knew that his father wanted him to be a man. And so he feigned that he no longer cared for women's stories.

(Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart [my emphasis])

Okonkwo's mother? Within the total narrative space of Things Fall Apart1 there is only one direct, substantive mention of our hero's mother. As far as I know, this has never been formally registered in the extensive discussions and commentaries on the novel, let alone critically explored, and this seems quite consistent with the author's more evident interest in the complex, tortured relationship of Okonkwo with his father and, later in the concluding sections of the novel, with his son Nwoye. As Carole Boyce Davies remarks in the article from which the second epigraph to this essay was extrapolated, in Things Fall Apart Achebe's “primary concern is woman's place within larger social and political forces” (247) which are, in the order of things, the spheres of male initiatives and control.

And yet the single, brief mention of Okonkwo's mother is extraordinarily suggestive both for reading Okonkwo's particular brand of misogyny and neurotic masculinist personality and for analyzing larger questions of the author's construction of male subjectivity and identity in the novel. This “new” reading would indeed be a re-reading whose condition of possibility derives from the manifold feminist project that is such a decisive, perhaps the most decisive current of postcolonial critical discourse at the present time.2 In this short paper, I shall examine this one substantive reference to Okonkwo's mother in fairly close detail, hoping to deploy this close textual exegesis as a bridgehead to a more general discussion of gender-related issues in the constitution of a postcolonial African critical discourse. I shall be arguing in effect that between Achebe's “under-textualization” of Okonkwo's mother and a feminist re-reading of the novel which would foreground her and relocate the “motherlore” she represents in the intense gender politics of the novel, we encounter an instance of the fundamental challenge posed by issues of gender in postcolonial criticism and scholarship. The point has been repeatedly made that the nationalist “master texts” of African postcolonial literature, needed, as the basis of their self-constitution as representative, canonical works, to subsume gender difference under the putatively more primary racial and cultural difference of a resisting Africa from a colonizing Europe.3 By this occlusion of gender difference, Okonkwo's mother, his wives and daughters recede into the ground which enables the figure of Okonkwo and his father and son to achieve their representational prominence. But beyond this “programmatic” under-textualization of Okonkwo's mother, Things Fall Apart, as a powerful work of realist fiction, could not fail to inscribe the effects of sexual difference and gender politics within the very “over-textualization” of “men's affairs” in the novel, this being the social totality of the precolonial order as it comes into contact with the invading colonial capitalism. This has an important political lesson: national liberation in Africa, as long as it remains a historic agenda enforced by neocolonial dependency and arrested decolonization,4 and as it is profoundly inflected by new postnationalist discourses and cultural production, must reconfigure its founding moment as not irredeemably marked by an inevitable, natural sexism.

The allusion to Okonkwo's mother occurs in chapter nine of the novel; significantly, she is not named. The precise narrative moment seems, on the surface, of no particular thematic noteworthiness: three days after his participation in the ritual murder of the youth Ikemefuna, his “adopted” son, Okonkwo is just beginning to emerge from the emotional and spiritual trauma of that event. Characteristically, it irks him that he has indeed been weak and “unmanly” enough to have succumbed to the trauma. Indeed the whole episode lasts one short paragraph and can thus be quoted entirely:

For the first time in three nights, Okonkwo slept. He woke up once in the middle of the night and his mind went back to the past three days without making him feel uneasy. He began to wonder why he felt uneasy at all. It was like a man wondering in broad daylight why a dream had appeared so terrible to him at night. He stretched himself and scratched his thigh where a mosquito had bitten him as he slept. Another one was wailing near his right ear. He slapped the ear and hoped he had killed it. Why do they always go for one's ears? When he was a child his mother had told him a story about it.

But it was as silly as all women's stories. Mosquito, she had said, had asked Ear to marry him, whereupon she fell on the floor in uncontrollable laughter. “How much longer do you think you will live?,” she asked. “You are already a skeleton.” Mosquito went away humiliated, and anytime he passed her way he told Ear that he was still alive.

(53, my emphasis)

It is significant that in the very next sentence after this recalled story we are told: “Okonkwo turned on his side and went back to sleep.” Like the mosquito bite which presumably worried his brief wakeful moment within a restful sleep only as a very minor irritation, Okonkwo's memory of his mother's stories in his childhood is very easily suppressed; and it is easily consigned to the domain of “silly women's stories.” This seems quite consistent with the larger pattern of intra-familial and inter-generational conflicts elaborated in the novel: Okonkwo's relationship with his father, and later his relationship with his son, Nwoye, are foregrounded over relationships with his nameless mother, his wives, and his daughters. From a feminist perspective, this, more than anything else, reveals the male-centeredness of Achebe in this novel. While this is incontrovertible, it is only part of the story, and it barely scratches the surface of the complex and ambiguous gender politics of the text of Things Fall Apart. This point needs some elaboration.

As the third of the epigraphs to this essay indicates, Okonkwo's son, Nwoye, unlike his father, does not succeed in completely repressing either the memory of his mother's stories, or their powerful, subliminal hold on his imagination and psyche. Consequently, he has to feign a “manly” indifference to this motherlore. Okonkwo, by contrast, seems to have succeeded completely in a willed amnesia of his mother's creative role in the formation of his personhood, his sensibility. Indeed the precise nature of this willed amnesia is awesome: while his father, Unoka, perpetually figures in both his psyche and his vigilant, conscious mind as an active, powerful (if negative) presence, Okonkwo's mother is assimilated into the neutral, abstract function of “mothers in general.” For Okonkwo, his mother's stories and their significations evaporate into the generalized phallogocentric rubric of the “silliness” of motherlore. The catch in all of this is that neither this particular story, nor the many other women's stories given in Things Fall Apart, is silly; rather, in almost every instance, these stories are only deceptively simple and are usually of extraordinary emblematic, subversive resonance to the central narrative of Okonkwo's obsession with his father and his sons.5 A close look at Okonkwo's mother's story and its narrative of the fractions, bitter liaison between Ear and Mosquito illustrates this point well.

Perhaps the most arresting detail in this story is the structure of reversals of gender hierarchy between the respective female and male personae in the tale. Thus Ear, the female persona, is the dominant, supercilious agent in the conflict. Mosquito, the male suitor, not only figures as an atrophied, diminished, “inadequate” phallus; the very manner and terms of his rejection strike deep: loss of vital powers unto death (“You are already a skeleton”!). Since this tale is told by Okonkwo's mother and thus belongs in motherlore, we can surmise that Mosquito here encodes the male's neurotic fear of female power as the nemesis of male potency and life-force. Putative female superiority in this vertical structure is compounded by Ear's additional figuration in traditional mythological anthropomorphism of the Body and its organs as both male and female, as Trinh T. Minh-ha tells us in her book, Woman, Native, Other:

… As a wise Dogon elder Ogotemmeli pointed out, “issuing from a woman's sexual part, the Word enters another sexual part, namely the ear” (the ear is considered to be bisexual, the auricle being male and the auditory aperture, female.).


The embodiment of abstract female power in this system of significations is particularly noteworthy in the way that it combines both “male” and “female” principles and their elaborated attributes and values. This, however, is a structure unperceived by Okonkwo and is indeed alien to his rigid, overliteral conceptions of the “masculine” ideals.

Is it of little or no consequence to the gender politics in the text of Things Fall Apart that abstract female power represented by the Ear and abstract male identity represented by the Mosquito are so vastly unequal in suppleness, vitality and resonance? In other words, is this story, told by Okonkwo's mother, and with all its powerfully resonating meanings, a mere narrative detail, a figural embellishment of the text bearing little relevance to the central conflict of Okonkwo's masculinist personhood which is lodged elsewhere, that is with the father and the Law of the Father?

There is absolutely no question that this tale of Okonkwo's mother, obviously drawn from the vast repository of motherlore, is centrally linked to Achebe's critical construction of Okonkwo's masculinist personality as this is conflictually played out, first with his father, then with his son. And this is all of one piece with the overabundant inscription in the novel of its protagonist's obsession with maleness, and his corresponding fear of, and suppression of femaleness. However, the major interpretive problem that we confront here seems to be that while femaleness as we encounter it in Okonkwo's mother's tale is a superior, stronger entity which confronts male identity with belittlement and insecurity, femaleness, as Okonkwo encodes it, is the exact opposite: weakness, fecklessness, cowardice, irresoluteness, sentimentality. In effect this means that in the light of Okonkwo's peculiar construction of “female” attributes, the personae of his mother's tale would be reversed: Ear would represent male superiority and Mosquito would represent female shrewishness. But this hardly resolves this issue, as long as Okonkwo operates as an isolated figure removed from the social context of his Umofia community. Moreover, given Okonkwo's excessively literal phallocratic imagination, it would be as much of an absurdity to represent “maleness” by an orifice in the body as it would be to represent “femaleness” by the mosquito with its broomstick figure. Nothing reveals this crude, physical phallicism, more than the fact that the gun, the machete, and the cudgel (for wife-beating and child-beating), three over-literal extensions of an aggressive, neurotic masculinist identity, are Okonkwo's ultimate answers to any and all crises, and we see this in several incidents in the novel: the incident with the beating of his second wife during the peace week; the episode of the severe beating of his son, Nwoye, when the unhappy youth was spotted among the new community of Christian converts; and the climactic moment of the novel which results in Okonkwo's beheading of the first in the line of the advancing party of the hirelings of the colonial administration who had come to break up the village assembly at the end of the novel.

This problem of Okonkwo's negative transvaluation of female strength and superiority in his mother's tale to weakness and inferiority, however, disappears once we place Okonkwo in the context and nexus of his society's moral economy and symbolic codes.6 This is a historically and culturally constructed context; it is a precapitalist, pre-feudal social formation in which, as amply demonstrated in Ifi Amadiume's Male Daughters and Female Husbands, “maleness” or “femaleness,” the category “man” or “woman,” do not operate as rigidly divided, biologically literal or ontological entities.7 And Achebe's realist integrity renders this structure felicitously. Indeed Things Fall Apart not only has one of the most extensive and dense novelistic inscriptions of the genderization of subjectivity, signification and social space in postcolonial African fiction; the novel's overcoded inscription of the processes of engendering is massively fractured and ambiguous and cannot be read as a simple, unambiguous inscription of phallocratic dominance. Let me cite only one composite group of these ambiguous inscriptions of gender and gender relations in the present context. Thus, on the one hand, Okonkwo's representation of “femaleness” as weakness and irresoluteness seems to have validation in the system of division of cognitive and perceptual categories in his society which ascribes the designation “female” to smaller crops like the cocoyam and the designation “male” to bigger crops like the yam, a system which also describes an “ochu” (abomination) as either “female” or “male” depending on the degree of threat or destabilization to the social order that it poses. But on the other hand, the same panoply of symbolic values and cognitive codes describes as “female” the most important deity in the religion and sacred lore of the community (Ani), making her priest male (Ezeani); conversely, the important deity of the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves is “male” while his highest functionary is the priestess Chielo.

On a different but related note, it is important to stress the limits of a psychologistic reading of the relationship of Okonkwo to his parents and his sons and daughters which might fasten one-sidedly on his relations with his father and later with his son. It is indeed tempting to read an Oedipalization in the fact that almost everything that we are told about Unoka, Okonkwo's father, can be symbolically assimilated to the figure of the mosquito in the mother's story. By this reading, the driving fear of “femaleness” in Okonkwo's psyche is thus really both “guilt” for the father's fate of “mosquito” vitiation and eventual “death,” and strong identification with and “possession” of the mother. But this is purely speculative and a rather sterile and fanciful, if fascinating, line of critical inquiry. Okonkwo both loathes the memory of his father and represses the lore of his mother; in the process he distorts both the “masculine” and the “feminine,” by keeping them rigidly apart and by the ferocity of his war on the “feminine.” His son, on the other hand, only feigns acceptance of this rigid masculinist code, but keeps alive the memory of motherlore in his conflicted, sorrowing consciousness. One crucial difference between father and son takes us beyond the purely psychologistic. This is the fact that the driving, all-consuming ambition of Okonkwo to be one of “the lords of the land,” to take the highest title which only few men (and no women) ever manage to achieve within the course of several generations, this ambition in the service of material interests and social recognition of the highest kind, is absent in the son. Throughout the course of the novel, the evolving moral and spiritual sympathies of Nwoye move him away from such worldly sights to identification with the unprotected and “unprotectable” of his culture, those immiserated by the contradictory codes and practices of his society. We can indeed say that within the gendered scale of valuations and representations by which Okonkwo seeks to establish the greatest possible distance between himself and his father's “effeminacy,” his son Nwoye is “feminized”: he refuses Okonkwo's interpellative call to be a “man” contemptuous of “female” attributes. This important distance between father and son is eloquently but succinctly captured in the economy of the following short passage:

The missionary ignored him and went on to talk about the Holy Trinity. At the end of it Okonkwo was fully convinced that the man was mad. He shrugged his shoulders and went away to tap his afternoon palm-wine. But there was a young lad who had been captivated. His name was Nwoye, Okonkwo's first son. It was not the mad logic of the Trinity that captivated him. He did not understand it. It was the poetry of the new religion, something felt in the marrow. The hymn about brothers who sat in darkness and fear seemed to answer a vague and persistent question that haunted his young soul in the question of twins crying in the bush and the question of Ikemefuna who was killed. He felt a relief within as the hymn poured into his parched soul. The words of the hymn were like the drops of frozen rain melting on the dry plate of the panting earth. Nwoye's callow mind was greatly puzzled.


In the first epigraph to this essay, Mineke Schipper raises the important question of the gender(ed) provenience of stories and fictions in the precolonial oral traditions and the particular interests which such gender origins might serve. This question is at the heart of one of the major issues in African critical discourse at the present time: the project of reclaiming a separate, distinct tradition of African female writing and criticism which is not easily, indeed WILL NOT BE subsumed within the male-dominant tradition which, to date, has claimed to speak for the whole of African literary and critical traditions. It is impossible to take a full measure of this project without realizing that its objective is not merely to “correct” the stereotypes and misconceptions of the male-centered writers and critics, and not merely, in the words of the editor's comments in the African Literature Today issue on “Women,” that African women now seek “to take their stand by their men,”8 but rather to reclaim “women's stories” (herstory) from the void or repressed zones into which men and male-centeredness had consigned them. For just as the nationalist anti-colonial counter-discourse in literature and criticism once had to re-write and reinvent a presence that colonialist discourse, in its arrogance, imposture, and triumphalism, had theorized as absence, so also women writers and critics have to recover the submerged female tradition. What contemporary African feminist criticism at this level of self-authorization adumbrates is a return to female sources within Cabral's famous call for a return to “the source,” or more radically, female sources as the source. In other words, the identification of creative female precursors or foremothers, and of discrete intertextual revision and influence between female and female-centered writers and critics, defines the most radical autonomization of gender difference in feminist African criticism at the present time. Particularly powerful instances of this expression are Chikwenye Okonjo's “The Dynamics of the Contemporary Black Female Novel in English,” and an important essay by Florence Stratton which I now examine in the context of our reflections in this essay.

In “Periodic Embodiments: a Ubiquitous Trope in African Men's Writing,” a trenchant critique of the male-dominant tradition of post-colonial African writing, Florence Stratton has uncovered, as few other feminist critical writings have done, the depth of the male-centeredness or phallocentrism of this tradition. According to Stratton, this male-dominant, male-centered tradition, given the fact and consequences of historic colonization, has been largely constructed around woman as the “embodiment” of the male writers' vision of the new African nation in all its changing historical experience, from colonial humiliations and anti-colonial struggles to the postcolonial agony of neocolonialism and virtual recolonization. Furthermore, Stratton avers that in making these “periodic embodiments” of woman as ideal symbol and representation of the nation, male writers have basically assumed that man is the visionary, the artist, the maker of the history of the nation, and woman the sign (of national or racial integrity, resistance and sovereignty) mobilized by male creativity, initiative, and revolutionary will. Perhaps the most telling point of Stratton's forceful argument in this article is the view that this deeply phallocratic assumption goes beyond its usual identification with the conservative current of the anti-colonial and postcolonial African male writer's idealization of woman as repository of cultural “essence,” (what Stratton calls “the pot of culture” syndrome). Beyond this mostly Negritudist romantic-nostalgic idealization, Stratton also assimilates male writers of a more radical anti-imperialist, even anti-sexist vision and sensibility like Sembene or Ngugi, to this whole tradition of “periodic embodiment.” This critique in effect implicates virtually all male African writers and critics.

What this line of polemic and projection indicates is, I believe, that feminist criticism, even when it critically engages and contests both imperialist domination and post-independence misrule in the context of the postcolonial state, will not be content with how women are positively depicted by certain “progressive” male writers, that is with regard to “accuracy,” “sympathy,” or “solidarity” with female oppression and resistance to it. The stakes, it seems, are much higher: women are no less visionary and creative, and no less makers of history and shapers of experience than men; “woman's issues” will no longer be subsumed into a supposed “broader” framework of national or racial collectivity defined and legitimated by men. And perhaps Stratton's most provocative thesis in this article is the implicit, sub-textual uterocentrism of her suggestion that men's denial or erasure of women's initiative and power is a product, and a projection, of a fundamental male anxiety and insecurity about femaleness and its putative primal connection to creativity.9 By the light of this particular uterocentric critique of all male writers and critics, we have to look beyond the so-called strategic, programmatic suspension of gender difference in the name of a unified resistance to foreign racial domination for the deeper causes of that marginalization of women, as characters, writers, and critics, which enabled the constitution of postcolonial African literature and critical discourse as an engendered tradition. We also have to go beyond the excuse that colonial educational policies being what they were, women simply weren't there in that great moment of “awakening” when modern African literature and critical discourses began to stake their claims against outright European colonialist disavowals and “post-imperial” neo-liberal condescending universalism.10 The deeper, more daunting cause, Stratton suggests, is perennial male anxiety and fear of femaleness as the source of creation and creativity. While I think we should ultimately reject this uterocentrism and the considerable obfuscations and mystifications to which it could give rise, I suggest that there are eminent political and hermeneutic considerations which demand that we do not simply dismiss it out of hand. Again let us turn to our re-reading of Okonkwo and his mother for a brief elaboration of this point.

Okonkwo's repression of motherlore that I have examined in this essay and the significations embedded in his mother's tale of the Ear and the Mosquito would seem to support this thesis of deep-rooted male insecurity about and fear of female power and creativity, with the corresponding need or will to tame it, domesticate it, marginalize it, and project it as the gift and vocation of a few “exceptional” women who are thus, like Chielo in Things Fall Apart, “honorary men.” It would thus seem that the need and impulse for men to “colonize” women, to identify with the “master” subject position elaborated in Hegel's famous master-slave dialectic, runs very very deep and is reproducible across different social formations. It is in connection with this problem that the discourses of African feminist writing and criticism on “a double yoke” and “a double colonization,” where African women's creativity is concerned, poses a great challenge to male writers and critics. We must remember that no colonization is ever given up easily, voluntarily, in “a fit of absent-mindedness.”

It remains to state that for this radical feminist critique to be an effective intervention in postcolonial African critical discourse, it is important to disentangle biological, literal maleness from male-centeredness or phallocentrism as this involves elaborate signifying, perceptual and representational orders which make man the center and ground of reason, intellect, and will. One is born into and not with these codes already in place in the genes, and one has a choice either to, on the one hand, enter unproblematically, willingly, or opportunistically into them or, on the other hand, begin to study them, understand them ever more fully and consciously and help to destabilize or overthrow them. What Molara Ogundipe-Leslie once said about women and biology applies equally to men:

True, the biological identity of a woman counts and is real. But woman, contrary to what some men and most think, is more than “a biological aperture,” as Anais Nin said. Woman's biology is indeed an important and necessary aspect of her, but it is not all she is and it should not be used to limit her.


The distinction that Lacan makes, as Gayle Rubin informs us, between the “function of the father” and a particular man who embodies that function is useful here: particular men may refuse to embody and actualize this function as phallocratic values define and consecrate that function.11 If, as Nancy Chodorow has argued, “mothering” is reproduced by technologies of gender erected by patriarchy as it combines with different modes of production, no less is “fatherhood” so produced and reproduced, even if as the more privileged term of a patriarchal relational structure. Nwoye's memory of his mother's stories, his preference for “woman's stories” and his merely feigned and not actual acceptance of a phallocratic erasure of motherlore all reveal the possibility of a breach between maleness as biology and maleness as either a consenting, or a resisting response to the interpellations of neocolonial, patriarchal neocapitalism.

This last point opens up for critical inquiry and research priorities the over-determined spaces in which both female creativity and transformative initiative, and the divergent male responses to them, are played out. Okonkwo, as we have seen, struggles against colonial conquest and a nascent imperialist domination, but with an aggressively masculinist personality and its deep alienations.

Largely on account of this contradiction, his resistance is futile. This point has an emblematic pertinence to present antinomies of postcolonial critical discourse, for what Okonkwo could not have perceived we have inherited: colonial definitions and codifications of rights, duties and responsibilities not only divided colonizers from the colonized, but they also separated surrogate “native” rulers from their “native” subjects and “native men in general” from “native women in general.” African male-centered writers and critics should take this lesson to heart as they create a “national” literature which, if not a mere appendage, a mere extension of metropolitan European traditions, is nonetheless imbricated in deeply gendered alienations and reifications whose genealogical roots go back to colonialism.

This lesson applies equally to Okonkwo's son, Nwoye, who, although he symbolically disavows the national-masculine ethic that is embodied in his father's personality and doomed resistance, nevertheless goes over to the colonizers and more or less embraces the colonialist ideology of the “civilizing mission.” It is not overstating the case to observe that his “feminization” does not lead him to an adequate, critical comprehension of the invading colonial project: the historic separations consummated by colonial capitalism divided fathers and sons and “native” men from “native” women; but it also separated arriviste “assimiles” from the rest of the “native” population and a small but structurally significant group of middle-class women from their subaltern, disenfranchised “sisters.”12

Even though its most important project lies elsewhere—in constructing a tradition of women's creativity in orature and literature with roots going back to precolonial society—it is a permanent task of feminist literary criticism and scholarship to contest and delegitimize the “under-textualization” of women and “women's affairs” in the mostly male-authored writings which claim to speak on behalf of the “nation,” the continent, the “Black world.” An ancillary task in this respect is the interrogation of the appropriation of “woman” as idealized “embodiment” of male-authored and male-centered myths and fictions of national resistance or racial pride: women's bodies will no longer passively bear the marks of opportunistic, mystifying idealizations which help to obscure the oppressions and wrongs done to real women. In this paper I have argued, rather self-consciously as a male, leftist critic, for a task to complement, not “complete,” these projects of contemporary African literary-critical feminism(s): the uncovering of such divergent, conflicting constructions of “maleness” as we have identified in Okonkwo and his son, Nwoye, in Things Fall Apart. The motivation behind this enterprise bears restating: to reconfigure the nationalist silencing and repressing of gender difference as deeply fractured, bearing the very marks of this repression in the failures and contradictions of national liberation in the post independence epoch in Africa. This reconfiguration allows us to re-write national liberation as a historic phenomenon with a greater complexity in issues of gender and gender politics than a benighted, categorical phallocentrism.13 This is underscored by Carole Boyce Davies' words in the second epigraph to this essay: “In the troubled world of Things Fall Apart, motherhood and femininity are the unifying, mitigating principles, the lessons for Africa and the world.”

This “lesson” apparently eluded Fanon's otherwise penetrating critique of the ideology of the national liberation movement in Africa as evidenced in the celebrated text titled “The Pitfalls of National Consciousness,” the most widely debated chapter of The Wretched of the Earth. In that text, Fanon's desperate and prophetic warnings mostly addressed class and ethnic contradictions of nationalism, and it registered a deafening silence on questions of gender. But Fanon's critique does not exhaust the intellectual legacy of radical, insightful criticisms of national liberation in Africa. We have also, among others, the legacy of Cabral and the liberation movements of the Portuguese ex-colonies. Lars Rudebeck, in his seminal work on Cabral and the PAIGC, Guinea-Bissau: A Study in Political Mobilization, has written:

In the final analysis, Cabral seems to have viewed the anti-imperialist struggle very much as a cultural struggle—as a people's struggle to reconquer its right to a place in history … The most important specific example of cultural struggle possible to discern within the total struggle and distinguishable from the school system is probably the systematic emphasis given by the PAIGC to the problem of female emancipation. This does not mean that the struggle for female emancipation is not integrated with the total struggle, nor does it mean that it is not an important part of the general educational task of the schools. It only means that this problem has been considered important enough in its own right to be singled out for specific attention in the concrete political practice of the PAIGC.


Things Fall Apart occupies, if only in a fractured, ambiguous manner, a similar conceptual, ideological space of radical nationalist ideology in Africa. And it is a space which has been considerably expanded in postcolonial African fiction, by Achebe himself in Anthills of the Savannah, and by other male writers like Ousmane Sembene, Nuruddin Farah, Femi Osofisan and Ngugi wa Thiong'o. Indeed, it is the accumulated energy of this entire tradition that powers the savage satirical indictment of the sexual exploitation of women as a fundamentally constitutive part of the callow, boastful collective masculinist identity of the arriviste, compradorial bourgeoisie of neocolonial Kenya in Ngugi's Devil on the Cross. Male critics and theorists who wish to seriously engage feminism must critically reclaim this tradition.


  1. Things Fall Apart (Heinemann, 1958). All subsequent citations are from this edition and appear parenthetically in the text.

  2. This is to be measured primarily in the number and quality of critical interventions by women in postcolonial debates of the last decade and a half. This “feminization” of the discipline, however, exceeds mere body count; its major effect has been to make us rethink some of the ruling concepts and paradigms of the field of postcoloniality: “nation” and “canon,” representation and subjectivity. This essay is an initial attempt to productively engage aspects of these interventions.

  3. On this point it is instructive to re-examine the documents of the two historic “Negro Writers Conferences,” Paris, 1956, and Rome, 1959. Present at these conferences were the most prominent African, African-American and Afro-Caribbean writers and intellectuals, predominantly male, many of whom were later to become the core of the political and intellectual elites of Africa, the Caribbean and post-Civil Rights Afro-America. It is now widely accepted that the perspectives authorized, and the agenda defined by these two conferences were decisive in the constitution of nationalist and Pan-Africanist postcolonial discourses, but with scant recognition of how deeply gendered and male-dominant these were. In the “Proceedings” of the Paris Conference there is a photograph of the participants; out of some fifty-five persons, only one is a woman. The “Proceedings” of the Rome Conference lists some sixty members of a rather large “Executive Council” (of the “Society of African Culture” instituted by the Conference) of which only three are women. The 1956 documents in fact contain a “Message from the Negro Women” which is remarkable only in how unremarkable it is. The strong suspicion that it was probably drafted by some of the male organizers of the conference is reinforced by the obvious factitiousness of sentiments in the “message” like the following: “Can you cite a single Negro man of culture who in his writings has not exalted the Negro woman, the Mother”? The Negro man of culture was the then current Francophone-derived term for the African, African-American and Afro-Caribbean artist and intellectual considered as a “representative” of the race. The documents from these conferences and the tropes and topoi of discourse they inscribed and enshrined for a long time consolidated the “representative” figure of the postcolonial artist, intellectual or nationalist statesman as ineluctably male. See Presence Africaine (1956, 1959).

  4. On the subject of arrested decolonization see Jeyifo, “The Nature of Things.”

  5. Barbara Harlow in Resistance Literature deploys one of these “women's stories” in Things Fall Apart as an “allegory for an African strategy for independence” (xv).

  6. On the notion of a “moral economy” see James C. Scott (1976).

  7. I hasten to add that this thesis is not uniformly applicable to all of precolonial African social formations. The feudal and semi-feudal centralized states of the Sahel and the Western Sudan obviously entailed considerable division and hierarchization of gender differences. Indeed Ifi Amadiume errs in more or less generalizing her thesis to all of African societies and cultures.

  8. Women in African Literature Today (2).

  9. There is of course an extensive, elaborate critical and theoretical discourse on the metaphorization of the womb as the ultimate site of creation and creativity, far more potent and superior to typical male-originated metaphors of creativity. The following exhortation from Anais Nin is representative: “All that happens in the real womb, not in the womb fabricated by man as a substitute … woman's creation far from being like man's must be exactly like her creation of children, that is, it must come out of her own blood, englobed by her womb, nourished by her own milk. It must be a human creation of flesh, it must be a different from man's abstraction.” Consider Trinh T. Minh-ha's comment on this statement of Anais Nin: “Man is not content with referring to his creation as his child, he is also keen on appropriating the life-giving act of child-bearing. Images of men ‘in labor’ and ‘giving birth’ to poems, essays and books abound in literature. Such an encroachment on woman's domain has been considered natural, for the writer is said to be either genderless or bisexual” (37). On this uterocentrism I have two comments to make, rather self-consciously as a male critic: First, uterocentrism courts, and even sometimes embraces, the occultation of gynocritics considered as a perceptible female aesthetic. Secondly, however, it is not impossible for this mystique to coexist with very progressive, socially conscious works of literature, theatre or film. Nana, the matriarch of Julie Dash's acclaimed Daughters of the Dust, says: “the ancestors and the womb, they are the same.” This connects with the strain of the over-mythologization of history and memory in the film, a strain not incompatible with the film's equally powerful secular and de-mythologizing exploration of the violent clashes of the contending sacred narratives and epistemologies in the Gullah community.

  10. Achebe's critique of neoliberal universalism in “Colonialist Criticism,” dated as a timely response, a contextual intervention at the originary moment of the “Commonwealth Literature” rubric, remains pertinent. See his Morning Yet on Creation Day.

  11. Gayle Rubin, “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the Political Economy of Sex.”

  12. On this point consider the fact that the “sisterhood” which binds the griot woman, Farmata, to Ramatoulaye, the middle-class protagonist of Mariama Ba's novel, So Long a Letter, is compounded by strong structures of class and caste inequalities. For the influence of colonial French education on Mariama Ba's views on women and education, see Riesz.

  13. For very informative analyses of national liberation and gender politics in various locations in the Third World see Evelyne Accad, “Sexuality and Sexual Politics: Conflicts and Contradictions for Contemporary Women in the Middle East”; Angela Gilliam, “Women's Equality and National Liberation”; and Nayereh Tohidi, “Gender and Islamic Fundamentalism: Feminist Politics in Iran,” all in Mohanty, Russo, and Torres, Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism. See also Cobham.

Works Cited

Accad, Evelyn. “Sexuality and Sexual Politics: Conflicts and Contradictions for Contemporary Women in the Middle East.” Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism. 237–50.

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. London: Heinemann, 1958.

———. “Colonialist Criticism.” Morning Yet on Creation Day. New York: Doubleday, 1975. 3–18.

Amadiume, Ifi. Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in an African Society. London: Zed Books, 1989.

Chodorow, Nancy. The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender. Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1978.

Cobham, Rhonda. “Boundaries of the Nation, Boundaries of the Self: African Nationalist Fictions and Nuruddin Farah's Maps.” Research in African Literatures 22.2 (Summer 1991): 83–98.

Davies, Carole Boyce. “Motherhood in the Works of Male and Female Igbo Writers: Achebe, Emecheta, Nwapa and Nzekwu.” Ngambika: Studies of Woman in African Literature. Ed. Carole Boyce Davies and Anne Adams Graves. Trenton, New Jersey: Africa World Press, 1986. 241–56.

Fanon, Frantz. “The Pitfalls of National Consciousness.” The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press, 1968. 148–205.

Gilliam, Angela. “Women's Equality and National Liberation.” Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism. 215–36.

Harlow, Barbara. Resistance Literature. London: Methuen, 1987.

Jeyifo, Biodun. “The Nature of Things: Arrested Decolonisation and Critical Theory.” Research in African Literatures 21.1 (Spring 1990): 33–48.

Mohanty, Chandra, T., Ann Russo, and Lourdes Torres, eds. Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.

Ngugi wa Thiong'o. Devil on the Cross. London: Heinemann, 1982.

Ogundipe-Leslie, Molara. “The Female Writer and Her Commitment.” Women in African Literature Today. London: James Curry, 1987. 5–13.

Ogunyemi, Chikwenye. “The Dynamics of the Contemporary Black Female Novel in English.” Signs 2.1 (Autumn 1985): 63–80.

Presence Africaine. Nos. 8–10 (June-November 1956); Nos. 24–25 (February-May 1959).

Riesz, Janos. “Mariama Ba's Une si longue lettre.” Research in African Literatures 22.1 (Spring 1991): 27–42.

Rubin, Gayle. “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex.” Toward an Anthropology of Women. Ed. Rayna R. Reiter. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975. 157–210.

Schipper, Mineke. “Mother Africa on a Pedestal: The Male Heritage in African Literature and Criticism.” Women in African Literature Today. 35–54.

Scott, James C. The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976.

Stratton, Florence. “Periodic Embodiments: A Ubiquitous Trope in African Men's Writing.” Research in African Literatures 21.1 (Spring 1990): 111–26.

Tohidi, Nayereh. “Gender and Islamic Fundamentalism: Feminist Politics in Iran.” Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism. 251–67.

Trinh, T. Minh-ha. Woman, Native, Other. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989.

Ato Quayson (essay date Winter 1994)

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SOURCE: “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,” in Research in African Literatures, Vol. 25, No. 4, Winter, 1994, pp. 117–36.

[In the following essay, Quayson discusses the different critical perspectives portrayed in Things Fall Apart.]

It is only when we go to the riverside that we can gauge the size of the water pot.

—Ewe Proverb

No matter how well the hen dances, it can not please the hawk.

—Akan Proverb

The proverbial epigraphs to this essay seek to integrate the enterprise of criticism into a traditional African cultural context. The first points to the relativity at the heart of all critical pursuits: it is mainly in relation to the literary enterprise that the critical one is validated. Furthermore, no criticism can hope to completely encompass the total significance of the literary artifact, just as no water pot can hope to take in all the river's water. On the other hand, all critical enterprises harbour a certain predatoriness which the relationship between the dancing hen and the hawk can be taken to figure. The critical enterprise is never completely satisfied with the work of its predecessors, and thus, continually seeks to tear open previous critical discourses to make space for its own activity.

These two proverbs are recalled to contextualize my own critical exercise. In offering a critique of the general evaluation of Things Fall Apart, I am conscious of the perceptive work that has been undertaken on the novel since its publication some three decades ago. Much of the criticism relating to the novel, however, shares implicit assumptions with the nature of the “realism” that the work itself offers. These assumptions subtly valorize the hermeneutical and exegetical approaches to the work without paying attention to the fact that its “realism” is a construct whose basic premises cannot be taken unproblematically. To help problematize the nature of the novel's realism, I shall, in the second part of this essay, focus on its construction of women and the feminine. This specific reading is offered as a model open to further modification and an alternative to the dominant tendencies in the area of the criticism of African literature. Ultimately, I intend to suggest that the representationalist readings that relate to his work are, though valid, grossly inadequate and that it is preferable to adopt a multi-tiered approach to his work and to African literature in general that will not take them as merely mimetic of an African reality but will pay attention to them as restructurations of various cultural subtexts. This will hopefully liberate more exciting modes of literary analyses that would pay attention to the problematic relationships that African literary texts establish with their cultural backgrounds. This will also pave the way for a proper examination of other works that do not rely on realist modes of discourse for their re/presentations of Africa. I bear in mind that if I now “hawk” other critiques, mine will soon be “hen” for subsequent ones; that is exactly as it should be, for it is impossible to say a last word on a writer as fine as Achebe.


Achebe's work, particularly Things Fall Apart, has inspired a great amount of criticism. In surveying this criticism, it is useful to bear in mind that the nature of that criticism is symptomatic of the evaluation of African literature in general.1 The issues posed in relation to Achebe often pervade the critical practice relating to African literature. But, perhaps, it is only Biodun Jeyifo and Chidi Amuta who have attempted to define a typology of the criticism in the field. Jeyifo's two-tier typology holds greater potential for elaboration, and it is to his that I turn to contextualize criticism of Achebe's work. Jeyifo defines the purview of post-coloniality as the dismantling “of bounded enclaves and subjectivities” (Jeyifo 52). He shares in this definition the tendency evident in The Empire Writes Back to perceive post-colonial practice as a discourse concerned with a self-definition that foregrounds the tensions with the imperial power and emphasizes the differences from the assumptions of the imperial center (Ashcroft 2). The implicit assumption that post-colonial literatures are in a perpetual umbilical dance with the metropolitan center, counter-productive though it is, will not be taken on here. Jeyifo divides post-colonial writing and criticism into two distinct fields which he names the post-coloniality of “normativity and proleptic designation” and the “interstitial or liminal” post-coloniality. The post-coloniality of normativity and proleptic designation is one in which the writer or critic speaks to, or for, or in the name of the post-independence nation-state, the regional or continental community, the panethnic, racial or cultural agglomeration of homelands and diasporas (Jeyifo 53).

The normativity in this conception of post-coloniality often entails a return to cultural sources, the projection of a futurist agenda, and the celebration of cultural authenticity. Indeed, Achebe himself espouses such an agenda in relation to his work. In his famous words:

I would be quite satisfied if my novels (especially the ones I set in the past) did no more than teach my readers that their past—with all its imperfections—was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God's behalf delivered them.

(“Novelist as Teacher” 45)

Ignoring for the time being the implications of these remarks for constructing the social role of the writer,2 I note the implicit confidence expressed about the role of realism in the project of recovering cultural authenticity. Realism is so powerful as a conduit for social criticism, that it is taken to pass on the verities available to other empiricist social discourses. Perhaps it is David Lodge, in The Modes of Modern Writing, who offers a definition of realism closest to that implied in Achebe's confident assertions on the role of his work:

[Realism is] the representation of experience in a manner which approximates closely to descriptions of similar experience in non-literary texts of the same culture.


The assumption that realism shares a community of values with other non-literary discourses was particularly important in the general conceptions of the role of literature in the newly emergent African nations. And especially in the period just before and after Independence in West Africa when a burgeoning newspaper culture and the Onitsha Market Literature3 emphasized an empiricism and rationalism embodied in a recourse to “facts” and factual reporting, the perceived affinities between the economy of realism and those of other non-literary discourses were taken for granted in the espousals of cultural authenticity. A remark by an early reviewer of Achebe's A Man of the People to the effect that the novel was “worth a ton of documentary journalism” (Time 19 Aug 1966: 84, ctd. in Larson 16) encapsulates the expressed confidence in the shared “factuality” of the protocols of both novelistic realism and newspaper reportage in general.

The confidence Achebe expresses in the realism of his early novels was shared by his critics and led to several critical formations which sought to elucidate the representationalist aspects of his work. The critical tendency that seemed to take the novels most evidently as in a one-to-one relationship to reality was that which sought to recover anthropological data about the Igbos from the novels. Charles Larson elicits such an anthropological reading from Things Fall Apart, though he introduces his work by deprecating that same tendency in Achebe's earliest reviewers. “What is clearly needed,” writes Larson, “is the reviewer equipped to examine African fiction both from a cultural (anthropological) and an aesthetic (literary) point of view, though I am not trying to suggest that the two are ever totally separated” (Larson 16). He goes on to affirm that the first part of the novel is “heavily anthropological, but contains the seeds of germination for the latter half of the book” (Larson 30). Proceeding from such a premise, it is not difficult for him then to conclude that there is very little scenic description related to the building of mood and atmosphere in the Western sense, and that Achebe's descriptions are used directly for functional rather than for aesthetic purposes. In discussing the passage in which Ikemefuna is led into the forest to be murdered, Larson asserts that the description of the forest is given just to let the reader know where he is; the boy could not have been killed in the village anyway, so the forest scene is an inescapable necessity imposed on Achebe. In other words, the novel is intent on giving only factual information. Because of his anthropological biases, Larson fails to see that the whole scene is rich with meanings and can be read as an important symbolic expression of the darkness at both the centre and margins of all cultures.

Obiechina duplicates this tendency from an insider's perspective. In his Culture, Tradition, and Society in the West African Novel, he sees the novel as reflective or mimetic of traditional beliefs and practices in an almost unmediated way, being interested, as he is, in showing how the cultural and social background “gave rise to the novel there, and in far-reaching and crucial ways conditioned the West African novel's content, themes and texture” (Obiechina 3). Within Obiechina's formulation, “culture,” “tradition,” and “society” become paradigmatic of the real West African world reflected in the novels he studies. In this way the novels become amenable to an “anthropological harvest” in which details are read from cultural background to fictional world and back again.

These readings of Achebe are better understood in the context of a general rhetoric that sought to define an authentic African worldview opposed to the Western one. Criticism, in this context, tried to demonstrate the extent to which the narrative had “naturalized” the borrowed form of the novel by its specifically African discursive strategies. Several critics devoted themselves to arguing the “Africanness” of the text such as was evident in proverb use (Egudu; Lindfors; Shelton), in the oral rhythms concealed in the text (McCarthy), or in the patterns of temporality that are arguably relatable to African cultural sources (JanMohamed).

A more subtle version of the Africanness rhetoric seems to be offered by criticism that sees Achebe's work as setting itself against the construction of the African available within Western fiction. In her recent book on Chinua Achebe, C. L. Innes undertakes a contrastive pairing of Achebe with Joyce Cary, in which she establishes a typology of the “preferred.” She draws inspiration for this from Achebe's own remarks about the factors that led him to write novels as a corrective to some of the jaundiced images about the African that were purveyed in writings by Westerners. Achebe's fictionalization of African reality is to be preferred to Cary's because Achebe is closer to the reality of Africa:

In challenging Cary's ‘superficial picture,’ a representation to be observed on the surface without critical intervention, Achebe challenged not only the vision depicted but also the manner of the depiction, not only the story, but the mode of story-telling, and the consequent relationship between reader and writer.

(Innes 18)

Innes explores the novel's Africanness in relational terms, and this suggests that it is the construction of different representations of the same world that is at stake. It is necessary to be alerted to the modes of perception of the African encrusted in reactionary discourses such as those of Cary. Representation is a subtle process imbricated within the textual strategies deployed by realist discourse. But it is important to note how such an approach privileges the realism of the preferred version and ignores the potential exclusions of such a version. In Achebe's specific evocation of the Igbo world, it is possible to further contrast him with other Igbo writers, such as Buchi Emecheta, to show that his version of African reality requires as much interrogation and qualification as those proffered by the Carys.

Side by side with this type of criticism was another which sought to identify Africanness as a first step towards corralling the rural novels into a more radical political agenda. Indeed, the position of Chinweizu et al. in Towards the Decolonization of African Literature can be taken to represent the most radical expression of this agenda. They attacked many of the leading African writers and critics for obscurantism and a divorce from African oral sources and advocated a return to a traditional afrocentrist literary and critical practice. The reactionary essentialism concealed in this position was quickly discovered and attacked by both writers and critics. It is now fashionable to address the bolekaja4 formation in surveys of African literature in derogatory terms, but it seems to me that the nature of the bolekaja radicalism derives precisely from an unquestioning confidence in the capacity of realism for reflecting the real. Their fear was that, if the wrong “reality” was reflected, it would have a corrupting influence on readers, and ultimately militate against the larger processes of political decolonization which were at the centre of their concerns. In this sense they share the same attitudes that inform all criticism accepting realism at face value and ignoring its constructedness as an “ism.”

All these critical formations in relation to Achebe's work can be perceived as united in subtle maneuvers that take the culture of the realist novel as most truthfully inscribing the space and time of history. Palmer can be taken to be representative of this notion:

Broadly speaking, the African novel is a response to and a record of the traumatic consequences of the impact of western capitalist colonialism on the traditional values and institutions of the African peoples.

(Palmer 63)

It is interesting how such a formulation, and the critical practice informed by it, defines a novelistic agenda that emphasizes “record,” grounding it in rationalism and empiricism. Furthermore this type of formulation permits the exclusion or underprivileging of the counter-realist and non-rationalist. In Palmer's own practice, when he engages with Tutuola, he is at pains to show that Tutuola is merely a teller of tales and not a novelist. His work thus requires a different level of seriousness:

Tutuola is not strikingly original, but we can then go on to assert that whereas realism and originality are expected of the formal novel, the teller of folk tales is expected to take his subject matter and the framework of his tales from the corpus of his people's traditional lore.

(Palmer 12; emphasis added).

Since Palmer has already suggested that the African novel is supremely concerned with “record,” it is easy to see how his conception of Tutuola's work underprivileges the type of mythological discourse that his writing engages in. But more importantly, it serves to institute a subtle dichotomy between realism and non-realism, with the added suggestion that the non-realist is not properly the staple of the novel form. All the debates around Tutuola seem to me to adumbrate what Karin Barber (“African-language Literatures and Post-colonial Criticism”) detects at the center of post-colonial and Commonwealth literary criticism: the desire to bracket out certain forms of discourse, and to underplay or dismiss the vital activity of oral literature. Much of the criticism of African literature, she says, seeks to give oral tradition only an originary role in the construction of typologies of the Europhone African literatures. The oral tradition is seen mainly as a reservoir of materials to be exploited by the modern writer. This maneuver forecloses the possibility of seeing oral literature as vitalizing its own traditions of writing as expressed in indigenous language literatures. It seems to me that, additionally, the elements of oral literature employed by writers and elucidated by critics are seen mainly in the role of subserving an essentially rationalist and empiricist realist discourse. The African novel is made to yield reflections of Africa, and there is often an unconscious urge to read them as recording an “African” reality that comes without mediation. Thus, when a Tutuola gives full vent to the transgressive potential inherent in oral literary traditions, his work can only be seen in terms of the problematic. His work disturbs the process of establishing mimetic adequacy in the representation of the African world view.

It is perhaps fruitful at this stage to note Hayden White's general scepticism about the definitions of realism to make room for a contextualization of the relationship between realist and non-realist discourses in the representations of Africa:

In my view, the whole discussion of the nature of “realism” in literature flounders in the failure to assess critically what a generally “historical” conception of reality consists of. The usual tactic is to set the “historical” over against the “mythical,” as if the former were genuinely empirical and the latter were nothing but conceptual, and then to locate the realm of the “fictive” between the two poles. Literature is then viewed as being more or less realistic, depending upon the ration of empirical to conceptual elements contained in it.


Realism is ultimately a construction that is privileged because it is seen as reflecting History and Truth in its engagement with empirical data. But it is a construction that needs to be interrogated. In the context of African literature, the myths and legends are important sources for the construction of an African world view. It is in fact significant that from the very inception of African literature, a tradition that draws dominantly from oral literature and its modes of perception has grown alongside the more realist tendency. We can number writers like Soyinka, Awoonor, Armah, and lately Laing, Okri, and Bandele-Thomas in the ranks of those who draw mainly on a mythic consciousness, but it is still disturbing that no full-length study has yet been made in which these writers are seen as together exemplifying a specific mode of literary consciousness.5 The crucial thing though, is to regard their works as drawing from the wealth of cultural materials to produce re/structurations of the culture within a general mythopoeic practice. But it is a type of re/structuration that realism itself participates in so that any representationalist reading of realism is a manoeuvre that, consciously or unconsciously, ignores the problematic status of the “realist” text.

In order that African novels, be they realist or counter-realist, are not rapidly incorporated into an anthropological-representationalist reading of African reality, it is important to regard them all as symbolic discourses that continually restructure a variety of subtexts: cultural, political, historical and at times even biographical.6 And it is useful to bear in mind that a palpable gap is forever instituted between the narrative text and the subtexts it appropriates. It is then fruitful to regard the African novel as only partially reflecting a “reality” beyond itself; one reflected in a highly problematic way, forever struggling to be self-sufficient within itself, but always involved in various relationships with its informing matrix. It then becomes possible to endorse Homi Bhabha's desire to see a shift in the criticism of post-colonial literatures from the perception of the text as representationalist to seeing it as a production (see Bhabha). But it seems to me also important not to privilege the textual as solely generative of meanings. The text is meaning/ful partly in relation to the culture from which it borrows its materials and with which it establishes varying relationships. This view of the text permits the recovery of a cultural matrix for the text, and at the same time opens up a space for an interrogation of the assumptions upon which it is grounded.

Perhaps this strategy would satisfy someone like Chidi Amuta, who is radically opposed to what he sees as a hegemonic traditionalist aesthetic that governs the criticism of African literature. In relation to Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God, he makes the assertion that they have become axiomatic reference points for diverse interests and opinions intent on rediscovering and commenting on “traditional African society” and “the culture conflict” inaugurated by the advent of colonialism, stock concepts which have since been adumbrated into a “mini-catechism” (Amuta 130). The “traditionalist aesthetic” can be incorporated into a multi-tiered activity of recovering significance for the text without necessarily lapsing either into a febrile essentialism or a constrictive formalism.

We can return finally to address Jeyifo's second formulation of post-coloniality. For him, interstitial or liminal post-coloniality “defines an ambivalent mode of self-fashioning of the writer or critic which is neither First World nor Third World, neither securely and smugly metropolitan, nor assertively and combatively Third Worldist. The very terms which express the orientation of this school of post-colonial self-representation are revealing: diasporic, exilic, hybrid, in-between, cosmopolitan” (Jeyifo 53). In short, acutely aware of the antinomies that riddle existence. It is interesting that Jeyifo names those he thinks are the dominant figures of this formation of the post-colonial (Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Salman Rushdie, Edward Said, Homi Bhabha), suggesting that the consciousness of the antinomic began with them. This, I think, is mistaken. “The African writer's very decision to use English,” writes Jan Mohamed, “is engulfed by ironies, paradoxes, and contradictions” (JanMohamed 20). I agree with him and add that the very choice of the metropolitan language for the writing of post-colonial literatures secretes liminality into the inaugural act of post-colonialist representation itself. Furthermore, in the most sensitive of post-colonial writers, the representation is done with an uneasy awareness of the subtle contradictions inscribed in an emergent syncretic culture: on the one hand, the loss of a pristine traditional culture is regretted, but this is mingled with an awareness of its more reprehensible potential. And on the other, the ruthless economic competition of urbanization and Westernization is deprecated while an awareness of the greater possibilities for vertical mobility, self fulfilment, and freedom is registered. In that sense, the condition of interstitiality or liminality is of the very essence of post-colonial writing, though each text establishes a different relationship to this conundrum. Jeyifo's typology breaks down and is particularly subverted by his own reading of Achebe's Things Fall Apart in which he emphasizes the novel's productive ambivalences and liminality in its continual relativization of doxa (represented by Okonkwo) as against paradoxa or irony (represented by Obierika and those at the margins of the text, such as osus and women).

What emerges, then, from the discourses of post-colonial criticism, is that it is new reading strategies that have come into being and are at issue, focusing on aspects of post-colonial texts that had hitherto been silenced. It is, to borrow an apt formulation of Irigaray's in another context, the “spaces that organize the scene, the blanks that sub-tend the scene's structuration and yet will not be read as such” (Irigaray 137–38) that have come into account in the readings of post-colonial literatures. And in the particular context of the criticism of African literature, the requirement that it move away from the dominant representationalist rhetoric to more nuanced approaches that will take account of the hitherto “silent spaces” and the subtle and often problematic relationships between text and context becomes patently imperative.


This reading of Things Fall Apart, then, is offered as a means of exposing the gap that exists between the realist African text and the reality that it is seen to represent. The novel is particularly useful for this enterprise because of its highly acclaimed (and well deserved) literary status and the fact that it has been taken unproblematically since its publication thirty years ago.

It seems fruitful to conceive of the realism of Things Fall Apart as constructed on two levels simultaneously. At one level, the novel concerns itself with a description of Umuofian culture and its subversion by the contact with Western imperialism. This level of the novel can be perceived as metonymic of an Igbo or African reality. In Jakobsonian terms, the narrative progresses metonymically, with narrative elements selected for attention because they exist in discernible contiguous relation to one another. Significantly, however, the text frequently departs from the overarching narrative of the fall of Okonkwo and the division of the clan to pursue numerous anecdotes and digressions that are demonstrably not related to the main narrative but embody subtle qualifications of it. Furthermore, within the context of the unfolding events, the narrative generates a secondary level of conceptualization that can be seen as symbolic/metaphorical. This level subtends the metonymic text but gathers around itself all the antinomies associated with metaphor: ambiguity, contradiction, irony, and paradox.

The symbolic/metaphorical level of conceptualization reveals two closely related strata both at the level of content, the culture of Umuofia, and also at the level of the narrative's discursive strategies in general. On the one hand, Umuofia, as a culture, has institutions governed by a viable symbolic order. Though the narrative text itself reflects some of the central concerns of the culture, both in relation to the cultural institutions and more generally in relation to the culture's governing symbolic system, it employs certain discursive strategies that articulate a symbolic/metaphorical system not relatable solely to the symbolic order reflected by the actual culture. The narrative's own order is derivable from the various configurations of significances, and in its structuration of the narrated events. And it is at this strategic level of symbolic structuration that the novel's hierarchization of gender and the subtle subversion of its proferred hierarchy are played out, showing that the novel's realism, in the characteristic manner of a writing continually produces excessive meanings. Taking it at face value then becomes inadequate and problematic.

Several critics have rightly pointed out that Okonkwo's downfall is mainly due to a neurotic concern with “manliness.” Okonkwo pursues distinction, in the words of Abiola Irele, with an “obsessive single-mindedness that soon degenerates into egocentricity, until he comes to map out for himself very narrow limits of action or reflection” (Irele 11). Almost every critic of the novel pays attention to the nature of Okonkwo's tragic character, relating it to the narrow limits of action defined by his society as “manly” and showing how his character precludes the exercise of the more “feminine” virtues of tolerance, tenderness and patience. Innes argues that it is a flaw encoded in the very symbolic order of Umuofian society and purveyed by its linguistic codes. Okonkwo's attitudes are framed by the culture's language and its implications, and it is this that makes him “unable to acknowledge the mythic implications of femininity and its values” (Innes 117). What seems to have been ignored, however, is the fact that in totally focalizing the narrative through Okonkwo and the male-dominated institutions of Umuofia, the novel itself implies a patriarchal discourse within which women, and much of what they can be taken to represent in the novel, are restricted to the perceptual fringes. In spite of this demonstrable patriarchy, however, Okonkwo is at various times ironized by the text suggesting the inadequacy of the values he represents and ultimately those of the hierarchy that ensures his social status. It is important to stress that it is not just Okonkwo's values that are shown as inadequate, but those of a patriarchal society in general, he representing an extreme manifestation of the patriarchy that pervades the society as a whole.

Part of the structuration of the male-female hierarchy in the novel derives from what Chantal Zabus, in talking about the use of proverbs in Things Fall Apart, refers to as the “ethno-text.” She defines the term in relation to “the discursive segments that belong to the vast corpus of African traditional oral material” (Zabus 20). Her focus is mainly on the implications for the demise of orality that the transposition of traditional discursive elements into the Europhone novel implies, but it is useful to expand the term ethno-text to embrace all the traditional cultural practices that are depicted in a novel, be they linguistically based or not. It is the structuration derivable from Igbo culture itself that arguably offers the raw materials for the construction of the fictional world of Umuofia.7 It is noticeable, for instance, that the female principle has a very important part to play in Umuofia's governing cosmogony. Ani, goddess of the earth, “played a greater part in the life of the people than any other deity” (26). The Week of Peace set aside for her before the celebration of the New Yam Festival is a time of tolerance, relaxation, and peaceful co-existence. And so important is Ani that all the society's activities are judged in terms of what is or is not acceptable to her; indeed, she is “the ultimate judge of morality and conduct” (26). G. D. Killam has been led to suggest, from an examination of the role of Ani in the lives of the people, that “a powerful ‘female principle’ pervades the whole society of Umuofia” (20). It is important to note, however, that this powerful female principle is most potent at a symbolic/metaphorical level. It finds its most powerful expression at the level of the clan's governing cosmogony. And, at all times, the female principle always attracts some masculine essentiality in its definition. Ani has constant communion with the “fathers of the clan” because they are buried within her. She has a male priest, while Agbala, god of the Hills and Caves, has a priestess as spokesperson. And in the arena of the traditionally most masculine-centered activity, war, the governing principle of Umuofian war medicine is believed to be an old woman with one leg, agadi-nwayi (9). The clan's cultural values institute the feminine in a very powerful position within the governing symbolic system, taking care to suggest a subtle interfusion of the two principles of male and female. In that sense, Umuofia's governing symbolic system suggest a necessary balancing of the two principles, so that the notion of a pervasive single essence “female principle” requires qualification.

At the level of the metonymic realist description of the institutional practices of Umuofia, however, the ethno-text yields a completely different reality. Umuofia is a male-dominated society, and the narrative reflects this aspect of the culture. The continuing emphasis in the text is on depicting male-dominated activities—the oratory of men before the gathered clan, the acquisition and cultivation of farmlands, courage and resourcefulness in sport and war and the giving and taking of brides. The text's focus on the patriarchy inscribed in the ethno-text is particularly evident in the portrayal of the political institution of justice. Since the Umuofians are acephalous, their central political power is invested in the ndichie, council of elders, and in the egwu-gwu, masked spirits of the ancestors who come to sit in judgement over civil and criminal disputes.

It is in the attitude of women to the egwu-gwu that the hierarchy of power is unmasked. The egwu-gwu emerge to sit in judgement with “guttural and awesome” voices. And the sounds of their voices are no less mystifying than the sounds that herald their entry:

Aruoyim de de de dei! flew around the dark closed hut like tongues of fire. The ancestral spirits of the clan were abroad. The metal gong beat continuously now and the flute, shrill and powerful, floated on the chaos.

And then the egwu-gwu appeared. The women and children sent up a great shout and took to their heels. It was instinctive. A woman fled as soon as an egwu-gwu came in sight. And when, as on that day, nine of the greatest masked spirits in the clan came out together it was a terrifying spectacle. Even Mgbafo took to her heels and had to be restrained by her brothers.


It is interesting that in its presentation of the scene the narrative betrays its attitude to the relationship between women and power. Significantly, the egwu-gwu are described in an idiom of grandeur, the “tongues of fire” recalling the dramatic events of Pentecost recorded in the Acts of the Apostles 2.1–4. And the women's “instinctive” flight at their emergence can be read as the awestruck response to these masked ancestral spirits. A few lines later, however, the women reveal they have more knowledge of the reality behind the masked spirits than they care to express: “Okonkwo's wives, and perhaps other women as well, might have noticed that the second egwu-gwu had the springly walk of Okonkwo. … But if they thought these things they kept them within themselves” (64–65). The narrative paints the scene with so much detail, objective distancing and humour, that it is impossible not to regard it as of the clearest “realistic” vintage. But the “thoughtful silence” of the women before this all-important masculine institution is ironic. The narrative works both to reveal the “natural” and “instinctive” female attitude to Power and also to ironize the pretensions of the masculine social institutions. But it is important to note that the irony does not work to radically undermine the hierarchy at the centre of the power structure because the women constrain themselves to “thinking” their knowledge, but leave it unexpressed.

Some aspects of the narrative can be construed wholly as fictional constructions and not as trajectories of the ethno-text. Here it is the narrative, in terms of its own discursive strategies, that is responsible for any impression of patriarchy that comes across. In the relationships in Okonkwo's household, for instance, we find a subtle definition of his masculinity that depends on a particular view of the women in his domestic set-up. Twice we are told Okonkwo beats his wives. The first time, it is Ojiugo, his last wife. The narrator's preface to the incident must be noted:

Okonkwo was provoked to justifiable anger by his youngest wife, who went to plait her hair at her friend's house and did not return early enough to prepare the afternoon meal.


If Okonkwo's anger is “justifiable” then the narrative has passed judgement on Ojiugo's “irrationality” and “thoughtlessness” from her husband's perspective. And it is significant that the text does not bother to let Ojiugo explain herself on her return. It is just reported that “when she returned he beat her very heavily” (21). In Okonkwo's anger he forgets that it is the Week of Peace, and even when he is reminded, he does not stop because, as we are told, he “was not the man to stop beating somebody half way through, not even for fear of a goddess” (21). In earning a severe reprimand from Ani's priest for flouting the rules governing the observance of the Week of Peace, his “manly” values are clearly shown as inadequate, but his character as derivable from this scene is as significant in terms of his attitudes to his wives as it is in his attitudes to the cultural mores he violates. In this segment of the narrative, however, there is a tacit but emphatic foregrounding of the social as against the private, because the beating occurs during a period of heightened cultural consciousness due to the Week of Peace.

At another time it is Ekwefi who is to suffer the brunt of her husband's violent temper. In this instance it is only to satisfy his suppressed anger at the enforced laxity that precedes the New Yam Festival (27–28). Both these instances are explications of what the text has already told us earlier on but only now depicts:

Okonkwo ruled his household with a heavy hand. His wives, especially the youngest, lived in perpetual fear of his fiery temper, and so did his little children.


The importance of this method of characterization for the patriarchal discourse inscribed in the text is that it depends on a binary opposition being established between Okonkwo and the other characters. And it is a binarism that frequently takes him as the primary value. When the binarism works to undermine Okonkwo and his relative values, it regularly foregrounds other men-folk around whom alternative values in the text can be seen as being organized. Obierika and Nwoye are important nuclei of alternative values in this sense. In relation to his wives, however, the binarism implies a secondary role for them. Whatever significance is recovered for them must be gleaned from their silence, for they are not portrayed by the narrative as contributing to the action and its outcome.

The essential discursive operation of containing the significance of the women is most evident in relation to the handling of Ekwefi and Ezinma. The text builds them up till they seem to be alternative centres of significations, but it frustrates the completion of these significations by banishing them out of the narrative at some point. Ezinma and her mother Ekwefi are the only female characters developed by the narrative. We are told that Ekwefi ran away from her first husband to marry Okonkwo (28). By focusing on the relationship between her and her daughter, the narrative reveals the joys of motherhood and the closeness that mother and daughter enjoyed:

Ezinma did not call her mother Nne like all children. She called her by her name, Ekwefi, as her father and other grown-up people did. The relationship between them was not only that of mother and child. There was something in it like the companionship of equals, which was strengthened by such little conspiracies as eating eggs in the bedroom.


The warmth depicted in the relationship between mother and daughter aids in eliciting the reader's empathy with them, and thereby opens up a space for possible significations around these two. The significations, however, seem to be limited to a definition of maternal and filial instincts only. The episodes around Ekwefi's pursuit of Chielo when her daughter is taken on a nocturnal round of the villages by the priestess are significant in that respect (72–76). And when she stands with tears in her eyes at the mouth of the cave into which Chielo has entered with her daughter and swears within herself that if she heard Ezinma cry she would rush into the cave to defend her against all the gods in the world, we know we are seeing terribly courageous maternal, and indeed human, instincts at play. Indeed, the scene even gains wider significance if perceived in contrast to Okonkwo's handling of Ikemefuna who called him “father.” In both instances where parental instincts are put to the test, the central characters are, significantly, taken outside the village into the forest. In Ekwefi's case as in Okonkwo's, an element of eeriness governs the atmosphere, with Ekwefi's situation being the more frightening of the two. And both episodes involve the enigmatic injunction of deities, but whereas Ekwefi is prepared to defy the gods in defence of her daughter. Okonkwo submits to cowardice and participates in Ikemefuna's ritual murder. Ekwefi has been given admirable but limited stature by the text, and this is partly because it refuses to lend her a more crucial role in the action.

In Ezinma, we see a tough-minded and questioning personality. When her mother tells her the tale of the Tortoise and the Birds, she is quick to point out that the tale does not have a song (70). She joins the ranks of other male characters who pose questions of varying interest in the narrative: Obierika, Nwoye, Rev. Brown, Okonkwo, the strict commissioner. Interestingly, her questions are posed in relation to what is not of great consequence in the narrative, the tales of women told in their huts at night to children, a context which Okonkwo thinks his sons should be excluded from the better to ensure the growth of their “manliness.” At another time, Ezinma ventures to carry her father's stool to the village ilo, a move she is reminded is the male preserve of a son (32). And when she sits, she often fails to adopt the proper sitting posture prescribed for her sex and has to be forcefully reminded by her father in his characteristic bellowing command (32). When, in the quest for her iyi-uwa, she calmly takes her impatient father, a renowned medicine man, and indeed much of the village on a circular “treasure-hunt,” we see she enjoys the momentary leadership position that the situation permits her (56–60).

It is also significant that Ezinma comes to take the place of a boy and someone that can be trusted in her father's eyes.8 At periods when he is in the greatest emotional crises. Okonkwo instinctively turns to his daughter. Such is the case for instance after his participation in the murder of Ikemefuna. After the boy's sacrifice “he does not taste food for two days” and drinks palm-wine “from morning till night.” His eyes were “red and fierce like the eyes of a rat when it was caught by the tail and dashed against the floor” (44). On the third day, he asks Ekwefi to prepare him roast plantains, and these are brought by Ezinma. We notice the filial attachment that passes between the two:

‘You have not eaten for two days,’ said his daughter Ezinma when she brought the food to him. ‘So you must finish this.’ She sat down and stretched her legs in front of her. Okonkwo ate the food absent-mindedly. ‘She should have been a boy,’ he thought as he looked at his ten-year-old daughter. He passed her a piece of fish.


The narrative further registers a crucial position for Ezinma in our eyes when it tells us that during his enforced exile Okonkwo “never stopped regretting that Ezinma was a girl” and that of all his children “she alone understood his every mood. A bond of sympathy had grown between them” (122). It is to her that her father gives the task of convincing her other sisters not to marry any eligible man from Mbanta, but to wait till they return to Umuofia to make a better social impact on arrival. Thus, the space for registering significations around Ezinma, and for exploring a viable notion of femaleness that would offer a possible contrast with Okonkwo's notions of manliness are clearly built by the narrative. It is then highly problematic that Ezinma vanishes from the story after the return from exile, and is never referred to again. It is as if to suggest that in the crucial exercise of delineating the climactic consequences of the meeting of the two cultures at the end of the novel, there is no space for women.

How, we might speculate, would the novel have been if it were to have focused on Ezinma's reaction to the changes in Umuofia from the specific standpoint of the institution of marriage? Or how would the society's value systems have been perceived if their interrogation had been focalized through Ezinma instead of Nwoye and Obierika? And what would our attitudes to Okonkwo's death have been if Ezinma's reaction to the event had been registered alongside Obierika's? In fact, is it not valid to ponder what the reaction of the womenfolk in general was to the mores of the society and the radical changes that unfold in the course of the narrative? There seems to be an unconscious recognition of the potential inherent in Ezinma and Ekwefi's characterization for subverting the patriarchal discourse of the text. The significations around them go to join the various meanings around those “othered” by Umuofia and the narrative, such as twins, osus and those who die of abominable ailments. These come briefly into the perceptual horizon, and though marginalized, remain potentially disruptive, partly because the mere fact of their presence constitutes a qualification of what has been centralized by the narrative. Though it has foregrounded the masculine in the male-female hierarchy inscribed at the level of the description of events, the narrative has also opened the hierarchy to a subtle interrogation of its values, even if ultimately leaving it intact. Considering the ways in which women are handled in the novel, it is possible to perceive Things Fall Apart as operating a mode of realism that does not just “name” an African reality; it also seeks to fix certain concepts such as those around “woman” within a carefully hierarchized system of values that underprivileges them. In this light, Things Fall Apart would almost answer to the charges levelled by Hélène Cixous at the language of philosophical systems in general: they are all phallocentric and seek to privilege the masculine in the patterns of male-female binary pairs often proffered as “natural.” Cixous's charge would require some qualification in the context of Things Fall Apart, however, particularly because its hierarchization of the masculine-feminine undergoes a continual subversion revealing a more profound contradiction at the heart of its construction of the “natural” relations between “masculine” and “feminine.”

If, on the one hand, patriarchy is privileged by both the ethno-text and the narrative itself, then this same patriarchy is alternatively shown as sitting uneasily within the general discourse of symbolization that the text constructs. And it is in the area of the political themes of the novel that this is most evident. The contact between the colonizing and the traditional cultures is attended by a subtle construction of the male-female polarities which this time are not hierarchical but rather intermingle and change places in restless slippage.

When the whiteman first appears on the perceptual horizon of Umuofia, he is naturalized by being linked to the marginal. The white man is first referred to as an albino (52). And later, when their violent intrusion into the perceptual horizon through the riot of Abame has to be confronted, Obierika reflects other previous self-satisfied attitudes to these whitemen in his reporting of the rout:

I am greatly afraid. We have heard stories about the white men who made the powerful guns and the strong drinks and took slaves away across the seas, but no one thought the stories were true.


In other words, they were harmless because they inhabited what was thought to be the realm of the fictive. When whitemen make their first physical appearance in the shape of Christian missionaries, they are first confined to the Evil Forest in which were buried “all those who died of the really evil diseases, like leprosy and smallpox” (105). They were not wanted in the clan and so were given land that was thought to be only marginally useful to the clan. But the early Christianity is depicted by the narrative as embodying and stressing qualities considered womanish—love, tolerance, affection and mercy9; Okonkwo characteristically evaluates the missionaries as a “lot of effeminate men clucking like old hens” (108). A feminine “valence” attaches to the Christians. In this sense, the early relationship between Umuofia and Christianity describes a male-female hierarchy in which Umuofia is masculine and privileged. In effect the narrative suggests that the white missionary vanguard of the colonizing enterprise possessed an initial effeminacy which was amusing and, in effect, tolerable.

The effeminacy turns out to be highly contradictory and sinister, however. The church succeeds in attracting to itself all those marginalized by the society, efulefus,osus, and the men of no title, agbala. In doing this, it emasculates the society, making it incapable of standing as one. And as Obierika observes with uncanny perspicacity, “the whiteman has put a knife on the things that held us together” (124). In figuring the whiteman's intrusion firstly in terms of “effeminate clucking,” and now in terms of an invading knife, the narrative prepares the way for an inversion of the implied male-female hierarchization that it suggested in describing the first contact between the missionaries and the culture of Umuofia. Indeed, it is significant that at the crucial point when Okonkwo seeks to assert the possibilities of a violent rebellion, his own clan breaks into a catatonic “effeminate” confusion. At that point the text transfers the feminine valence with which it first constructed the whiteman onto the Umuofians. The shift of the feminine valence from the invaders to the invaded helps to define an important contradiction at the heart of the text's attitudes to the colonial encounter. Colonialism is perceived at one and the same time as feminine (in the missionaries) and masculine (at the level of the British administration and their ruthless exercise of power). And for colonialism to be able to succeed, Umuofia has to be transformed from the essential masculinity which has governed the textual construction of the society, to an enervated femininity at the crucial point when rebellion was an option. In that sense, the narrative depicts Umuofia's “castration,” with Okonkwo's suicide representing the ultimate overthrow of its masculinity.10

It is arguable, then, that the textual strategies have ascribed different values to the male-female hierarchy at two different levels of the text. At the level of metonymic realistic description, a certain ironized patriarchy governs the construction of the fictional Umuofia that derives its impulse partly from the ethno-text. But at the level of symbolic conceptualization, the narrative has hinted at its own patriarchal discourse which it has proceeded to undermine most powerfully when describing the colonial encounter. Then, the male-female hierarchy that has governed the text completely collapses, and its place is taken over by an exchange of the “masculine” and “feminine” among the two poles of the contending cultures. Things Fall Apart thus explores a loving image of Umuofia at the same time as it reveals a dissatisfaction with the values of the society it describes in such detail. And this is undertaken at a more subtle level than the mere explication of content can reveal. In a very important sense, the “naming” of a pre-colonial culture and the depiction of its subversion by a marauding imperialism has involved the necessary construction of philosophical categories both within the pre-colonial culture and between it and the invading one which fail to stand still, involving a doubling back of the categories such as to problematize the very assumptions on which the enterprise of “naming” was undertaken in the first place. The novel thus reveals that its own realism is a construction traversed by both sensitivity and ambivalence so that it cannot be addressed unproblematically.

What is important, in the context of criticism relating to Things Fall Apart and the African novel in general, is that critics often take novelistic realism at face value. They thus fail to perceive the more subtle workings of the texts they engage with and fail to interrogate the assumptions on which they are based. And even more crucially, they fail to see that “realism” is an “ism” and a careful restructuration of various subtexts, so that its relationship to the Real can not be taken for granted. In focusing on the novel's handling of patriarchy, women and the feminine, I have tried to suggest that reading “culture” out of a novel is valuable but inadequate, and that this needs to be supplemented with an awareness that Things Fall Apart, like African novels in general, possesses a richly ambivalent attitude to its culture that can only be discovered by paying attention both to the reality processed and to the larger discursive strategies employed. Every “ism,” to echo Soyinka in Kongi's Harvest, is an “absolutism,” and that is true of realism as well as criticism in all its disguises.


  1. I focus attention mainly on the criticism of Achebe's novels set in the past, though the attitudes relating to them are pertinent to those relating to novels set in the post-Independence era. Indeed, James Olney and also Eustace Palmer see Achebe's novelistic career as paradigmatic of the development of the African novel in general. (See Olney and Palmer 63.)

  2. In varying degrees this was the informing sentiment behind the general accounts of African critics in the sixties and seventies such as those of Obiechina, Gakwandi, Ogungbesan, and Palmer.

  3. It is significant that romance seems to have dominated the discourse of Onitsha Market Literature. But romance is in fact rationalism of a different order because modern romance generally depicts victory over the tribulations of the “real” world. Indeed, the market literature was an expression of a “Mills and Boon” reading culture that has become very powerful in the whole

  4. Bolekaja, which literally means “come down and fight,” was borrowed from a phrase used by the conductors of Nigerian passenger lorries in their fiercely competitive touting for passengers and was adopted as a description of the Chinweizu et al. type of critical stance.

  5. Soyinka perceived this tendency towards the mythopoeic in African literature as early as in 1963 and tried to account for it in “From a Common Backcloth.” Richard Priebe also assessed the general attitudes towards this mythopoeic tendency and argued for the perception of a specific literary tradition deriving from Amos Tutuola and growing around the mythopoeic (Priebe 1973), but the insights these two suggested do not seem to have been taken up in later critical assessments of African literature. The mythopoeic tendency in writers like Awoonor and Armah were recognised but the critical assessments of their work were not integrated within an analysis of what relationships their efforts had with the discursive universes of Tutuola and even of Soyinka.

  6. The terms in which Frederic Jameson defines narrative as a socially symbolic act are very useful in this context, except that I do not think it is necessary to always grasp the narrative text as an essentially strategic confrontation between classes. See The Political Unconscious.

  7. Several studies have been devoted to uncovering the Igbo background behind Achebe's novel but perhaps the most wide-ranging and systematic is Wren's Achebe's World.

  8. It is significant that in seeing her as a “son” Okonkwo attempts to erase his daughter's femininity. This then becomes a manifestation of his neurotic concern with “manliness” and his attitude towards his daughter opens up a further space for a criticism of his values.

  9. Weinstock and Ramadan make the same point in relation to the symbolic structure of masculine and feminine patterns inscribed at the level of folktales and proverbs in the novel, suggesting that Christianity represents an apotheosis of the feminine values.

  10. Other critics interpret the ambivalence in the novel's description of the colonial encounter as a function of the improper “targetting” of readership. The novel is then unfavorably contrasted with the more politically aggressive novels of Armah and Ngugi. For a careful statement of this position see Tayoba Tata Ngene's “Gesture in Modern African Narrative.”

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. “The Novelist as Teacher.” Morning Yet on Creation Day. London: Heinemann, 1975. 42–45.

Amuta, Chidi. The Theory of African Literature: Implications for Practical Criticism. London: Zed, 1989.

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures. London: Routledge, 1989.

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Clayton G. MacKenzie (essay date Summer 1996)

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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 traces the shift in belief of the African people in Things Fall Apart and asserts that the shift results from changing social and economic conditions.]

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.


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. …’


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.’


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. …


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 Oracle (9). 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. …’


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 cat “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.’


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.


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 matchet” (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. …’


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. …’


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.


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.


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, co-existence 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).


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).

Works Cited

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.

Susan VanZanten Gallagher (essay date 12 March 1997)

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SOURCE: “Linguistic Power: Encounter with Chinua Achebe,” in Christian Century, Vol. 114, No. 9, March 12, 1997, pp. 260–61.

[In the following essay, Gallagher discusses Achebe's decision to write Things Fall Apart in English.]

While studying English literature at the University of Ibadan, Chinua Achebe was appalled by the “superficial picture” of Nigeria that he found in many novels and resolved to write something that viewed his country “from the inside.” The stunning result was Things Fall Apart, a novel that demonstrates the linguistic and social sophistication of precolonial African societies.

First published in 1958, the book's account of the gradual destruction of a traditional Igbo village brings to mind Yeats's lines, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” Employing such anomalous traditions as African proverbs and Greek dramatic structure, Achebe lyrically portrays the destruction wrought by the complex intermingling of Westernization, colonization, Christianization, indigenous beliefs and tribalism.

Over 3 million copies of Things Fall Apart have been sold, and it is frequently studied in university, college and high school literature courses. Achebe, who has written four other novels, numerous short stories and two influential books of criticism, is commonly acclaimed as “the father of African literature.”

The 65-year old Achebe lives and teaches in New York; like so many African intellectuals, he is an exile because of the political unrest in his homeland. Five years ago, when he was in Nigeria to celebrate his birthday, Achebe barely survived an automobile accident on one of West Africa's notoriously dangerous roads. The accident left him a paraplegic, and he now negotiates life in a wheelchair. At a recent literary conference held at West Chester University, just outside Philadelphia, Achebe spoke to a crowd of several hundred, who listened intently to the frail gentleman dashingly clad in a black and white dashiki, a brilliant red beret and stylish leather bicycle gloves.

Achebe's books both celebrate the richness of traditional Igbo culture and acknowledge its limitations; they both criticize the excesses and abuses of Westernization and acknowledge its positive contributions.

A similar alternation between tolerance and criticism emerged in his talk. His topic was language. In response to the now infamous declaration of Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o that African writers should write in African languages, Achebe commented: “The British did not push language into my face while I was growing up.” He chose to learn English and eventually to write in English as a means of “infiltrating the ranks of the enemy and destroying him from within.”

Since one of Achebe's intentions in writing Things Fall Apart was to demonstrate to European readers and writers their own incomplete and distorted view of African culture, he needed to write in English. English also enabled him to address a Nigerian audience, Achebe said, for he needed to use a lingua franca, not a tribal language such as Igbo. (Other prominent Nigerian tongues include Yoruba—Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka's mother tongue—and Hausa.)

“It doesn't matter what language you write in, as long as what you write is good,” Achebe stated. No pseudo-essentialism or romantic nativism for him. Yet Achebe fully recognizes that English is symbolically and politically connected with the despoiler of traditional culture and with intolerance and bigotry. “Language is a weapon, and we use it,” he argued. “There's no point in fighting a language.”

A lengthy question-and-answer period included the customary inquiries about what Achebe was currently working on (it's a secret; he doesn't even tell his wife), about the Nigerian political situation (terrible, the worst it's been in years), and about his views of language. Achebe graciously replied to every question in a way that honored the questioner without repeating the obvious. He transformed even foolish questions into occasions for learning.

When someone asked if Things Fall Apart had ever been translated into Igbo, Achebe's mother tongue, he shook his head and explained that Igbo exists in numerous dialects, differing from village to village. Formal, standardized, written Igbo—like many other African languages—came into being as a result of the Christian missionaries' desire to translate the Bible into indigenous tongues. Unfortunately, when the Christian Missionary Society tackled Igbo, they employed a curiously democratic process: they brought together six Igbo converts, each from a different location, each speaking a different dialect. Working their way through a particular biblical book or passage, each in turn would provide a translation.

As one might expect, the resulting compilation bore no resemblance to any one of the six dialects. Yet this “Union Igbo,” as it was called, authorized by repeated editions of the Bible, became the official written form of the language, a strange hodge-podge with no linguistic elegance, natural rhythm or oral authenticity.

Achebe grew up in a Christian family. His grandfather was one of the first converts in Nigeria, and his father worked as an evangelist, teacher and catechist for the Church Missionary Society. “My father loved Union Igbo,” Achebe recalled. “He considered it a work of the Holy Spirit.” But as a vehicle for literature, the novelist continued, the hybrid form was “a nonstarter.” “There is not one great book written in that dialect to this day,” he concluded. All of Achebe's writing testifies to his ability to work with the poetic and rhetorical resources of language, so it is not surprising that he would not consent to have Things Fall Apart appear in a linguistic travesty.

Consequently, one of the world's great novels, which has been translated into more than 30 languages, is unable to appear in the language of the very culture that it celebrates and mourns. This irony seems an apt symbol for the complex ways Western Christianity has both blessed and marred the cultures of Africa.

David Hoegberg (essay date Winter 1999)

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SOURCE: “Principle and Practice: The Logic of Cultural Violence in Achebe's Things Fall Apart,” in College Literature, Vol. 26, No. 1, Winter, 1999, pp. 69–79.

[In the following essay, Hoegberg considers the disparity between principle and practice among the characters in Things Fall Apart and how this disparity eventually leads to alienation and violence.]

The phrase “cultural violence” need not refer only to violence between people of different cultures. It can also refer to violence that is encouraged by the beliefs and traditions of a given culture and practiced upon its own members. “Cultural violence” used in this sense would include ritual sacrifices, punishments for crimes, and other kinds of communally sanctioned violence. Often, the communal sanction given to acts of violence springs from unexamined assumptions and contradictions within the culture and shared by a majority of its members. This insight, I will argue, is a major theme of Chinua Achebe's 1958 novel, Things Fall Apart, one of the most influential fictional statements on violence in a colonial setting. Although Achebe powerfully criticizes the violence of British colonial practices, the British do not enter the picture until after Achebe has explored the internal workings of Igbo culture. The main character, Okonkwo, is frequently violent, but Achebe's statements about the relations of culture to violence are better seen in the actions and beliefs of the group as a whole. Since the majority of Igbo in the novel tend to be less violent than Okonkwo, those forms of violence they do condone and enact are especially revealing of the widespread cultural forces that foster violence. I will argue that two of these cultural forces are particularly important to Achebe. One is the community's tendency to forget, selectively and temporarily, certain defining principles of its culture, so that contradictions arise between specific practices and general beliefs. The other is what Simon Gikandi has called “the Achilles heel in the Igbo epistemology,” that is, “its blindness [to], or refusal to contemplate, its own ethnocentrism” (1991, 38). Even violence internal to the culture is often conceptualized in terms of ethnocentric distinctions between insiders and outsiders, borders and borders crossings.

In one scene early in the novel, Achebe shows the Igbos' capacity for self-consciousness regarding violence within their culture when he reveals that some violent traditions have been changed. After Okonkwo pays his fine for breaking the Week of Peace, one of the oldest men in the village reflects on the way things used to be done. Ezeudu says, “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” (1959, 33). This brief passage leads us to several important issues at stake in the novel. We are told that the custom of killing offenders changed not because of a gradual and unconscious evolution, not because of personal favoritism toward an offender, but because the practice violated a principle the people wanted to uphold: “because it spoiled the peace which it was meant to preserve.” This tells us that the change was conscious and was based on an analysis of the congruence between principle and practice. Since the very existence of the Week of Peace expresses the principle that violence is an affront to the earth, the punishment for violations needs to express the same general principle or there is contradiction. In this case, violence resulted from an unexamined contradiction that was later revealed and rooted out. At a certain point, it occurred to enough people that it made no sense to enforce a rule of non-violence with violence. What are the conditions of possibility for such a cultural change? First, a majority of people must have the freedom and the desire to analyze their traditions for moral and logical consistency. Second, they must see the general principles involved as more valuable than specific rituals or traditions. A culture that already has some violent traditions will tend to keep them as long as its highest priority is the preservation of tradition for its own sake. Finally, people must believe that changing inconsistent traditions makes them stronger as a people, that cultural change is not the same as cultural decay. In the case of the Week of Peace punishment, the change in the tradition is really toward a more perfect expression of the principle behind the tradition.

This example shows that in the not-too-distant past the conditions for questioning and constructive change of violent traditions were present in Igbo society. We might even say that there was a tradition of analyzing and adjusting certain traditions within the culture. If the Igbo, as depicted in the novel, fail to make changes in other areas where there are contradictions between principle and practice, then, it cannot be because such change is impossible. Through this brief example, Achebe establishes that violence is not an inherent feature of Igbo society or a necessary consequence of its religious beliefs. If change is always possible, then we must look at other cases of violence in the novel in terms of what forces inhibit or encourage analysis and change.

One of the most important examples of culturally sanctioned violence is the killing of Ikemefuna. Most critics agree that it is a mistake for Okonkwo to participate in this killing because of his special relationship to Ikemefuna (Taylor 1983, 20–21), but many fail to ask why the oracle and elders sanction this violence in the first place (Udumukwu 1991, 333; Obiechina 1991, 35). Some critics attempt to justify the killing as part of accepted practice among the Igbo (Rhoads 1993, 68; Cobham 1991, 95), and argue that condemnations of the killing inappropriately apply Western standards of humanism (Opata 1987, 75–76; Hawkins 1991, 83). Few seem to have noticed that the novel itself teaches us how to critique this incident on the basis of principle. The crime for which the people of Mbaino are punished is the killing of a woman from Umuofia. If there is a general principle operating here and not simply a policy of selfish revenge, it would be that villagers should not kill aliens or visitors in their midst. For Umuofia to punish this crime by taking a boy from Mbaino into their midst and killing him is to violate the very principle they would appear to be enforcing, thereby spoiling the peace they meant to preserve (Wright 1990, 79; Innes 1990, 29).

This objection to Ikemefuna's killing would apply no matter what person from Mbaino was taken as a hostage. When we learn that the hostage is the son of one of the murderers, a second principle comes into play. In one of his “ethnographic” generalizations about the Igbo culture (Gikandi 1991, 46), the narrator explains Okonkwo's rise to prominence by saying: “Fortunately, among these people a man was judged according to his worth and not according to the worth of his father” (Achebe 1959, 11). The ethnographic mode here claims to describe a general principle held by all the people, a central tenet or defining feature of their culture. This tenet seems related to the ability to question and change traditions mentioned above, for it asserts that the members of each generation are entitled to a fresh evaluation of their own merits. Neither worth nor worthlessness should be passed on automatically from father to son; rather, the process of “passing on” is to be interrupted by analysis, just as in the case of the Week of Peace punishment the passing on of a violent custom was interrupted by an analysis of its merits and drawbacks. Okonkwo personally benefits from the fact that this principle is widespread among his people, for it allows him to start with a “clean slate” without being held back by his father's failures. The narrator goes on to connect the principle explicitly with Okonkwo's relation to Ikemefuna. “Age was respected among his people, but achievement was revered. As the elders said, if a child washed his hands he could eat with kings. Okonkwo had clearly washed his hands and so he ate with kings and elders. And that was how he came to look after the doomed lad who was sacrificed to the village of Umuofia by their neighbors to avoid war and bloodshed” (1959, 12; italics added). Because Okonkwo is not judged according to his father's worth, he becomes so respected in the clan that he is chosen to carry the threat of war to Mbaino and then chosen to keep Ikemefuna in his household. A great irony begins to emerge, however, when we read in the next chapter that Ikemefuna is selected as a hostage precisely because “his father had taken a hand in killing a daughter of Umuofia” (1959, 18). The boy himself is innocent of any wrongdoing but he is not selected at random from the young men of the village. He is judged according to the worth of his father, in direct contradiction of the principle in which we are told “these people” believe. Their attempt to bring about justice seems, according to their own most basic beliefs, to have created a new injustice. The original intent may have been to punish Ikemefuna's father by taking his precious son away from him, but the separation clearly punishes the son as well. At first Ikemefuna is afraid and tries to run away, then he refuses to eat and is ill for three weeks (1959, 29–30). Ikemefuna must feel like a slave or captive at this point, yet he is not guilty except insofar as he is tainted by his father's guilt. Is there any way to explain this contradiction in Igbo practice between the principle that worth is not tied to the father and the treatment of Ikemefuna? Is it intention or unwitting irony that the son who is being punished for his father's crime is placed under the care of a man who is conspicuous for not being judged by his father?

Answers to these questions are complicated by the fact that the elders of the clan seem to forget about Ikemefuna altogether for three years. During this time, Ikemefuna overcomes his sadness and fear and begins to enjoy life in Okonkwo's family. His natural liveliness makes him popular with Okonkwo's other children, especially Nwoye (Achebe 1959, 30). Okonkwo himself grows so fond of Ikemefuna that he allows him special privileges, such as carrying his stool to village meetings, and in return Ikemefuna expresses his affection by calling Okonkwo “father” (1959, 30). For three years, then, the story of Ikemefuna is a study in human adaptability. As a stranger in a village where he has no blood ties and where customs, songs, and stories are slightly different (1959, 36), Ikemefuna is able to adjust to the new conditions quite successfully. Likewise, Okonkwo and the other villagers adjust to his alien presence, giving no outward indication (until the oracle's decision) of latent animosity towards Ikemefuna for his father's crime. In transferring his affections and obedience to a new “father,” Ikemefuna is like the religious converts later in the novel who take on a new god. His conversion may be forced, but is no less genuine for that.

The success of Ikemefuna's integration into the community makes his execution all the more puzzling. What exactly is the oracle's motive? Ikemefuna's father's punishment cannot be increased by the killing since his son is equally lost to him whether dead or alive, so it does not further the cause of peace by deterring violence. If Ikemefuna had acted like a misfit in Umuofia, the decision could be seen as an admission that the attempt to incorporate him into the clan had failed, but Achebe does not allow this interpretation, either. There is no event or disaster preceding the decision to suggest that the Umuofians feared they were being punished by the gods for delaying the sacrifice. And after three years, emotions are cooled so that even revenge is not a likely motive. Indeed, Achebe's point seems to be that there is no clear and conscious motivation for the killing. Here is a case that cries out for the sort of analysis that led to the change in punishments for the Week of Peace, yet no one seems to notice that the killing violates two basic principles of Igbo culture: the prohibition against killing strangers, and the belief that sons should not be judged by their fathers' worth. These unexamined contradictions give birth to the culturally sanctioned violence against Ikemefuna. Achebe provides readers with enough evidence to critique the killing according to the internal standards of the community itself.

If the conditions for change are present in Igbo tradition, why are they not active in Ikemefuna's case? I would suggest that the very success of Ikemefuna's conversion or assimilation is a key factor in the meaning of this incident. Over the course of three years, Ikemefuna's status in Umuofia becomes more and more ambiguous. Is he an alien or a son of Okonkwo, a sacrificial victim awaiting execution or just another boy of the village? By the time he is killed, Ikemefuna has become a symbol of blurred boundaries between self and other. The oracle's decision suggests that the community is willing to tolerate such ambiguous status only up to a point and only for so long. Once the limit of tolerance is reached, the matter is settled by identifying Ikemefuna once and for all as an alien, a hostage, rather than an adopted son. Whatever its conscious motivation, the killing of Ikemefuna is in effect a denunciation of the adaptation process, a reminder that in the oracle's and the elders' minds, Ikemefuna can never be accepted no matter how well-liked or well-assimilated he may be. When Ezeudu says to Okonkwo, “That boy calls you father” (Achebe 1959, 55; italics added), his phrase highlights both the extent of Ikemefuna's conversion and its futility in the “official” view of the elders. Pretending that Okonkwo is his father has become second nature to the boy, Ezeudu seems to say, but this is finally only pretense and it can go on no longer. When seen as a story about adaptation and rejection, the story of Ikemefuna is thematically parallel to the later parts of the novel involving the alien presence of Christians and British officers. The oracle declares that the alien boy should not be assimilated and must be attacked, taking the same sort of hard-line stance Okonkwo later takes regarding the alien presence of the whites and their religion.

The full irony of the oracle's attempt to enforce a communal boundary appears only when we look at its consequences. As is well known, Ikemefuna's killing is so emotionally devastating to Nwoye that he becomes alienated from both his father and his culture (Innes 1990, 29). When this happens he is a prime candidate for conversion to Christianity, whose preaching, says the narrator, “seemed to answer a vague and persistent question that haunted his young soul—the question of the twins crying in the bush and the question of Ikemefuna who was killed” (Achebe 1959, 137). By showing the causes of Nwoye's interest in Christianity, Achebe shows that the attempt to strengthen boundaries between “us” and “others” actually weakens those very boundaries. The attempt to squelch Ikemefuna's conversion hastens Nwoye's conversion.

Another case of inherited guilt accompanied by a fear of permeable boundaries can be seen in the community's treatment of its osu, or outcasts. The narrator tells us that an osu is “a person dedicated to a god, a thing set apart—a taboo for ever, and his children after him” (Achebe 1959, 146). That osu is an hereditary category means that, like the punishment of Ikemefuna, its existence violates the general principle that sons should not be judged according to the worth of their fathers. Furthermore, although osu are natives of the village, every effort is made to treat them as permanent strangers or outsiders. The osu “could neither marry nor be married by the freeborn. He was in fact an outcast, living in a special area of the village, close to the Great Shrine. Wherever he went he carried with him the mark of his forbidden caste—long, tangled and dirty hair” (1959, 146). These rules about marriage, residence, and appearance mean that osu can never be fully assimilated, either biologically or socially, into village life; clear boundaries are set up indicating the communal fear of ambiguous status. Although Ikemefuna is not placed in the category of osu when he arrives, these details shed light on his case, for he is killed at the very moment when he threatens to lose the marks of his otherness, something the osu are required by law to preserve. “He had become wholly absorbed into his new family,” says the narrator at the beginning of chapter seven, “he was like an elder brother to Nwoye” (1959, 51). Since it is later in the same chapter that the intent to kill Ikemefuna is announced, we are invited to conclude that his successful merging with the community may be precisely what sparks the oracle's decision.

In the context of a discussion of cultural boundaries and their permeability, the fact that Ikemefuna's story is also a version of the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac becomes very interesting. Many critics have noticed this allusion but few have discussed its significance as a cross-cultural literary gesture (Cobham 1991, 95; Bascom 1988, 71). The Biblical parallel, the novel's title, and other Western allusions in the novel show that it was part of Achebe's plan to create an intertextual work, one that would to some extent blur the boundary between African and Western literature. The allusion to Abraham and Isaac occurs at the very moment when Achebe's characters are trying to reassert a cultural boundary. The act of rejecting the assimilated alien, Ikemefuna, takes literary form as a textual assimilation of an alien (non-Igbo) religious text. The parallel helps to clarify Achebe's own position when we see that he is doing in the very act of telling the story what the characters in the story fail to do socially, that is, accepting the alien as something that can add strength and value (Ikemefuna's name means “let my strength not become lost”). Just as important, however, is the fact that the Biblical text is changed as it is digested. The god asks Okonkwo to relinquish not his own son but an adopted son from another village. This difference complicates the meaning of obedience in the story, for in this context to obey is both a gift to the god and a continuation of a conflict between rival villages; in other words, both an act of love and an act of hate. Furthermore, the violation of cultural principles involved calls the oracle's judgment into question in a way that does not apply to the Biblical text. In what sense can the oracle be said to “speak for” the group or to carry absolute authority when its words are in direct opposition to other revered elements in the culture? For Achebe, blind obedience to the god, whether by Okonkwo or the other elders, is not necessarily the wisest course, as it is for Abraham. Remember that Obierika, the “man who thought about things” (Achebe 1959, 117), is the one elder who stays away from the killing even though he has no fatherly tie to the boy (1959, 64). The two stories side by side show the different ways in which divine authority can be textualized as either absolute or limited depending on how a narrative is structured. The biblical text presents God's judgment as unquestionably right and Abraham's faith as laudable, whereas in Achebe's story such faith is neither demanded nor particularly useful (see Jeyifo 1990, 57–61). Achebe's use of an alien text, then, provides an implicit criticism of the Igbo rejection of the alien without holding the Western example up as better; in short, it is Achebe's act of inclusion with critical scrutiny, not Abraham's act of obedience, that is most important here.

Further illumination of the logic of cultural violence is provided by the Igbo traditions regarding the ogbanje, children who torment their parents by dying and returning only to die again. In the Igbo belief system, ogbanje (the word means “repeater” [Uchendu 1965, 102]) such as Okonkwo's daughter, Ezinma, are seen as travelers between the spirit world and the world of the living. Ekwefi's series of dead children is described as the “evil rounds of birth and death” (Achebe 1959, 76) of a single soul or identity. When Ezinma reaches the age of six, her parents believe that “perhaps she had decided to stay” (1959, 76), yet her recurring bouts of illness raise the fear that she will depart again. Since the ogbanje is imagined as a traveler, it is subject to the same cultural anxieties about border crossing that we have seen in the other examples and, as in the other examples, these anxieties are expressed through ritual interventions. In the case of ogbanje, however, there are two possible ritual responses, each performed by a medicine man and each relying upon different principles and methods. The first attempts to use violence to intimidate the ogbanje spirit into stopping its cycle of reincarnations. This is the method Okonkwo and Ekwefi try after the death of their third child, Onwumbiko. The medicine man mutilates the body of the child with a razor and drags it away to the Evil Forest. “After such treatment it would think twice before coming again, unless it was one of the stubborn ones who returned, carrying the stamp of their mutilation—a missing finger or perhaps a dark line where the medicine man's razor had cut them” (1959, 75). The principle or theory underlying this approach is that violence is a strong deterrent to future harm. The ogbanje is classified as an enemy and physically attacked. Notice, however, that the cultural sanction for this violence also comes with a disclaimer. Mutilation ought to scare the ogbanje away for good unless it is “one of the stubborn ones” who respond to violence not by staying away but by strengthening their resolve. As Achebe describes it, in other words, the belief system that condones the violent approach includes an awareness that violence may not produce the desired result and may even backfire.

Okonkwo and Ekwefi engage the second ritual option, the search for the buried iyi-uwa, after Ezinma has almost died from a serious illness at the age of nine. More elaborate than the mutilation ritual, this option receives a lengthy description from Achebe indicating its importance to the overall design of the novel. A medicine man asks Ezinma where she buried her iyi-uwa and encourages her to lead him to the exact spot. All of the family and some of the neighbors participate as spectators of the search, quietly and cheerfully following Ezinma as she takes them on a long journey into the bush and back home to Okonkwo's compound (Achebe 1959, 77–79). The journeying of the ritual recapitulates the ogbanje's habitual wandering while reducing its power to hurt because the family and neighbors—the very people who would be most grieved if Ezinma were to die—actually go along on the journey. The ritual thus produces travel without departure. It also casts Ezinma in the role of leader of the group, making her own decisions about direction and destination despite the presence of her elders. As Achebe says, her “feeling of importance was manifest in her sprightly walk” as she playfully runs, stops, doubles back, while “the crowd followed her silently” (1959, 78). Cultivating this “feeling of importance” may in fact be the main function of the ritual, for Ezinma's “sprightly walk” is the sign of a link between a person's physical symptoms and how s/he feels about her/his relationship to (or position in) the community. If the Igbo believe in such a link (even if none “actually” exists), it would explain how a ritual like this is supposed to work to stop the ogbanje's cycle of illness and death. Making a child feel important, welcome, and valued, (the theory goes) would produce a sprightliness, a vigor, and therefore a tendency toward healthiness. Conversely, a child treated with suspicion and fear that s/he might be an ogbanje or, worse, one of the “really evil children,” would tend to feel unwelcome and depressed. The medicine man's demeanor also serves the ritual's goal of cultivating social bonds. Throughout the scene his voice is described as “cool,” “confident,” and “quiet” (1959, 77, 79). When Okonkwo fumes at Ezinma with threats such as “if you bring us all this way for nothing I shall beat sense into you” (1959, 78), Okagbue, the medicine man, restores calm: “I have told you to let her alone. I know how to deal with them” (1959, 78). Okonkwo's repeated outbursts threaten to turn this ritual into a version of the mutilation ritual, but Okagbue holds his ground and will allow no intimidation or violence. Characteristically, Okonkwo does not see that the spirit and method here are entirely different and fails to understand the power of gentleness.

The two main rituals that constitute the Igbo response to ogbanje—the mutilation of the dead child and the search for the iyi-uwa—offer violent and non-violent approaches to the same problem. Both rituals are designed to settle the ogbanje child's ambiguous status by resolving its continual crossing of boundaries between worlds into either permanent absence or permanent residence. Suspicion and fear of the traveler motivate the violent approach and intimidation is its method. The non-violent approach, by contrast, uses kindness to disarm the child's power to torment and requires tolerance and flexibility from the group. In my reading of the iyi-uwa scene, it is not the finding of the buried object that matters most but the relationship between child and community that is set up in and through the journey. The large number of “spectators” who participate and the medicine man's gentle manner help to stress the ritual's function of communal inclusion. The ritual is designed not to scare the child away but to break its “bond with the world of ogbanje” (Achebe 1959, 77) by forging new and unbreakable ties to the world of the village, especially the extended family and neighbors. Notice, however, that Achebe does not suggest that the non-violent method is any more or less effective at controlling disease than the violent one, for both methods sometimes fail (1959, 75, 77) and Ezinma gets sick even after her iyi-uwa is found. The main point for my purposes lies in the cultural beliefs about principle and method expressed in the two different practices. That the Igbo have no one consistent approach towards the ogbanje is a measure of the complexity and variety its traditions can accommodate. The very existence of the second option demonstrates that the community constructs and endorses alternatives to violence and, more specifically, non-violent ways of dealing with those perceived as strangers or dangers in their midst.

Suspicion of hybrid cases and border crossings, of course, extends to the British as well. One of the clearest examples of this is Mr. Smith, the missionary. Unlike Mr. Brown, whose “policy of compromise and accommodation” (Achebe 1959, 169) had brought many converts into the Christian churches and schools, Mr. Smith “saw things as black and white” (1959, 169). He is intolerant of converts who lack a complete understanding of Christian doctrine or who retain some of their Igbo religious beliefs along with the Christian. Achebe demonstrates Smith's intolerance by describing one of his earliest acts among the Igbo:

Within a few weeks of his arrival in Umuofia Mr. Smith suspended a young woman from the church for pouring new wine into old bottles. This woman had allowed her husband to mutilate her dead child. … Four times this child had run its evil round. And so it was mutilated to discourage it from returning.

Mr. Smith was filled with wrath when he heard of this. He disbelieved the story which even some of the most faithful confirmed, the story of really evil children who were not deterred by mutilation, but came back with all the scars.

(Achebe 1959, 169–70)

The woman's husband uses intimidation to try to banish the spirit of the ogbanje from their household. Mr. Smith's response is to be “filled with wrath” and to suspend the woman from the household of the church. As a convert, the woman is a border-crosser like the ogbanje and her tolerance of the mutilation ritual tells Smith that she has not left the Igbo world completely. The metaphor of new wine in old bottles shows how suspicious Smith is of people who live in two worlds at once. Apparently, however, the irony of his response is completely lost on Mr. Smith himself. He does not see that he is acting on the same principle as the woman's husband—that intimidation deters future injury—and that he is therefore in essence performing a version of the ritual he claims to disapprove. Why is Smith so blind to the implications of his own actions? I would argue that it is because he has not learned to analyze human behavior in terms of the principles it expresses. Smith objects to the use of the mutilation ritual not because he rejects intimidation as a tactic (which he clearly does not) but because it is an Igbo practice and not a Christian one. He is thinking in terms of loyalty or disloyalty to specific cultures and not in terms of underlying principles, and this leads him to fall into the trap of self-contradictory action. Interestingly, some of the “most faithful” of his own congregation try to warn him of this. When these faithful Christians tell him “the story of really evil children who were not deterred by mutilation, but came back with all the scars,” he simply disbelieves it without hearing the implied warning it carries. The point of the story is that those who use intimidation may see their actions backfire, and this applies as much to Smith's “wrath” as it does to the woman's husband. Smith does not have to believe in the literal existence of ogbanje to get this message from the story, but he does have to be willing to submit himself and his culture to scrutiny.

Achebe encourages in his readers the sort of analysis that leads to positive cultural change by pinpointing contradictions between principle and practice that alienate members of a community and lead to violence. Using traditions of violence as examples, he also makes the more general point that the moral principles expressed in cultural practices are more important than the specific practices themselves. The stories of Ikemefuna, Nwoye, and Ezinma, along with several smaller episodes, are thematically linked by notions of conversion, assimilation, and the crossing of boundaries. In a subtle but persistent way, Achebe shows that victims of violence and oppression are often conceptualized as hybrids or ambiguous cases, suggesting that one of the main underlying motives for violence among the Igbo is fear of the instability believed to result from the blurring of familiar categories. The irony is that this fear of instability is itself a source of instability.

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. 1959. Things Fall Apart. New York: Fawcett Crest.

Bascom, Tim. 1988. “The Black African and the ‘White Man's God’ in Things Fall Apart: Cultural Repression or Liberation?” Commonwealth Essays and Studies 11:1: 70–76.

Cobham, Rhonda. 1991. “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.

Gikandi, Simon. 1991. Reading Chinua Achebe: Language and Ideology in Fiction. Portsmouth: Heinemann.

Hawkins, Hunt. 1991. “Things Fall Apart and the Literature of Empire.” In Approaches to Teaching “Things Fall Apart,” ed. Bernth Lindfors. New York: Modern Language Association.

Innes, C. L. 1990. Chinua Achebe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Iyasere, Solomon O. 1992. “Okonkwo's Participation in the Killing of His ‘Son’ in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart: A Study of Ignoble Decisiveness.” College Language Association Journal 35:3: 303–15.

Jeyifo, Biodun. 1990. “For Chinua Achebe: The Resilience and the Predicament of Obierika.” In Chinua Achebe: A Celebration, ed. Kirsten Holst Petersen and Anna Rutherford. Portsmouth: Heinemann.

Obiechina, Emmanuel. 1991. “Following the Author in Things Fall Apart.” In Approaches to Teaching “Things Fall Apart,” ed. Bernth Lindfors. New York: Modern Language Association.

Olorounto, Samuel B. 1986. “The Notion of Conflict in Chinua Achebe's Novels.” Obsidian II 1:3: 17–36.

Opata, Damian. 1987. “Eternal Sacred Order Versus Conventional Wisdom: A Consideration of Moral Culpability in the Killing of Ikemefuna in Things Fall Apart.Research in African Literatures 18:1: 71–79.

———. 1991. “The Structure of Order and Disorder in Things Fall Apart.Neobelicon 18:1: 73–87.

Rhoads, Diana Akers. 1993. “Culture in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart.African Studies Review 36:2: 61–72.

Taylor, Willene P. 1983. “The Search for Values Theme in Chinua Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart: A Crisis of the Soul.” Griot 2:2: 17–26.

Uchendu, Victor C. 1965. The Igbo of Southeast Nigeria. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Udumukwu, Onyemaechi. 1991. “The Antinomy of Anti-colonial Discourse: A Revisionist Marxist Study of Achebe's Things Fall Apart.Neohelicon 18:2: 317–36.

Wright, Derek. 1990. “Things Standing Together: A Retrospect on Things Fall Apart.” In Chinua Achebe: A Celebration, ed. Kirsten Holst Petersen and Anna Rutherford. Portsmouth: Heinemann.

Kwadwo Osei-Nyame (essay date Summer 1999)

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SOURCE: “Chinua Achebe Writing Culture: Representations of Gender and Tradition in Things Fall Apart,” in Research in African Literatures, Vol. 30, No. 2, Summer, 1999, pp. 148–64.

[In the following essay, Osei-Nyame analyzes the complexity of the relationships and the varying forms of consciousness within the Igbo community as portrayed by Achebe in Things Fall Apart.]

Wherever something stands, there something else will stand.

—Igbo saying

While Achebe's early novels have been popularly received for their representation of an early African nationalist tradition that repudiates imperialist and colonialist ideology, his counter-narratives have only been narrowly discussed for their theoretical speculation on cultural and ideological production as a mode of resistance within the nationalist tradition that the texts so evidently celebrate. My epigraph not only recognizes that the definition of “tradition” in Achebe's work hinges upon ideological conflict, it comments also on the varying forms of consciousness that arise within discourses of self-definition within Igbo traditional culture. Moreover, it communicates the idea of complex rather than simple relationships between individuals and groups in the world of Achebe's “fictional” Igbo communities.

This essay intends an appropriation of Bakhtin's notion of “heteroglossia” and dialogism in its exploration of some concerns relevant to the question of the representation of ideology in Things Fall Apart. Bakhtin's notion of dialogism views narrative discourses as forms of social exchange that locate “the very basis” of individual and social “behaviour” within conflicting worldviews and “determine the very bases” of “ideological interrelations” in a manner similar to that found in Achebe's narrative. Novelistic discourse thus performs “no longer as [mere] information, directions, rules, models,” but enables us to locate dialogue in its more immediate ideological and political context (342). Hayden White implies something of this immediacy of context when he suggests distinguishing between “a discourse that openly adopts a perspective that looks out on the world and reports it” and one that “make[s] the world speak itself and speak itself as a story” (2).

Writing stories that speak for themselves is central to Achebe's novelistic agenda. In a famous early essay, he wrote: “I would be quite satisfied if my novels … did no more than teach my readers that their past … was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God's behalf delivered them” (Morning Yet 45). Representing an African worldview through narratives that speak for themselves meant that Achebe would draw upon Igbo oral traditions to narrate the stories of his communities, while bearing in mind Richard Bauman's exhortations that in utilizing oral traditions to engage the “canons of elite” Western literary “traditions and texts,” oral narrative must not be taken merely to be “the reflection of culture” or “the cognitive arena for sorting out the logic of cultural codes” in historical writing: instead, oral narratives must be utilized “contextually and ethnographically, in order to discover the individual, social and cultural factors that give it shape and meaning” (2). Challenging and displacing the narratives of colonialist writers like Joyce Cary and Joseph Conrad meant for Achebe the appropriation of ethnographic modes of representation to prove that the communities of his African past were neither “primitive” nor “without history” (Clifford 10). James Clifford, borrowing from Bakhtin, argues that since culture is not “a unified corpus of symbols and meanings that can be definitively interpreted,” ethnographic representation must incorporate a narratological dialogism that reveals culture's “contested, temporal, and emergent” nature (19). As George Marcus also contends, this dialogical approach to ethnographic representation must be borne in mind by both “outsiders” like Conrad and Cary writing about the Other and “insiders” like Achebe writing about themselves and their own cultures.1 Henrietta Moore, among anthropologists welcoming the new dialogical ethnography of Clifford and others, agrees with them on the use of “new forms of writing such as those predicated on dialogue, intertextuality and heteroglossia to unmask and displace the unitary authority” of the “author” (107).

Things Fall Apart's famous ending describes the District Commissioner's yearning to write the story of his colonized natives as a challenging ethnographic project in a moment of the colonial encounter in Africa. Having just witnessed the death of Okonkwo, one of the greatest men of Umuofia, the Commissioner fabricates an imperialist narrative and his colonial imagination prefigures the narration of the “interesting” (149) story

[o]f this man who had killed a messenger and hanged himself … 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.


His story is contemplated as an extension of the civilizational enterprise of pacifying his “primitive” African “tribes” (150). However, the passion the Commissioner will devote to his account is merely a seductive desire for storytelling and a “function of [his own] desires, purposes, and constraints” (Chambers 4). His narrative is already displaced as his “interesting” story has already been anticipated by the skepticism of Achebe's “insider” narrative. For Achebe has already written back to contest the “reasonable” paragraphing of history by writers like Cary and Johnson, “outsiders” who devoted their accounts to similar ambitious projects as the Commissioner's. The Commissioner's potentially seductive story about one of the most tragic events in his administration is an almost impossible future project. His highly controversial and abrupt “reasonable paragraph” has already found adequate representation and space in the entire exchanges among Umuofians and between Umuofia and the Christian missionaries and the colonial government in Achebe's narrative.

As Chambers suggests further, since there is a direct “relationship between storytelling and the art of government,” we must contextualize “storytelling as an event that presupposes a situation and mobilizes social relationships so as to give it a performative force” (4–5; emphasis added). Achebe, following Fanon, locates Igbo societies in the liminal space of history in which they grapple with the imperialist endeavors of colonial power by telling Bernth Lindfors in an interview that it is in “that ‘zone of occult instability’ where the people dwell” that their regenerative powers “are most potent” (“Achebe on Commitment” 16). The complicated occult zone of African and colonialist history and the representation of the ideologically “real” and “fictional” dimensions of that zone is encapsulated in the Commissioner's effort both to represent “reality” and to “censor” it.

This near appropriation of a totalizing narrative of culture finds another form of expression in the tradition and politics of Things Fall Apart. The story re-enacts phases of the precolonial and colonial traditional order of African history by featuring the beginnings of some significant moments of nationalist ideological crises in the communities of Umuofia and Mbanta. Masculine traditions operate as forms of consciousness that act foremostly to legitimize specific ideals and values and to distribute and restrict authority within Umuofia, one of the most powerful of Igbo communities. Umuofia is not only “feared by all its neighbours,” but is also “powerful in war and magic” (8). Achebe relates the reasons behind individual and communal crises in a society in which war heroes, titled and wealthy subjects, and other celebrated figures are dominantly male.

Umuofia is already weakened by internal cleavages and it is only when the processes of cultural breakdown intensify with the arrival of the white colonizers that Obierika, one of the greatest men in the society, affirms how the “clan can no longer act like one” and has “fallen apart” (127). The story of Okonkwo and Umuofia at the threshold of historical transition may be read in the first instance as the narration of an epic African masculine nationalist tradition.2 Achebe's text links and identifies power and authority with masculinity. Umuofia's masculine traditions are heralded and celebrated and the representation of masculine ideology is progressively played out mainly through the representation of the legendary Okonkwo and his obsessive pursuit of the fulfilment of personal power and recognition within the clan. As a young man, Okonkwo “invents” himself and consolidates his position within the clan by overthrowing Amalinze the Cat. With this feat, “Okonkwo's fame had grown like a bush-fire in the harmattan” (3). Okonkwo's victorious feat in the famous wrestling match that begins the story of Umuofia is also one that “the old men” (3) agreed was one of the most laudable exploits “since the founder of their town engaged a spirit of the wild for seven days and seven nights” (3). The legitimation of male-centered traditions in Umuofia resonates in many ways with Raymond Williams's view that dominant traditions often aspire to “an active and continuous selection and reselection” and “a projected reality, with which we have to come to terms on its terms, even though those terms are always and must be the valuations, the selections and omissions” of “men” (16).

From a very early age, Okonkwo is obsessed with championing his masculinity

[I]est he should be found to resemble his father. Even as a little boy he had resented his father's failure and weakness, and even now he still remembered how he had suffered when a playmate had told him that his father was an agbala, that was how Okonkwo first came to know that agbala was not only another name for a woman, it could also mean a man who had taken no title. And so Okonkwo was ruled by one passion—to hate everything that his father Unoka had loved. One of those things was gentleness and another was idleness.


Okonkwo's masculinity becomes a defensive resource and his adherence to a masculine philosophy will thenceforth order his world. In articulating his identity and justifying his actions, he cultivates his masculinity as a defense of personal honor in the face of potentially overwhelming circumstances in an antagonistic universe. The obsession with masculinity is an essential shield marked also by the excessive indulgences expressed in Okonkwo's outrageous assertiveness and his intense repudiation of certain subjective values such as “gentleness” and “idleness.” In Okonkwo's world, the ignominious predicament of his father, Unoka, simultaneously torments and propels him towards achieving his highest ambitions in life. Okonkwo is in a way led to define himself and to apprehend his world negatively. By constructing his identity and embedding his actions in a perverse sense in his rebelliousness against everything that his father Unoka represents, Okonkwo apprehends his world pessimistically. To a considerable degree, then, Okonkwo's “cosmos” is self-made and his identity “depends entirely on its creator [himself] for its configuration” (Olney 4).

Umuofia's acknowledgment of Okonkwo's spectacularly masculine feat exists in potential opposition to other events and achievements. However, Umuofia's selective traditions and Okonkwo's masculinist assertions converge to marginalize the women, efulefus,osus,agbalas, and others within the community. Umuofians have a special word for dispositions such as “gentleness” and “idleness”: the Igbo word agbala is not only another name for women, it also refers to weak and lazy men such as Okonkwo's father, Unoka. In inventing its traditions and linking Okonkwo's feats with them, Umuofia's authoritative discourse consciously omits other representable values and ideals and Okonkwo's own exclusion from his worldview of, among other things, “gentleness” and “idleness,” is a position that Umuofia's fabricated traditions sanction.

However, as Derek Wright observes regarding the social order in Umuofia: “Okonkwo's impetuous, aggressive individualism and the belief behind it—that he must wipe out his father's memory by succeeding in everything his father has failed at—are out of harmony with a society which is renowned for its talent for social compromise and which judges a man according to his worth, not that of his father” (78). Further, Wright contends that Okonkwo's “cult of virility, by mistaking the nature of courage and confusing gentleness with weakness, upsets the sexual equilibrium that maintains a delicate balance between male values and female and maternal ones” (78). We can agree with Judith Butler that “limits are always set within the terms of a hegemonic cultural discourse predicated on binary structures” that “distorts what is assumed to be true” about the formation of identity and subjectivity and restricts the “imaginable and realizable gender configurations within culture” (9).

With Williams, too, we can argue that the ideology of culture establishes a “structure of feeling” and the selective tradition of a dominant culture when we trace the modes by which Okonkwo's adherence to certain values and ideals and Umuofia's validation of these values converge to generate the masculine nationalist tradition represented by Things Fall Apart. Simon Gikandi has already made very strong points arguing that “ideology as process and critique, rather than product and dogma, is the key to understanding Achebe's narrative strategies” (12). It is important, however, to add that Achebe's story depicts the organization of the Umuofian community and its control of authority within the specific context of a gendered ideology and politics.3 Umuofia's dominant traditions exist in tension with what Williams describes as “residual” or oppositional traditions (41). Things Fall Apart also exposes the limitations of the system of values that the phallocentric traditions of Umuofia endorse by answering to Chambers's belief that “meaning is not inherent in discourse and its structures, but is contextual, a function of the pragmatic situation in which the discourse occurs” (3). The functioning of language in the narrative also supports Jonathan Culler's observation that “what is involved in narrative is an effect,” that “a hierarchical opposition, in which one term is said to be dependent upon another conceived as prior, is in fact a rhetorical or metaphysical imposition and the hierarchy could well be reversed” (183). Language and proverbs in Achebe's narrative provide significantly adjustable orders of interpretation and underscore the view of Umuofians themselves that “[a]mong the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs [and other forms of language] are the palm-oil with which words are eaten” (5). Achebe examines the ways in which language functions in his community and the means through which individuals articulate resistance, exposing especially the flaws within the social order that allow for an ambivalent approach to tradition and culture.

Differing sets of values expose the limits of representation and authority within Umuofia. The language of representation that orders hierarchy and authority within Umuofia initially engenders, as Barthes would argue, a kind of fixed ideological “index” for the regulation and distribution of authority within the social order. However, as Barthes also contends, “signs” and significations might be invoked in place of the restrictive “index” of language to reorder narrative and to enforce the abolition of the “limit, the origin, the basis” and “the prop” of tradition. Signs, then, provide the means to “enter into the limitless process of equivalences” and “representations that nothing will ever stop, orient, fix,” or “sanction” (S/Z 40).

Umuofia's traditions thus sustain a different order of things and enable diverse modes of self-consciousness and a skeptical relativism that allows individuals to look beyond the rigid hierarchies of a restrictive social order and to redefine their roles and positions within culture. Achebe's essay on chi in Igbo cosmology reveals the flexible order of his society:

Since Igbo people did not construct a rigid and closely argued system of thought to explain the universe … anyone seeking an insight into their world must seek it along their own way.

(Morning Yet 94)

Achebe demonstrates that a selective appeal to “tradition” is wholly feasible within the Igbo worldview. This accommodating spirit of tradition enables individuals to appraise the limitations that are seen to inhere within the traditions of Umuofia, making it possible to identify in Molly Hite's formulation the fact that “in a given society and historical period, changes, emphasis and value can articulate the ‘other side’ of a culturally mandated story, exposing the limits it inscribes in the process of affirming dominant ideology” (4).

How might we pursue further Barthes's distinction between the stable indices and contradictory signs of narrative? In the story of Umuofia, Barthes's identification of the open-endedness of representation is played out at a level of human interaction where the contest between Williams's “dominant” and “residual” traditions is also staged. A fascinating moment in the narrative has Okoye, one of the most important men of the clan, a titled man, “also a musician” but “not a failure like Unoka” and “a great talker” (5), visit his friend, Unoka, to retrieve a debt owed him. After “skirting” around the subject “for a long time” (5), Okoye finally asks Unoka to pay back the money owed him. Unoka's response draws Okoye's attention to the visual illustration of his debts to different people:

‘Each group there represents a debt to someone, and each stroke is one hundred cowries. … I owe that man a thousand cowries. But he has not come to wake me up in the morning for it. I shall pay you, but not today. Our elders say that the sun will shine on those who stand before it shines on those who kneel under it. I shall pay my big debts first.’


Negotiating his survival while trapped by economic necessity, Unoka, compelled into being resourceful, is also at his most articulate. Unoka's response touches on the general issue of survival within the culture. Achebe seems concerned here with raising the question of survival. As he told Feroza Jussawalla in a recent interview, his narratives define the relationship between storytelling, storytellers, and survival: “It is important that the storyteller tells the story the way he sees it, not the way the emperor wants it to be told” (81). Unoka's response is most significant for its manipulation of the wisdom implicit in the language of proverbs as a strategy of survival by deferring the debt he owes. Additionally, he questions the hierarchy of eminence and authority that titled men like Okoye and Okonkwo represent within Umuofia. Richard Priebe remarks in reference to the tradition of Umuofia that “proverbs encompass strategies for individual equity that are antithetical to the closed system of prenatal destiny we find in the story” (51).

Unoka operates within the flexible codes of his culture and its definition of reality to question the interpretive forms that order existence. Unoka's reinterpretation and reconstruction of the “real” and the important circumvents the signifying economy of realism of his culture and he finds a way to “invent” a conceptual universe where the redefinition and reinterpretation of reality enable him to emerge momentarily within its traditions as a figure of authority. As Wahneema Lubiano notes about the social order of Umuofia, character is “not a unified and stable identity” but an ability “to renegotiate the terms of someone else's perception of reality or of oneself” (198). The encounter between Okoye and Unoka reveals complex forms of masculinity not necessarily of the order represented by Obierika, Okonkwo, or other great men, and these forms of masculinity are also asserted. Margaret Turner argues persuasively regarding Unoka's importance within the clan as a whole that “Unoka [the musician] is a failure in material terms, but not if his stature is measured on a scale one might think is Achebe's own—ensuring the survival of the culture by recording the deeds of past greatness and lessons for continued living” (34).

Discussing the use of African literature as a mode of restoring value within his traditional society, Achebe observes that “any presence [within his culture] which is ignored, denigrated, denied acknowledgement” may become a “focus for anxiety and disruption” (“African Literature” 3). Although Umuofia's laws, customs, and the proclamations of its oracles communicate coercive impulses, individuals may also renegotiate themselves around the sacrosanct traditional values represented as incontrovertible and which are meant both to ensure the clan's survival and to consolidate its traditions. The story of Obiako, the palm tapper, illustrates further the power of disruption and resistance. Obiako's interesting story is almost self-explanatory:

‘Obiako has always been a strange one,’ said Nwakibie. ‘I have heard that many years ago when, when his father had not been dead very long, he had gone to consult the oracle. The Oracle said to him, “Your dead father wants you to sacrifice a goat to him.” Do you know what he told the Oracle? He said, “Ask my dead father if he ever had a fowl when he was alive.” Everybody laughed heartily. …

(15; emphasis added)

Retaining a stable system of values within Umuofia's traditions is threatened by such personal accounts as Obiako's. Umuofia's consciousness of itself, which it articulates through ancestral veneration, is challenged by such “marginal” stories as Obiako's, which in their rebelliousness are not merely obstructive to the perpetuation of Umuofia's traditions, but appraise the restrictiveness of tradition in ways that men like Okonkwo and wealthy, titled men like Nwakibie cannot comprehend. Implied in Nwakibie's derisive reference to Obiako's “strange” disposition is the insinuation that Obiako's position is of little ideological significance within the respected traditions of the clan. Within the highly ideological and coercive ambience of Umuofia, however, stories like Obiako's are not merely trivially subversive but are of emancipatory significance. Characterizing the ideological crisis within his traditional society uncovers the ambivalences of ideology in narrative and reorients the meaning and import of the relationships between Achebe's “texts” and their reproduction of historical narrative.4

Reading the “other side” of Achebe's Igbo-African nationalist tradition means alternating the narrative viewpoint to radically transform the story and its underlying assumptions. As Hite argues, “the coherence of one line of narration rests on the suppression of any number of ‘other sides.’” Further, she adds, “alternative versions … might give the same sequence of events an entirely different set of emphasis and values” (4). By highlighting themes and characters seen conventionally as peripheral, Achebe's story transgresses the perception of his writing as penetratingly masculinist.5

The personal narratives of “marginalized” individuals such as Obiako and Unoka together with those of women correlate the narrative as encapsulating a progressively consolidating framework of resistance and survival. Achebe seems interested in confirming Foucault's interesting observation that “[w]here there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power” (History 95). Following Foucault's hypothesis in The Order of Things, Achebe sets his text within a reflexive liminal phase, or “middle region,” where culture is “continuous and graduated” and “linked to [a] space constituted anew and at each time by the driving force of time” (xxi). Indeed, Achebe himself proposes an order of things not unrelated to Foucault's: “[A]rt is what I have chosen to call my Middle Passage.” He adds further that if art is to be offered as a “celebration of … reality,” it must involve the “creative potential in all of us” and a demonstration “of the need to exercise this latent energy again and again” (“African Literature” 3).

Achebe's dilemma in finding an appropriately “democratic” means of representing the Igbo nationalist tradition he narrates is reiterated in the following statement made to Raoul Granqvist: “If you look carefully, the women were never really dealing alone with issues pertaining to women, they were dealing with issues pertaining to society” (Granqvist 18). Achebe characterizes Umuofia's women in the joys and tribulations of their motherhood and selects specific moments of their lives to represent some of the most meaningful cultural and historical aspects of existence in Igbo communities. Some agonizing moments that members of Okonkwo's household undergo communicate the complications of existence and reveal how the forces disruptive of life tie Umuofians to rituals and customs central to the traditions of Igbo culture. The stories of Ekwefi, Okonkwo's second wife, and her daughter Ezinma are vital to the narrative's enactment of the strategies of survival within Umuofia's world. Ekwefi has a special relationship with Ezinma, “an only child and the centre of her mother's world. Very often it was Ezinma who had decided what food her mother should prepare” (55). The two women partially deny Okonkwo some of the authority he seeks to wield over them by conspiring to ensure that Ezinma eats eggs despite Okonkwo's threat to beat Ekwefi if she continues to let Ezinma have the delicacy.

Ezinma is born an ogbanje (55), a child who endlessly appears in her mother's womb in a sequence of birth and death and is probably destined to have a short life. Ekwefi's previous “nine children had [all] died in infancy, usually before the age of three” (55) and Ekwefi blames “her own evil chi who denied her children” (57). The story links the two women to the importance of custom and ritual to direct attention to the importance of motherhood and childbirth within an Igbo-African framework of historical interpretation. The epic dimensions of the story are registered symbolically but not fully explored in the temporary leadership role that Ezinma holds in the search for her iyi-uwa (57), which links her to the spirit world. The iyi-uwa, if found, will end Ezinma's ogbanje cycle and terminate Ekwefi's suffering.

Significantly, women and children “returning from the stream” (58) and a whole “crowd” (59) of clan members follow Ezinma who, unintimidated by Okonkwo's threatening presence, leads the community on a sort of merry-go-round in the search for her iyi-uwa. When Ezinma finally discloses the secret location of the iyi-uwa, its retrieval marks the severance of her links with the spirit world and the mutual triumph over death by Ezinma and Ekwefi makes the relationship between them even more special, for under the circumstances of evil destiny with which Ekwefi seems afflicted, mothers are denied the joys of motherhood while children are not allowed the opportunity to grow up.6 As Grace Okereke argues in her poem on childbirth, “the war of childbirth is the gunfight / of women” (23). Achebe explores further in the ogbanje story of Ezinma the importance of human communal struggles within a gendered context by making the triumph of the two women an affirmation of the strength of their individual chi's. Their survival where Okonkwo does not eventually survive in the clan foregrounds the unwavering dispositions that allow women control over their existential predicaments. Achebe's text, to use Dominick LaCapra's words, reveals how “human entities” may “rework and at least partially work through … in critical [and] transformative fashion” their social struggles (4). The inappropriateness of the colonial imagination of “primitive” behavior in traditional Igbo society is exposed by the stress on ritual and custom within traditional culture and the demonstration of the power of narrative to educate about history in order to refute the idea that traditional Igbo communities were “victims of circumstance(s)” whose politics were “very largely one of drift” and whose actions were “not controlled by logic” (Basden 9).

An extraordinary episode in the novel has Okonkwo reclining after an evening meal, while Ekwefi and Ezinma and Okonkwo's other wives and their children also enjoy an evening of storytelling. Ezinma is about to relate how “Tortoise and Cat went to wrestle Yams” (il) when Chielo, the priestess of Agbala, interrupts Okonkwo's household with the message that Agbala, the deity of the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves, “wanted to see his daughter,” Ezinma (72). Okonkwo is severely reprimanded by Chielo for protesting against Ezinma being taken away and for daring “to speak when a god speaks” (72). Ekwefi has her own exchanges with Chielo, who is “possessed by the spirit of her god” (71), while her voice “like a sharp knife cutting through the night” (71) is “as clear as metal” (72): … ‘I will come with you too,’ Ekwefi said firmly. ‘Tufia-a!’ the priestess cursed, her voice cracking like the angry bark of thunder in the dry season.

‘How dare you, woman to go before the mighty Agbala of your own accord? Beware woman lest he strike you in his anger.’ (72) … When Chielo finally takes the crying Ezinma away, “a strange and sudden weakness” (73) descends upon Ekwefi. Ekwefi becomes “a hen whose only chick has been carried away” (73). Defying the likelihood of retribution from Agbala and with a curt reply to Okonkwo when he asks where she is going, Ekwefi pursues Chielo on a circuitous journey from Umuofia to what turns out to be “Umuachi, the farthest village in the clan” (75) on a night described also as “full of thick darkness” (73). It is important to recall the fear that the clan as a whole has of the night and its darkness: “Darkness held a vague terror for these people, even the bravest among them” (7). The extremely bold Ekwefi who follows Chielo is deterred neither by the fact that on several occasions “her eyes were useless in the darkness” (74), nor that she “hit her left foot against an outcropped root and terror seized her” (74), nor even by her remembrance of “a dark night like this” (74) when, returning with her mother from the stream, they “had seen Ogbuagali-odu, one of those evil essences loosed upon the world by the potent ‘medicines’ which the tribe had made in distant past against its enemies but now had forgotten to control” (74). Ekwefi relives “all the terrors of the night” and even remembers how on that occasion both she and her mother had expected “the sinister light” of the clan's “uncontrolled medicine” to descend on them and “kill them” (74), but she perseveres in following Chielo throughout. We are indeed reminded of the moment when Okonkwo's own wrestling feat that establishes his popularity with the clan is compared to the fight Umuofia's founding father had “with the spirits of the wild” (1).

The journey with Chielo intimates a positive and epic heroic venture in which Ekwefi's bravery accords her an important status. Throughout the whole traumatic journey, Ekwefi's life is endangered and the particular threats for her are intensified by the ever-threatening possibility of encountering the itinerant spirits of the wild and also by the possibility of very severe retribution from Agbala, who as Chielo had warned earlier could “strike” Ekwefi. Bearing in mind the sexual difference and gendered politics of the novel that are articulated especially within the overt masculinist ideological framework that contextualizes the assertions of Okonkwo and the patriarchs of Umuofian society, we must look beyond the surface interpretation of the episode as journey and attempt a theoretical reflection that extends the surface meaning of the Chielo-Ezinma-Ekwefi encounter to locate it as an alternative Igbo nationalist tradition within which we can construct a specifically female-centered paradigm of resistance.

Ekwefi's pursuit of Chielo actually disregards the masculine traditions of the clan, for Chielo is merely the messenger of Agbala, the male deity whom Ekwefi defies. Ekwefi's defiance of Agbala constitutes an important statement on her challenge of Umuofia's sacrosanct masculine traditions. Ekwefi engages in a transgression of Umuofia's traditions and represents what Barbara Babcock describes as a “symbol of negation.” As Babcock argues, the transgression of tradition is attained through symbolic “negation” when “the thinking-process frees itself from the limitations of repression and enriches itself” so that its “intellectual function” obtains “a first degree of independence from the results of repression and at the same time from the sway of the pressure principle” of tradition (30).

The epic dimensions of Ekwefi's heroic venture are also best appreciated in terms of the importance of the “journey motif” in traditional African mythology. As Daniel Kunene's retelling of the journey motif in traditional mythological narratives reveals, one of the most significant thematic aspects of these journeys is the dangers courageous mothers experience in the attempt to protect their endangered children.7 Seen also in the light of Okonkwo's own singular and spectacular defeat of Amalinze the Cat in which Okonkwo's feat is compared to the battle in which the founder of Umuofia “engaged a spirit of the wild for seven days and seven nights” (3), Ekwefi's journey through the darkness in defiance of all the wandering malevolent spirits whose destructive power she somehow evades is of loaded theoretical and ideological significance. The Chielo-Ezinma-Ekwefi encounter touches also on crucial issues of gender and the authority of narrative.

Although Okonkwo's courageous overthrow of Amalinze evokes a manner of association whereby Umuofia associates virtues like heroism and bravery with him, the Ekwefi story also creates processes of reconstruction through which we associate women with heroic values. We may ponder also some interesting questions regarding the particular details and circumstances of Ekwefi's journey. Why, for instance, does Okonkwo not follow Chielo into the “darkness” immediately with the same impulsiveness and defiance that mark some of his more audacious actions, but instead allows a “reasonable and manly interval to pass” before going “with his matchet to the shrine where he thought they must be” (80)? Why does Okonkwo resign himself so easily to Ekwefi's decision to follow Chielo immediately into the darkness, in spite of the priestess' admonition to Ekwefi that Agbala might “strike [her] … in anger” (72), an event that is likely to also affect Okonkwo and possibly his entire household? And why does Okonkwo only begin to feature in the whole scene when both Ekwefi and Ezinma are already out of any substantial danger? In his usual manner of concealing his real thought and feelings, Okonkwo “had felt very anxious but did not show it” (80) when “Ekwefi had followed the priestess” (80). May we not suspect that Okonkwo was less inclined to brave all the odds on this particular occasion?

Definitely one discerns, when Okonkwo finally appears with his machete in hand at the end, that his own masculinity has been both literally and symbolically violated, for he has already been on several futile trips to Chielo's shrine. As Carole Boyce Davies comments regarding the Chielo-Ezinma-Ekwefi episode, Okonkwo's “machete, the symbol of his male aggression, is of no use at all in this context” (247). We might add, though, that the very presence of the machete and the fact that Okonkwo arms himself signify the real threat of danger confronting Ekwefi as she alone braved the darkness. Further, Okonkwo's emasculation is not only foregrounded; his very impotent incursions into the night and the spirit world at the time when both Ezinma and Ekwefi are most endangered prefigure for him a loss of authority and a deeper disillusionment about his position within the clan that he is later on to experience.

Is it not of some significance to the story of Umuofia as a whole that barely a day or two after the Chielo-Ekwefi-Ezinma incident has highlighted Ekwefi's strength of character and at a time when the “spirit(s)” have again “appeared from the underworld” (87), Okonkwo is forced into exile after accidentally shooting the son of the dead Ezeudu at the latter's funeral? May we not read the story of the three women and the displaced Okonkwo with all its insistent re-orderings of significations of gender and authority as being of cardinal importance to Achebe's construction of the contested nature of power and authority within the clan? Foucault's observations on the erosion of authority and identity are instructive here. Foucault argues that in analyzing the move from wholeness to disintegration or from origination to fragmentation, it is no longer a question of establishing the place of an “originating subject” but rather one of identifying the “modes of his functioning”; in particular, it is also a question of establishing and “depriving the subject” of his “role as originator, and of analysing” him “as a variable and complex function of [the] discourse” in which he is implicated? (“Author?” 158).

In reading about the fearless Ekwefi and especially after our familiarity with her struggle with Ezinma in their mutual triumph in the “war” of childbirth, the narrative foregrounds the emasculation of Okonkwo at precisely the point where it constructs alternatively viable significations around the women. Boyce Davies makes the very important observation that “the Chielo-Ezinma episode reads like a suppressed larger story circumscribed” by the focus on “Okonkwo's/man's struggle with and for his people” (247). However, it is important to note also that in a very significant way, the Chielo-Ezinma-Ekwefi episode evidently prefigures the displacement of Okonkwo and to a large degree masculine authority within the clan as a whole.8

Other ideologically important questions support Ato Quayson's view of the “potential inherent in Ezinma and Ekwefi's characterization for subverting the patriarchal discourse of the text” (131). Significantly, Ezinma is about to relate to Ekwefi how Tortoise and the Cat “went on to wrestle against Yams” (71) when Chielo interrupts them. A close reading of the unfinished tale in relation to the symbolic value attached to the yam, the most “important” crop within Umuofia, reveals significations associable with Ezinma and Ekwefi and the subversive potential encoded in their characterization.

Okonkwo's attempt at a young age at “fending for his father's house” (16) is made more difficult by the fact that although his “mother and sisters worked hard enough,” “they [only] grew women's crops, like coco-yams, beans and cassava” (16). Since “Yam, the king of crops, was a man's crop” (16), the narrative intimates that Okonkwo's mother and his sisters can only make a minimal contribution to their own lives, especially since, as Elizabeth Isichei argues, within the Igbo economy, yam, being of “supreme importance,” was “given ritual and symbolic expression in many areas of Igbo life” (8). Women's crops, such as coco-yam, are seemingly of little importance within Umuofia's culture and in its political economy as a whole. Achebe himself, however, furnishes a different account of the importance of women in the economic domain of Igbo society and of the value of putatively female crops:

Men owned the yam, “the king of crops,” but yam was a monarch more visible in metaphor than in reality. In traditional Igbo menu this crop yam was eaten only once a day, in the afternoon, morning and evening meals were supplied from women's crops, cassava and coco yam etc.

(“Myth and Power” 15)

As Gayatri Spivak cautions, identifying the real relationships between “marginality” and “value” within culture is complicated since the symbolic sites of exchange of value within the “socius” of culture often involve affective relations. Spivak argues that “the socius as an affectively coded site of exchange and surplus” is where “‘marginality’ … a constantly changing set of representations,” becomes “coded in the currency of equivalences” of “knowledge” (227; emphasis added). In the context of the gender politics of Things Fall Apart, meanings become unstable and even the powerful symbolic economy within which yam is privileged is threatened with disruption. Ezinma's uncompleted fable in which “Yams” are wrestled has the dominance of yam, the symbol of authority and power within Umuofia, already under question. In Barthes's view, the text becomes “a contradiction in terms” and “multiples … in its variety and its plurality” (S/Z 15). Ezinma's tale supplies a contrastive paradigm for questioning not only Okonkwo's authority but also the masculine traditions of the clan as a whole. Indeed, the multiple configurations of masculine ideology, the authority and supremacy of the laws of the clan, and the importance of male gods like Agbala, whose messenger Chielo the courageous Ekwefi pursues on that memorable night and whose authority Ekwefi actually challenges, all have the very grounds of their authority under question. Attention to the discourses of folklore and indeed motherlore within Umuofia open up possibilities for renegotiating reality and identity within the clan.

Achebe's folktales form part of the Igbo “ethno-text,” or “discursive segments that belong to the vast corpus of African traditional oral material” (Zabus 20). As forms of the “ethno-text,” fables, folktales, proverbs, myths, and other forms of indigenous wisdom provide modes of interpretation that discursively engage the order of traditional society and form part of what Foucault in The Archaeology of Knowledge has called discursive formations. Characters' ability to reinterpret various discourses empowers them to interpret “each discourse” beyond “something other than what it actually says” (116, 118). In the world of fables, as in the real world of Umuofia, speakers can therefore “embrace a plurality of meanings” (116, 118).

In Umuofia's world, the authoritative discourses of Okonkwo and the patriarchs of Umuofia would not therefore be unchallenged. Indigenous folk wisdom, to borrow an expression from Barthes, would “save the text (and the world) from repetition.” Subsequently, as Barthes argues in yet another context, we are led into an endlessly important process of interpretation and reinterpretation where the invincible image of “closed” worlds of meaning are both contestable and transformable. All first readings either of world or of text themselves become indefinite and transgressive. We visualize in Barthes's “social utopia” a complex arena for ideological negotiation where the text provides “not the transparency of social relations” but rather “the space in which no one language has a hold over any other, in which all languages circulate freely” (“From Work” 80).

Ezinma's unfinished tale of “Tortoise and Cat” versus “Yams” encodes significant possibilities for undoing the hierarchies of power and authority within a tradition where masculine authority is supplanted by female insights and indigenous folk wisdom acquires not only subversive and residual but even dominant potential. We are back then to Williams's formulations on dominant and residual and emergent cultures and to Williams's conviction that “we have to recognize the alternative meanings and values, the alternative opinions and attitudes, even some alternative senses of the world, which can be accommodated and tolerated within a particular effective and dominant culture” (39). Achebe's narrative takes Williams's arguments beyond accommodation as it evaluates the crisis of masculine authority within traditional Igbo culture. In commenting on societal politics while masterfully contemplating the limitations of coercive masculine traditions in a society where knowledge of traditional lore and the appropriation of the “ethno-text” facilitate the continual redefinition of roles and statuses, Achebe dramatizes the internal tribulations of the clan.


  1. See Marcus for a further discussion and also acknowledgment of the limitations of the project of dialogical representation, among other issues.

  2. Traore provides a brilliant exploration of the novel as epic in his “Matrical Approaches.”

  3. Representative studies on Achebe, such as by Innes and Lindfors; Carroll; and Innes have ignored this issue. The most probing analysis of the ideology of gender so far is Quayson's “Realism, Criticism, and the Disguises of Both.” See also Jeyifo for a brief but incisive correlation of the politics of gender in Things Fall Apart with wider issues of gender criticism in postcolonial African literature.

  4. Bennett's “Texts in History” is a fruitful polemic on the ideological determinations of texts in historical narrative.

  5. Stratton makes this argument. See esp. her chapter “How Could Things Fall Apart for Whom They Were Not Together?”

  6. Okereke's interesting article, “The Birth of Song,” compares childbirth in Igbo society and the honor attached to it to the bringing home of human heads in war by men.

  7. See Kunene. It makes little difference here that the gender-reversal in Kunene's tales makes the endangered children mostly males.

  8. This relates also to the new dispensations stimulated by colonialism such as the rise of a new social class of efulefus,agbalas,osus, and those whom the clan has hitherto marginalized. While the clan as a whole experiences disunity, Okonkwo's personal narrative is also thus only a subtext of the nationalist crisis in Umuofia.

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Christopher Wise (essay date Fall 1999)

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SOURCE: “Excavating the New Republic: Post-Colonial Subjectivity in Achebe's Things Fall Apart,” in Callaloo, Vol. 22, No. 4, Fall, 1999, pp. 1054–70.

[In the following essay, Wise explores the universality of the plight of the Igbo people as they face the destruction of their pre-colonial culture in Things Fall Apart.]

“[I]t may be productive [today] to think in terms of a genuine transformation of being which takes place when the individual subject shifts from purely individual relations to that very different dynamic which is that of groups, collectives and communities … The transformation of being … is something that can be empirically experienced … by participation in group praxis—an experience no longer as rare as it was before the 1960s, but still rare enough to convey a genuine ontological shock, and the momentary restructuration and placing in a whole new perspective of the kinds of private anxieties that dominate the monadized existence of the individual subject”

—Fredric Jameson “Interview” (82)


After Frantz Fanon's and Aimé Césaire's devastating critiques of Placide Tempels' La philosophie bantoue in the mid-1950s, the hermeneutic and logocentric quest to recuperate the more overtly ontological dimensions of African culture became theoretically suspect, if not wholly untenable, following nearly three decades of speculation about Léopold Sédar Sénghor's négritude, which is now widely dismissed as an under-theorized metaphysics of blackness.1 Today, Fanon's and Césaire's analyses of Tempels' book seem more viable than ever. In a recent study by Kwame Anthony Appiah, for example, we receive due warning about the dangers of overglorifying the otherness of pre-colonial African culture, especially for the sake of commodifying its art. Furthermore, Appiah demonstrates how contemporary African writers have tended to reject the Western mandate that they recreate or reify the lost alterity of their past; or, borrowing from Sara Suleri, Appiah argues that many African artists and intellectuals do not wish to serve as “otherness machines” for late capitalist, consumer society (157). Like Fanon and Césaire then, many contemporary post-colonial critics are concerned about recent efforts to commodify African being, especially for the sake of merely enriching the West's powerful university system, or its growing complex of art and ethnological museums.

Additionally, as Fanon has observed in Black Skin, White Masks (1982), most purely academic celebrations of African ontology, as found in the work of Tempels, Leo Frobenius, and many others, tend to disregard the more pressing social and political needs of the present. Responding to Tempels' La philosophie bantoue, Fanon warns specifically that “[i]t is not a matter of finding Being in Bantu thought, when Bantu existence subsists at the level of nonbeing, of the imponderable” (185–86). Fanon goes on to dismiss efforts like Tempels' as “rubbish” [scandale] and his rejection is no less categorical than Césaire's, who in Discourse on Colonialism (1972) demonstrates even less sympathy with Tempels' work than Fanon (34–39). Césaire, in fact, characterizes Tempels' book as “slimy and fetid” [vaseuse et méphitique] (34), ironically ridiculing Tempels' generosity and missionary zeal (38). “Since Bantu thought is ontological,” Césaire quips, “the Bantu only ask for the satisfaction of an ontological nature. Decent wages! Comfortable housing! Food!” (38–39).

Given then the on-going and disproportionate distribution of the world's wealth, as well as more pedestrian problems in Africa like starvation, AIDS, and civil-war, first world scholars and teachers must never lose sight of the scandalous disjunction between their own privileged experience and the experience of oppressed Africans in places like Angola, Somalia, and the Sudan. To quote Ngugi wa Thiong'o, first world intellectuals must ceaselessly remind their constituency that the very water they drink is often “taken from the mouths of the thirsty,” and the food they eat is “snatched from the mouths of the hungry” (Barrel of a Pen 74). In this sense, any purely abstract theorization of pre-colonial African being must stand condemned as worse than irrelevant: The harsh reality of contemporary existence in Africa would seem to dictate that immediate social and material demands must take precedence over speculatory efforts by scholars like Temples or Frobenius to reconstruct Africa's pre-colonial past. Another way of saying this might be to accept Fanon's argument that no true culture can come to life under such oppressive social conditions as currently exist, or that “[it] will be time enough to talk of the black genius when the man has regained his rightful place” (Black Skin, White Masks 187).

Nevertheless, we must also pause to consider whether or not it is possible, in the first place, to undermine the Manichean legacies of the colonizing process without first interrogating the ontological status of Africa's precolonial past, specifically by reconstructing it within a necessarily allegorical and “violent” semantic framework.2 Though such an approach obviously denies the hegemony of most contemporary anti-hermeneutic methodologies, particularly more vulgar post-structuralist varieties that endorse an absolute concept of difference, this study is undertaken with the conviction that Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart is worthy of close analysis not simply because it offers insight into the purely structural or syntactic dynamics of European colonialism,3 but also because of its visionary exploration of the pre-Manichean and ontological status of the pre-colonial Igbo people.

However, in the context of contemporary late capitalist society, especially in the United States and Western Europe, there would seem to be obvious difficulties in bringing the Igbo experience of being, as described by Achebe, into the interpretive horizon of a dramatically different First World orientation towards social reality.4 Still, I would insist that meaningful and benign experiences of collective being have by no means been wholly eradicated from contemporary existence in the West, uncanny though they may be. Here, I would cite Jameson's pertinent observation that oppositional scholars today need to reappropriate an authentically dialectical concept of ontology, or collective social being, an observation which he draws from the writings of Raymond Williams, Ernst Bloch, and Jean-Paul Sartre.5 I would also cite Martin Heidegger's key hermeneutic concept regarding the facticity of Being, or the notion that “even if we ask, ‘What is Being’?, we [nevertheless] keep within an understanding of the ‘is,’ though we are unable to fix conceptually what that ‘is’ signifies” (Being and Time 24–25). In “The Writer and His Community,” Achebe himself has argued that while cultural differences should be respected, they should not be emphasized to the extent that one falls “into the trap of seeing the differences as absolute rather than relative” (59).6 Thus, while Achebe has consistently attacked the universalizing impulses within colonialist criticism and discourse, he nevertheless recognizes that totalizing philosophies of difference are both dogmatic and counter-productive insofar as they dismiss hermeneutic understanding altogether. In this sense, we may also reread Appiah's concern about the way in which African artists seem to be recast into the role formerly assumed by alienated modernist artists—namely, to be productive “otherness machines” for a vacuous First World marketplace—as a parallel rejection of the “post-structuralist” insistence on non-identity wherein the possibility of sameness is absolutely rejected.

Instead of focusing upon the disintegration of the basic psychic coordinates or mechanisms of Achebe's Igbo,7 in the following essay, we will focus upon the emphatically historical question of pre-European Igbo being in Things Fall Apart, especially as it pertains to the larger objectives of contemporary post-colonial theory. In this regard, I will suggest that Achebe's description of Igbo community life functions not only as a Fanonian “negation of a negation” (or counter-weight against previous literary distortions of Africa),8 but it also functions as a prophetic affirmation of post-colonial Africa's future by offering a teleological vision of a post-Cartesian or collective subjectivity. Achebe's depiction of the pre-European Igbo may therefore be brought into alignment with more recent efforts by post-colonial theorists like Abdul R. JanMohammad, Edward W. Said, Fredric Jameson, and many others to introduce a uniquely post-individualistic and collective subject-position, symbolically located at the “other end of historical time” (Jameson, “Imaginary and Symbolic in Lacan” 110).9


In a lecture given at UCLA in 1984, Achebe has described René Descartes as both “the father of Western philosophy” and “the cause of a gigantic philosophical accident” (“The Writer and His Community” 50–51). Specifically, Achebe rejects the narrowness and egocentrism of Cartesian philosophy, or the cogito ergo sum of Descartes, which, he argues, functions as a defining aspect of contemporary life in the United States, for Achebe, the historical site of an enormous “ontological accident” (51). As a foil to Descartes, Achebe also suggests that, in the unlikely event that Socrates, Plato, or Augustine returned to the modern era, they would no doubt find African community life, like that which is described in Things Fall Apart, more appealing to them than Western individualism (50–51). To emphasize the utopian dimensions of these thinkers, Achebe remarks that

The Republic … was after all a grand design for the ordering of men in society; and The City of God a Christian reordering of society after the destruction of the Roman Empire by pagans. In other words, philosophy for Plato and Augustine, historically equidistant from Christ, was concerned with architectural designs for a better world.

Expanding upon this thesis, Achebe particularly singles out Augustine by stating that, while recent Western literature and theory has encouraged us to think of contemporary social existence as life within a prison-house,10 he himself prefers the Catholic or Augustinian vision of social being defined as “other-centered fulfillment,” or as a potentially benign “presence limiting the space in which the self can roam uninhibited” (53).11

Though unexpected, Achebe's views on Augustine tend to remind us of a fact that nearly fifteen hundred years of Christian domination in the West have tended to obscure: namely, that Augustine's City of God is primarily mystical and theurgical rather than legislative (O'Meara xxx). In this sense, Augustine does not so much offer an oppressive blueprint for Roman Catholic theocracy, as much as he offers an astonishing vision of a better world, a utopian standard by which earthly and corrupt cities may be measured and found wanting. Obviously, as a Neo-platonist philosopher, Augustine draws upon Plato's Republic in drafting his own new “republic” that is refracted through the lens of Christian doctrine and mysticism. While in Things Fall Apart, Achebe does not really offer an elaborate utopian scheme like Plato in The Republic, he does create an alternative universe or reality in which community life indeed turns upon the Augustinian notion of “other-centered fulfillment” that is lauded in Achebe's speech: the notion of community life as a “presence” that deliberately and creatively restricts the freedom of individuals, but in non-oppressive ways (Achebe, “The Writer and His Community” 53).

In this sense, Achebe aims not only at rehabilitating Africa's pre-colonial past; he also wants his novel to fulfill a more primal human need by providing “an alternative handle on reality” (58). To this end, Achebe lauds Frank Kermode's definition of fictional reality as “‘something we know does not exist but which helps us to make sense of, and move in, the world’” (“The Truth of Fiction” 139); and he rejects Milan Kundera's definition of the novel as “‘an investigation into human existence … [that] proclaims no truth, no morality’” because it denies the novel's also important didactic and social functions (“The Writer and His Community” 55). In other words, far from evading political and social responsibility to community, Achebe asserts that the task for the novelist is rather to imaginatively bring into being a wholly “different order of reality from that which is given” (“The Truth of Fiction” 139, my emphasis).

However, it should be clear that if Things Fall Apart offers an alternative vision of a pre-Cartesian and pre-alienated African past, it does not necessarily follow that the ontological aspects of Achebe's novel may therefore be conflated with the theological ones, which would be equivalent to suggesting that Achebe's description of the pre-colonial Igbo is essentially Edenic or mythical. On the contrary, Achebe describes an emphatically historical form of social existence, which nevertheless remains utopian in character. First, Achebe does not hesitate to dramatize the very real socio-historical crises and contradictions among the Igbo people, many that exist long before the arrival of the British, and that later create opportunities for the spread of Christianity. In fact, it is by now commonplace to assert that post-colonial African writers like Achebe, in recreating the pre-colonial past, wish to demonstrate that the era before the arrival of Europeans was neither idyllic nor savage, but was instead “composed of real and vulnerable people, their ancestors, not the figments of missionary and colonialist imaginations” (Lawrence 9).12

However, Achebe goes further than this by insisting that Africa's pre-colonial past was in many ways creatively superior to its historical European counterpart.13 Taking issue with reviewers of Yambo Ouologuem's Bound To Violence, for example, Achebe argues that, while pre-colonial Africans certainly had their share of faults, they nevertheless were not responsible for the basic historical fact of racism's existence, especially as a systematic doctrine or creed (79).14 Another way of saying this might be that, while Achebe's Igbo in Things Fall Apart do not inhabit an Edenic paradise, they nevertheless are not guilty of essentializing the Other on the basis of race, which is a distinctly European problem. Additionally, Achebe suggests that his Igbo do not suffer from the harmful attributes of a Cartesian and alienated world-view, or from a primal detachment from being itself. In short, if the Igbo in Achebe's novel do not live within an idyllic paradise, they do inhabit a utopian space that is free from the contradictions of both Cartesian logic and racist ideology.15


Before delineating the more formal features of this non-Cartesian utopian space, it is important to acknowledge, at least in passing, the documented failures or obvious social contradictions of the pre-colonial Igbo in Things Fall Apart, especially their “caste” system, their practice of ritual murder (whether due to oracular promptings, or due to their fear of biological twins), and their oppressive patriarchy, particularly evident in the case of Okonkwo. In his essay “The Truth of Fiction,” Achebe himself offers one helpful way of approaching these problems when he praises a scientific study of infant mortality in modern-day Nigeria, which he describes as both “poignant” and “perspicacious” (142), and when he criticizes the practices of a contemporary Nigerian witch-doctor, which he describes as both “maniacal” and “pitiful.” However, for Achebe, Dr. Sanya Onabamiro's Why Our Children Die does not necessarily offer a better solution to the problem of infant mortality in Nigeria merely because he offers a scientific one; rather his ideas are preferable because they are both imaginatively and creatively superior to those of his superstitious counterpart. Hence, Achebe argues that

the insights given by Dr. Onabamiro into the problem of high infant mortality, however incomplete future generations may find them, are infinitely more helpful to us than the diagnosis of a half-mad religious fanatic. In conclusion, there are fictions that help and fictions that hinder. For simplicity, let us call them beneficent and malignant fictions.


Achebe's approach to this question may have been informed by the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss, whom Achebe draws from in establishing his own informal theories of myth and language (“Language and the Destiny of Man” 136–37).16 In this regard, Achebe implies that, regardless of the particular aesthetic, religious, or cultural form, all symbolic expressions of human culture function in the first instance as creative responses to their various social situations, or they function as dynamic attempts to resolve the various crises of material necessity in the on-going historical struggle to “wrestle a realm of freedom from the realm of necessity” (Marx, Capital III 820). When Nwoye abandons Okonkwo's obi for the Christian mission, for example, Achebe tells us that “[i]t was not the mad logic of the Trinity that captivated him … It was the poetry of the new religion, something felt in the marrow” (Things Fall Apart 104). More specifically, Nwoye finds in the new religion a more satisfying “answer [to the] persistent question that haunted his young soul—the question of the twins crying in the bush and the question of Ikemefuna who was killed” (my emphasis).

Thus, while Nwoye may be overwhelmed by the poetry of the new religion, he is actually indifferent to its objective content, which he does not understand.17 For similar reasons, the stigmatization of specific tribal members as osu, or taboo outcasts, also tends to facilitate the success of the Christian missionaries (111), though Achebe seems to imply that the problem of patriarchy among the Igbo is more specific to Okonkwo rather than the tribe as a whole. In other words, Okonkwo's misogyny is largely a personal failing, resulting from the exaggerated shame and aversion he feels for his father (9–10). Still, throughout the novel, the attitudes of Igbo men towards women are often depicted by Achebe as both harmful and repressive at best.18

We may conclude then that if Achebe believes the pre-colonial Igbo enjoyed a less alienated form of social existence before the arrival of the British, he also implies that it was, in many instances, a less humane one. Even Okonkwo, for example, is sickened by the death of Ikemufuna, though he himself plays the largest role in it (44). Later, Achebe describes Obierika, a tribal elder, as being disenchanted with oppressive Igbo traditions such as the “throwing away” of twins and other seemingly arbitrary social customs (87), the former affecting him personally. Towards the novel's conclusion, Achebe also states that “there was a growing feeling [among the Igbo] that there might be something in [the new religion] after all, something vaguely akin to method in the overwhelming madness” (126). Besides the question of the twins, the osu, and other unsatisfactory tribal customs, this growing feeling about the new “lunatic religion” is also strengthened by the fact that the British had significantly improved the local economy, so that now “much money flowed into Umuofia.” Additionally, to the increasing dismay of Okonkwo, the Igbo become appreciative of the white man's medicine as well as his government and his schools (128–29).

Nevertheless, Achebe's even-handedness in depicting the positive imports of British culture should not blind us to the novel's more fundamental aim: that is, as we have already seen, to create a wholly alternative fictional reality as a means of engaging and modifying existing colonial and post-colonial societies (Achebe “The Truth of Fiction” 139). In this regard, what may be most remarkable about Things Fall Apart is its ability to both deploy and subvert the traditional European novel form itself in the service of purposes distinct from those which have historically defined it. Specifically, Achebe transforms the “bourgeois epic” of homelessness and alienation into a recuperative celebration of collective social existence.


Though the theoretical writings of Frantz Fanon may be classified as a radical variety of phenomenological existentialism, especially insofar as they are grounded in the Marxian philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, many contemporary post-colonial theorists prefer to emphasize the more tenuous connections between Fanon and more popular theorists like Jacques Lacan.19 It is at least ironic, however, that the critic who is chiefly responsible for alerting us to the dangers of celebrating African ontology was himself an old-fashioned hermeneutic or even logocentric thinker. In other words, despite the efforts of Homi K. Bhabha, and many other contemporary critics, Fanon was by no means a post-structuralist or Derridean thinker, largely because he, like Sartre before him, posits a pre-linguistic (or pre-symbolic) form of human consciousness.20 However, not only Fanon but Achebe as well respects the now “anachronistic” hermeneutic distinction between text and being, or the currently unpopular bifurcation between what Wilhelm von Humboldt once termed Sprache [articulated language] and Rede [ontological speech].21

In his essay “Language and the Destiny of Man,” for example, Achebe, states specifically his view that “language is not inherent in man—the capacity for language, yes; but not language. Therefore there must have been a time in the very distant past when our ancestors did not have it” (88, my emphasis). The implications of the theoretical distinction made by Achebe have been developed most fully in Heidegger's Being and Time (1926), where Sprache, or the ordinary language of daily life, is separated from Rede, which is defined as the ontologically prior human faculty for ordinary discourse (203–4). In this sense, Achebe's belief about the dual nature of language may not be incidental to his descriptions of the pre-colonial Igbo in Things Fall Apart but may instead be that which enables him to explore the dramatic possibilities of an alternative form of subjectivity, which is fundamentally non-alienated, pre-Cartesian, and collective in orientation.

In other words, while Heidegger advocated that we develop a new relationship to language, rejecting our present-day relationship with language as a barrier that prevents us from an experience of ontological plenitude, Achebe creates an alternative utopian reality in Things Fall Apart wherein its inhabitants enjoy the kind of relationship with their language that Heidegger advocated. However, I am not suggesting that the actual Igbo people themselves enjoyed such a non-alienated relationship with their language, which is of course both immaterial to my thesis and indeterminate. In fact, Achebe himself asserts that his descriptions of the Igbo people are “merely localized impressionistic illustrations taken from [his] own experience of growing up in Ogidi in the 1930s and 1940s” (“The Igbo World and Its Art” 66), and he also suggests that the world of his childhood probably exists at present only in his dreams (67). Hence, whatever the Igbo people actually are or were, the fact remains that the text of Achebe's Things Fall Apart, like that of Heidegger's Being and Time, functions in the first instance as a socially symbolic attempt to imagine a radically alternative form of community existence in which human experience is not based upon a Cartesian subject-object duality, and in which human beings enjoy a more dynamic, non-alienated relationship to their language.

Heidegger's notion of Dasein [Being-there] suggests that, before the “nightmare” of post-Socratic history, human beings first existed in a world in which the human mind was not fundamentally distinct from matter. However, it is crucial to Heideggerian thought that there also must have existed a semantic dimension to the world of Dasein [or, the nonsubjective individual] before that world could be expressed linguistically. Heidegger's Rede [Speech], like Achebe's notion of an innate human “capacity” for language, is therefore the ontologically prior “openness” without which it would be impossible for Sprach [articulated language] to come into being. Like Schleiermacher and Humboldt, Heidegger then establishes two distinct spheres of language, a higher realm in which authentic meaning may occur and a lower realm of common, ordinary or “fallen” language.22 However, while in the early Heidegger, Dasein [or “man”] serves as Being's privileged space of disclosure, the later Heidegger moves towards a more radical anti-humanism in which Dasein is no longer the ultimate locus of truth and meaning. In other words, the later Heidegger, not unlike the later Saussure, makes the emphatically anti-Cartesian assertion that it is language and not the subject that speaks (Unterwegs zur Sprache 12). Furthermore, the later Heidegger also suggests that it is in poetic language itself, or poetic language as Logos, that the ultimate “unconcealment” [alethia] of both truth and being occurs. But he also insists that Rede, defined throughout his writings in terms of ontological silence, must remain the necessary precondition for the “unconcealment” of Being (Erläuterungen zu Hölderlins Dichtung 69).

In contemporary Western society, which Achebe has characterized as an ontological “mistake,” it is commonly assumed that language originates from the speaking subject, a notion that Achebe dramatically rejects in his depiction of the pre-colonial Igbo. In other words, if Heidegger depicts the individual being [or Dasein] as the object (rather than the subject) of metaphysical thought, Achebe depicts the pre-colonial Igbo in Things Fall Apart as similarly inhabiting a world in which there seem to be no speaking subjects in any strictly Cartesian sense. For example, when the Umofia Igbo are called by name from outside their huts, they exhibit a marked suspicion of their language, which they seem to view as an autonomous, powerful, and reifying force:

‘Ekwefi!’ a voice called from one of the other huts. It was Nwoye's mother, Okonkwo's first wife.

‘Is that me?’ Ekwefi called back. That was the way people answered calls from outside. They never answered yes for fear it might be an evil spirit calling.


This brief illustration suggests that the basic epistemological orientation of Achebe's Igbo is radically different from that of what Achebe calls, “the true modern, Western man [who has] made the foundation of his philosophical edifice, including the existence of God, contingent on his own first person singular” (“The Writer and His Community” 51). Ekwefi's refusal to automatically validate the interpolation of her name into any form of disembodied language also suggests the pre-colonial Igbo's awareness of language's more violent and oppressive features, an epistemological sophistication notably absent in the order of things of the Cartesian West.

Achebe makes clear throughout Things Fall Apart, as well as throughout his nonfictional essays, that he believes the Igbo have experienced a fundamentally different, if not superior, relationship between their lived bodies and their discursive language than any presently known in the modern world. Hence, when the egwugwu, or the judicial branch of Igbo society, address individual members of the local community, they always refer to each individual as a “body” rather than a name (64). Similarly, Achebe informs us that during festivals, ritual occasions, or periodic social crises, the masked forms or figures of long-dead ancestors will often return to the community, now “speaking an esoteric dialect in which people are referred to as bodies: ‘The body of so-and-so, I salute you!’” (“The Igbo World and Its Art” 66). As in the case of Ekwefi's refusal to directly engage any disembodied or unseen voice, in all of these instances Achebe's Igbo seem to exist more as objective products of metaphysical thought rather than the masterful, subjective agents that populate the Cartesian West. Furthermore, Achebe describes the defining or interpolating discourse of the pre-colonial Igbo as an “esoteric” dialect or language that is largely inaccessible to the “living” person (Things Fall Apart 63), a seemingly anachronistic awareness that the totality of language is never entirely available to the individual subject or Dasein.23

In both the text of Things Fall Apart and in his published essays, Achebe has consistently affirmed the importance of traditional folk “literature” itself, especially as a discursive network of proverbs, aphorisms, and metaphors that adds coherence and unity to the lives of individuals within the community. In Things Fall Apart, Achebe demonstrates the importance of folk wisdom and “literature” with repeated reference to Igbo proverbs and folk-tales, a narrative strategy which, in fact, stabilizes and undergirds the novel's most basic structure.24 Similarly, Achebe demonstrates how the folk wisdom of the pre-colonial Igbo enables the historicity of the past to serve a meaningful purpose within the time of the present, facilitating “comings and goings” between “the land of the living” and the “domain of the ancestors” (85). Not surprisingly, Achebe has reaffirmed in a recent interview his largely conservative view that people who don't have any sense of their own history must be condemned to “starting again every day,” or to beginning again as “new men in the world every day and this is terrible [my emphasis]” (Talking With African Writers 54). In regards to recently evolving concepts of a collective subject position, it may therefore be worth considering Achebe's view that there is no better preparation for survival within the disorienting world of modernization than the study and preservation of the traditional cultures of the past (“What Has Literature Got to Do with It” 170).

Additionally, Achebe's description of the Oracle of the Hills and Caves in Things Fall Apart implies that the pre-colonial Igbo may live at a time when the necessary ontological conditions are present for what Heidegger called the “unconcealment” [alethia] of truth and beings. First, Heidegger's celebration of ontological silence, a necessary precondition so that authentic Language [or Logos] might speak, is dramatically echoed by Achebe in his characterization of pre-colonial Igbo community life in terms of its “vibrant” (7), “complete” (39), and even “perfect” silence (8). As Walter J. Ong might put it, Achebe's Igbo seem to be “rooted in a ‘speaking silence’” (Interfaces of the Word 23). Additionally, Achebe shows us that the Oracle of the Hills and Caves is not simply a terrifying supernatural voice but also a pragmatic mediator within the community, giving personal advice, resolving disputes (12), and advising about warfare (9). On occasion, the Oracle can even be teased if its demands seem either unreasonable or dubious (15), not unlike Heideggerian notions of the Logos as playful or ludic.25

While homologous in some ways with much recent post-structuralist theory, Achebe's views on language's autonomy in pre-colonial Igboland should nevertheless not be confused with either Roland Barthes's fetishizing of the text, or the Derridean notion that “there is nothing outside of the text” (Of Grammatology 158). In fact, Achebe's depiction of language's unique role in human affairs more closely parallels the post-Kantian and anthropological linguistics of Wilhelm von Humboldt, the intellectual precursor of Heidegger.26 Like the Igbo in Things Fall Apart, speakers in Humboldt's linguistic system are both shaped or molded by language, which is described by Humboldt as a creative and autonomous force [ergon], but they also possess an inward or “in-dwelling” sense of language's “prelinguistic” or semantic dimensions [energeia]. The word is therefore not only outside the monadic subject; it is also “a living potential in the human interior” (Ong The Presence of the Word 232). As George Steiner puts it, “language is a ‘third universe’ midway between the phenomenal reality of the ‘empirical world’ and the internalized structures of consciousness” (81, my emphasis).27 Humboldt himself writes, “Even though language is wholly inward, it nevertheless possesses at the same time an autonomous, external identity and being which does violence to man himself” (82).

In Things Fall Apart, as we have seen, Achebe shows us how the Igbo possess an uncanny awareness of language's often harmful and alienating nature, the powerful being of language that evokes in its subjects of Igboland the greatest caution and dread. This is most evident, for example, in the case of Ikemufuna of whom the Oracle demands a ritual sacrifice. However, we are also shown how the Igbo are not (as in Barthes, Derrida, and other poststructuralists) the “pure” products or “constructs” of their language (that is to say, the purely powerless products of human language), but they are instead endowed with a strikingly logocentric and powerful individualism, an in-dwelling ability to determine their own fate, status, and well-being within the real or historical world.28 This is especially evident in the case of Okonkwo whom, Achebe informs us, is “one of the greatest men of his time” (6).

In the opening lines of the novel, Achebe states plainly that Okonkwo's considerable fame throughout the land is the result of his “solid personal achievements” (3), and that Okonkwo is a man “clearly cut out for great things” (6). Achebe also emphasizes that Okonkwo's flaws, as well as his strengths, are uniquely his own, rather than the result of any specific social or historical contradictions among the Igbo people. Okonkwo's fear of failure, for example, is described by Achebe as “deeper and more intimate than the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic” (9). From the beginning of the novel, we are told, Okonkwo's fear is “not external but [lies] deep within himself [my emphasis].” In his essay, “The Writer and His Community,” Achebe makes this point even more plainly by asserting that “[t]he Igbo are second to none in their respect of the individual personality” (57). Achebe adds that “the Igbo posit an unprecedented uniqueness for the individual by making him or her the sole creation and purpose of a unique god-agent” (57–58). The Igbo belief that individuals within the community possess a personal god or chi reaffirms Achebe's suggestion that human subjects are not only constituted by either language in its outward and more “violent” dimensions, but they are also endowed with a prelinguistic and deeply inward capacity to understand their world. Achebe tells us, for example, that Okonkwo's personal success was not regarded by the Igbo as the result of his own luck or good fortune (19); rather the Igbo believe that Okonkwo achieves success chiefly through his own initiative, illustrated by Achebe with the Igbo proverb that “[w]hen a man says yes, his chi says yes also.” This is not to say, however, that one's “chi” is strictly self-interested. For example, when the character Chielo assumes the role of priestess of Agbala, Achebe describes her as someone who is literally “possessed by the spirit of her god” (70), her very body at times transformed in “fantastic” and “miraculous” ways (75). Early in the novel, Achebe states that “[a]nyone seeing Chielo in ordinary life would hardly believe she was the same person who prophesied when the spirit of Agbala was upon her” (35). Later, when Ekwefi, the first wife of Okonkwo, follows Chielo and her daughter to the Oracle of the Hills and Caves, Chielo is portrayed by Achebe as “inhuman” if not monstrous (75).

Finally, the fictional representation of a collective form of subjectivity in Things Fall Apart dramatically affirms Achebe's vision of community life that offers a sense of “other-centered fulfillment” to its inhabitants (“The Writer and His Community” 53). This principle is demonstrated throughout Things Fall Apart by way of the ceremony of the kola nut, a sacramental ritual that binds the Igbo community together and provides a context within which meaningful human exchange may occur. “To bring the kola,” we are told, “is to bring life” (5). Extending authentic courtesy to one's guests, or extending welcome to the Other, for Achebe's Igbo, serves as the necessary foundation of civil society. Hence, during the New Yam Festival, Achebe tells us that “every man whose arm was strong … was expected to invite large numbers of guests from far and wide” (26). In fact, an individual's most basic humanity for the pre-colonial Igbo seems directly related to his or her willingness to serve as a generous host to others within the community (81). Achebe seems to imply then that the social and ethical obligation of welcoming the Other must be fundamental to any coherent concept of subjectivity within human society. Any notion of being in Things Fall Apart must therefore be defined in terms of the subject's most basic ethical obligation to the Other, as an Emmanuel Levinas, for example, might advocate, rather than in any anarchistic or postmodernist sense of being as a kind of non-dialectical or highly aestheticized subjectivity (if it can still be called that).29


Though Achebe rejects the stereotypical characterization of Africa as a place where “there are no real people … only forces operating [Achebe's emphasis]” (Talking with African Writers 56), he has also described the Igbo World as “an arena for the interplay of forces … a dynamic world of movement and of flux [and] restless dynamism” (“The Igbo World and Its Art” 62). However, for Achebe, the pre-colonial Igbo world is finally a lost world, or a world that remains significant only within the immediate context of present-day political struggle within Africa (Talking with African Writers 50). Hence, we must not forget that, in the second half of Achebe's novel, Okonkwo becomes a quixotic figure of sorts, his suicide at the conclusion serving as a symbolic marker by which we can measure the extent of the Igbo community's deterioration or secularization.30 In other words, in the second half of the novel, Achebe focuses upon the dissolution of Igbo ontology, or upon the disintegration of the most basic social and psychological structures of the pre-colonial Igbo, as well as the imposition of a whole new set of organizing structures: most obviously, a Cartesian rather than an ontological and collective subjectivity.

In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon has observed that “every ontology is made unattainable in a colonized and civilized society” (109). Like Fanon, Achebe suggests that for the pre-colonial Igbo to be inducted into colonial society, the abandonment of a previously more collective social form of existence is henceforth mandated, so that the physically painful construction of a colonized subjectivity may be violently imposed upon the native: namely, a Manichean subjectivity. It is in this sense that the second half of Achebe's Things Fall Apart dramatically depicts the peripeties of the Manichean drama, or it depicts the “slow composition of [the] self as a body in the middle of a spatial and temporal world” (Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks 111). The concluding tragedy of Okonkwo is therefore the tragedy of a novel-hero for whom it is utterly impossible to undergo Fanon's Manichean restructuration of self and world.

Nevertheless, a strictly Fanonian approach to Things Fall Apart, as we have seen, cannot finally do justice to the complexity of Achebe's novel, nor to the historical situation to which encomiastic novels like Things Fall Apart respond. This is, in part, because Fanon (like most theorists of his generation) fails to take into account the unavoidably logocentric basis of his own philosophical position, most evident in his precipitous dismissal of Tempels' La philosophie bantoue. If Fanon, Césaire, and others once had good reason for marginalizing the largely well-intended (if untimely) efforts of Tempels', there may now be good reason for us to reevaluate this road not taken. In other words, while the ultimate priority of Africa's basic material needs must be continually reasserted within the first world context, as Ngugi rightly reminds us, the West's present course of steadfast and deliberate deafness to these needs makes such condemnations seem unhelpful luxuries, the privileged rancor of a comprador intelligentsia. In the American academy, for example, where the “pragmatic” and neo-Liberal separation of the spheres of the personal from the political routinely prohibits “deontological” moral praxis,31 it seems unlikely that any significant changes in present attitudes towards relations of uneven distribution of the world's economic resources will be forthcoming. In such a context, it may well be asked how such reform can take place until the dramatic lifeworlds of Africans like Achebe can be effectively transported into the interpretive horizons (or “lifeworlds”) of those who inhabit the more privileged West. Whatever the historical significance of Things Fall Apart for modern Nigerians and other postcolonial Africans, what may therefore be most crucial about Achebe's novel for us today is the hermeneutic understanding that it engenders, its effective clearing of our own false prejudices so that our most basic humanity may be awakened.

However, if Achebe's novel is successful in this regard, its success stems from the fact that it addresses a truly transcultural, even universal, dilemma of post-oral humanity, which is not strictly an economic question: that is to say, the demise of what Ong calls “oral-aural” cultures wherein the Eventness of the Spoken Word is increasingly forgotten (The Presence of the Word 17). It is therefore entirely fitting that Okonkwo's tale concludes with his cryptic marginalization as a brief footnote within the history text of a British colonizer. While Okonkwo's tragedy is specific to colonial Igboland, and to the colonial encounter throughout the African continent, it also speaks to many far-reaching aspects of humanity's changing relationship to language during the last six hundred years.32 In this sense, the story of Okonkwo does not really belong to Africa alone but to the entire human race.


  1. See René Ménil's Tracées: Identité, négritude, esthétique aux Antilles, René Depestre's Bonjour et adieu à la négritude, James Clifford's “A Politics of Neologism: Aimé Césaire” in The Predicament of Culture, Amiri Baraka's chapter “Aimé Césaire” in The Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader, and Onwuchekwa Jemie Chineweizu and Ihechukwu Madubuike's “The Leeds-Ibadan Connection: The Scandal of Modern African Literature.”

  2. See Theodor W. Adorno's Aesthetic Theory (321). Also see Jameson's Late Marxism, where we find the comments that in his Aesthetic Theory, Adorno demonstrates how “the reifying impulse in modern art [and its criticism] is affirmed as a necessity and evaluated positively” (21). One may also refer to the Benjaminian notion of allegory in this context, which is defined here in terms of an emphatically self-negating constellation or Darstellung [representation] (50).

  3. In an interview entitled “The Post-modern Condition: The End of Politics?,” Gayatri Spivak states her agreement with Pierre Macherey that the main task for us today “is not to recover a lost consciousness, but to see … the itinerary of the silencing [my emphasis]” (31).

  4. The concept of “horizon” employed in this essay may be found in Martin Heidegger's Being and Time. Translators John Macquarrie & Edward Robinson's comment that while “[w]e tend to think of a horizon as something which we may widen or extend or go beyond, Heidegger seems to think of it as something which we can neither widen nor go beyond, but which provides the limits for certain intellectual activities performed ‘within it’ [my emphasis]” (1ff). Also see Hans-Georg Gadamer's Truth and Method (302–7).

  5. See Jameson “Interview” (82).

  6. In discussing his experiences teaching African literature in the United States, Achebe also relays the following anecdote: “I remember a white American boy who came to me very tense, after reading Things Fall Apart, and saying ‘This Okonkwo is my father!’ Now I'd never in my wildest dreams thought of Okonkwo as a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant! But this is what literature is about and why it's worth doing. Otherwise why go to America to teach African literature?” (Talking with African Writers 56).

  7. See Fanon's discussion of Mannoni's Prospero and Caliban: The Psychology of Colonization in Black Skin, White Masks (96–97).

  8. For example, Abdul JanMohammad's chapter “Chinua Achebe: The Generation of Realism,” in Manichean Aesthetics, specifically employs a Fanonian interpretive model, encapsulated by Fanon's well-known three “stages” of the colonized writer's intellectual development, which are enumerated in The Wretched of the Earth (222–23).

  9. See JanMohammad and David Lloyd's “Introduction: Toward a Theory of Minority Discourse: What Is To Be Done?,” where they state that “[t]he project of systematically articulating the implications of [a collective] subject-position … must be defined as the central task of the theory of minority discourse” (9). Also, see Anders Stephanson's “Regarding Postmodernism: A Conversation with Fredric Jameson”; Edward Said's “Orientalism Reconsidered”; David F Ruccio's “Failure of Socialism, Future of Socialists?”; and Jean-Luc Nancy's The Inoperative Community.

  10. For example, see Foucault's discussion of Jeremy Bentham's panopticon in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of The Prison, or Max Weber's rather monolithic description of contemporary society as an “iron-cage” in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (181).

  11. As the son of Anglican Christians, Achebe has written that Augustine's very name and ecclesiastical title, which he saw as a boy inscribed in his father's copy of The West African Churchman's Pamphlet, seemed for him to possess an “elusive and eternal quality, a tantalizing unfamiliarity which [he] always found moving” (“Named for Victoria, Queen of England” 37). Like Malcolm X, who described Augustine as a great black African saint (The Autobiography of Malcolm X 368), Achebe seems to find in Augustine a philosophical ally who shares many of his deepest concerns and convictions.

  12. Lawrence is quoted appreciatively in Achebe's essay “Colonialist Criticism” (Hopes and Impediments 81).

  13. For example, Achebe argues that the art of Africa mostly revitalized an exhausted European art, following the various discoveries of Picasso and others of masks and sculpture from Africa. See Achebe's “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness” (16–17) and “Colonialist Criticism” (88–89).

  14. For a helpful though brief introduction to the historical development of systematic theories of race in Europe, see Paul Bohannan and Philip Curtin's Africa and Africans (50–61).

  15. In fact, the former may very well establish the basic epistemological conditions which tended to facilitate the validation of the later.

  16. For example, see Lévi-Strauss's discussion of body painting practices among the Caduveo Indians in Brazil (Tristes Tropiques 196–97), which Jameson builds upon in The Political Unconscious (77–80), and Lévi-Strauss's similar observation in The Savage Mind [La pensée sauvage] that “the savage mind totalizes” (245).

  17. For Nwoye, Achebe tells us, the very words of the new Christian hymns were “like the drops of frozen rain melting on the dry plate of the panting earth” (Things Fall Apart 104).

  18. For example, Okonkwo and a friend are shocked at the thought that there might exist some tribes where the children belong to the wife rather than the husband, and at the suggestion that a woman might lie on top of a man during sexual intercourse (Things Fall Apart 51). However, Achebe does emphasize that the Igbo word for medicine [agadi-nwayi] means “old woman” (8–9), implying that the tribe's power comes from the feminine, and that, despite Okonkwo's persistent hatred for women, for the Igbo people in general, the motto “Mother is Supreme” seems to be a more characteristic attitude towards the feminine (94). Furthermore, while neighboring tribes may “haggle and bargain [for a bride] as if they were buying a goat,” Achebe suggests that the Umuofia-Igbo are generally less misogynistic in their own practices (51). Achebe himself comments as follows: “There is an ambivalence to women in traditional [Igbo] society … [T]here are these attitudes that suggest that there are two streams in the minds of our people: one in which women are really oppressed and given very low status and one in which they are given very high honor, sometimes even greater honor than men, at least if not in fact, in language and metaphor. I think this suggests that in this situation the role of the woman has not yet been fully worked out, that we are still ambivalent about it” (Talking with African Writers 53).

  19. For example, see Homi K. Bhabha's “Remembering Fanon: Self, Psyche, and the Discourse of Colonialism” (xix–xx).

  20. For example, Fanon often suggests that subjective desire is in fact prior to one's interpellation into language, as when he asserts the following: “I came into the world imbued with the will to find a meaning in things, my spirit filled with the desire to attain to the source of the world, and then I found that I was an object in the midst of other objects” (Black Skin, White Masks 109). While it is commonplace to suggest that existentialism served in history as both the ethical and political branch of phenomenology, many contemporary post-colonial critics have been reluctant to fully articulate the theoretical implications of Fanon's indebtedness to phenomenological and hermeneutic philosophy. One notable exception is Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who has recently argued that we must “rehistoricize” Fanon, rather than transform him into “a kind of icon or ‘screen memory’” (470).

  21. See Kurt Mueller-Vollmer's “Introduction” (12–17).

  22. In opposition to the hegemony of Derridean theory, this distinction is also preserved by Marxist theorists like Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Fredric Jameson, and numerous others.

  23. Note Heidegger's pertinent comment that “the perceiving of what is known is not a process of returning with one's booty to the ‘cabinet’ of consciousness after one has gone out and grasped it; even in perceiving, retaining, and preserving, the Dasein which knows remains outside, and it does so as Dasein [Heidegger's emphasis]” (Being and Time 89).

  24. In the text of Things Fall Apart, Igbo proverbs are cited on sixteen separate occasions, and folktales are retold on eight occasions.

  25. For example, note the following brief anecdote: “When [Obiako's] father had not been dead very long, he had gone to consult the Oracle. The Oracle said to him, ‘Your dead father wants you to sacrifice a goat to him.’ Do you know what he told the Oracle? He said, ‘Ask my dead father if he ever had a fowl when he was alive.’ Everyone laughed heartily except Okonkwo, who laughed uneasily because, as the saying goes, an old woman is always uneasy when dry bones are mentioned in a proverb. Okonkwo remembered his own father” (Achebe, Things Fall Apart 15).

  26. If Heidegger's proclivity for fascist politics renders him suspect today, it is well to remember that politically cogent theorists like Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Fredric Jameson, and many others are also heirs to Humboldt's linguistic legacies. To align Achebe with Heidegger does not then necessarily imply that one “depoliticizes” him (although this is clearly a danger).

  27. Anticipating Jameson's more politicized account in The Political Unconscious (108–9) and Late Marxism (67), George Steiner in After Babel shows us how the implications of Humboldt's linguistic theories have scarcely been realized or appreciated at present, especially Humboldt's insights into those potentially harmful attributes of language that are largely outside human control (82). Steiner states at greater length, “More than a century before the modern structuralists, Humboldt notes the distinctive binary character of the linguistic process: it shares, it mediates between, the crucial antinomies of inner and outer, subjective and objective, past and future, private and public. Language is far more than communication between speakers. It is dynamic mediation between those poles of cognition which give human experience its underlying dual and dialectical form” (83).

  28. Achebe's development of a “collective” or postcolonial subject position therefore radically departs from recent developments in Western postmodernist theory suggesting the possibility of a “schizoid” or “fragmented” subjectivity, as found, for example, in the writings of Deleuze and Guattari, as well as Jean Baudrillard, and others. Also, see JanMohammad and Lloyd's “Introduction: Towards a Theory of Minority Discourse” (15–16).

  29. See, for example, Michel Foucault's often-cited “break” with the dialectic and the advent of the “mad philosopher,” i.e., the retreat into the psychological monad (Language, Counter-Memory, Practice 41). For a more recent and technologically-oriented account of the “postmodern subject,” also see Mark Poster's “A Second Media Age?” (80–84).

  30. Any investigation of Okonkwo as quixotic hero would also need to be recast in terms of competing Marxian meta-narratives, pitting the tribal versus the imperial and/or capitalist modes of production proper, rather than, say, old-fashioned feudal and mercantile (or early) capitalist modes of production in 16th-century European society (Jameson, The Political Unconscious 95). For example, before the arrival of the British missionaries in Eastern Nigeria, the Igbo community in Things Fall Apart already trades in maize (24) and tobacco (27), both fruits of the Colombian exchange. Additionally, many Igbo, like Okonkwo, possess firearms and are cognizant of the existence of both white men and slavery (99), despite the relative isolation from non-Igbo cultural currents.

  31. Besides the often-cited writings of Richard Rorty, Edith Wyschogrod articulates this position in her “deontological” study of contemporary moral theory, Saints and Postmodernism.

  32. See Ong's Interfaces of the Word (17–22).

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Achebe, Chinua. “The Igbo World and Its Art.” Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays. New York: Anchor Books, 1990.

———. “Language and the Destiny of Man.” Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays.

———. Things Fall Apart. London: Heinemann, 1989.

———. “The Truth of Fiction.” Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays.

———. “What Has Literature Got to Do with It?” Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays.

———. “The Writer and His Community.” Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays.

Adorno, Theodor W. Aesthetic Theory. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984.

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. In My Father's House: Africa In The Philosophy of Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Augustine. City of God. New York: Penguin Books, 1984.

Baraka, Amiri. The Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1991.

Bhabha, Homi K. “Remembering Fanon: Self, Psyche, and the Discourse of Colonialism.” Foreword. Black Skin, White Masks. By Frantz Fanon. London: Grove Press, 1986.

Bohannan, Paul, and Philip Curtin. Africa and Africans. 3rd Edition. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 1988.

Césaire, Aimé. Discourse on Colonialism. New York: MR Press, 1972.

———. Discours sur le colonialisme. Paris: Présence Africaine, 1955.

Chineweizu, Onwuchekwa Jemie, and Ihechukwu Madubuike. “The Leeds-Ibadan Connection: The Scandal of Modern African Literature.” Okike 13 (January 1979): 37–46.

Clifford, James. The Predicament of Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Depestre, René. Bonjour et adieu à la négritude. Paris: Robert Lafont, 1980.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974.

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press, 1982.

———. Peau noire, masques blancs. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1965.

———. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1991.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of The Prison. New York: Vintage, 1979.

———. Language, Counter-Memory, Practice. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. 2nd Revised Edition. New York: Crossroad, 1991.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. “Critical Fanonism.” Critical Inquiry 17 (Spring 1991): 457–70.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1962.

———. Erläuterungen zu Hölderlins Dichtung. Frankfurt: Vittorio Klostermann, 1971.

———. Unterwegs zur Sprache. Pfullingen: Verlag Günter Neske, 1975.

Jameson, Fredric. Late Marxism: Adorno, or The Persistence of The Dialectic. London: Verso Press, 1990.

———. “Imaginary and Symbolic in Lacan.” The Ideologies of Theory: Volume 1. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988.

———. “Interview (with Leonard Green, Jonathan Culler, and Richard Klein).” Diacritics 12 (Fall 1982): 3.

———. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981.

JanMohammad, Abdul R. Manichean Aesthetics: The Politics of Literature in Colonial Africa. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1983.

JanMohammad, Abdul R., and David Lloyd. “Introduction: Toward a Theory of Minority Discourse: What Is To Be Done?” The Nature and Context of Minority Discourse. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Lawrence, Margaret. Long Drums and Cannons. London: Macmillan, 1968.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Savage Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.

———. Tristes Tropiques. New York: Penguin Books, 1992.

Malcolm X and Alex Haley. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Ballantine Books, 1990.

Mannoni, Dominique O. Prospero and Caliban: The Psychology of Colonization. New York: Praeger, 1964.

Marx, Karl. Capital III. New York: International Publishers, 1977.

Ménil, René. Tracées: Identité, négritude, esthétique aux Antilles. Paris: Robert Lafont, 1981.

Mueller-Vollmer, Kurt. “Introduction: Language, Mind, and Artifact: An Outline of Hermeneutic Theory Since the Enlightenment.” The Hermeneutics Reader. New York: Continuum, 1990.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. The Inoperative Community. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991.

O'Meara, John. “Introduction.” City of God. By St. Augustine. New York: Penguin Books, 1984.

Ong, Walter J. Interfaces of the Word: Studies in the Evolution of Consciousness and Culture. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1977.

———. The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1967.

Poster, Mark. “A Second Media Age?” Arena Journal No. 3 (1994): 49–91.

Ruccio, David F. “Failure of Socialism, Future of Socialists?” Rethinking Marxism 5.2 (Summer 1992): 7–22.

Said, Edward. “Orientalism Reconsidered.” Cultural Critique (Fall 1985): 89–107.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. The Post-colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Steiner, Georg. After Babel. New York and London: Oxford University Press, 1975.

Stephanson, Anders. “Regarding Postmodernism: A Conversation with Fredric Jameson.” Postmodernism/Jameson/Critique. Ed. Douglas Kellner. Washington, DC: Maisonneuve Press, 1989. 43–74.

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Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Scribners, 1958.

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Patrick C. Nnoromele (essay date Spring 2000)

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SOURCE: “The Plight of a Hero in Achebe's Things Fall Apart,” in College Literature, Vol. 27, No. 2, Spring, 2000, pp. 146–56.

[In the following essay, Nnoromele addresses the question of why the character Okonkwo fails at the end of Things Fall Apart and asserts that Achebe acted as a neutral narrator throughout the novel.]

Although Things Fall Apart remains the most widely read African novel, the failure of its hero continues to generate haunting questions in the minds of some of its readers, especially among those who seem to identify with the hero's tragedy. Central to this discomfort is the question: why did Achebe choose as his hero an aspiring but brutal young man who ultimately took his own life? The author himself acknowledges that he has “been asked this question in one form or another by a certain kind of reader for thirty years” (Lindfors 1991, 22).1 According to Achebe, these readers wanted to know why he allowed a just cause to stumble and fall? Why did he let Okonkwo (the hero of the novel) fail?

Several commentators have argued that Okonkwo's failure is due to his individual character weaknesses. Many blame it on the fragmentation of the Umuofia society and the destruction of its cultural values by the colonial powers. Yet others stress both.2 There is no doubt that these things played a role in the suffering mind of the hero, but to argue that they are the reason for his failure is, in my opinion, too limited. Hence, I want to argue, contrary to popular views, that Okonkwo's downfall is not necessarily due to weaknesses in character or departed African glories but rather is a function of heroism in the cultural belief systems of the Igbos. As Okhamafe aptly noted, perhaps “things begin to fall apart in this nine-village Umuofia clan long before a European colonialist missionary culture inserts itself there” (Okhamafe 1995, 134).

Things Fall Apart is not a novel without a cultural context. It is a text rooted in the social customs, traditions, and cultural milieu of a people. The characters and their actions are better understood when they are examined in that light. To do otherwise not only denies the novel a full measure of appreciation, it also renders vague and imprecise the significance of certain events, actions, and actors in the story.

What we have in this novel is a vivid picture of the Igbo society at the end of the nineteenth century-Achebe described for the world the positive as well as the negative aspects of the Igbo people. He discussed the Igbos' social customs, their political structures, religions, even seasonal festivals and ceremonies. He provided the picture without any attempt to romanticize or sentimentalize it. As he said in another occasion, “the characters are normal people and their events are real human events” (Lindfors 1991, 21).3 Achebe told the story as it is.

The fact of his account is that the Igbo clan (of which I am a member) is a group of African people with a complex, vigorous, and self-sufficient way of life. Prior to the invasion of their land and the eclipse of their culture by foreign powers, they were undisturbed by the present, and they had no nostalgia for the past. In the novel, Achebe portrayed a people who are now caught between two conflicting cultures. On the one hand, there is the traditional way of life pulling on the Umuofia people and one man's struggle to maintain that cultural integrity against an overwhelming force of the colonial imperialism. On the other hand, we have the European style which, as presented, seems to represent the future, a new community of the so-called “civilized world.” It now appears this African man, Okonkwo, and the entire society of Umuofia must make a choice between the old and the new—if they have the power. The desire to become a member of European-style society has its attraction. For one, it is conveyed to the Umuofia people, including Okonkwo, as a means of enjoying the spoils of twentieth-century civilization. But Okonkwo refused to endorse the appeal. He recognized that accepting the invitation is done at the expense of the things that comprised his identity and defined his values.

So when some members of the Umuofia community unwittingly accepted the invitation and endorsed “a strange faith,” things fell apart for the Igbo people in Achebe's novel. Umuofia's integrated, organic community was irreparably fractured. Their gods were blasphemed and their hero disabled. Their customs were desecrated and shattered. The people were divided or put asunder. The British District Commissioner took charge and controlled the people. So we have what seems like a total imposition of one cultural, social, and political structure upon another. The hero of the novel found himself plunged into disaster. He had to kill himself. Obierika, one of the characters in the novel, expressed it this way: “That man [Okonkwo] was one of the greatest men in Umuofia. You drove him to kill himself: and now he will be buried like a dog” (1996, 147). This was a tragic act, leading to the exacerbating question of why did Achebe let the hero fail especially among those who have experienced or confronted the harsh face of colonialism. However, Okonkwo's calamitous act was not unexpected. All that happened to him and the fact that he had to take his own life were primarily the function of the Igbo's conception of a hero and, perhaps, the rift within the clan brought about by foreign domination.

A hero, in the Igbo cultural belief system, is one with great courage and strength to work against destabilizing forces of his community, someone who affects, in a special way, the destinies of others by pursuing his own. He is a man noted for special achievements. His life is defined by ambivalence, because his actions must stand in sharp contrast to ordinary behavior. So a hero is not made in isolation; rather he is a product of the social matrix within which he operates. The person's determination to pursue his individual interest concomitantly with that of the society is a constant source of dynamic tensions because his obligations to his society can become an impediment to his individual quest for fame and reputation. However, this impediment must be overcome if he is to be a hero. Paradoxically, a hero becomes both the disrupting and integrating principles of the community. Okonkwo, the central character in Things Fall Apart, is the epitome of this complex concept and the personification of the cultural ambiguity of the Igbo people.

In Things Fall Apart, Achebe made it clear that Okonkwo's single passion was “to become one of the lords of the clan” (1996, 92). According to Achebe, it was Okonkwo's “life-spring.” Okonkwo wanted to be a hero. Unfortunately, the road to heroism in the Igbo's belief system is chronically fraught with difficulties of varying degrees.

The first challenge Okonkwo was expected to overcome was his father's reputation—in this case his father had none. However, he was determined to succeed in whatever respect his father had failed, knowing full well that among his “people a man was judged according to his worth and not according to the worth of his father” (1996, 6)—a juxtaposition of opposing claims about which the narrator (quite understandably) made no attempt to reconcile.4 His father, Unoka, enjoyed gentleness and idleness. He “was lazy and improvident and was quite incapable of thinking about tomorrow” (3). Unoka was said to rejoice in song, dance, and drinking of palm-wine as his way of avoiding responsibility. In fact, he preferred these things to rending his yam-field. He was a man without title in the village of Umuofia, and he could not endure the sight of blood (8). Biologically, he was a male, but among the Igbo, he was never a man. So people laughed at him. In order to become a hero, Okonkwo felt he must overcome this public estimation of his father. At the outset of the novel, Achebe made the following remarks about Okonkwo: “His fame rested on solid personal achievements.” “He had no patience with unsuccessful men” (3). “His whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness” (9). So Okonkwo hated what his father was and became the opposite.

Not only is a hero expected to overcome the reputation of his father, he is also expected to surpass the reputations of his peers. In other words, he must outperform people in his age group or those he grew up with. Among the Igbos good effort is respected, “but achievement was revered” (1996, 6). Okonkwo must achieve concrete things to be a hero and he did. Here is Achebe's account of his achievement:

If ever a man deserved his success, that man was Okonkwo. At an early age, he had achieved fame as the greatest wrestler in all the land. That was not luck At the most, one could say that his chi or personal god was good. But the Igbo people have a proverb that when a man says yes, his chi says yes also. Okonkwo said yes very strongly: so his chi agreed. And not only his chi, but his clan too, because it judged a man by the work of his hands. That was why Okonkwo had been chosen by the nine villages to carry a message of war to their enemies unless they agree to give up a young man and a virgin to atone for the murder of Udo's wife.

(Achebe 1996, 19–20)

Okonkwo's accomplishments in Umuofia earned him the respect and honor of the elders and the people. He defeated Amalinze the Cat and was proclaimed the greatest wrestler in Umuofia and Mbaino. He demonstrated exceptional skills as a warrior of the clan by bringing home five heads during inter-tribal conflicts. Achebe portrayed him as a man with “incredible prowess” and passion to conquer and subdue his enemies (1996, 6). He was a successful farmer and married three wives—clear evidence among the Igbos of a strong and wealthy man. The ultimatum of war that he delivered to the enemy of Umuofia yielded immediate results. Achebe wrote: “When Okonkwo of Umuofia arrived at Mbaino as the proud and imperious emissary of war, he was treated with great honor and respect, and two days later he returned home with a lad of fifteen and a young virgin. The lad's name was Ikemefuna, whose sad story is still told in Umuofia unto this day” (9). Okonkwo started with nothing, but through hard work and determination he became successful.

Another barrier one is expected to overcome in the quest for heroism is the person's obligation to the society, which, of course, may adversely affect his individual quest for reputation. The nature of the dynamic tensions this can create was evident in Okonkwo's lifestyle. Perhaps this accounts for the reason some interpreters of Things Fall Apart think that Achebe paints “a paradoxical portrait of a protagonist who is both a typical Igbo man as well as an individual” (Lindfors 1991, 17).5

Among the Igbos, a person's obligation to the society calls for cooperation. It calls for submission to the counsel of elders, the precepts, and laws of the land, which are established for the good of the society. I think the most difficult aspect of it all is the subordination of one's own interest to that of the group or society. Okonkwo had a scrupulous desire to fulfill his obligation to the society, but he often realized that it only brought him to a crossroad of conflicting loyalties. A typical example of this happened on the night when the Priestess of Agbala came to take Ezinma, Okonkwo's daughter, for Agbala's blessing. In spite of his inexorable commitment to support and defend the laws of the land, Okonkwo felt the natural pull to resist established social order. He was expressively unapproving of the untimely visit by the Priestess. He perceived her arrival as an intrusion to his family's domestic life. However, his insistent but unsuccessful protestations only elicited a scream from the Priestess of Agbala, who warned: “‘Beware, Okonkwo!’ ‘Beware of exchanging words with Agbala. Does a man speak when a god speaks? Beware!’” (Achebe 1996, 96). Albeit, the Priestess took Ezinma to the Oracle of the Hills and Caves and returned her safely to Okonkwo's family the following day. But we learned from the narrator that Okonkwo was noticeably worried, and wondered about these conflicting loyalties.

Even Obierika, who seemed to disapprove of Okonkwo's commitment to the central doctrines of his culture, observed and agonized over the lack of equilibrium between the pull of private values and public expectations. The force of this pull is succinctly captured in the following passage:

He remembered his wife's twin children, whom he had thrown away. What 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 great goddess, her wrath was loosed on all the land and not just on the offender. As the elders said, if one finger brought oil it soiled the others.

(Achebe 1996, 88)

Obierika, like Okonkwo, felt the endemic tensions of conflicting cultural values—the incessant discord between public loyalty to the goddess of the clan and private loyalty to the family. But the difference between Okonkwo and Obierika was, Okonkwo was a man of few words. He allowed his actions to speak for him. However, the cumulative effects of all these things led to his eventual suicide. This is the kind of dilemma one confronts on the road to heroism and it can be overwhelming. A hero, in Okonkwo's world, must face (it seems) a constant strife between two sets of values, the societal and the personal, but he never can find the equilibrium. It is, therefore, not a surprise to see Okonkwo take his own life. I believe this was precisely what Sarr observed when he critically remarked that at times, the reader of Achebe's novel, is faced with contradictions. “Ibo society” he added, “is full of contradictions.” “It is a male-dominated society in which the chief goddess is female and in which proverbial wisdom maintains ‘Mother is supreme’”—a sustained duality in belief systems common to much of Africa (1993, 349).6 Central to this observation is the fact that the Igbo community is a society that is at once communal and individualistic. Such a worldview or ambiguous value system reveals, Sarr properly concluded, “the dilemma that shapes and destroys the life of Okonkwo” (349).

Although Okonkwo expressed rigidity and inflexibility in his life, Achebe told us that down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. I believe the most charitable way to understand this is by looking briefly at different manifestations of Okonkwo's esoteric life. For example, when he violated the peace week by beating his youngest wife, which was an offense to the goddess, Okonkwo agreed to make offerings as demanded by the custom of Umuofia. In fact, he offered an additional pot of palm-wine, which was a distinct indication of genuine repentance and cooperation for the good of the community. Achebe had Ezeani say to Okonkwo:

“You know as well as I do that our forefathers ordained that before we plant any crops in the earth we should observe a week in which a man does not say a harsh word to his neighbors. We live in peace with our fellows to honor our great goddess of the earth without whose blessing our crops will not grow. You have committed a great evil.” [As Okonkwo heard this] He brought down his staff heavily on the floor. “Your wife was at fault, but even if you came into your Obi and found her lover on top of her, you would still have committed a great evil to beat her.” [As soon as Okonkwo heard this] His staff came down again. “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.” He rose and left the hut.

(Achebe 1996, 22)

Okonkwo made the sacrifices to the earth goddess.

In another occasion, we learn that Okonkwo breathed a heavy sigh of relief when he found out that his wife, Ekwefi was unharmed after he had fired at her in a fit of rage. Thus, we observe within some of these occasional flashes of cruelty, a rare manifestation of tenderness. Similarly, on the night when the priestess of Agbala carried Ekwefi's daughter off to the Oracle of the Hills and Caves for the young girl to pay homage to her god, Ekwefi followed in terror for her child. Cognizant of his wife's state of terror, Okonkwo joined Ekwefi to provide re-assurance. When Ekwefi noticed Okonkwo's presence, “Tears of gratitude filled her eyes” (Achebe 1996, 106). As both of them waited outside their home in the dawn, Achebe said, Ekwefi remembered the generous love with which Okonkwo had taken her at the moment she became his wife. Perhaps Okonkwo was not a cruel man. For these occasional episodes are seemingly indications of a kind-hearted man.

Paradoxically, Okonkwo would never achieve heroism among the Igbos if he totally subordinated his interest to that of the society at large. Hence, it was incumbent on him to exhibit other qualities that might be perceived as a threat to social order. “And he did pounce on people quite often” (Achebe 1996, 3). As Achebe said, Okonkwo made people wonder whether he respected the gods of the clan. He “was popularly called the ‘Roaring Flame’” (108). “Okonkwo was not the man to stop beating somebody halfway through, not even for fear of a goddess” (21). In his culture, a man who was unable to rule his own family was not considered a real man, not to mention a hero. So Okonkwo “ruled his household with a heavy hand” (9) and made people afraid of him. A hero should be impervious to emotions. The narrator told us that Okonkwo expressed no emotion, except anger. He was stoical to the harsh realities of life and appeared immune to problems. This is the life of a hero, a self-made man. Sometimes Okonkwo acted as if he was answerable to no one, and at other times he was the opposite. Obierika (Okonkwo's closest friend) pointed to this cultural ambiguity in the system when he sought (as he always did) a compromise from Okonkwo between conflicting loyalties. But Okonkwo responded impatiently, “The Earth (goddess) cannot punish me for obeying her messenger” (47). It would seem, for the Igbos, a hero must lead a life of self-contradiction; and Okonkwo was one primary example. It is, therefore, not surprising why contemporary commentators like Wasserman and Purdon contended that “Okonkwo represents a type of selfish individualism that is in essence a threat to Ibo notions of clan, and culture” (1993, 327).

In the opening lines of chapter seven, the narrator said, it seemed the elders of Umuofia had forgotten Ikemefuna (the lad who was entrusted to Okonkwo's care) but not the oracle. For three years Ikemefuna lived in Okonkwo's household. He was wholly absorbed into the family and Okonkwo became fond of him. Suddenly, the announcement came from the Oracle that Ikemefuna must be killed according to the tradition of Umuofia. The boy at this point regarded Okonkwo as a father. So, Ogbuefi Ezeudu specifically warned Okonkwo to stay at home. “The Oracle of the Hills and the Caves has pronounced it. They will take him (Ikemefuna) outside Umuofia as it is the custom, and kill him there. But I warn you to have nothing to do with it. He calls you father” (Achebe 1996, 40).

The cultural practice was that when the gods or goddesses demanded anyone for sacrifice, the family must be excluded because the Umuofia people believed that the emotional attachment the family might have for that individual would interfere with the process or the obligation to execute the demands of the Oracle. Hence, Ogbuefi Ezeudu sought for at least a passive compromise from Okonkwo. Since Okonkwo's passion was to be a hero, he felt his manliness might be called into question; therefore, he defied his friend's admonition and accompanied the procession into the forest.

What happened next would be used in the novel partly for the downfall of Okonkwo. Ikemefuna had to die. The values of the whole clan of Umuofia would be tested, if not forever, by this journey in which Ikemefuna would be killed. Achebe explained the episode in these words:

As the man who had cleared his throat drew up and raised his machet, Okonkwo looked away. He heard the blow. The pot (of palm-wine) 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 matchet and cut him down. He was afraid of being thought weak.

(Achebe 1996, 43; emphasis is mine).

The death of Ikemefuna invoked varying or contrasting emotional reactions from both Okonkwo and Nwoye (Okonkwo's son) which dramatizes what Okonkwo apprehended as a dichotomy between strength and gentleness. Achebe said, as “soon as his father walked in, that night, Nwoye knew that Ikemefuna [someone he had come to know and treat as a friend] had been killed, and something seemed to give way inside him, like the snapping of a tightened bow. He did not cry. … He just hung limp” (1996, 43). Nwoye would have loved to cry, but couldn't, because Okonkwo had tried to raise him up like himself. In Okonkwo's world, real men do not show effeminate emotion. Crying is not a masculine attribute.

In Chapter Eight, we are told that Okonkwo himself could not sleep. He was distraught and deeply affected by the death of Ikemefuna and his sons reaction to it. As Achebe told us, Okonkwo was not a man of many words (something traditionally viewed as a masculine quality in the Umuofia's belief system), so he bottled his feelings within his heart. For two whole days he ate nothing as he struggled to erase the memory of killing a child who called him father. It was the cumulative effects of these things, including the impact the death of Ikemefuna had on his son that paved the way to Okonkwo's eventual suicide. But the death of Ikemefuna had no immediate impact on the Umuofia people. It was however, definitely an apocalyptic step towards things that were yet to come.

Later at the funeral of Ogbuefi Ezeudu, Okonkwo's gun accidentally discharged and killed the son of Ezeudu. Even though this was an accident, it was viewed as an abomination in the land, for under no circumstances would someone kill a clansman. Okonkwo and family had to flee the land before the cock crowed. They found refuge in his mother's village, Mbanta. He and his family endured seven years in exile. In the meantime, offerings were made in Okonkwo's compound, after their departure, to cleanse the land and placate the gods. Okonkwo saw this sojourn to Mbanta as a training experience in the wilderness. While he was in the village, he found out that the Mbanta clan was allowing missionaries to establish Christian churches and make converts especially among the untouchable. He saw how the missionaries defied the power of the local gods. His son, Nwoye, who suffered from inner turmoil as a result of the death of Ikemefuna,7 decided to attend the mission school. He left his father's house and joined the Christian church. This was the straw that broke the camel's back. Okonkwo was furious and disappointed. He tried unsuccessfully to get the Mbanta clan to chase the missionaries out. When they couldn't get the missionaries out, Okonkwo sighed heavily and longed for his father's land, where according to him, men were men, bold, and war-like (Achebe 1996, 141).

When he finally returned to his fatherland, little did he know that the missionaries had penetrated his father's land too and made converts of different categories of Umuofia clan, ranging from the low-born and the outcast to the men of title and stature. They also established white government with a courthouse where “the District Commissioner judged cases in ignorance” (Achebe 1996, 123). Obierika explained it this way: “The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceable with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart” (125). Fallen apart indeed! “Okonkwo's return to his native land was not as memorable as he had wished” (129). He never received the hero's welcome he dreamed of. He returned to a different Umuofia from the one he had known. In the present Umuofia, “men [have] unaccountably become soft like women” (129). He wanted to fight, but Obierika said to him: “It is already too late. … Our own men and our sons have joined the ranks of the strangers. They have joined his religion and they help to uphold his government. … How do you think we can fight when our own brothers have turned against us?” (124).

Okonkwo left and killed himself, not because of character weakness, or the departed African glories. Rather, it was the inevitable consequence of the Igbos' complex concept of a hero. As Sarma keenly pointed out:

One cannot somehow lay the blame on Okonkwo. His action at the end, hasty though it was, was quite in accordance with the traditional values. It was an act of conviction, almost religious, and the end vindicated the character of Okonkwo, who emerges as the lone representative of the Igbo value system while the entire community lay around him in a shambles.

(Sarma 1993, 69)

Okonkwo, who had a resolute hunger to become a hero, was not afraid of the forces that surrounded him. However, he was so overwhelmed by the cumulative effects of his experiences on the road to heroism that he felt the only thing left to do was to commit suicide, Okonkwo had to maintain his integrity as a hero. The truth of this profound, but ambivalent act is reflected in the Igbo proverb that says: “The thought that led a man to truncate his own existence was not conceived in a day.” It was not just one single thing or event that forced Okonkwo to kill himself. His suicidal act was an ultimate expression of the compound effects of his own experiences in his unflinching desire to become a hero. Okonkwo was a hero. Hence, he had to depart from the battlefield as one. A hero would rather die than be captured and/or humiliated by the enemy. Okonkwo's death cheated his enemies, the European colonizers, of their revenge. But to the Umuofia people, it was unambiguously imprinted in their minds that there had been an irreversible break with the past. Umuofia would never again be what it was.

Contrary to the charge that the author of the novel allowed Okonkwo to stumble and fall, Achebe did not cause the hero's downfall. He was not responsible for Okonkwo's tragedy. Achebe saw his role as that of a neutral narrator. Thus, he presented, in a non-committal fashion, the tensions and conflicts between traditional values and alien culture, the “private self” and “public man” and their attendant consequences in a pre-colonial society.


  1. Achebe did respond to the question (without sufficient elaboration) by saying: “the concepts of success and failure as commonly used in this connection are inadequate. Did Okonkwo fail? In a certain sense, he did, obviously. But he also left behind a story strong enough to make those who hear it … wish devoutly that things had gone differently for him” (Achebe 1991, 22–23).

  2. For this and other contemporary interpretations of the novel, see Lott and Lott (1993). This volume contains an extensive bibliographic essay on Things Fall Apart. See also McDougall (1986, 24–33).

  3. The characters in this novel, including the gods or divinities, ancestors, and the events, are actual representations of the Igbo people and their cultural belief systems.

  4. Among the Umuofia people, a hero is expected to overcome the reputation of his father. Yet the society maintains that one is not judged by the worth of one's father. This is a contradiction, an unresolved discrepancy so indicative of the Igbo traditional values. Achebe made no effort to reconcile or extract a true version from these conflicting accounts, because he was writing from the standpoint of a neutral narrator.

  5. See also Devi (1993, 79–86).

  6. See, for instance, Adams (1982).

  7. Nwoye could not express his emotion as felt, because his father, Okonkwo reacting to his own father's effeminacy, had taught Nwoye to believe that the expression of effeminate emotion was a sign of weakness. Thus, Nwoye tried to bottle his feelings in his heart. The unavoidable consequence of this was the despair and inner turmoil he suffered in his life.

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. 1991. “Teaching Things Fall Apart,” In Approaches to Teaching “Things Fall Apart,” ed. Bernth Lindfors. New York: The Modern Language Association of America.

———. 1996. Things Fall Apart. Portsmouth: Heinemann.

Adams, Monni. 1982. Designs for Living: Symbolic Communication in African Art. Cambridge: Harvard University; Carpenter Center for the Arts.

Devi, N. Rama. 1993. “Pre-and Post-Colonial Society in Achebe's Novels.” In Indian Response to African Writing, ed. A. Ramakrishna Rao and C. R. Visweswara Rao. New Delhi: Prestige Books.

Lindfors, Bernth, ed. 1991. Approaches to Teaching “Things Fall Apart.” New York: The Modern Language Association of America.

Lott, John, and Sandra Lott. 1993. “Approaches to Things Fall Apart.In Global Perspectives on Teaching Literature, ed. Sandra Ward Lott, Maureen S. G. Hawkins, and Norman McMillan. Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English.

McDougall, Russell. 1986. “Okonkwo's Walk: The Choreography of Things Falling Apart.” World Literature Written in English. 26.1: 24–33.

Okhamafe, Imafedia. 1995. “Genealogical Determinism in Achebe's Things Fall Apart.” In Genealogy and Literature. Ed. Lee Quinby. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Sarr, Ndiawar. 1993. “The Center Holds: The Resilience of Ibo Culture in Things Fall Apart.” In Global Perspectives on Teaching Literature, ed. Sandra Ward Lott, Maureen S. G. Hawkins, and Norman McMillan. Urbana, Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English.

Sarma, S. Krishna. 1993. “Okonkwo and His Chi.” In Indian Response to African Writing, ed. A. Ramakrishna Rao and C. R. Visweswara Rao. New Delhi: Prestige Books.

Wasserman, Julian, and Liam O. Purdon. 1993. “If the Shoe Fits: Teaching Beowulf with Achebe's Things Fall Apart.” In Global Perspectives on Teaching Literature, ed. Sandra Ward Lott, Maureen S. G. Hawkins, and Norma McMillan. Urbana, Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English.

Emeka Nwabueze (essay date Summer 2000)

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SOURCE: “Theoretical Construction and Constructive Theorizing on the Execution of Ikemefuna in Achebe's Things Fall Apart: A Study in Critical Dualism,” in Research in African Literatures, Vol. 31, No. 2, Summer, 2000, pp. 163–73.

[In the following essay, Nwabueze analyzes the episode in Things Fall Apart in which the character Okonkwo participates in the killing of Ikemefuna and asserts that this episode has been misinterpreted by many critics.]

Wherever Something Stands,
Something Else stands beside it.

—Igbo Proverb

The use of proverbial lore is a prominent conversational feature in the Igboland of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. So important is the use of proverbs in Igbo conversation and orature that Achebe describes it as “the palm oil with which words are eaten” (5). The proverb quoted above is concerned with the concept of duality in interpretative reasoning and can be seen as a philosophical pedestal on which Achebe's Things Fall Apart stands. It is apparently the recognition of the importance of this proverb in Achebe's art that prompted Bill Moyers to seek the interpretation of this proverb from Achebe himself (333). In the interview, Achebe states that it is important to examine an issue critically in order to reveal a second point of view. Achebe, it appears, advises critics to seek a second point of view in interpreting his life and art. Stressing this concept of duality in his essay “Chi in Igbo Cosmology” in Morning Yet on Creation Day, Achebe states:

Wherever Something Stands Something Else will stand beside it. Nothing is absolute. I am the truth, the way and the life would be called blasphemous or simply absurd for is it not well known that a man may worship Ogwugwu to perfection and yet be killed by Udo.


One of the major causes of the misinterpretation of Achebe by critics, it appears, is that they sometimes seek meaning from historical and sociological data that are so apparent in Achebe's novels. Hence, they sometimes fail to recognize the importance of a more critical view from what the historical and sociological data reveal. As Simon Gikandi has pointed out:

Achebe has suffered the misfortune of being taken for granted: the intricate and deep structures that inform his narratives are rarely examined, except on an elementary introductory level, and the ideologies that inform his narratives and his theoretical reflection rarely seem to have the influence one would expect from Africa's leading novelist. Clearly, Achebe has been a victim of that kind of “first” reading which Roland Barthes condemned as the consumption of the text, a reading which erases the problematics of the text and its contradictory meanings in its quest for the artifice of continuity.


Duality seems to appeal to Achebe because it produces a multiplicity of meanings and indeterminate zones of representation that generate narrative invention. In another sense, I believe, duality allows the author, like his Igbo ancestors, to contest the dependence on reason in interpretation and analyses of facts and situations. The problem of establishing fixed taxonomy among people that do not thrive in fixed taxonomies, it seems to me, is partly the cause of the misinterpretation of Achebe's work by some critics. Furthermore, recourse to sociological taxonomies causes the critic to have fixed expectations about the behavior of a fictional character, judging him or her from the sociological beliefs of his or her people rather than from the narrative viewpoint. As Lekan Oyegoke has pointed out, “in the realm of textual strategies there are no permanent questions and no permanent answers, let alone permanent solutions” (66).

One of the episodes in the novel where the concept of dualism seems very apparent is the execution of the young lad, Ikemefuna. The episode is so crucial to the development of the novel that it has been subjected to much interpretation by critics. The conclusion most critics reach from the analysis of this episode is that because of his participation in the execution of the boy “that calls him father,” Okonkwo's life faced a negative trend, and finally steered to the horrendous denouement.

G. D. Killam (20), Charles E. Nnolim (58), Robert M. Wren (44), David Carrol (42), and Emmanuel Obiechina (131) maintain that Okonkwo committed a dreadful offence by participating in the execution of Ikemefuna. They posit that because of this hideous act, Okonkwo's life began to decline and eventually drifted to catastrophe. Some critics suggest that the dreaded goddess, Ala, was exerting punishment on Okonkwo for the dreadful act of killing Ikemefuna. Others mainly base their conclusion on the authority of an Umuofia elder, Ogbuefi Ezeudu, who warns Okonkwo not to participate in the execution because Ikemefuna calls him his father, as well as on that of his friend, Obierika, who blames him after the incident.

Damian U. Opata, in a thorough and comprehensive analysis of the episode, challenges this conclusion. He considers Okonkwo's killing of Ikemefuna an unconscionable act, but sees it neither as an offence nor as an orchestration of Okonkwo's decline. Opata argues that since Ikemefuna's death had already been ordained by the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves, his execution was a fait accompli. Thus, Okonkwo should be seen as merely executing the pronouncement of the dreaded oracle. Opata posits that Okonkwo ought to be seen as an obedient servant rather than as a vicious killer. Through a careful analysis of the incident, Opata concludes that Okonkwo's killing of Ikemefuna is instinctive because he was not in control of the situation and therefore had no time to consider his action. He sees that matter as torn between eternal sacred order and conventional wisdom and maintains that “we should not apply the principle of morality to a situation in which he [Okonkwo] was inexorably led by uncanny fate” (76).

Solomon Iyasere accepts the fact that “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” (132). But Iyasere disagrees with Opata and accuses him of misreading the text, which, he argues, led to what he describes as the inaccuracies of Opata's conclusions. Iyasere maintains that “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” (132). Iyasere appears to be committing the same offence of which he accuses Opata, and seems to substitute Achebe's meaning for his own. This substitution stems from his interpretation of Okonkwo's character. According to him, “Opata's argument that Okonkwo is a victim of fate denies him his tragic stature and thereby robs him of our deepest sympathy” (133). Being a victim of fate neither diminishes the stature of a tragic hero nor robs him of sympathy. Even in Classical tragedy, a character could be a victim of fate and yet maintain a gigantic tragic stature, and could even elicit the greatest sympathy from us through his/her fate, especially the fact that he/she suffers from what he/she does not totally deserve.

It is therefore necessary for us to examine Okonkwo's character and the psychoanalytic situations that led to what Opata describes as “instinctive action.” The origin of the psychic pattern that portrays Okonkwo's behavior should be traced to the paternal imago. No doubt, the contemptible life and shameful death of his father, Unoka, exercised much force over his emotions and thinking and, in fact philosophy of life. Though he rebelled to the extent of casting off his father's passion for gentleness and idleness, it still had a tremendous influence on his life. Achebe clearly states, through the authorial voice, that “deep down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man” and goes further to elaborate that Okonkwo's

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, the fear of the forest, and the forces of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw. 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.


Okonkwo stammers and resorts to his fists “when he is angry and could not get his words out quickly” (3). This resort to violence, it appears, is a way of rejecting his father's image. Unoka is portrayed as a man of words, a man of verbal excellence who employs “a sense of the dramatic” in the artistic manipulation of words and action. Despite this skill, Unoka lived a contemptible life and died a shameful death. Okonkwo's rejection of the only acceptable skill of his father is, therefore, understandable.

In his analysis of the incident, the astute critic Carrol considers the incident as “a comment on Okonkwo's heartlessness” (49). But if we agree that his fear drove him to the action, we can only conclude that he is merely reacting to the psychological situation that dominates his life and directs his action. Achebe feeds the reader with this information through the authorial voice. It is therefore necessary to examine the authorial voice and assess what it says about Okonkwo's love for Ikemefuna, and his reason for executing the young lad. The first question that comes to mind is: Is Okonkwo fond of Ikemefuna? The answer is certainly “yes.” The authorial voice tells us that Okonkwo was “very fond of the boy” and that despite the fact that he treated Ikemefuna with as heavy a hand as he treated everyone else, “there was no doubt that he liked the boy” (20). In fact, it is this fondness for Ikemefuna that causes Ikemefuna to call Okonkwo “father”:

Sometimes when he [Okonkwo] went to big village meetings or communal ancestral feasts he allowed Ikemefuna to accompany him, like a son, carrying his stool and his goatskin bag.


The consequence of this benevolence is expressed in the authorial voice, which concludes this passage: “And indeed, Ikemefuna called him father” (20).

When one recounts the reason for Ikemefuna's sojourn in Umuofia and the way Okonkwo treats him, one would conclude that Okonkwo's action, though heartless in itself as Carrol (49) and Iyasere (123) tend to conclude, the intention is not deliberate. It is in recognition of this fact that the authorial voice states that “down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man” (9). Ikemefuna was brought to Umuofia as a compensation, an atonement for the murder of Udo's wife:

An ultimatum was immediately dispatched to Mbaino asking them to choose between war on the one hand, and on the other the offer of a young man and a virgin as compensation.


The people of Mbaino responded positively. The virgin was a replacement for Udo's wife, while the young man was to be sacrificed to cleanse the land. Right from the point Ikemefuna was handed over to Okonkwo, his fate was clear to everybody, including his parents. He belonged to the clan and had surrendered all freedom and paternal attachment. He was the kind of person the Igbos describe as Nwa-ora, a public property, an osu, or outcast, a sacrificial scapegoat who would be used or abused according to the dictates of the oracle:

As for the boy, he belonged to the clan as a whole, and there was no hurry to decide his fate. Okonkwo was, therefore, asked on behalf of the clan to look after him in the interim. And so for three years Ikemefuna lived in Okonkwo's household.


Achebe uses repetition as an artistic device to keep the fate of Ikemefuna in the continuous focus of the reader, and to prepare the mind of the reader for the eventual execution:

So when the daughter of Umuofia was killed in Mbaino, Ikemefuna came to live in Okonkwo's household.


And that was how he came to look after a doomed lad who

was sacrificed to the village of Umuofia by their neighbors to avoid war and bloodshed. The ill-fated lad was called Ikemefuna.


There is therefore no doubt that Ikemefuna and the young virgin were meant “to atone for the murder of Udo's wife” (19), and this makes Ikemefuna's death a fait accompli, as Opata maintains. In fact, the name of the young virgin is not even mentioned in the novel because she is merely a tool designed for atonement. Ikemefuna's name is mentioned not only because she plays a more prominent role in the novel than the young virgin, but also to show the irony in human behavior. Ikemefuna means “may my strength not be lost.” The reference to strength alludes to the Igbo belief in the importance of the male child in the continuation of the family name. But in this case, legitimate strength is dissipated in favor of a reckless display of strength against the powerless.

Iyasere suggests that Okonkwo was eager to participate in the execution of Ikemefuna. According to him, the fact that Okonkwo “got ready quickly” when the team of elders came to collect Ikemefuna is a demonstration of “his eagerness to participate in the execution” (132). This may not be so, because the narrative suggests that the decision to executive Ikemefuna was very painful to Okonkwo. When Ogbuefi Ezeudu brought the news of the oracle's pronouncement that it was time for Ikemefuna to face his fate, Okonkwo was surprised and bereft of words. The next day, after the exit of the representative of the nine villages who had visited Okonkwo to finalize arrangements for the execution, “Okonkwo sat still for a very long time supporting his chin in his palm” (40). In Igboland that is the posture of a man in distress, a man suffering from frustration and psychological torture.

It is consequently necessary to examine Okonkwo's thinking during this period to attempt to unravel the contents of his mind by striking a balance between his subsequent action and the authorial voice. This, at least, is a way of establishing whether Okonkwo's killing of Ikemefuna was premeditated. We are aware of the fact that Okonkwo abhors idleness, whether in action or in thought. It should therefore be clear that whatever occupied his thought for such a long time must have been something he considered quite serious.

By the time he called Ikemefuna to tell him that he would be taken home the next day, his decision has already been made. It is important to remember that he need not provide reasons to Ikemefuna for the journey. To give him such comforting reason for the journey is proof of Okonkwo's thoughtfulness and humanity, as well as his fondness for Ikemefuna. It is also an evidence of his recognition of Ikemefuna's intelligence. Okonkwo was sure that it would not be easy for Ikemefuna to travel with strange-looking, machete-wielding elders to the groves of the dreaded oracle in the pretext that he was being taken home.

Having given Ikemefuna a sense of protection by going with the team, Okonkwo went on to execute the second part of his plan: to ensure that he does not participate in the execution. Achebe clearly portrays this by making Okonkwo withdraw to the rear, and by making him look away when the fatal blow was delivered. Yet events conspired against him, making it impossible for him to escape the fate already ordained for him. For how would one expect that after he had taken precaution and withdrawn to the rear, Ikemefuna would be able to escape both the person chosen to execute the act and the other elders in that “narrow line in the heart of the forest” (41)? This created a characteristic psychological problem for Okonkwo and instinctively and with no time to consider the action, he brings down his sharp machete on the ill-fated lad. The novelist portrays this fact both in the narrative proper and in the authorial voice that explains Okonkwo's action: “Dazed with fear, Okonkwo drew his machete and cut him down. He was afraid of being thought weak” (43; emphasis added). Thus, Okonkwo's paternal imago and the machinations of capricious fate caused him to perform an action he had tried very hard to avoid.

It is also necessary to comment on the personal remorse and psychological torture that descended on Okonkwo after the execution. He did not eat any food for three days, only drinking palm wine, probably to drug himself and overcome the thought of his action. Even sleep eluded him, and the cold shiver that “descended on his head and spread down his body” (44) symbolizes his spiritual and mental torture.

The questions that need to be addressed now are: Is Okonkwo's action to be explained away as heartlessness, as some critics have emphasized? And do we accept the suggestion that “the execution of Ikemefuna is the beginning of Okonkwo's decline, for it initiates the series of catastrophes which ends in his death” (Carrol 48)? Before answering these questions, it is necessary to point out the dangers of hasty conclusions in psychoanalytic criticism. As Peter Brooks has pointed out:

Psychoanalytic criticism displaces the object of analysis from the text to some person, be it the author, the reader or the characters, all of whom are viewed as independent personalities rather than as a function of the text itself.

(qtd. Ellman 3).

Unfortunately, there is the danger of the critic to ignore the fact that a fictional character is composed of words, not a human being with flesh and blood. The art critic, for instance, analyzes a pediment as a creation of a sculptor. Iyasere seems to overlook the verbal specificities of Achebe's narrative and focuses on archetypes. The subsequent danger is that he sometimes substitutes Achebe's meaning for his own meaning, which is sometimes buried in the authorial voice. Maud Ellman warns against this danger:

The act of reading is a process of mutual seduction, whereby the reader and the read arouse each other's fantasies, expose each other's dreams. It is when we think we penetrate the text's disguises that we are usually most deluded and most ignorant, for what we see is nothing but our unknown selves.


Okonkwo's killing of Ikemefuna is, as Opata suggests, “an unconscionable act” and not necessarily an offence (79). To argue that the execution turned his life to the negative or that the killing is a display of his heartlessness would need further qualifications to soar above the boundaries of reasonable doubt. In Igbo culture, Okonkwo should be seen as the victim of capricious fates, a fact none of the critics except Opata has considered.

Achebe depicts Okonkwo as having been born with a bad chi. He goes on to explore the consequences of that concept in the entire portrayal of Okonkwo's life, a portrayal hidden under the Igbo philosophy that “a person's fortunes in life are controlled more or less completely by his chi” (Morning Yet on Creation Day 98). To further understand the concept of chi in Igbo philosophy and rank it with the interpretation of Okonkwo's portrayal in Things Fall Apart, vis-à-vis the issue of heartlessness advanced by some critics, let us again examine Achebe's explanation of the concept of chi:

We must remember, however, when we hear that a man has a bad chi that we are talking about his fortune rather than his character. A man of impeccable character may yet have a bad chi so that nothing he puts his hand to will work out right. Chi is therefore more concerned with success or failure than with righteousness or wickedness.


Achebe portrays Okonkwo as a man who has a bad chi, whose tremendous vitality and vigor are sometimes annulled by the gods in a vexed and unconscious impulse of spiritual inertia: “Okonkwo did not have the start in life which many young men usually had” (12). He inherited nothing from his father. His father, Unoka, may have discovered that he “had a bad chi or personal god” (13) and never attempted to struggle, knowing that such an effort would be futile. Apparently evoking the duality of Igbo cosmology, Okonkwo believed that if a man said yes, his chi agreed (19). So he plunged himself into the war of success like a man possessed. The authorial voice continues to intrude into the omniscient voice to keep the reader abreast of the influence of chi in counteracting Okonkwo's efforts.

In his effort to start his life as a farmer, Okonkwo had to borrow eight hundred seed yams from Nwakibie, but his bad chi conspired against him:

The year that Okonkwo took eight hundred seed-yams from Nwakibie was the worst year in living memory. Nothing happened at its proper time; it was either too early or too late. It seemed as if the world had gone mad.


Despite the fact that he had this misfortune, he continued “his grim struggle against poverty and misfortune” (19). Then came the case of Ikemefuna. Despite his efforts to avoid killing the young lad, uncanny fate conspired against him. He had withdrawn to the rear when it was time for the execution to take place. He had looked away when Ikemefuna was to be executed. Yet the executioner, for no explained reason, was unable to execute the act and Ikemefuna made that fateful flight to Okonkwo's position.

Okonkwo's withdrawal to the rear created more problems for him. He was now the only person standing before the sacrificial lamb, a situation created by his deliberate plan to be so far away from the execution theater as to avert the possibility of taking a hand in it, or even seeing it happen. It appeared that the more he tried to avoid doing it, the more he was lured towards the realization of the act. Now faced with a situation he could not control, he recognizes his predicament. Would he step aside from the narrow path and allow “the doomed lad, the ill-fated lad” brought to Umuofia as appeasement, a lad whose execution had already been ordained by the dreaded oracle, to escape? The psychological fear that rules Okonkwo's life causes him to bring his machete down on the boy. The immortal authorial voice then reinforces the reason for his action.

Okonkwo's battle with his chi extended even to the mortality of his children. It is easy to forget this fact because we see many children in Okonkwo's household and therefore tend to feel that capricious fate had no effect on that part of his life. But let us take a hypothetical case. His affectionate wife, Ekwefi, who among his three wives “was the only one who would have the audacity to bang on his door … had borne ten children and nine of them had died in infancy, usually before the age of three” (53–54). Then the accidental discharge in Ezeudu's funeral and his consequent exile. These are only a few examples of Okonkwo's battle with bad chi. We are, therefore, confronted with an alternative interpretation of Okonkwo's action. He was a victim of capricious fate. Hence, as we have seen, there is no direct connection between his killing of Ikemefuna and the accidental discharge that claims the life of Ezeudu's son. He was at the height of his prosperity and renown and, as the Igbo proverb states, bad chi torments a man at the time his life is sweetest to him.

Okonkwo, as usual, gets over the odds and, once again, through hard work and resilience, becomes prosperous during the period of his exile, finally emerging as one of the richest and most influential men in Mbanta. Neither the narrative nor the authorial voice attaches any connection between Okonkwo's killing of Ikemefuna and the consequent machinations of fate. The novelist, however, continues to make references to chi as the architect of Okonkwo's past disaster: “As the years of exile passed one by one it seemed to him that his chi might now be making amends for the past disaster” (121).

Okonkwo's prosperity in Mbanta can be measured by the plans. He plans to build a magnificent compound when he returns to Umuofia. He also plans to marry more wives, take the highest title in the land, and initiate his two sons into the prestigious ozo society. These achievements, he believes, will help him achieve what he lost during the exile, and even more. But chi conspired against him and his return fell in a wrong year, thus trivializing his efforts and making his return virtually unnoticed:

If Okonkwo had immediately initiated his two sons into the ozo society as he had planned he would have caused a stir. But the initiation rite was performed once in three years in Umuofia, and he had to wait for nearly two years for the next round of ceremonies.


The influence of bad chi in Okonkwo's life is therefore life is therefore clearly portrayed in the novel. The execution of Ikemefuna is, notably, one of those incidents where uncanny fate has conspired against him to foil his plans and direct his action. Dualism causes meaning to be contested, contradicted, and even challenged to yield its authenticity. Both Wren (44) and Iyasere (133) point out the fact that, as Obierika seems to argue, the gods have not specifically ordered that Okonkwo should participate in the execution of Ikemefuna. Iyasere, for instance, cites the conversation between Obierika and Okonkwo to support this view. Opata, on the other hand, argues that Obierika's statement is “no more than sheer sentimentality and hypocrisy” (76). Opata goes on to point out that Obierika had thrown his own twin children away himself (87), and tradition does not particularly direct that the father of the twins should perform the act himself. When Okonkwo committed the female ochu, his entire compound was, by tradition, razed and demolished. The authorial voice tells us that “[e]ven his greatest friend Obierika was among them,” and added that they were cleansing the land that Okonkwo had “polluted with the blood of a clansman” (87). Here again tradition did not compel Obierika to participate in demolishing and razing his friend's house. All these tend to express the duality of Igbo cosmology. Hence, Okonkwo himself is also a victim of and an accomplice with the norms of the Igbo society that collude with history in the form of colonialism to cause his ultimate destruction.

The narrative techniques employed by Achebe in Things Fall Apart are the marriage of Free Indirect Discourse and diegesis; hence the importance of the authorial voice in the analysis of this seemingly easy but thematically complicated novel. Free Indirect Discourse, as defined by Dorrit Cohn, is “the technique for rendering a character's thought in their own idiom while maintaining the third person reference and the basic tense of narration” (100). It enables Achebe to probe into the mind of the character without obliterating the flow of the narrative. Diegesis, a term that appears in the third book of Plato's Republic, is a technique whereby the poet speaks as himself/herself in the various parts of the narrative. Socrates distinguishes diegesis from mimesis, a technique whereby the narrator creates the impression that he/she is not the speaker in the narrative. Some critics may consider this technique merely as the omniscient viewpoint or the extension of it. But an understanding of this narrative technique will be helpful in unraveling the intricacies of the novel, intricacies that separate this novel from his latest novel, Anthills of the Savannah, which uses the theory of transactional analysis in the portrayal of characters (see my “Characterization”).

Dualism is, also used by Achebe as a narrative device in the novel. Through dualism, Achebe suspends authorial intrusion and the imposition of his judgment on the reader, thus giving him or her the opportunity to contest meanings and norms that underpin the ordering of the Igbo society. Achebe expresses the moral duplicity and ambiguity of norms that guide the Igbo society through the enormous influence of the gods on the life of the society. Dualism also arises from the fact that both god and humanity should be placated differently in order for harmony to exist. For instance, when Udo's wife is killed, a virgin is brought to replace the murdered woman. The offending community apologizes to the Umuofia people in order to avert war. Both Udo and the Umuofia society have been placated. To placate the dreaded oracle, Ikemefuna has to be brought in. And the gods appear to be selfish and disunited. That is why a person can serve Ogwugwu to perfection and still be killed by Udo.

Finally, it is necessary to address the issue of Okonkwo's suicide to show how its meaning is affected by the concept of dualism. Some critics tend to believe that Okonkwo's suicide completes that self-inflicted catastrophe which results from his participation in the execution of Ikemefuna. But it must be pointed out that in Okonkwo's Umuofia, one is considered a hero if he avenges himself on someone who has done unpardonable harm to his integrity and bravely takes his own life in defiance of any intended consequences. This behavior is still prevalent in many areas of Igboland. Exhibition of heroism is seen not only in accomplishments but also in valor, fortitude, and extraordinary courage.

Okonkwo's suicide is another way of rejecting his father's shameful death. He therefore preferred a heroic suicide to an ignoble and disgraceful torture and eventual execution by the colonial administration. In the traditional Igbo society, elders are harassed by the thought of how they would explain certain aspects of their temporal behavior to the ancestors when they die. This is because the Igbos see life as a cyclic entity containing the worlds of the living, the dead, and the unborn. In the end, Okonkwo would be able to tell his ancestors: “I sought out one of the abominable strangers desecrating the land, executed him in public, and denied them the opportunity of committing further abomination on the land by torturing and butchering a titled man like a funeral ram.” And the ancestors would probably nod in thoughtful understanding.

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. 1958. Things Fall Apart. London: Heinemann, 1976.

———. “Chi in Igbo Cosmology.” Morning Yet on Creation Day (Essays). London: Heinemann, 1975. 93–103.

Carrol, David. Chinua Achebe. New York: Twayne, 1970.

Cohn, Dorrit. Transparent Minds: Narrating Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1978.

Ellman, Maud. Psychoanalytic Literary Criticism. London: Longman, 1994.

Gikandi, Simon. Reading Chinua Achebe: Language and Ideology in Fiction. London: James Curry, 1991.

Iyasere, Solomon O. “Okonkwo and the Execution of Ikemefuna in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart: A Study of Ignoble Decisiveness.” English Studies in Africa 33.2 (1990): 131–40.

Killam, G. D. The Writings of Chinua Achebe. London: Heinemann, 1997.

Moyers, Bill. “Interview with Chinua Achebe.” A World of Ideas. Ed. Betty Sue Flowers. New York: Doubleday, 1989. 320–45.

Muoneke, Romanus Okey. Art, Rebellion and Redemption: A Reading of the Novels of Chinua Achebe. New York: Peter Lang, 1994.

Nnolim, Charles E. “Achebe's Things Fall Apart: An Igbo National Epic.” Modern Black Literature. Ed. S. Mezu. New York: Black Academic P, 1977. 56–60.

Nwabueze, Emeka. “Characterization in Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah: A Study in Transactional Analysis.” Salutes: Selected Writings. Evanston: Troubadour, 1994.

Obiechina, Emmanuel. “Narrative Proverbs in the African Novel.” Research in African Literatures 24.4 (1993): 123–40.

Opata, Damian U. “Eternal Sacred Order versus Conventional Wisdom: A Consideration of Moral Culpability in the Killing of Ikemefuna in Things Fall Apart.Research in African Literatures 18.1 (1987): 71–79.

Oyegoke, Lekan. “Misreading Simon Gikandi's Reading Chinua Achebe.The Literary Griot 5.1 (1993): 65–74.

Wren, Robert M. Achebe's World: The Historical and Culture Context of the Novels of Chinua Achebe. Washington, DC: Three Continents, 1980.

Emmanuel Edame Egar (essay date 2000)

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SOURCE: “The Rhetorical Implications of the Opening and Closing of the Novel, Things Fall Apart,” in The Rhetorical Implications of Chinua Achebe's “Things Fall Apart,” University Press of America, 2000, pp. 59–68.

[In the following essay, Egar provides an analysis of the opening and closing passages of Things Fall Apart.]

Edward P. J. Corbett, in his Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student (1971), sees rhetoric as the basis of an author's engagement with his reader, those elements or strategies through which the reader is brought to accept the world which the author has created. Herbert Read, in Art and Society (1956), states that in art, “it is not the message, but the mode of conveyance which matters” (204). These two authors see the use of rhetoric quite differently. For Corbett, rhetoric is a form of education which helps the reader recognize the writer's world or theme. For Read, rhetoric is a form of style through which a writer enunciates and dramatizes his theme. Utilizing a style of universal irony, Achebe opens his novel with a synthesis of rhetoric as education and style which are intended to excite curiosity, anxiety, expectation, and hope in the reader. At that point, the reader's mind would then be modulated—through ethos, pathos, and empathy—to accept an education in Ibo history, culture, religion, morals, and mores, along with the intricate nuances of the Ibo cosmos. And so the novel opens with: “Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievements” (1).

This statement arouses anticipation and curiosity and provokes questions such as: What does “well known” mean? Was he well known for his wisdom, philosophy, rationality, and morals, or for his pursuit of happiness? Why should we believe a statement that seems to take a reader's intellect for granted? Why should one believe this proclamation of Okonkwo's fame just because the author says it is so? The statement raises red flags which unleash further questions: What is critical here? What is at stake? Why should we believe a story about a man we do not know? The statement provokes resentment which seems to come naturally with universal irony because it tends to suppress dissident voices. It is the voice of a dictator, a bully, a tyrant who must be obeyed. Why does the author sound Okonkwo's praises before we meet him? It may be because Achebe will have something unpleasant to tell the reader, something that a reader may resent or reject. What are the “solid personal achievements?” Are these positive achievements based upon being a good soldier or a successful farmer? If Okonkwo is a hero, is he a Hegelian hero who is ruthless, irrational, and ruled by universal reason? The Hegelian hero, because of his ruthlessness, ends up as an enemy or a destroyer of the people he is supposed to serve and protect (Hegel 1953). And so, in these short statements, Achebe evokes ethos, pathos, and empathy from the reader. The use of universal irony in the beginning of a novel is not exclusive to Achebe; Jane Austin does the same in Pride and Prejudice. In the beginning of that novel, Austin states, “It is truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” (1).

How could she claim such presumptuous universality without providing statistics to back her claim? But Jane Austin here was laughing at the hypocrisy or stupidity of a society which expects girls to marry for money or fortune, instead of love. So, in order to coerce a more favorable response, Achebe opens his novel by using a rhetorical universal irony that was already familiar to Western European readers. If irony opens the novel, it also closes it.

Much has been written regarding the dramatic ending of this novel—dramatic in terms of the hero's exit, the change of narrative tone, the ignorance of the British commissioner, and the poignant loss to the culture. David Carroll, in his book, Chinua Achebe (1980), points out this change in the narrative tone that Achebe uses to emphasize the evils of judgment made through the eyes of stereotype. A stereotype is a dangerous language tool. Since it avoids specificity, individual and subjective examination, it suppresses investigation and silences dissident voices. Since stereotypical judgment avoids individual investigation, it is more prone to error and adverse result.

As he views the body of his friend hanging from a rope, Obierika, in Things Fall Apart, indicts the commissioner for his error in judgment.

Obierika, who had been gazing steadily at his friend's dangling body, turned suddenly to the D.C. and said, “That man was one of the greatest men in Umuofia. You drove him to kill himself, and now he will be buried, like a dog. [emphasis added]


Obierika's charge is not completely accurate, but he was affected by a two-thousand-year-old prohibition against suicide. The District Commissioner may have created the circumstances that led to the suicide, but Okonkwo ultimately took his own life, without any prompting from the District Commissioner. Okonkwo was certainly one of the greatest men from Umuofia, but his greatness had limitations: his actions were like that of a bull in a bull fight who chases the red cloth and not the man behind the cloth. Like the bull, Okonkwo could not foresee the consequences of his actions. Okonkwo was unable to interpret and obey the will of his chi, his personal god, which prompts questions such as: “When does one know that divine inspiration is true or false?” Does the human ego ever intercept the voice of the divine? This problem of reading the will of the divine may have led Okonkwo to suicide. In Umuofia, life is either black or white. There is no middle, but Christianity neutralizes binaries and polarities. This is demonstrated in the story of the immaculate conception in a culture that forbids adultery, and in the report of King David wrestling with an angel and winning. Is it possible to defeat a messenger of God and then respect, venerate, and obey the wishes of that same God? Is there some weakness to be found in a God whose messenger is unable to fight? Okonkwo will be buried like a dog, a disturbing end for a great man. His life ends in this way because of his horrible abomination, not only against the goddess Ani, the goddess of the Earth, but also against the spirits of the land. Carroll, in his Chinua Achebe (1980), like Achebe, sees the harmful rhetorical implications of stereotypical language.

However, if Carroll (1980) articulates the problems with stereotypes, C. L. Innes, in his book, Chinua Achebe (1990), touches on the limits of language, which provokes questions such as: Does language have a limit? Is there something that human language can not sometimes name? Are there issues that are silent, beyond the reach of language? Is language sometimes unable to concretize, stigmatize, or say what it means, and mean what it says? Innes himself, from his choice of words (words, which because of their loaded connotations, seem to be antithetical to the meaning of his syntax), writes like a man for whom language is problematic. His commentary will explain:

The reader's task is to be aware of the limits of language, to alert to the ways in which words, formulas, and rhetoric can obscure understanding. He is not allowed to separate feeling from judgment, to swim unreflecting before emerging on the shore to look back and criticize, but must combine criticism and sympathy. The concern with the problem of language and the demand that the reader learn to examine language critically take different forms in Achebes later novels.


This is a highly convoluted passage particularly which appears to say nothing. A careful examination of that passage reveals incongruities, particularly with the filial relationship between words and their overall meaning within the syntax.

In the above passage, Innes assumes a lower hierarchical position to the reader, whom he must educate to read, understand and appreciate the text. He provokes an uncomfortable master/servant relationship. But it is in his choice of words that one should be concerned. For instance, in the first sentence, “… the limits of language, to alert to the ways in which words, formulas and rhetoric can obscure understanding,” one could lump “words” and “formulas” together as stereotypes. But the word “rhetoric” provokes questions concerning the type of rhetoric he is referring to. Does Innes mean Aristotelian rhetoric, the use of the available means of persuasion? Or, Sophistic rhetoric, rhetoric as negation or deconstruction? A careful examination of that sentence will reveal that the word “rhetoric” is used as a synonym for a “mode of narrative,” which does not seem to have any relevance to the native meaning of the word “rhetoric.” In the next sentence, Innes claims that a reader is “not allowed to separate feeling from judgment.” Which god legislates an interpretation and a judgment call for the reader? How could a reader produce rational judgments if he/she is besieged with feelings, emotions and empathy? How can he advise that a reader should not, “swim unreflecting before emerging on the shore to look back and criticize …”? He continues to state that a reader “must combine criticism and sympathy.” One wonders about the reason for this plea of sympathy. Does he mean that a critic should show sympathy for a work that is of poor quality and give credit simply for the attempt? Is this a plea for the acceptance of mediocre craftsmanship from African authors? This dissertation writer is concerned that African writers are being advised to demand unconditional acceptance of their work and to plead for sympathy in critical evaluations of their texts.

If Carroll (1980) sees the end of the novel as an indictment against stereotypical judgments, Innes (1990) uses the end of this novel as a forum for the education of the reader. Weinstock and Ramadam, in their book, Chinua Achebe (1978), see the end of this novel as a display of the unity of symbolic and allusive tales:

As a structural device which reflects as it unifies is only one of many examples. … That all of them point toward the same general conclusion—“The need for retaining the best qualities of both the old and the new dispensation” is a good example of Achebe's control of his material and his technique and his willingness to take moral and ethical stands on the relative merit of the new and the old.


Weinstock and Ramadam, see Achebe, at the end of Things Fall Apart, as an omniscient, objective, fair and balanced writer, a god unto his text. This dissertation writer shares the same reservations for such claims. From the title of the novel, evoking Yeats' alarming vision, through the blunders of the missionaries, to the ironic twist of the District Commissioner's book, Achebe is re-enacting the dramatic differences between his people and the Western European. The novel does have a redeeming balance. For instance, there are good white men in the novel who redeem the anomalies of the missionaries and the District Commissioner. The benefits of education and literacy compare very well with the luxuriant display of tribal spirit demonstrated in the Egwugwu, the masquerades, or the ancestral spirits. To be objective, Achebe had to step out of himself, and he did. Jung and Kerenyi intimate in their essays on The Science of Mythology (1973), that the primitive man does not invent myth, he experiences it. Achebe is part of the experience and so he had to show it through objectivity.

There are multiple speculations concerning Achebe's motives for ending the novel as he did. Joseph Okpaku, in his New African Literature and Art (1968), claims that the hero, Okonkwo, ended in the way he did because he refused to embrace Christianity:

Engaged in covering the compound walls with palm branches and leaves, Okonkwo worked on the outside of the wall and the boys worked from within. They are working at this task when the locusts, which are one of the key Christian symbols in the novel, arrive in the village. At Okonkwo's death he is still “outside of the wall cut off not only from his ancestral spirits but from the new religion that might have allowed him to be a gentler person—a better son, husband, father, and clan-member.”


This passage can be considered offensive since it presupposes that Christians are better people—better sons, better husbands, and better community members. Hence, it suggests the superiority of one culture over another. Since human beings see the world through the mostly subjective, how can one culture claim superiority over another? If God created all races, is it not possible that each culture could serve Him in various ways and still be His children? Is there only one true way? The history of Christianity is not all benevolent.

The symbol of Okonkwo working on the outside of a wall has been over-used and strained. In building an African house with palm leaves, the expert who knows where to tie the ropes usually stays outside, while the children and women stay inside to correct the placement of the roof—a simple mechanical detail. However, Okpaku dragged the metaphor of working on the outside of a wall into the appearance of the locusts and decided to inflict that on Okonkwo. This dissertation writer is concerned over Okpaku's veiled suggestion that Christianity is a better reformer of human behavior than African traditional religion. It may be logical to leave that evaluation to God, Himself.

Achebe closes the novel using the title of a book that the District Commissioner is supposed to write during his retirement in England: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes from the Niger. This title is intended to provoke laughter and scorn because of the absurd undertone in the words, “pacification” and “primitive.” “Pacification” seems to imply that the white man, upon his arrival to African shores, found wars, anarchy, and chaos. But such was not the case. The anarchy, wars, and chaos remained inhabited in the minds of white men who raged when they could not understand the unfamiliar cultures. Therefore, the word “primitive,” within a subjective interpretation, presumes one culture to be superior to the other. Achebe, therefore, opens his novel with a rhetorical irony and ends it with an irony that provokes numerous questions. Perhaps Achebe wrote his novel to try to find out why he wanted to write. Achebe's novel answers Bitzer and Black's allegation that “rhetorical discourse participates in the situation and alters or reconstitutes its reality” (Bitzer and Black 1971, 14).

So, does Achebe's ending stifle the essential celebration of his narrative? Does he kill the pleasure of his text?

The pleasure of the text is like that untenable, impossible, purely novelistic instant so relished by Sade's Libertine when he manages to be hanged and then cut the rope at the very moment of his orgasm, his bliss.

(Barthes 1994, 10)

The beauty of this passage is in the suddenness and intensity which seem to appear along with the teasing search after an absence. The passage provokes an abnormal jubilation, a joy that is suddenly cut at its climax. The passage also provokes anxiety, desperation, hope, and fear, and an explosive sense of loss at that critical moment of expectation. The anguish and exasperation cause the reader to question the reality of the event. The literary question therefore is: Does Achebe's ending excite this sense of anguish and exasperation that Barthes recalls from Sade's Libertine? Achebe announces the beginning of the novel at its closure in The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Niger. It announces the birth of another promised text. Anxiety is provoked by the anticipation of the Commissioner actually writing his book. A reader may think that Achebe's conclusion compares to that of Flaubert, who, Barthes claims, in The Pleasure of the Text (1994), understands a “way of cutting, of perforating a discourse without rendering it useless” (12).

One wonders whether Achebe understood that the pleasure of his text was in his performance.

The feat is to sustain the mimesis of language (language imitating itself), the source of immense pleasures in a fashion so radically ambiguous that the text never succumbs to good conscience (bad faith) of parody (of castration) laughter of the comical that makes us laugh.

(Barthes 1994 14)

In Achebe's conclusion, this mimesis of language and the immense pleasure are too carefully controlled and condensed into two words: “pacification” and “primitive.” In these two words, language imitates and mocks itself in its biting sarcasm and ambiguity.

The opinion of this dissertation writer is that Achebe's ending excites the same joy, the same jubilation, the same anxiety and bliss that Keats (1965) seemed to have felt in reading Chapman's Homer:

On first looking into Chapman's Homer, much have I traveled in the realms of gold, And many goodly states and Kingdoms seen; Round many Western Islands have I been. Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold, Often one wide expanse had I been told. That deeped-browed Homer ruled as his demesne; Yet did I never breathe its pure serene till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold: Then felt I like some watcher of the skies when a new planet swims into his ken; or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes he stared at the Pacific—and all his men looked at each other with a wild surmise—silent, upon a peak at Darien.


Keats begins his nostalgic experience in this poem like a crusader who had traveled and ravaged kingdoms for treasure and gold. In this mental journey, he has seen the prophets of Apollo, the wise, learned men and poets. But who is this silent, subdued and muted voice that seems to engage the poet in this dialogue? Keats writes as if talking to a patient and silent listener. He knows that the poet Homer was probably materially rich, but this knowledge did not stop his craving for Homer. The poet then moves us to the discovery, the revelation, the shocking and yet blissful discovery of Chapman's Homer, a discovery that was astronomical, emphasizing the enormity of Homer as a writer. The rapture of this poem stems from Keats' exaggerated comparisons, his obsession with size, the enormity of the planet and the Pacific, all compared to Homer through shock, anxiety, expectation, surprise and suspense in muted but enchanting revelations.

And what about the metaphor of the astronomer, with his blissful discovery, his patience, his persistency, anxiety and hope? The discovery of this new planet would incite a curiosity and craving to reach further towards new revelations. How does one interpret the metaphor of the new planet, which would seem to call for patience and persistence from the watchful astronomer? What about the problem of naming this discovery? Keats pulls the reader towards a trail laced with anticipation, anxiety and surprise to meet Cortez at his discovery of the Pacific Ocean. here, the reader is shocked and amazed at the enormity of the Pacific. In this vein, Keats seemed surprised not only by the enormity of Homer's achievement as a writer, but also by the massive body of the ocean. This sense of surprise contagiously spreads outward from Keats towards the astronomer and, through Cortez, to his sailors. With Cortez and his men, we face a sense of amazement, doubt, and hope as they look at each other in a silence that is loud in its implications. The end of the poem arouses a raving sense of curiosity in that “silence, upon a peak in Darien” (Keats 1965, 1816).

The voice that spoke that sentence was neither Cortez nor his men. That voice seems to come from the sense of wonder at the enormity of the scene that threatens to capture and overwhelm the sailors. Or was that the voice of Keats reading the scene through Chapman? When reading Chapman through Keats, where is the voice of the reader and the voice of Keats, as separated from Chapman, in this tangle of voices? Or, when reading Chapman through Keats, does Keats read back? What about Chapman, would he read this dissertation through Keats? What about Homer, the literary giant that is absent and yet present in Keats' curiosity (curiosity that Keats unleashes on his readers)? Where is Homer's voice in this complex web of voices singing his praises in his absence? None of these questions can be logically answered because the answers are buried deep in the questions. Is literature not the pursuit, the craving, to capture and understand these eternal silences? This dissertation writer's speculations and confusion in trailing the silent voices in Keats' poem comes close to what Barthes (1965) felt about Balzac's writings concerning the Castrato in Sarrasine:

In his tale Sarrasine Balzac, speaking of a Castrato disguised as a woman, writes this sentence: She was a woman with her sudden fears, her inexplicable whims, her instinctive fears, her meaningless Bravado, her defiance, and her deliciousness of feeling.


In this passage, Barthes is astonished because he cannot understand the various voices and silences that become Balzac's inspirations. He was struggling to understand the inspirations that gave birth to those beautiful sentences. Barthes then vents or rants a flurry of questions in a futile attempt to interrogate Balzac, to understand his source of inspirations:

Who speaks in this way? Is it the hero of the tale, who would pretend not to recognize the Castrato hidden beneath the woman? Is it Balzac, the man whose personal experience has provided him with a philosophy of woman? Is it Balzac the author, professing certain literary ideas about femininity? Is it Universal Wisdom? Romantic Psychology? We will never know for the good reason that writing is a destruction of every voice, every origin.


In this passage, Barthes's questions, speculations, anxieties and doubts are similar to those of Keats. The two writers faced the problems of reading one personality, one author, one character, through another. Keats tried to read Homer through Chapman. Barthes tried to read the Castrato through Balzac. The two writers were then trapped in the difficult dialectics and labyrinths of the myriad of voices which are muted, synthesized, inseparable and therefore incomprehensible. So, while Keats dealt with his problem through amazement, shock and exaggeration, Barthes dealt with his problem through a flurry of questions that were rhetorical because he did not expect any reasonable answers. The futility of Barthes was that the answers were in the questions. The futility for Keats was trying to explain an experience through metaphors. Keats' problem is that there is always a hidden metaphor between language games. For instance, a simple sentence such as, “The boy was a tiger in the field,” may seem quite simple to explain. The traditional method of explication would be to squeeze out all the attributes of the tiger and then transplant or transpose them on to the boy. In this example the boy becomes the tiger, but no amount of explication can ever exhaust all the attributes of the tiger. There is something essentially “tigerish” that can never be transplanted on to the boy. There is something about the tiger that eternally escapes and avoids capture. There is something about the boy, the human, that must remain human, that will never become a tiger. The rhetorical implication of the conclusion of Things Fall Apart is that Achebe uses language that ends to imitate or mock itself through sarcasm and ambiguity. This discussion of the end of the novel also leads to a closure or conclusion of this dissertation.


Essays and Criticism