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Things Fall Apart: Igbo people and tradition, powerless products of human language?
Achebe’s text Things Fall Apart was not the first novel to deal with the colonial experience from an African perspective of the twentieth century though is widely regarded as being the most successful: 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, but also because of its visionary exploration…of the pre-colonial Igbo people. (pp1055). In the text Achebe offers to the European reader the very cultural roots of the Igbo people, all their customs, beliefs and historical past, in a wonderfully unbiased approach, inviting an innocence to the author’s prose that presents their ultimate ruin, upon the arrival of the Christian colonists, as being all the more distressing. However, is the destruction of the Igbo traditional way of life all that unexpected?
Chinua Achebe’s aim is realism not romance; he offers to us the Igbo people and their society in an especially objective manner, the text being written nearly half a century after the novel is set may have allowed the author this impartiality. This idea of neutrality comes from the authors inclusion of such surprising social traits, to a European audience at least, as the abandonment and mutilation of twins who were considered evil to the Igbo people, inter-tribal wars (the heads of vanquished foes were retained as trophies), and the acceptance of excessive domestic abuse as long as this did not occur during a week of peace. We can only accept this as a fair presentation of regional Nigeria by Achebe, however, it is my belief that the eventual fall of the Igbo way of life is clear from the very outset of the novel, and one reason for this is through the people’s reliance on language as a means of personal and collective definition.
We need look no further than the first line of the text for the first example of this need for classification and pre-determined characterization:
Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievements. (pp. 3)
Here we see established the idea of personal and social security and the limits of the close-nit nature of the Igbo way of life. Our protagonist, the character of Okonkwo, is presented an individual, if not a revered individual, ‘throughout the nine villages’ of the Igbo region, however immediately we find that there is little interest in what exists outside this province. Not once in the entire novel is there a reference to Nigeria itself, nor to the rest of the world, and it is this that I find to be most interesting, i.e. whatever aspects of the world or humanity that exist outside of the Igbo way of life are free to do so as they are entirely separate, separate to the point that they are not deemed necessary to be classified in language; Igbo culture appears to be only concerned with Igbo culture.
Another example of this docile treatment of all thing alien is found at the arrival of the white missionaries:
…the missionaries persevered, and in the end they were received by the rulers of Mbanta. They asked for a plot of land to build their church… ‘They want a piece of land to build their shrine’… ‘We shall give them a piece of land’.” (pp.105)
Achebe, through his protagonist Okonkwo, has consistently presented the Igbo people as being fair yet prone to violence in the face of provocation. This violence is accepted as it has been deemed fair and necessary, and even to a European reader the threat of cruelty or bloodshed is not altogether shocking due to the nature of the traditional Igbo society and through the craft of the author who presents it to us. However, this aggression has always been confined to within the limits of the Igbo region, be it inter-tribal warfare or a village dispute. Here we see a direct assault from outside forces upon the traditional values of the Igbo people, the greatest and most dangerous risk their entire society has ever faced, and instead of meeting the invaders upon the battlefield they simply allot them a piece of land. One may argue their choice of property, the evil forest, is their passive response to this Christian offensive, but the dark nature of the land is known only to the native people and not to the colonists, so any opposition to their arrival is lost. It is my belief that the Igbo people have no name for their invaders, they do not know where they have come from, they have no understanding of this ‘new’ considerate and sympathetic religion therefore until now this race and culture has existed outside of their language and so simply has not existed. Now in the face of a new and unknown foe, the traditional Igbo way of life has no answer and so is ultimately doomed.
Okonkwo, our protagonist, acts as the personification of the Igbo traditional way of life throughout the novel. All the man’s strengths and weaknesses are echoed and expanded to encompass and fully represent Igbo culture itself. The character, and society, displays an unflinching attitude toward failure and any form of personal weakness:
Okonkwo’s first son, Nwoye, was then twelve years old but was already causing his father great anxiety for his incipient laziness. At any rate, that was how it looked to his father, and he sought to correct him by constant nagging and beating . (pp. 10)
We learn that upon the arrival of the Christian missionaries Nwoye becomes one of the first converts to the new faith, an act that enrages his father. Interestingly the warrior Okonkwo never strikes out against his rebellious son after his conversion to Christianity. One may argue this is due to the nature of the father son relationship, however, after Nwoye’s abandonment of his traditional faith Okonkwo disowns his son. It again appears to me to be an example of the total inability of the Igbo culture to deal with external forces that have not previously existed within their native tongue. The denunciation of Igbo religion is the greatest insult the son Nwoye could perform upon his father, however, since Okonkwo is oblivious to the Christian way of life he is incapable to act. It seems all the more poignant that upon his suicide, an altogether unspeakable act in itself, he has finally raised his hand against the new Christian order, an act that has cost him his life and the signalled the demises of the traditional Igbo way of life.
The man Okonkwo and traditional Igbo culture did not fall due to their unwavering and steadfast attitudes towards culture and heritage. One of Achebe’s aims is to present the peculiarities of the Igbo culture, especially the beauties and wisdom of its art and institutions, though … Achebe also presents its weaknesses which require change and which aid in its destruction. (pp. 61) The fall of the established Igbo way of life was due to the confined nature of a language sought to define personal and collective Igbo consciousness.
Wise, Christopher. “Excavating the new republic: Post-colonial Subjectivity in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.” Callaloo. 22/4. (1999): 1054-1070.
Akers Rhoads, Diana. “Culture in Chinua Achebe’s Things fall apart.” African Studies Review 36/2 (1993): 61-72.
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. Oxford: Heinemann Educational Publishers, 1996.
This project was completed under the direction of Dr Leon Litvack as a requirement for the MA degree in Modern Literary Studies in the School of English at the Queen's University of Belfast. The site is evolving and will include contributions from future generations of MA students on other writers and themes.
This page was written by Jason Ward.
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