This is a highly interesting novel. I do not use “interesting” in the euphemistic sense to be polite – I mean it literally. You may or you may not care for it (I did, for the record) but that’s almost besides the point. Its simplistic writing style draws you in, blindsides you, and then leaves you with questions.
Lots of questions. I’ll get to what exact kind of questions later.
Chinua Achebe (pronounced something like “KEEN-oo-ah ah-KAY-beh”) is from Nigeria, and the events of this story take place in the southern part of Nigeria in the 1890’s. It’s perhaps the first famous post-colonial African novel– and as such it’s a great introduction to a part of the world and a period in history that remains unknown to so many. And yet many of the ideas and events in this book are universal and transcend any particular culture, so for that it’s doubly worth reading.
The protagonist is Okonkwo, a high-ranking member of a clan among the Igbo. The author drily informs us that Okonkwo is not exactly an emotionally stable person. He lives in constant fear of becoming like his father: passive, lazy, gentle, and everything that he himself is not. He has fought and worked his way from having nothing to having two barn fulls of yams, two titles, three wives, and a position of respect.
His three wives and multiple children, however, live in constant fear of his violent outbursts. His fellow clansmen just sort of shrug and shake their heads. By modern standards Okonkwo can almost be considered something halfway between a workaholic and a control freak. Think what you may of his anger problems, one thing that neither narrator nor reader can deny is the guy’s sheer determination to succeed in life.
Anyone who knew his grim struggle against poverty and misfortune could not say he had been lucky. 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.
The first two thirds of the novel focus mainly on the culture of the Igbo people and Okonkwo’s life. The tone is un-defensive and matter-of-fact. Many aspects are foreign or even repugnant to western readers: women are inferior to men, and the name “old woman” is considered one of the worst insults you can give. Oracles are used to consult the gods and at times demand human sacrifices. Okonkwo himself hacks to death his own foster son to appease such a decree at one time. Infanticide of twins is common, as twins are considered evil.
And yet other aspects of the culture are more readily alluring. The narrator describes with loving detail and a sense of nostalgia the various feasts, customs and rituals. Things like kola nuts and palm wine begin to sound delicious, as they are re-invoked continually. Village men wear giant masks to represent supernatural beings (egwugwu) and they refer to a living person as a “body.” Music, stories and traditions are all essential to explain and to ward off the ever-present threat of evil spirits – and of death. Cultural little tidbits like the following are slipped in between scenes and dialogue:
“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.
Some people have complained that the first two thirds of Things Fall Apart does not have much of a plot. My personal reply is that it takes two thirds of the novel to set the stage and familiarize the reader enough with the culture to understand the protagonist’s point of view. Once the first “big” event occurs in Okonkwo’s life, signaling his changes in fortune, the rest quickly follows.
It all begins when Okonkwo’s gun accidentally goes off and kills a teenage boy. He and his family are exiled from his village and his dreams of becoming a high chieftain in his own town are crushed. Soon after this, missionaries arrive in the area and start preaching a heathen new religion. It spreads like wildfire and even Oknokwo’s eldest son converts. Okonkwo and some friends try to rally against the toxic new religion, but efforts are futile. Only Okonkwo’s daughter Enzima really seems to be on board with maintaining tradition, and “unfortunately” she is a girl, so her ability is limited. One by one our tragic hero’s dreams are crushed until he is driven to do the unthinkable.
Those expecting a straightforward rant against colonization and modernization might be taken aback. The author is certainly depressed about the gradual erasure of his indigenous culture, but unlike Okonkwo he sees it as a complex issue. If Okonkwo is the hero of a Greek tragedy – his main flaw being a lack of self-awareness and adaptability – then Achebe himself is the Greek chorus who is able to understand both Okonkwo and the situation in general better than Okonkwo himself can. It is Okonkwo’s friend Obierika, however, who puts it into an actual speech.
How do you think we can fight when our own brothers have turned against us? The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.
Ah, the inevitable book discussion passage. Perhaps it’s even cliché that I quoted it. But it’s worth quoting here because it is what leads to the many questions I mentioned earlier. The tone and the statements here are so bold that you can’t help but wonder if Achebe himself is trying to kick off the discussion. For the scope of this review I will simplify to three basic questions:
- How should we view change?
Obviously not all change should be embraced. If the US Supreme Court overturned the Constitution in its entirety and decreed that anyone with green eyes should be deported to concentration camps, you should definitely fight such a decree. You should build Molotov cocktails and hurl them if it comes down to it. Also, if your favorite Red Robin burger is removed from the menu (as tragically happened to me once) you should not hesitate to inform the server and ask it to be put back. Obviously situations differ in degree, but the point is moot.
On the other hand, some change is not really worth fighting. Maybe an obvious and uncontroversial example is the fact we all grow old and die one day. We can do our best to take care of ourselves, but to deny the fact is pointless and even destructive.
A sensible person at this point says, “it depends on what change we’re talking about.” The issues themselves can then become extremely personal.
One could discuss for hours or even days whether Okonkwo resisted change too much, or whether he fought enough against it. One may argue whether Okonkwo should be pitied or made accountable for his actions. I myself still can’t say at this point.
One thing that is fairly apparent, though, is that trying to understand the change and the reason it came about is critical to doing anything about it. Whether or not you welcome the change, you need to at least basically understand it. And if you can in any way, you must try to adapt. Okonkwo, in his rage and disgust, didn’t care to understand the reasons for the change. He also couldn’t (or wouldn’t) control his anger issues.
Even here some may argue that in his desire to be pure and uncompromising Okonkwo did the right thing. You then have a debate of realism versus idealism. That’s just one example of how this novel is golden book discussion material.
2. What do you do when worldviews clash?
While I don’t consider myself “liberal”, I do have many of the sensibilities and sentiments natural to a person living in a globalized world with Internet access and friends from different countries and continents.
This means I try to find all the positive aspects in every culture and refrain from making critical comments unless I find it necessary (for example, I am strongly inclined to say there’s no way in a thousand years I could ever support the argument for “honor killings” of fourteen year old girls. Or any form of genocide. To name just a couple things.)
So of course, when learning about native culture and religion in 19th century Nigeria, I try to be open minded. I do try. As a religious person myself I can understand things like the belief in a supernatural world and a desire to appease a force out there greater than myself. Polygamy per se is definitely alien and distasteful, but in a family-centric culture where romance is not important I can logically see how it happens. And so on.
But as a woman I have to admit it’s hard to read about a culture in which women are considered inferior to the point they have almost no power (aside possibly from religious roles) and are basically the property of their husbands. I certainly don’t condone such a culture as equal to my own, yet the little PC debate opponent voices in my head squeal, “Oh, but you’re so culturally biased to say that!”
It can be a conundrum for some. Whichever side of that particular example you take (“all cultures are equal” vs. “there are moral absolutes, including women’s rights”), you’ll have an opponent on the other side. These are the ugly contradictions we come across, and it’s important to admit them as such. The point is a novel like Things Fall Apart makes you think about these issues and address them. Perhaps you can reconcile your conflicts, perhaps not. A little cognitive dissonance never hurt anyone.
- Globalization: the Good, Bad, and the Inevitable
Globalization is a kind of change, and seems to be a very inevitable one. It’s easy to say it’s great: we all love air conditioning and indoor plumbing. It’s wonderful to eat our favorite fruits year round at affordable prices. Certainly it makes the world a more convenient place when we travel around more easily, interact more easily, communicate more easily, and as a result enjoy a decrease in overall violence and crime.
It’s also easy to argue against it. You can argue that it’s tragic to see palm oil producers mowing down rainforests and killing wildlife. It’s irritating to see MacDonalds’ restaurants gaining popularity and worldwide obesity on the rise. It’s sad that fewer places in the world are “secret” and “undiscovered,” and thousands of exotic languages are going extinct as original cultures die out and morph with more mainstream ones.
But whatever the case, you have to admit that globalization – like change in general – is somewhat inevitable.
In the case of Things Fall Apart, the traditional Igbo culture falls apart when Christianity arrives on the scene, because Christianity for various reasons is more appealing to many of the native people. Those who are pariahs or social outcasts new find a community that accepts them. The idea of an omnipotent, benevolent God rather than a world of vengeful, evil spirits is appealing to many. More deeply, perhaps, is an idea of restoration and an afterlife. This particular point comforts Okwonko’s sensitive son Nwoye who has never quite been able to recover from the traumatic killing of his childhood friend.
Along with religion, too, is the opportunity for education and even employment – an incentive used by the missionaries to great effect. Not all the missionaries are even brash and uncompromising, according to the stereotype of colonists. Their “backdoor” approach is ultimately successful as they come “quietly and peaceably”, true to Obierika’s words.
The encroachment of Christianity and erasure of localized religion and culture is a real downer for people like Okonkwo who have a secure and privileged position and positive memories of their original culture. But I wonder how different the view would be if the book were written from the perspective of Nwoye, or one of the osu (social outcasts) who were not well accepted in their original culture. To be sure there is no solution to make everyone happy, and that is just what makes the issue so interesting to debate.
It’s easy to roll your eyes in disgust when a Starbucks pops up in an “exotic” land next to a traditional landmark. And perhaps many of the local people resent it as well. But there are plenty of other people (including locals) who are happy for the modernization and welcome the economic opportunity. Some cultural purity is lost, but economic advantage is gained – it becomes an argument of principle versus practical.
What Achebe has done is masterfully presented a little-known culture in its pre-colonized form, made it familiar and accessible, and showed how it came to be modernized/colonized. Some readers are going to lament alongside Okonkwo. Others may ask, “Why did it take only a knife to make things fall apart?” Just make sure you choose your book discussion friends wisely, as the potential topics are quite emotional in nature. Otherwise your friendships – and your self-control – just might fall apart.