Things Fall Apart (1958) is a magnificent novel. Like all great writers, Chinua Achebe is at once compassionate and detached, and his story is both intensely local and universal. One of the great strengths of the novel is its refusal to do the reader’s work for him and interpret the events as they unfold. Achebe, in his strong, classical prose is the ideal artist described by Hamlet, “whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature.”
Achebe grew up in a devout Christian home, and it is not difficult to detect in Things Fall Apart the literary style and influence of the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, the Hymn Book, and Pilgrim’s Progress. Achebe is deeply respectful of his ancestral Ibo culture, but does not equivocate in post-modern fashion with regard to monstrous aspects of that culture, such as the throwing away of twins and the killing of Ikemefuna. Although no doubt disagreeable to some secular readers, Achebe beautifully conveys the way the Christian faith grew because it answered a longing in the hearts of reflective people such as Nwoye:
“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 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 drops of frozen rain melting on the dry palate of the panting earth.”
Achebe’s depiction of the primitive church in Nigeria is entirely convincing. His father, Isaiah, was an early Ibo convert to Christianity, and doubtless many of the details of the Christian community in Things Fall Apart come from his reminiscences.
The principal value of the pre-Christian Ibo culture will be familiar to readers of Homer: honor. Like Homer’s Greeks, this culture emphasized nobility, courage, loyalty, and generosity. More skeptically, one might add to this list, the domination of women. Kwame Anthony Appiah, however, in his introduction to the Everyman’s Library edition, writes that the Ibo culture of Things Fall Apart was not characterized by domination of women, but “a balance between masculine and feminine that [Okonkwo] does not acknowledge in part because he is ashamed of his father who has failed to be a real man.” Appiah’s view seems to me especially apt because one of the principal dynamics of the book is the powerful, menacing Oedipal temper that drives the protagonist. Okonkwo loathes his father, and in the end, his hatred leads to his destruction.
As a western, Christian reader, it is tempting to assume that Achebe regards the end of Ibo independence and traditional culture as a small price to pay for the coming of Christianity. The novel’s title, however, taken from a line in Yeats’ poem The Second Coming, suggests that Achebe is ambivalent about the coming of the white man:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Things Fall Apart was followed in 1960 by No Longer at Ease, and in 1964 by Arrow of God. No Longer at Ease is the story of one of Okonkwo’s Anglicized grandsons, and Arrow of God takes place amongst the Ibo villages in the 1920s. Together, Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease, and Arrow of God are sometimes referred to as The African Trilogy.
On Tuesday, November 17, Bramwell Osula, professor of leadership in the School of GLE, will lead a discussion of Things Fall Apart in the Library. For information about this event, contact Harold Henkel at 352-4198 or firstname.lastname@example.org.