May 31, 2006

Chinua Achebe's "Things Fall Apart"


Things fall apart at various levels in Chinua Achebe's novel 'Things Fall Apart'.

A very powerful story that thematically crosses chronological and national boundaries. Set in Africa, amid the Umuofia clan of the Igbo tribe, the novel lays bare the catastrophic impact of British Colonialism on the ancient culture of the Igbo tribe.

Okonkwo the chief protagonist embodies the passion, the courage, the wisdom, the loyalty, and the machismo of his people. He's a staunch follower of his culture and will not let anything or anyone stand in his way of following it, not even his own blood. Achebe focuses on the Igbo culture by his vivid portrayal of their daily life as also their ritualistic observances.

This novel, though written way back in 1959, still features on the reading list of many academic institutes across the country. It is the underlying theme of this piece; the impact of imposing foreign values on a people who were otherwise living out a lifestyle they were comfortable with, that lends such universality and current day relevance to the novel. A theme that has been reenacted innumerable times in history, and is at this very moment being enacted in Iraq where the western world is trying to establish a form of government the Iraqis are not ready for; a foreign people deciding what is right for a people and a land that is completely alien to them and one they've never lived within! History has many examples of intrusions and occupations by colonists who believed theirs was the 'civilized' way and took it upon themselves to teach and change the natives, 'savages', of various nations to their way of living. In retrospect, it is the colonists that appear narrow visioned, intolerant, and less adaptable as compared to the natives of the lands the colonists occupied, and eventually destroyed, by calculatedly wiping out the native cultures of the local inhabitants.

Achebe's novel is powerful due to its simple and direct presentation of the collateral damage that colonialism brought to both the occupier and the occupied; the occupied who was deprived of an age old culture and his independent lifestyle, and the occupier who was transformed into a racist being with a unilateral vision of civilization.

26 comments:

nandi23 said...

it is a great story, touches on the question what makes us think that our way is right:D,
who gives us the authority to think that we know what is better,
brings up a lot of questions about society and what defines taboo:D,
human nature, if we do not understand then we should try to change it.

starry nights said...

So true. people trying to impose what they think is right on other people.without even considering if they want that change.For all we know maybe they are happy with the way things are.

EXSENO said...

Personally I think if you want or need to help someone or some country you should do it without stipulations. Then leave them to their own culture their own ways.
Culture is a persons heritage handed down from generation to generation. How would we react if someone tried to change our way of life and everything that we believe in? I know what I would do.

Saurabh said...

Hmmm ...
All through my schooling, I have had some teachers keep mentioning how the British left behind some good things (even though they coming here and taking over the country and the atrocrisies they meted out were bad) as way of better infrastructure and stuff - when they left India more than 50 years ago.

Maybe thats true ...
Or maybe, we would have been a far better country than we are now ...
Then again, maybe not ...

Though, we Indians managed to retain our culture - well most of it anyways ... ;)

nandi23 said...

you didn't break down the story further though? it would be cool,
this is an awesome story to study.

professors should use this not just in literature classes but in sociology calsses as well.
what do you say?

forgot to mention, I love the way that you write (although sometimes I read your posts with a dictionary on hand, but they wre very intersting and articulate!)
Are you an english professor? seems as if you are.

Khakra said...

Interesting points. Iraq as an occupation is kinda intriguing. A hit-and-run bags the US oil and an economy burst that wars. A long-term occupation brings about plantations of different kinds and pain for everybody involved.

Id it is said...

nandi23,
Thank you for those appreciative words, and yes, English Literature is both my vocation and my passion.
As to what happens to Okinkwo in the story is something you'd really enjoy finding out. Besides, I'd be curious to know your impression about the novel.

Id it is said...

khakra,
Truly said:
'A long-term occupation brings about plantations of different kinds and pain for everybody involved'.
Like what's happening in Iraq or like what happened in Vietnam a few decades ago, or like what happened in the Indian subcontinent some 70 years ago.

lash said...

i somehow feel that it was good to have the british in here for atleast a couple of centuries, they gave us three good things, english, trains and Unity. i stress on the last word once again cos had they not started trading here and ruled this place for two centuries, there wudnt have been a big country called India. instead we wud have had 25 different countries probably all in conflict with the other. So I personally feel that they shud have ruled here for another two decades more. that wud have made a big difference i feel. Somehow their Budget and our leaders ended the raj a bit too early :)

karmic_jay said...

Very well written and truly something that I wish the current administration studied before they went off to Iraq.
To use a well worn but apt cliche, those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it no?

Pacze Moj said...

Although I haven't read this novel (it was on quite a few of my reading lists, but got swapped at the last minute each time), I have read Achebe's criticism of Joseph Conrad.

After, there was a discussion about it, and I was one of the few people to try to defend colonialism -- not a popular position! I used much of the same line of argument that saurabh has already said.

I lost. But, a few weeks later, there was another discussion in the same class, and the same people who had argued against colonialism (on the basis of "a foreign power has no right to go into another country and force its culture on the people of that country") were suddenly supportive of the idea of using Western influence to end female genital mutilation -- a cultural thing -- in parts of Africa.

"Interfering with other cultures is bad, unless it accomplishes something that I think is good."

And "good" will always be up for debate.

;)

Id it is said...

pacze moj,
'using Western influence to end female genital mutilation'

The 'western influence' in the above case is not one that invades and eventually occupies a foreign territory. In the case of colonialism the ocupier had an intent very different to begin with. Changing the native was a part of the expansionist agenda and had nothing to do with issues of human rights violation as is suggested in the 'genital mutilation' cases in Africa. Besides, whoever chooses to enlighten the African nations against this bizarre practice can only go so far as to inform, educate, and provide aid whether financial or otherwise. But that is about it. However, in the case of colonialism the occupier could go to unimaginable extents in order to 'civilize' the native/ savage.
As for Achebe on Conrad, I'm too much of a Conrad fan to agree with Achebe's allegations. But as you pointed out...all this is highly debatable and the above is only an opinion, hehe

Pacze Moj said...

Good point, id it is.

In my specific case, there was a lot of criticism of pre-Iraq, American "cultural imperialism" (non-force), which I should have mentioned.

As for human rights, there's the implicit assumption that universal human rights exist -- and then that they're the same everywhere. People who oppose colonialism but champion getting rid of what they regardas human rights abuses (even if they're culture-specific), may be acting in good faith and wish for the best, but certain colonizers were also acting in good faith (parodon the pun!) by trying to save the souls of the "savages" they colonized through an introduction of their own religion.

However, like you say, interfering with other cultures can take many forms (some peaceful, others forceful; some in good conscience, others in order to exploit and profit; and some welcome) and often many forms at once.

Dr. Deborah Serani said...

Isn't it great when books can hold their power through time? I enjoyed reading this post! Thanks.

SR said...

i absolutely agree with pacze moj - people often forget their cultural cosmopolitanism when they observe human rights being violated. the issue, once again, is whether a group of people can impose their idea of human rights onto another group just because they (currently) have the power to do so.

bablu said...

Interesting !!!

Lisa Francisco said...

Interesting. I agree with you on several points but of course things are always debatable. There's always the black to the white, the short to the tall, the complex to the simple, and the cat to the dog......
-how do we ever know if people want a change when others want to impose it upon them
-is it wrong to impose an idea of human rights upon people who are being tormented (i.e. female genital mutilation etc.)
-is the person who is quiet whether it is due to oppression or choice not ready for change simply because their voice is not hear or is it the opposite

there are many questions that are not be questioned. it's sad to know that our legacy (since i'm in my 20s) will be that we have a statue of liberty (in the US) that supposedly represents freedom for all without any questions but we are a generation that doesn't agree.....
for the most part the 60s civil rights movement and then forth, the generation arguably agreed that civil rights violations, war, discrimation were wrong....and they foughtm through various measures either it be through peaceful marches, hippies, protests etc...despite the different vehicles of showing a desire for change they were a common thread...it was "we won't stand for this anymore....we don't want this for our ourselves and our kids." but this generation with it's equivalent of the vietnam war (iraq), with its' equivalent of civil rights violations (gay marriage ban) etc....this generation disagrees...it disagrees with what was fought for them and then will sow the seeds for a fascist state...despite it all...the Xs, Yers, Oers....this is a generation that does not agree....however the only people who are acting are the oppressors while the oppressed are sitting...will it change....i believe so but not in our lifetime and by then the damage will be far too great.....
sorry i know it was long....

Mr. J said...

Hhhhmmm.... interesting.

_Jonathan_ said...

Great post.
I think british colonialism Isn't the worst. This kind of 'stories teach us the value of these people. even in states of "less" civilizacion.
Bye.

Ayesha said...

Been on my to-read list for a long time. After reading your post, high time I got down to it!

Onyeka George Nwelue said...

Hey, thank you so much for your comment on my blog.

To the colonisation and all stuff, I can say that the British did lots of harm to Nigeria...they made us fall apart and I am sure you read the last post very well...they feel superior...

Yes...I would never dream of becoming Achebe, because to me, he is a coward and deep in my heart, he is a hypocrite. Why would he write Things Fall Apart and still not care about Nigeria...all he does is go on criticising the leaders so much, then dying like a fool in the US...I don't want to talk about him...I hate his guts...

Onyeka George Nwelue said...

Holy Shit! Now I understand what you all have been discussing. The British thought [and maybe still think] that they are superior to all the countries they colonised. It is absolute bunkum and I hate superiority...check Cambridge Dictionary for the definition of 'RACISM' and you will see that everything they did was borne out of racism...

I am a Nigerian, and a stubborn one for that matter, that even though I stay with Britons, I still don't buy their idea, becuase they destroyed Nigeria completely, that during the Nigerian Civil War, which was caused by them, they humiliated us---the Easterners (Biafrans, that is Achebe's people) by assisting Nigerians (Moslems) with weapons to wipe us all out. I have pictures of my relatives who were masscared; pictures that show headless corpse.

Being 18 and seeing all these bring down tears from my eyes, and I believe that I will never forget them...

George Bush-man is a terrorist, and if he doesn't take his time, God will punish him in a dirty way. Let him just take his time...

If you look at India, it doesn't even look as if it was really colonised. It is just a stubborn country, that I envy and love, that they still value their cultures...come to Nigeria and see...THREE COUNTRIES combined together that has over 250 dialects that can not even unite...

Each year, Moslims massacre Christians, because the British amalgamated the country....Its bullshit! God will fuck them, even the innocent ones...

They are Egyptian Pharaohs!

Colin said...

Great book, I had to read it for school

Greg said...

Great comments on Achebe's "Things.." I unsure of Achebe's exact comments on Conrad but now that I think of it I recall him saying something about his cultural mis-perceptions of Africans in The Heart of Darkness. Maybe that was borne from the perspective Conrad took from the era in which he lived--cultural presentism I think you'd call it.
At any rate, I have taught this book twice now --I'm a second-year high school teacher --11th grade--and a career changer to boot--previous 30 years rebuilding transmissions--go figure. I like this novel, although it starts slowly. It has great proverbs within it, the best of which comes from Eneke? the bird who says, "Since hunters have learned to shoot without missing, I have learned to fly without perching".
There is a great lesson here and it squares directly with globalism and its two ugly stepsisters: the older colonialism, and her younger more insidious sister, Free trade--or economic colonialism. Greed doesn't need to inhabit or to rule all they need to do in order to run/ruin Nigeria is to send in the trans-nationals and extract wealth in order to satisfy local despots and foreign investors/stockholders. So the question is this--do they fight--or try to adapt?
When I teach this book I definitely have my students look at this aspect of the equation.
I think that I need to teach it a few more times (10-15) yet in order to really begin to understand all that is there. The poem that the title is taken from (I think that the entire poem is included in some of the texts)is also a very beautiful and complex piece. check it out.
And oh, Id it is, you make a good distinction concerning whether we act against other nations in the name of profit or human rights. It is a delicate subject though, as you and Pacze Moj both articulated in your discourse. I think that when it comes to peoples who are culturally subjugated--within their own countries--then we have to assume that at least in the case of F.G.Mutilation, something should be done to educate and/or pressure the dominant powers to relent. Again, so much of this sort of thing can be tied to interpretation of religion etc., that it does become so nasty a problem. Anyway I talk too much- see you all later.
If any of you have any ideas about teaching this book let me know--your favorite, or least favorite, parts etc. peace

nandi23 said...

8 years later , I decided to re -read this novel and it truths are still painful

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