Things Fall Apart repudiates imperialist and colonialist ideology almost goes without saying and is one of the primary underlying purposes and themes of the novel (Osei-Nyame, 1999, p. 148). Things Fall Apart is so much more than an anti-colonialist novel or even a post-colonialist one. The novel conveys complex moral ambiguities that plague human societies whatever their ethnicity or geographic location. Okonkwo is a fierce, unyielding, patriarchal hero whose misogyny and brutality are woven into the fabric of his being. Yes, Okonkwo attempts to resist colonial enterprise and its encroachment on his Igbo people, but the methods by which Okonkwo tries to achieve his goal ends in failure. Whether it was Achebe’s intention or not, Things Fall Apart sends a potent warning about patriarchy as well as colonialism, and in fact reveals the way patriarchy and colonialism stem from the same oppressive structures.
One of the ways Achebe works a postcolonial argument into Things Fall Apart is structural and embedded in the medium of the novel itself. After all, novels are not a traditional African literary form but oral storytelling is. What Achebe manages to accomplish is to fuse European and African literary traditions in ironic ways, thus elevating Things Fall Apart to the status of a quintessential postmodern reading experience. The meta-narrative of Things Fall Apart is the irony of surrender and also to the necessity for multiculturalism in a globalized society. Protagonist Okonkwo cannot accept change and thereby ends up losing both his traditional self and his potential to be a leader of his community. By committing suicide, he ruins his reputation and life legacy, thereby undoing all the hard work he had done up until that point. Yet it would have been unforeseeable for Okonkwo to capitulate and succumb to the colonialist social order.
Achebe weaves African themes and motifs into a Western narrative structure in part as an ironic instructional device. While seriously critiquing colonialism, Achebe also understands the need to take control of the Nigerian narrative through self-representation. As Osei-Nyame (1999) puts it, Achebe “represents an African worldview through narratives that speak for themselves,” (p. 148). The importance of representing an African worldview cannot be underestimated given the ways African worldviews had been appropriated by the colonialists. Colonialists project all manner of biases and prejudices onto the colonized, such as deeming the colony as being primitive and in need of saving. Things Fall Apart is therefore “a direct response to a whole canon of books written about Africa’s history and culture by Europeans,” (Whittaker & Msiska, 2007, p. 16). Achebe (n.d.) himself recalls a contemporary English critic reacting to Things Fall Apart by stating, “These bright Negro barristers . . . who talk so glibly about African culture, how would they like to return to wearing raffia skirts?” (p. 1). The belittling criticism underscores the importance of novels like Things Fall Apart. To presume that African culture is something to move away from rather than something to embrace highlights the crux of the colonialist problem. Achebe deftly balances providing a critique of colonialism itself without falling pray to glib or romantic presentations of Igbo culture. The author’s goal is “to prove that the communities of his African past were neither ‘primitive’ nor ‘without history’ (Clifford, cited by Osei-Nyame, 1999, p. 149). Rather, the history of the people is evolving throughout the period of colonization and beyond, partly and unavoidably in a reactive way.
Because Okonkwo is a tragic hero with overt flaws, Achebe avoids a black-and-white morality that would cause Things Fall Apart from becoming pedantic or unrealistic. Moreover, Things Fall Apart provides a critique of both African and colonialist social structures (Whittaker & Msiska, 2007). Okonkwo’s overbearing masculinity leads to his own downfall and also deprives his community of a stronger leader who might have helped the people to more successfully navigate colonial cultural encroachment. Achebe also offers a sly criticism of traditional African religious traditions and superstitions without suggesting that Christianity is an ideal solution. Quite the contrary, Christianity is clearly presented as a core component of colonial oppression rather than as a genuine attempt to promote social harmony. Achebe refers continually to the “demise of traditional mores in the face of an aggressive and alien proselytizing religion,” (p. 128).
Things Fall Apart is a tragic tale that shows how inorganic social change, such as change that comes from external pressure like that of colonialism, is unsuccessful. Yet change is inevitable, even when it is organic and arises out of shifting norms or needs of the society. Such changes do happen slowly in old and traditional cultures such as that of the Igbo, whose shamanic and supernatural traditions are radically different from the customs and practices of the colonialists. Pitting Christianity against African cultural traditions, Achebe presents an ironic insight into practices like ritual murder, a center point of the novel. When Okonkwo chooses his own sense of masculinity over the child Ikemefuna, causing the child’s brutal murder, the reader comes into close contact with the dichotomies of Igbo life. The novel reveals the “shifts of beliefâ€¦marked by the pragmatic transference of old pieties for new, a metamorphosis demanded by the realities of a revised socio-economic hierarchy,” (MacKenzie, 1996, p. 128). On the one hand, the Igbo should resist colonization to prevent the erasure of culture and yet on the other hand, ritualized murder is presented as being a terrible, unethical practice that leads to both psychological and social damage.
The issue of choice and free will then comes to the fore in Things Fall Apart. Achebe shows that it is not so much European society itself that is to blame, for African traditions are not necessarily sacrosanct or constructive. When colonial powers attempt to control their subjects through manipulation, domination, and condescension, though, the balance of power shifts. Power distribution is a core element of colonialism, especially when viewed with a Marxist-Feminist lens. The patriarchal social structure depicted by Achebe in Things Fall Apart is one that subjugates women and human traits labeled as feminine. According to Whittaker & Smiska (2007), Achebe has been criticized for having “misrepresented gender identity and roles within traditional Igbo culture,” (p. 65). The ways Achebe misrepresents gender identity and roles within traditional Igbo culture is, for one, removing the presence of women from positions of power that they might have otherwise served in, and also silencing the voices of women in a tale told through the eyes of men only. Granted, Achebe does seek a masculine point-of-view and one of the main themes of Things Fall Apart is masculinity. Unfortunately, Achebe achieves this without feminism and instead depicts “the few women who are in positions of power” like Chielo, as “despotic,” (Whittaker & Smiska, 2007, p. 65). Interestingly, gender roles and norms are not necessarily any better in the Western societies depicted as the oppressor. Patriarchy and misogyny are present in colonial societies and in colonial literature too.
Perhaps by silencing the voices of women, Achebe inadvertently — or purposely — presents the problems associated with hypermasculinity in any society. Hypermasculinity is the root cause of colonialism, for colonialism is a system of oppression by definition, as is patriarchy. Leaders of colonial societies are males, even if some missionary workers were females. Female voices were silenced in colonial societies as well as among the colonized. Showing how a lack of female voices and lack of female participation in the political process leads to “things falling apart,” Achebe makes poignant social commentary. According to Rhoads (1993), Achebe shows that the Igbo are no different from other societies in that “the degree to which they have achieved the foundations of what most people seek today — democratic institutions, tolerance of other cultures, a balance of male and female principles,” can and should be set forth. Hypermasculinity as Okonkwo exhibits it in Things Fall Apart is a destructive principle in any context. Viewing women as “Other” or as weak is the same cognitive construct as viewing the African/indigenous person as being “Other” or weak.
Things Fall Apart offers a complex insight and overview of Igbo culture, showing how societies like these struggle to maintain their identity, preserve their cultural institutions, and also navigate desirable social change. Patriarchy and colonialism stem from the same oppressive mindset, and such systems of oppression lead to things falling apart in any society. In Things Fall Apart, Achebe shows how colonialist and colonized are one and the same: the same patriarchal and oppressive institutions govern the two societies. Patriarchy and colonialism result in despair, death, and depression. Okonkwo embodies patriarchy, but he is forced to struggle against colonialism using the only tools he knows: hypermasculinity and brute force. Brute force has been the key way Okonkwo has achieved social status and because of this, he believes that brute force is the only way to drive out the colonialists and achieve Igbo independence and victory. When he lacks social support from his community, his masculinity and leadership are both threatened in ways that render the society asunder. Had Okonkwo been better equipped to achieve gender parity within his own culture, a nonviolent peaceful movement to overcome colonial oppression might have emerged.
A. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is a classic in postcolonial African literature.
B. The lessons of Things Fall Apart include critiques of oppressive social institutions and regimes.
Thesis: Whether it was Achebe’s intention or not, Things Fall Apart sends a potent warning about patriarchy as well as colonialism, and in fact reveals the way patriarchy and colonialism stem from the same oppressive structures.
II. Achebe uses the medium of the novel, a Western medium, to ironically show the link between African and Western societies.
A. Achebe also wants to communicate African culture in a language Westerners will understand.
B. Achebe never sacrifices the elements of African literary traditions, such as anecdote, allegory, and oral tradition.
III. Things Fall Apart has moral ambiguity because its protagonist is a tragic hero with overt flaws.
A. Okonkwo has trouble navigating social change or personal change.
B. Things “fall apart” because Okonkwo is hypermasculine and cannot understand how h is own patriarchy is similar to colonialism.
IV. A Marxist-Feminist reading of Things Fall Apart shows how colonialism and patriarchy are linked.
A. There are no strong female characters in the novel.
B. Oppression of women and the silencing of women is the same mechanism as oppression of the indigenous “Other.”
V. Conclusion: Had Okonkwo been better equipped to achieve gender parity within his own culture, a nonviolent peaceful movement to overcome colonial oppression might have emerged.
Achebe, C. (n.d.). Colonialist criticism.
Achebe, C. (1958). Things Fall Apart. Barton.
MacKenzie, C.G. (1996). The metamorphosis of piety in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Research in African Literatures 27(2): 128-138.
Osei-Nyame, G.K. (1999). Chinua Achebe writing culture: representations of gender and tradition in Things Fall Apart. Research in African Literatures 30(2): 148-164.
Rhoads, D.A. (1993). Culture in Chinua Achebe Things Fall Apart. African Studies Review 36(2): 61-72.
Whittaker, D. & Msiska, M. (2007). Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart: A Routledge Study Guide. New York: Routledge.
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