Ikemefuna’s Death and the Omniscient Narrator

Cover art by Edel Rodriguez for the 50th Anniversary Edition of Things Fall Apart

Preparing for a beloved character’s imminent death is already a stressful enough task for any reader, but having sudden access to that character’s deepest emotions right before his death is nearly unbearable. Things Fall Apart uses an omniscient third-person narrator as a device for enhancing the suspenseful and tragic elements of Chapter 7, specifically the scene when Ikemefuna is minutes away from being murdered by the men of Umuofia. A third-person omniscient narrator is not an active participant in the events of the story, but has access to the thoughts and memories of the characters. Because of the narrative point of view of the story, Ikemefuna’s hopes and fears are juxtaposed with his blind march towards betrayal and death.

Much of the narration in this chapter does not involve the inner thoughts of the characters. Instead, emotions are revealed through actions, such as when Nwoye’s mother hears that Ikemefuna is “going home.” The narrator explains, “she immediately dropped the pestle with which she was grinding pepper, folded her arms across her breast and sighed, ‘Poor child’” (Achebe 36). This is true at the start of Ikemefuna’s journey, when he is lead to the outskirts of town to be killed by the men of Umuofia. He has been told that he is going back to his original family, from whom he was ripped in his youth, and the readers hear some of his inner conversation:

The men of Umuofia pursued their way, armed with sheathed matchets, and Ikemefuna, carrying a pot of palm-wine on his head, walked in their midst. Although he had felt uneasy at first, he was not afraid now. Okonkwo walked behind him. He could hardly imagine that Okonkwo was not his real father. He had never been fond of his real father, and at the end of three years he had become very distant indeed. But his mother and his three-year-old sister… of course she would not be three now, but six. Would he recognize her now? She must have grown quite big. How his mother would weep for joy, and thank Okonkwo for having looked after him so well and for bringing him back (Achebe 37).

This passage uses the position of a third-person omniscient narrator to build the tension and suspense. While characters’ musings are often revealed solely through descriptions of actions, this section slowly eases the reader deeper and deeper into Ikemefuna’s mind. The excerpt begins with factual information (the characters and what they are carrying). A change then occurs, with the information that Ikemefuna is “not afraid now” and that “Okonkwo walked behind him” (37). This observation then triggers a line of increasingly personal thoughts. The narration includes an interrupted thought, which indicates the sudden direct connection to Ikemefuna’s exact thoughts: “But his mother and three year old sister… of course she would not be three now, but six” (Achebe 37). Ikemefuna finally truly reflects on how long his absence has been. He realizes that his home must have changed, and that he might not fit back into it. The next line is a question he asks to himself about his sister: “Would he recognize her now? She must have grown quite big” (37). These are no longer factual observations (“the men of Umuofia pursued their way”) or general claims (“he was not afraid now”) but Ikemefuna’s thoughts, uncommented upon by the narrator.

Step by step, the passage pulls the reader closer and closer to the personal feelings of Ikemefuna. This is paired with the knowledge that each moment, Ikemefuna is closer to his own murder. Suspense is heightened, as well as tragedy. The novel has a structure very based in storytelling, and therefore emotions are often revealed through past actions and events, rather than direct quotes from a person’s mind. This section, however, puts the reader right in the present-tense moment, inside the mind of a child. Violence in this Things Fall Apart is often described in a de-personalized manner, and is even honored (as in the case of wrestling matches and Okonkwo’s many battle victories). However, in the scene of Ikemefuna’s death, although Okonkwo and the other men are trying to act on orders, the readers of this novel are forced to confront the personhood of this child. The contrast between actions and emotions is brought to the forefront, thanks to the third person omniscient narrator.

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. Things Fall Apart: A Norton Critical Edition, edited by Francis Abiole Irele, W.W. Norton & Co., 2009. 3-117.

Rodriguez, Edel. Things Fall Apart. Anchor Books, New York, 2008.

5 thoughts on “Ikemefuna’s Death and the Omniscient Narrator

  1. Pointing out the moments in which the omniscient narrator seeps into deeply personal thought is a very interesting place to focus your analysis. I think you are completely right that the progression from factual observation, to general claim, to inner dialogue develop an increasing level of connection to Ikemefuma in this moment. However this same progression is not present in his description of Okonkwo’s action in this moment. Achebe writes, “Dazed with fear, Okonkwo drew his matchet and cut him down. He was afraid of being thought weak,”(38). By withholding that final step of connection to Okwonko Achebe maintains the manly and “unfeeling” depiction of Okonkwo and keeps readers at an arms length from his character in this moment.

  2. What you have written here is very interesting. The concept of starting off with basic, unemotional facts, only to slowly lead into more and more personal detail, is a common theme that shows up in more ways than just this particular example. Okonkwo’s character, for example, is one that shows no emotion to the outside world. However, his character slowly breaks down more and more as we realize the fragility behind his character. The tension of the final strings snapping is drawn out as long as possible, just as Achebe does when writing this particular scene for his book.

  3. This moment’s incredible suspense and tension reaches climax with the sentence “Dazed with fear, Okonkwo drew his machet and cut him down” (38). The suspense that Achebe builds, which you so thoroughly unpacked, reaches a moment where the reader is able to breath again once the action is finished, the killing is done. The build down from this moment happens in a separate section, the physical space on the page replicating a breath or letting the moment sit. However the sentence “He was afraid of being thought week” is the only piece of description following Okonkwo’s actions, before the space/breath (38). This allows the message to land harder. Directly after being confronted with Okonkwo’s fear, we are left with a moment of pause. Formatting, in a written work, can also impact the narrative style, heightening the importance of the thoughts presented.

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