“Why would an author ever write about the mutilation of a dead baby?”. I asked myself this question after finishing chapter nine of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. In part one of the novel, Achebe uses various anecdotes to create a vibrant depiction of Igbo culture. Chapter nine focuses specifically on the clan’s Medicine-Man, providing readers with a picture of the clan’s religious and mystic beliefs. In the chapter, Achebe explains that Okonkwo’s daughter, Ezinma, is known as an ogbanje or an evil spirit that torments its mother by continually dying prematurely. Okonkwo consults a medicine-man, Okabague, in an effort to fix this issue. Like Okonkwo, I had to find a way to reconcile to my own issue with this chapter and its seemingly brutal scenes. However, instead of going to a Medicine-Man, I went straight to the all powerful language and word choice of the text.
Despite the mystical and at times gruesome actions depicted in the chapter, Achebe uses plain and unemotive language in his descriptions of the Medicine-man’s actions. For example, Achebe writes, “The medicine-man then ordered that there should be no mourning for the dead child,” (48). Here, the word “ordered” suggests that not mourning the dead child is something that must be accepted without contention. Further, Okabague is not referenced by his name, but rather by his title in the clan as a “Medicine-Man”. The invocation of his esteemed role in the community works to justify why Okabague has the authority to give such an unusual order. The simplicity and lack of dramatization of this statement suggests to a reader that this order is well within the scope of his authority as the clan’s spiritual leader. In fact, it does not even garner a response from Okonkwo or his family.
The tension of this moment continues to build in the next sentence where Achebe details Okabague’s method for ridding Okonkwo’s family of the ogbanje spirit. Achebe writes, “He brought out a sharp razor from the goatskin bag slung over his left shoulder and began to mutilate the child,”(48). In this description Achebe provides more details about Okagague’s bag than about the act of mutilating a dead child’s body. Again, Achebe uses simplistic language to describe a moment that may be incredibly shocking to the reader. Here, the solitary word “mutilate” communicates that the act of mutilation is just that- a simple physical act completely devoid of emotional weight.
Though the handling of the dead child’s body may seem “barbaric” to a western reader, the simplicity of Achebe’s language asks us to consider another perspective. Is it possible for the mutilation of a dead child’s body to be devoid of any emotional charge? Certainly not from a western perspective, but what if a reader privileges Igbo religious understanding in this moment? Later on in the passage Achebe notes that the mutilation serves the purpose of scaring off the ogbanje child. Though it may seem brutal to a western reader, in fact, the mutilation serves the purpose of reducing future pain of Okwonko’s family. Further, the fact that reincarnation is an essential belief in Igbo religion puts less emphasis on the physical body. In the Igbo understanding this dead child is just one incarnation of the same spirit, thus its physical body holds less importance. In total, Achebe uses his simple language to challenge the western perspective that a reader may assume when reading the novel. It allows us to see the ways in which death practices are socially constructed and accepted within the context of our religious understanding. Why do we bury the dead in padded coffins or cremate them? Do we perform these ceremonial actions because they are correct or because it is what we are told to do by our society?
Irele, Francis Abiola, editor. Things Fall Apart: Norton Critical Edition. W.W. Norton & Company INC, 2009.