Solomon Iyasere wants to know: Why do critics only focus on the historical elements of things fall apart?! In Iyasere’s essay, “Narrative Techniques in Things Fall Apart”, he responds to previous critics’ focus primarily on the novel’s historical and socio-cultural value. In response, Iyasere fleshes out the multitude of complex narrative techniques which Achebe uses in telling his impactful story. Throughout his essay Iyasere stresses the importance of duality in the novel’s narrative. For example, in reference to Okonkwo and Reverend Smith, Iyasere writes, “Each man believes himself to be the champion of his society’s religion and customs but each, in his extremism, distorts that religion and those customs so that ultimately-and paradoxically-he negates the very values he seeks to defend” (385). In this statement, Iyasere accurately identifies Achebe’s narrative choice to use these two character’s as embodiments of different forms of cultural extremism. However, Achebe also provides the characters Obierika and Mr. Brown as foils to Okonkwo and Reverend Smith. Through these two foil relationships, Achebe demonstrates the possibility for moderation and adaptation within the frame of two diverse cultural mindsets.
Obierika is first presented as a foil character to Okonkwo in their discussion after Okonkwo kills Ikemefuna. When Okonkwo challenges the fact that Obierika did not participate in the killing of the child, Obierika responds “If I were you I would have stayed at home. What you have done will not please the Earth. It is the kind of action for which the goddess wipes out whole families” (41). In response, Okonkwo says, “The Earth cannot punish me for obeying her messenger” (41). In Obierika’s reply he gives an example of the space that Igbo religious culture creates for moderation in his justification for “staying at home”. In his reasoning for not killing Ikemefuna, Obierika uses religiously charged diction through the words “Earth” and “goddess”. Within his interpretation of Igbo religion, committing this act is against the natural familial order that the “Earth” works to establish. However, Okonkwo’s word “obeying” conveys his fundamentalist mindset. In his view, there is no room for interpretation within his religion, only blind obedience.
Similar to the relationship established between Okonkwo and Obierika, Achebe gives insight into the polarities of the Christian religion through the foil characters of Mr. Brown and Mr. Smith. In the introduction of Mr. Smith’s character, Achebe writes, “Mr. Brown’s successor was the Reverend James Smith…. He condemned openly Mr. Brown’s policy of compromise and accommodation…He believed in slaying the prophets of Baal” (104). From the beginning of the sentence, Achebe sets these two characters at odds with each other through their opposite positions in the clause. “Mr. Brown” appears first whereas “Reverend James Smith” appears last, creating literal and figurative distance between them. Further, where Mr. Brown has the more colloquially title “Mr.”, Mr. Smith is introduced with his title as “Reverend” calling attention to the religious zeal that his character embodies. Achebe then directly asserts Mr. Smith’s opposition to Mr. Brown’s “compromise” and “accommodation”, two essential traits to his religious moderation. This opposition is expressed by the word “condemned” which communicates the fervor and publicity with which Mr. Smith opposes religious moderates. Finally, with the last sentence of Mr. Smith’s introductory paragraph, Achebe provides the biblical reference to “slaying the prophets of Baal”. “Baal” is a reference to the Canaanites God of fertility. Not only does the invocation of “Baal” draw a parallel to the Igbo gods, but the reference to “slaying the prophets” invokes the unmerciful violence of the old testament Christian God. Through this opening paragraph Achebe presents the ways in which Christianity can be a justification for violence and fundamentalism, much like Okonkwo’s own violent extremism.
When placing Iyasere’s argument in conjunction with the importance of Obierika and Mr. Brown as foil characters, one can see the full spectrum of religious life that Achebe works to depict. Achebe refuses to simplify either religion to just the extremism of Mr. Smith and Okonkwo, but rather shows the possibility for gentleness and understanding in both religious frameworks. In this sense, Achebe places both religions on a level playing field, asking us not to decide which one is “more moral” but rather to see the similarities and room for interpretation within each religious framework.
Achebe, Chinua. “Things Fall Apart.” Things Fall Apart: A Norton Critical Edition, edited by Francis Abiole Irele, W.W. Norton & Co., 2009. pg 3-117.
Iyasere, Solomon O. “Narrative Techniques in Things Fall Apart.” Things Fall Apart: A Norton Critical Edition, edited by Francis Abiole Irele, W.W. Norton & Co., 2009. pg 370-385