The Strength of “Weak” Converts: Juxtaposition & Irony in Things Fall Apart

The Ibo society of Umuofia is an inflexible one that is full of rigid traditions…and is also a community that can tolerate change if necessary. Additionally, it is a place where festivals celebrating peace and harmony exist but also where violent customs of killing children, such as twins, subsist. Such is the intricate and multilayered world of Igboland that Chinua Achebe highlights in Things Fall Apart. As stated by Solomon O. Iyasere, the “complex, dualistic nature of the customs and traditions of the Ibo society of Umuofia is made clear. This duality is well presented through Achebe’s technique of skillfully juxtaposing contrasting events, events which define and articulate the code of values of the tradition oriented people” (Iyasere 375). Iyasere later on adds, “From Achebe’s juxtaposition of conflicting values and actions emerge the paradoxes and ironies of Things Fall Apart” (Iyasere 385).

Essentially, Iyasere is arguing that Achebe utilizes the technique of juxtaposition to emphasize how aspects of the Ibo society of Umuofia can be compared and contrasted by seemingly contradictory factors in an ironic manner, such as how a strong conservative African clan can tolerate British Christian missionaries converting “weak” members of Igbo society. This creates interesting effects because it adds complexity to the plot of the story and captivates the attention of the readers. Iyasere clearly demonstrates his understanding of Achebe’s techniques by highlighting such examples from the text. By providing these specific literary details, Iyasere’s claim is logical.

Thus, Achebe uses juxtaposition throughout the story to bring forth the ironies of the novel. Irony is featured in sections where values clash or when actions backfire, such as when “weak” Christian converts end up contributing to the downfall of the mighty Umuofia clan. The vast majority of the Igbo who end joining the Christians are the “weak” members of society, whom the Igbo call efulelu, meaning “foolish/worthless/empty men”. Because they are not important, the clan members do not care about the fate of the efulefu. Achebe writes, “Chielo, the priestess of Agbala, called the converts the excrement of the clan, and the new faith was a mad dog that come to eat it up” (Achebe 83). Because dogs were often used as agents of personal hygiene, the strong clan members view the converts as subhuman waste being consumed by a dog (Christianity). Such symbolic language indicates how non-converts viewed those who converted to Christianity. The strong clan members also give no “serious thought to the stories about the white man’s government or the consequences of killing the Christians” (Achebe 89 – 90), proving how the Umuofia clan does not consider the new religion and its followers as a threat.

Furthermore, the new church established by the missionaries begins to accept osu, outcasts of Igbo society who are raised as human sacrifices. Though other Igbo members initially protest the acceptance of osu into the new faith, Mr. Kiaga, the missionary, stands firm and allows two osu to join, and “soon they were among the strongest adherents of the new faith. And what was more, nearly all the osu in Mbanta followed their example. It was in fact one of them who in his zeal brought the church into serious conflict with the clan a year later” (Achebe 91). It is from this passage that we notice a foreshadowing of the conflict that will cause the downfall of the Umuofia clan. The man mentioned, Enoch, kills a sacred python, which sets off a chain reaction of the Christians fighting against the unconverted clan members, resulting in the leaders of Umuofia being rounded up and beaten like animals. This whole sequence of events is thus ironic: a clan who values strength and traditions shuns outcasts and Christian missionaries to preserve their power but end becoming destabilized because of such actions. It is a moment of the weak uniting against the strong and using their supposed weaknesses to do so.

Achebe’s usage of juxtaposition reveals irony which in turn brings attention to the complex and intertwining themes of Things Fall Apart. Achebe does this by having unexpected events occur, such as having a strong clan strive for strength and stability by doing things that have the opposite effect. These effects of juxtaposition and irony are significant because they create intriguing situations in which the reader is surprised and has to ponder on why something contradictory occurred in the story. By bringing the reader’s attention to these critical moments of the novel, Achebe makes the audience dig deeper and acknowledge how actions and events such as the traditions of the Umuofia or the colonization of Igboland are not as black and white as they appear to be.

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Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. “Things Fall Apart.” Things Fall Apart: A Norton Critical Edition, edited by Francis Abiola Irele, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2009, pp. 83 – 91.

Iyasere, Solomon O. “Narrative Techniques in Things Fall Apart.” Things Fall Apart: A Norton Critical Edition, edited by Francis Abiola Irele, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2009, pp. 375 – 385.

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