Transgenerational Trauma in The Dew Breaker and White Teeth


For my thesis project I will explore the intersections between Trauma theory and Postcolonial studies. Particularly, I will focus on the ways colonial and other forms of trauma are passed down through generations of immigrants living in diaspora. When reading my primary texts I will consider what kinds of trauma exist, how different generations relate to trauma, what effects it has on their subjectivity formation and more. With these questions in mind, I will chart the pathways for and methods of trauma transmission within the family unit. I will then analyze how transgenerational trauma informs the lives of second generation citizens. However, a key interest of mine is not just to discover how trauma affects the lives of postcolonial subjects, but also their resilience, healing, and methods of survival despite their trauma. Finally, in my research thus far I have identified considerable disjunctions between western centric trauma theory and postcolonial studies. I will be sure to keep these tensions at the forefront of my project, privileging specific cultural conceptions of family, healing, and identity.

The first primary source I am considering is the 2004 short story collection, The Dew Breaker, by Edwidge Danticat. The collection contains 9 different stories with 7 distinct narrators and charts the experiences of the Haitian diasporic community in New York City. These stories focus both on their struggles as immigrants as well as their traumatic pasts under the violent Haitian dictators “Papa Doc” and “Baby Doc” Duvalier. Though the collection contains a variety of different stories, each are linked to the family of a young Haitian-American, Ka. In the third story of the collection, “The Book of Miracles”, Ka’s mother, Anne, reveals that Ka’s father was an agent of the violent military regime headed by the Duvaliers. Known as “dew breakers” or Tonton Macoutes, he was one of the hundreds of men who committed heinous acts of violence against Haitian civilians in order to enforce the power of the regime. As the stories progress narrators reveal the specific ways in which “The Dew Breaker” inflicted trauma in their lives, uniting them all in shared traumatic experience. However, the collection if punctuated by Ka learning of the violence her father perpetuated through a phone conversation with her mother. Ultimately, the phone conversation is unresolved leaving readers with a complex ending to the short story collection.

The Dew Breaker offers a particularly nuanced representation of transgenerational and cultural trauma. On one hand, the traumatic connections between the characters of each story stress the importance of community for those living in diaspora. Through community they are able to find comfort in a foreign land while also speaking in a unified voice against the regime that drove them from Haiti. Further, the collection resists the urge to paint the United States as a place of salvation. Rather, the characters still struggle with a number of problems such as police violence, unwanted pregnancies, stalking, and familial strife. However, this representation of trauma is complicated by the primacy of Ka and her family’s narrative. With the inclusion of Ka’s story, the collection also asks readers to consider how one can deal with traumatic information about one’s family.  What are the effects of existing in a legacy of a perpetrator of trauma? How does this fracture one’s own subjectivity formation? Though the collection leaves the reader with Ka’s revelation unresolved, Danticat’s stories are a heroic testament to the importance of speaking and witnessing one’s trauma for healing.

Throughout the novel Danticat contends with the motif of speaking and silences. Though some characters in the novel lack the agency to tell their own truths, Danticat ultimately transcends her character’s silences through the metanarrative of writing their stories. Ka and the traumatized characters in the novel will never be able to change the things they have endured, however they regain agency by the writing and witnessing of their pain. That being said, one concern I have with this text is its place in the field postcolonial studies. Though it is classified as a postcolonial novel I am struggling to draw clear connections between the oppressive forces of colonialism and the trauma occurring in these short stories. If I choose to write about this collection I must also formulate my own understanding of the field of study. Overall, I believe that this work asks unique questions about familial and communal trauma. That being said, one of the only characters in the collection who is second generation is Ka and many of the stories do not focus on her at all. This lack of focus on the second generation may cause problems for my interest in exploring how transgenerational trauma effects their subjectivity formation. That being said, there are many other aspects of this collection that excite me. For example, I would be fascinated in exploring the individual structures of the short stories, while also considering how this collection works as a whole. Further, I find the project of telling Haitian stories deeply important. If I chose to write about this collection I would continually be inspired by the Haitian community’s historic resilience in the face of oppression and disaster.   

The second primary source I am interested in is the 2000 novel White Teeth by Zadie Smith. White Teeth maps the lives and families of two WWII veterans fighting for the British Military, Samad Iqbal and Archie Jones. Samad, is an Indian fighting the war in an effort to relive the glory of his supposed great grandfather, Mangal Pandey, who fired the first shot in the Indian Rebellion of 1857. In contrast, Archie is an average white British man who later in the novel marries a second generation Jamaican woman, Clara Bowden. While fighting in the same platoon, the pair forge a cross cultural friendship that continues once Samad and his wife, Alsana, move to Britain. The novel then introduces the second generation of characters, Samad’s twin boys, Millat and Magid, and Archie’s biracial daughter, Irie. Within this lengthy and intergenerational novel are an array of personal and familial dramas as well as much broader cultural critiques. The beauty of this novel lies in its ability to contend with issues of racism, citizenship, class, religious fundamentalism, abuse, war and the British colonial empire, all while telling deeply personal stories about family, love, and growing up.

White Teeth fearlessly asks readers to consider the importance of trauma and family in identity formation. Further, its style of narration offers an interesting complication for the lens of trauma theory and postcolonial studies. The novel is narrated by an intrusive omniscient narrator who focalizes on specific characters throughout the novel. Though this semi-fragmented form of narration is common in both trauma theory and postcolonial studies, Smith also incorporates humor into the narrative voice. Given the often traumatic events that Smith narrates I am puzzled, but intrigued, by her use of humor. However, I am considerably intimidated by the length and breath of White Teeth. The novel is 480 pages, spans over 50 years, two generations, two primary families, and a multitude of themes. Though the scope of the novel is daunting, I believe my focus on transgenerational trauma and its place in subjectivity formation will focus my thesis project. Unlike, The Dew Breaker, White Teeth includes detailed portrayals of both generations’ personal traumas which in turn provides me with a breath of material for analysis.  Further, the novel depicts different kinds of family units with which to analyze the passage of trauma. Smith’s novel includes the complications of biraciality as well as deeply religious family which would necessarily complicate my arguments about transgenerational trauma. Finally, I am moved by White Teeth’s refusal to offer readers a rosy picture of personal, familial, and colonial trauma. Rather, White Teeth provides a realistic picture of healing which relies on community, personal connections, and the witnessing of one’s own trauma for survival.

One of my issues in choosing between these texts is their respective complexity and differences in subject matter. Though they certainly have similar features, I do not believe that I could do justice to both of works within the same thesis project. For example, The Dew Breaker deals specifically with Haiti, French colonialism, violent dictatorships,  and the diasporic experience in America. Conversely, White Teeth focuses on War, British citizenship, British colonialism in India and Jamaica, and the experience of people of color living in Britain. Though both ask questions about trauma and its relationship to family, I believe the task of comparing these works would be too complex of an undertaking. With this in mind I believe I must choose either The Dew Breaker and White Teeth, though both have significant positives and negatives. For The Dew Breaker, I am inspired by the collection’s emotional resonance and Haitian focus. However, I worry that the collection does not focus enough on the second generation and would disable a deeper analysis of the passing of trauma and subjectivity formation. White Teeth was a transformational novel in my life and provides innumerable layers of complexity to be explored in my thesis project. However, I worry that the novel may be too complex and broad in its scope. That being said, for both novels there is little to no research about the pathways of transgenerational trauma and its impact on subjectivity formation. In total, I believe my scholarship for either novel would fill an important critical gap and I would appreciate guidance in deciding between the two works.


Works Cited

Danticat, Edwidge. The Dew Breaker. Vintage Contemporary, 2004.

Smith, Zadie. White Teeth. Hamish Hamilton, 2000.

The Intersections of Trauma Theory Post Colonial Studies

I choose to root my understanding of Trauma theory in the seminal work Trauma: Explorations in Memory edited by leading trauma theory scholar, Cathy Caruth. The book is divided into two sections titled “Trauma and Experience” and “Reclaiming the Past” which contain articles from a wide array of scholars. In Caruth’s introduction to “Trauma and Experience” she claims that “The aim of this volume… is to examine the impact of the experience and the notion of trauma on psychoanalytic practice and theory, as well as other aspects of culture such as literature….”(4). Within the first section of the book, the topics of the scholarly essays range from the proper way to teach trauma narratives in an academic setting to the lasting effects of trauma on the human psyche. Further, this book introduces key terminology to the field of trauma theory such as “belated”, “intrusive”, and “repetition”. Each of these words are essential in understanding the ways in which trauma manifests in the human psyche as well as the ways trauma is written about in literature. These grounding terms and theories provide a scaffolding for what to look for in novels about trauma. Furthermore, they allow for a new set of guidelines with which to analyze literary devices, word choice, and more.

The second section of the book titled “Recapturing the Past” wrestles with the impact of traumatic memory. This section introduces the idea that trauma is “largely inaccessible to conscious recall and control” (151). The scholars in this section of the book focus on a range of topics such as traumatic memories inability to be incorporated into “narrative memory”, the conditions that evoke traumatic memory, and the phenomenon of “depersonalization”. However, the two sections of the book are united by the key claim of the importance of telling owns one and witnessing other’s traumatic stories. On this topic, Caruth states that “the history of trauma…can only take place through the listening of another” (11). In general, this book introduces key scholars and terminology in this field and has given me a foundation for how to view trauma in literature. However, one blind spot I noted in this book was the lack of diversity in experience of trauma represented. Though the book does introduce a feminist understanding of trauma, none of the essays deal with colonial or racial traumas besides the Holocaust.

In an effort to find links between trauma theory and post colonial studies I conducted a year long survey of The Journal of Post Colonial Writing focusing on the year of 2016. This volume contains 6 separate editions titled “Beyond Britishness”, “Al-Andalus” ,“The Worldliness of Cricket and Its Literature”, “Trans/Forming Literature: Graphic Novels, Migration and Postcolonial Identity”, “Asian Australian Writing” and one untitled edition. Each of the editions explore different specific facets of post colonial literature, however each mention key thinkers such as Edward Said, Homi Bhabha, Frantz Fanon, and more. Additionally, almost every article in the year long survey utilizes key terms such as “Cosmopolitanism”, “multiculturalism”, “migration”, “globalization”, “racism”, and “hegemony”. One facet of the year long survey that struck me was the breadth of scholarship that exists within incredibly specialized fields. For example, the special edition “The Worldliness of Cricket and Its Literature” contains many distinct scholars speaking to numerous different novels using a huge variations of lens. The huge diversity of study within this minute subdivision of study communicated to me the vast potential that post colonial studies allows and hasinspired me to find a specialized topic.

Though each edition contains useful information for my exploration of the post colonial studies, the special edition “Beyond Britishness” is particularly relevant to my interest in the novel White Teeth and the concept of transgenerational trauma. One article in this special edition titled “Tell me a story Dad: (Post)memory and the archeology of subjectivity in Hanif Kureishi’s My Ear at His Heartfocuses on transgenerational trauma and explaining the complex effect cultural trauma has on the identity formation of second generation migrants. This edition also includes an article titled “Coming unmoored: Old and new ways of belonging in Caryl Phillips’s In the Falling Snow” that explores the progression of British national identity across generations of immigrants in England. Finally, the edition contains an article titled “Approaching space: Zadie Smith’s North London fiction” that analyzes the shifting use of North London as setting in Smith’s novels. These essays both validate my interest in exploring the work of Zadie Smith and give examples of transgenerational trauma and post colonialism coexisting in analysis.

Further, an essential take away to the year long survey was the importance of telling post colonial stories. In the special edition “Al-Andalus” scholar Tariq Ali explains his project of post colonial scholarship as an effort to tell “the whole bloody story” (189). This statement invokes that similar sentiment in trauma theory of bearing witness to horrific moments of the past, whether they be colonial traumas or intimate personal traumas. Both lens communicate that it is only through telling stories that one can begin the healing process. However, an important question still looms at the intersection of post colonial studies and trauma theory. In my further research I am interested in discovering what the limitations of trauma theory may be in relationship to post colonial studies, as Caruth’s books lays out theories largely based in the work of Freud. Many of Freud’s theories have been proven false today, and often do not account for the complex and intersectional identities that are at the center of post colonial novels. Therefore, I will be interested in exploring how trauma theory must be reconfigured to meet the specific needs of post colonial studies.


BP 5

Works Cited

Athanasiades, Andreas. “Tell Me a Story Dad: (Post)Memory and the Archaeology of Subjectivity in Hanif Kureishi’s My Ear at His Heart.” Journal of Postcolonial Writing, vol. 52, no. 1, May 2016, pp. 26–37.

Cilano, Cara. “Highlighting the Sceptical Strain: An Interview with Tariq Ali.” Journal of Postcolonial Writing, vol. 52, no. 2, May 2016, pp. 189–194.

Journal of Postcolonial Writing, special issue of Beyond Britishness vol. 52, no. 1, May 2016.

Journal of Postcolonial Writing, special edition of Al-Andalus, vol. 52, no. 2, Jun. 2016.

Journal of Postcolonial Writing, special edition of The Worldliness of Cricket and Its Literature , vol. 52, no. 3, Aug. 2016.

Journal of Postcolonial Writing, special edition of Trans/Forming Literature: Graphic Novels, Migration and Postcolonial Identity , vol. 52, no. 4, Nov. 2016.

Journal of Postcolonial Writing, special edition of Asian Australian Writing, Migration and Postcolonial Identity , vol. 52, no. 5, Dec. 2016.

Journal of Postcolonial Writing, vol. 52, no. 6, Dec. 2016.

Pirker, Eva Ulrike. “Approaching Space: Zadie Smith’s North London Fiction.” Journal of Postcolonial Writing, vol. 52, no. 1, May 2016, pp. 64–76.

Tournay-Theodotou, Petra. “Coming Unmoored: Old and New Ways of Belonging in Caryl Phillips’s In the Falling Snow.” Journal of Postcolonial Writing, vol. 52, no. 1, May 2016, pp. 51–63.

Trauma: Explorations in Memory, edited by Cathy Caruth, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.


What’s So Scary About a Female Academic?

Intellectual and empowered women have always been threatening. Or at least threatening to the structures of power that work to keep women in subservient positions and strictly domestic locations. There is no exception to this age old rule in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2006 novel Half of A Yellow Sun. The novel is set during the Biafran War in Nigeria and utilizes an intrusive narrator who provides three distinct perspectives on the unfolding historical event. The first narrative perspective is the young houseboy, Ugwu, then the high society beauty, Olanna, and finally the British expatriate, Richard. The novel opens by focusing on Ugwu’s characters as he makes the transition from village life into the home of a revolutionary college professor, Odenigbo. Odenigbo encourages his new houseboy to strive towards education and fosters a home environment in which intellectualism is central. In the opening chapter, Ugwu evaluates the many guests that Odenigbo invites to his home for intellectual debates. Interestingly, Ugwu’s character admires the male professors and writers but holds particular disdain for the reoccurring female guest, Miss Adebayo.

            Though little attention is paid to the male guests of Odenigbo, Ugwu provides almost two pages of details about Miss Adebayo, focusing particularly on her intellectualism and agency in male dominated spaces. For example, in his lengthy description Ugwu notes:

“She had asked him to wait so that she could give him a ride back to the campus, but he thanked her and said he still had many things left to buy and would take a taxi, although            he had finished shopping. He did not want to ride in her car, did not like how her voice rose above Master’s in the living room, challenging and arguing. He often fought the urge to…tell her to shut up, especially when she called Master a sophist. He did not know what sophist meant…” (24).

The first sentence of this paragraph introduces the idea that the dislike Ugwu feels for Miss Adebayo is deeply spurred by the authority she asserts despite her gender. The first clause in the first sentence gives power and the subjective position to the female pronoun “She” whereas “him” is used passively, as a direct object. However, Ugwu shifts this assertive feminine dynamic in the second clause where “he” becomes the subject and “her” becomes the direct object of the clause. Finally, by the end of the sentence Ugwu has erased the feminine pronoun completely. This technical structure mirrors the actual content of the sentence, wherein Miss Adebayo first attempts to help him, or assert agency, but is then rebuffed as Ugwu does not want to submit to what she “asked” of him.

Next, Ugwu shifts between talking about a personal experience to talking about Miss Adebayo’s relationship with his master with the words, “He did not want to ride in her car, did not like how her voice rose above Master’s”. Here, the only thing separating Ugwu from Odenigbo is a comma, showing the way in which Ugwu deeply associates his own identity with his master’s. Further, the way in which Ugwu desires to privilege Odenigbo’s “voice” over Miss Adebayo demonstrates the way in which Ugwu ascribes more value to male thought and intellectualism. Finally, Ugwu ends with the assertion that what he hates most is when Miss Adebayo calls Odenigbo a “sophist”, though “he does not know what a sophist meant”. Later on Ugwu is not bothered by other words he does not understand, such as “decolonize” and “pan-African”. However, he is bothered when Miss Adebayo uses a word he doesn’t understand and ascribes it to his master. Ugwu does not accept her use of academic words because of his privileging of masculine intellectualism. Further, he finds discomfort in the assertive way in which Miss Adebayo applies her intellectualism as an insult to Odenigbo, or Ugwu’s idealized picture of masculinity.

Though this may seem to be a minor detail in the text, Ugwu’s reaction to Miss Adebayo’s character highlights a current and persistent issue for women in Academia.  Where a feminist reading may assert western cultural values into this non-western setting, the specificity of this moment’s academic landscape lends itself more easily to a feminist lens. Ugwu’s fear of Miss Adebayo affirms his position in a patriarchal bounds of academia, wherein women are not meant to over power male thinkers.

BP 4

Works Cited

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Half of a Yellow Sun. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.


Do we all turn into our Parents?

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Or does it? Part one of Taiye Selasi’s novel, Ghana Must Go, narrates the complex personal relationships in the Sai family after the death of their estranged father. To tell their story, Selasi uses an intrusive narrator that delves into the inner thoughts and feelings of each character. This narrative style works to expose her characters’ emotional wounds and personal flaws to her readers. Within the first 2 chapters of the novel, Selasi sets up a parallel between the father of the family, Kweku, and his eldest son, Olu. Both Olu and Kweku are surgeons and in their sections of the novel, Selasi slips into clinical imagery which suits their medical minds. However, though these sections use similar diction, when taking a closer look at the structure of her sentences, the differences and strain underpinning the father-son relationship become clear.

In the second chapter of the novel, Selasi describes Olu finding processing the death of his absent father. Selasi writes, “…he’ll picture it- his father, there, dead in a garden, healthy male, fifty-seven, in remarkable shape, small-round biceps pushing up against the skin of his arms, small-round belly pushing out against the rib of his top…”(6). Selasi begins by using emotional, but terse phrases such as “his father”, “there”, and “dead in a garden”. The simplicity of these phrases demonstrate Olu’s unwillingness to engage with the emotional trauma of his father’s death. Just as these phrases do not take up significant space in his description, nor does he allow the event’s reality to take up space in his mind. As the passage progresses his thoughts shift into physical and clinical phrases such as “healthy male”, “fifty-seven”, and details such as “small-round bicep…small-round belly”. Though the physicality of these phrases suit his identity as a doctor, their medical nature communicate his deep dissociation and emotional repression in this moment. Instead of confronting the fact of his father’s death, Olu can focus only on the comfortable and clinical facts of the body.

Later on in the novel, Selasi flashes back to a moment when Kweku was under intense emotional stress- when his daughter was born prematurely. In this chapter, Selasi details Olu and Kweku walking together in the hospital the night of his daughter’s birth. From Kweku’s perspective Selasi writes, “He looked at Olu closely now, surprised by his height (and by other things he’d seen but never noticed before: the wide latissimus dorsi, the angular jawline, the Yoruba nose, Fola’s nose, broad and straight, the taut skin the same shade as his own and so smooth, baby’s bum, even know in adolescence)”(14). Kweku uses similar clinical language to describe his son’s body such as “latissimus dorsi, angular jawline” and “taught skin”. However, unlike Olu, Kweku’s emotional descriptions are interspersed throughout the clause. For example, he uses “Fola’s nose”, invoking his emotional relationship to his wife. Further, he describes Olu’s skin as “the same shade as his own and so smooth, baby’s bum”. Through identifying both parents in Olu’s features and using the word “baby’s bum” which associates Olu with childhood, Kweku’s identity as a father is highlighted. Though there is clearly strain on his relationship, as he has “never noticed” these traits, Kweku is not using his identity as a doctor to retreat from these realizations. Instead, his identity as a doctor and provider has wiped away the parental emotions that he is now grasping at.

Though Selasi’s word choice in these moments link these two characters as Docotors, her descriptions highlight essential differences between them. In both moments these characters’ are responding to intense emotions by falling back into their comfort zone of clinical knowledge. However, where for Olu it is a form of emotional dissociation, for Kweku his clinical knowledge is his natural state. Thus when emotions organically bubble up Kweku does not revile them, but rather grasps for them. Kweku’s sparse outward emotions communicate a future risk for Olu. Though disconnecting from emotions may have been a way to succeed for Kweku, it ultimately leaves him alone and estranged from his family. Therefore, Olu’s emotional retreat into clinical knowledge demonstrate a potentially dangerous outcome- abstracting himself so much from emotional connections that he ends up just like his father.

BP 3

Works Cited

Selasi, Taiye. Ghana Must Go. Penguin Books, 2013.

Trasgenerational Trauma & Postcolonial Studies (Sally)

Key Words

  • Transgenerational Trauma
  • Trauma Theory
  • Postcolonial Studies

Secondary Sources

  • Caruth, Cathy. Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1995.
  • Atkinson, Meera. The poetics of Transgenerational Trauma. Bloomsbury Academic,
  • “Postcolonial Trauma Novels.” Studies in the Novel, 40. No. 1-2, 2008.
  • Hsiao, Li-Chun. “The Corruption of Slaves into Tyrants’: Toussaint, Haiti, and the Writing of Postcolonial Trauma.” Journal of Midwest Modern Language Association, 41, no. 1, 2008.
  • Upstone, Sara. “’Same Old, Same Old’: Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and Monica Ali’s Brick Lane.” Journal of Postcolonial Writing, 43, no. 3, 2007, pp. 336-349.

Year long Journal Survey

  • Journal of Postcolonial Writing

The two primary texts I may focus my thesis on are The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat and White Teeth by Zadie Smith. I am drawn to The Dew Breaker for it’s rich and layered narrative which lends itself to both Postcolonial theory and Trauma theory. The novel is a collection of 9 short stories which narrates different Haitian characters’ experiences with brutality and cultural loss. Additionally, I am interested in Danticat’s use of multiple short stories to create a narrative about postcolonial trauma. I think the fragmentation of the narrative works on a meta level in conjunction with Trauma theory and the diaspora she explores in her writing. Secondly, I am drawn to White Teeth because of its complex narration of postcolonial England and the generational effects of colonialism. I am not yet certain how applicable Trauma theory will be to this novel, but I believe it would be an interesting undertaking to explore the multiple forms of trauma present. Further, there are many pieces of the novel which I still do not fully grasp through I have read it many times. I believe that literature which resists your analysis at first often creates the most interesting research process and textual analysis. I also adore Smith’s writing style and the intrusive omniscient narrator she uses throughout the novel. Overall, I think it would be a pleasure to revisit White Teeth as a capstone to my academic career, though I worry it will present many challenges along the way.

As for my research, I will begin by anchoring my understanding of Trauma theory in Cathy Caruth’s foundational book Trauma: Explorations in Memory. This book will allow me to have a basic understanding of the general theory and language which surrounds this subject matter with which I have little prior experience. I will then deepen my understanding of Postcolonial Studies by conducting a year long survey of the Journal of Postcolonial Writing. I will then extend my understanding of Trauma theory to the subgenre of transgenerational trauma through Meera Atkinson’s book The poetics of Transgenerational Trauma.  In conjunction with this narrowing I will read the special edition of the journal Studies in the Novel titled “Postcolonial Trauma Novels”. This journal will help build my understanding of Trauma theory in conjunction with Postcolonial theory. Lastly, I will read two topic specific articles which explore the Island nation of Haiti and the novel White Teeth through the Postcolonial lens. These articles will give me insight into which primary text I would like to choose based on how engaging I find the scholarship surrounding their specific topics. In total I have structured my reading list to build off of and deepen my understanding of the very broad fields I am interested in. I hope that this process will bring me clarity as to what primary text I want to focus on while also building my foundational knowledge on this kind of scholarship.


BP 3


All Things in Moderation- Especially Religion

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.


Works Cited

            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

Mutilating a Baby or Padding a Coffin?

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.