Ikemefuna’s Storytelling and Power

Apparent from the very first page, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is a novel which finds its unique voice by interweaving influences of Western literature and the vibrancy found in traditional African oral folktales.  Scattered throughout the First Part of the novel’s chapters, we come across various vignettes relaying past stories about the characters we encounter, in attempts for Achebe to guide the reader into constructing fully formed humans out of a people who have almost never been afforded dimension and humanity within the “colonial canon” (XVII) as Irele describes it.  While afforded with this dimension, the character of Ikemefuna finds his humanity contested by his circumstances. Taken from his family and village in an act of retribution for the killing of a woman from Okonkwo’s village, Ikemefuna’s displacement is the result of an event that is removed from his control. He enters Okonkwo’s life as a consequence of Okonkwo’s responsibility and the mistakes of his own father, and while this situation leaves him at a great disadvantage against the world, the conclusion of Chapter 5 sees how Ikemefuna uses the act of telling folktales to reestablish his sense of significance and identity amongst Okonkwo’s family.

As he discusses the intricacies of the planting and harvest seasons and how Umuofian society functions in the brief respite in between, Achebe touches on how “children sat around their mother’s cooking fire telling stories” (22).  This imagery is framed by the greater presence of heavy rainfall and thunder, but transitions to the abrupt image of Okonkwo’s family, and Ikemefuna’s own perception of his role in it, “Ikemefuna had begun to feel like a member of Okonkwo’s family,” Achebe narrates.  While technically a forced inhabitant of Okonkwo’s home, Ikemefuna slowly adjusts himself to his new reality through his attachment to Nwoye, Okonkwo’s eldest son. This attachment appears to be primarily achieved through Ikemefuna’s storytelling ability,

“[he] had an endless stock of folk tales. Even those which Nwoye knew already were told with a new freshness and the local flavour of a different clan. Nwoye remembered this period very vividly till the end of his life. He even remembered how he had laughed when Ikemefuna told him that the proper name for a corn cob with only a few scattered grains was eze-agadi-nwayi, or the teeth of an old woman. Nwoye’s mind had gone immediately to Nwayieke, who lived near the udala tree.” (22)

An Udala Tree

Like the memory of the old woman living near the udala tree that finds itself so vividly brought to the front of Nwoye’s consciousness through Ikemefuna’s stories, the memory of Ikemefuna is preserved though the stories he told and the humanity he injected into their telling.  While Ikemefuna can be read as a character used simply as a narrative tool to emphasize Okonkwo’s most destructive qualities, I argue that Achebe assigned Ikemefuna the role of a storyteller to highlight his individuality and purpose outside of Okonkwo’s story, while serving as a layered metaphor for the significance of Achebe’s own storytelling.  Confined by the influence and force of those who uprooted him from his culture and family, Ikemefuna forges strength through the ability to tell stories using a voice and perspective that recalls his origins. And like Ikemefuna’s telling of folktales that are retold in his ‘local flavour’, Achebe accomplishes a similar feat of using storytelling to signal multi-dimensional humanity and identity despite a contrasting narrative imposed on him by his oppressors.

Blog #1

Sources:

Achebe, Chinua. “Things Fall Apart” Things Fall Apart: Authoritative Text, Contexts, and Criticism, edited by Francis Abiola Irele, W.W Norton & Company, 2009, p. 22

Irele, Francis A. “Introduction” Things Fall Apart: Authoritative Text, Contexts, and Criticism, edited by Francis Abiola Irele, W.W Norton & Company, 2009, p. XVII

Blog Prompt #2: Things Fall Apart, Part II

Blog Post #1 Due: Tues 9/25, 12noon // Comments #1-2 Due: Tues 9/25, 11:59pm

Cover of Norton Anthology for Things Fall Apart

Introduce & summarize one key argument that Solomon Iyasere makes in his essay, “Narrative Techniques in Things Fall Apart” (pp. 370-385).

Then, reflect on the extent to which you agree or disagree with Iyasere’s claim. Be sure to specify how you agree/disagree with him or the extent to which you might modulate his claim. In other words, articulate a mini argument of your own in response to Iyasere’s.

Finally, provide a short close reading of one scene, literary device, or textual element from Part II of Things Fall Apart to illustrate the argument you’ve developed in conversation with Iyasere’s claim. Be sure to use different textual evidence than Iyasere uses in his essay. Remember to follow all the close reading steps you used in the previous blog post:

  1. Introduce (name/describe) the literary device you plan to analyze and frame a cohesive quote illustrating the selected literary device. Remember to provide enough context to situate your reader within the relevant section of the text.
  2. Describe what specific effects this device produces – remember, you will need to re-quote / reference specific portions of the text in this portion of your close reading.
  3. Explain how the device produce these effects – again, re-quote / reference the text as needed to illustrate your claims.
  4. Explain why these effects are significant to your reading of this scene, chapter, or section of the novel.

Onkonkwo: The Personification of Umuofia’s Ideals

In Chinua Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart, the main character Oknonkwo is strong, powerful, well-respected, and as some critics have noted, almost a legend even within the book. Oknonkwo’s personality literally embodies his town’s, Umuofia’s, ideals to the point that he is a personified version of Umuofia and the entirety of its ideology.

Achebe’s novel begins with the vivid description of Okonkwo, and his massive feat in “throwing the cat” (Achebe 3). Indeed, his physical strength, and the imagery of this man flexing every muscle in his body to its “breaking point” is powerful, yet it is the first line of the entire novel, “Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages” (Achebe 3) which is most telling as it mimics Umuofia’s own description later in the novel. Umuofia is described as being “fear by all its neighbors” (Achebe 9), meaning that if it is feared it is also known by all of its neighbors. The two descriptions seem to coincide, and though not the most convincing, it begins to set up a theme of character and setting essentially being one in the same.
One such example of this, again dealing with the descriptions within the first few pages of the novel, has to do with the anger Oknonkwo exhibits, and the fear which Umuofia incites. Indeed, Achebe does give Oknonkwo more depth than being an emotionally void, hypermasculine, angry man, but as he is originally described, as a man who “never showed any emotion openly, unless it be the emotion of anger…the only thing worth demonstrating was strength” (Achebe 18). Though this makes him originally difficult to connect with, it sets a parallel with the aforementioned strength of Umuofia, and the fear it provokes in its neighbors. For the town teaches, that strength is dignified and the “only thing worth demonstrating”, and weakness is worth both scorn and ultimate exile.

Umuofia’s idealization of strength, and thus Oknonkwo’s own embodiment of this ideology, can be seen in Oknonkwo’s former relationship with, and the later thoughts regarding his father, Unoka. Unoka is, from the beginning, slandered as a lazy, greedy, emotional man who ultimately died from his own weaknesses. It is even revealed that “it was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father” (Achebe 10), and later that Oknonkwo was “possessed by the fear of his father’s contemptible life and shameful death” (Achebe 13). This relationship is a driving factor in giving an explanation to the “hard” persona which Oknonkwo exhibits so early on. However, if Oknonkwo is indeed a personified version of Umuofia, then this hatred simply stems from the defamed reputation the father had. As Oknonkwo so wholeheartedly embodies all Umuofia’s principals, his father being an overwhelmingly “weak” man, is both emasculating and embarrassing to be associated with. The simple fact that Unoka died physically in a shameful way, and spoke of love before doing so goes to exhibit his separation from Umuofia and its ideals. Though the revelation of his fear so early in the novel is seemingly a weak, Oknonkwo’s tireless, even “possessed” efforts to differentiate himself from his father is demonstrative of the indefatigable ideology of Umuofia.

Oknonkwo character, while both hypermasculine and stoic in his hard-working efforts to maintain power and be well-respected, even feared, within Umuofia is not just an embodiment of the town’s ideals but is an outward characterization of these ideals. Thus, Oknonkwo and Umuofia are inseparable in that Oknonkwo is the personification of Umuofia.

B1. Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. W. W. Norton & Company Inc., 2009.

The Autonomy of Musical Instruments

With the influence of movies, the modern student often thinks about what their life would be like if they had a personal soundtrack playing at dramatic moments throughout their days. They walk around imagining exactly which song would match their pace, setting, and emotional state. The characters of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958), never have to wonder what this would be like for two reasons. The first of which is that modern film plays no part in the narrative – where storytelling, which sometimes includes song, is the closest equivalent of the medium. The second, is the existence of the drums and flutes which mark important moments for our protagonist, such as the wrestling festival where he gains his fame, the trials where he represents an ancestral spirit to provide judgement for the a quarrelling married couple, and the moments before his adopted son’s death by his own hands.

In his debut novel, Things Fall Apart, released on the anxious eve of  decolonization in Nigeria (Gikandi, 298),  Achebe centers his narrative on the family of Okonkwo, a greatly respected warrior and wrestler from Umuofia during the the years prior to colonization. Part One of the novel begins with the story of his father, a flutist who is unable to provide for his wife and children, before shifting to the son as he sets out at a young age to build his farm and family. Through a series of flashbacks and non-linear story-telling, the reader is given insight into Okonkwo’s family, where his three wives care for their seven children – one of which has been coming and going from the earth cyclically – and the child that the village was given as retribution for a daughter of their clan’s death in a neighboring market (Achebe, Part One). These scenes are juxtaposed with those of the greater village, where there are weddings, festivals, trails, and funerals abound (Achebe, Part One).

Directly following the recounting of a celebration for the marriage of Okonkwo’s friend’s daughter, the narrator begins the next anecdote with the jarring description of the drum waking up the entire village  (Achebe, 71). “The first cock had not crowd, and Umuofia was still swallowed up in sleep and silence when the ekwe began to talk, and the canon shattered the silence” (Achebe, 71). Beginning the description of the morning with the alliteration of “still swallowed up in sleep and silence” creates a sense of monotony and calmness as the “s” rolls of the tongue softly. “Swallowed” implies a deepness to the silence that is not easily broken, as it invokes images of encapsulation in a stomach or other closed and distanced space. “The ekwe began to talk” disrupts the alliteration, drawing attention to the instrument itself, and while providing the instrument its own agency through personification. The instrument becomes a character in its own right due to its ability to talk, instead of simply a tool used by others. It chose to disrupt the morning peace. Several sentences later the noise of the drum is described through onomatopoeia with the noises “go” and “di” (Achebe, 71). These noises can be connected the the words “go” and “die” indicating the departure of a soul that these drums are meant to announce. In conjunction with the earlier personification, the drums are announcing the death and departure on their own accord.

The effect is that in which musical instruments hold their own autonomy, and are capable of commenting on life; speaking when they deem it proper. Approaching the rest of the section with this understanding, changes the moment in which the men of Umuofia take Ikemefuna out of the village to kill him under the guise of taking him home (Achebe, 36). Ekwe were beating from a distant village to bestow a title upon a man there (Achebe, 36). If the drums are separated from the intention of those playing it, if they can truly speak for themselves at the right moment, then these drums could be seen as part of bestowing a title upon Ikemefuna, who would not have had one at the time of his death.

Achebe, Chinua. “The Text of Things Fall Apart.” Things Fall Apart: Authoritative Text, Contexts and Criticism, edited by Francis Abiola Irele, W.W. Norton & Company Inc, 2009, pp. 3-117.

Gikandi, Simon. “Achebe and the Invention of African Literature.” Things Fall Apart: Authoritative Text, Contexts and Criticism, edited by Francis Abiola Irele, W.W. Norton & Company Inc, 2009, pp. 3-117.

“Log Drum Ekwe Nigerian (Igbo) 6″x12″.” YouTube, uploaded by richardolatunde, 19 May 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=enNWmzyDcGc

Using Irrational Fear for “Rational” Decisions

Fear can make people do a lot of things. When faced with danger, or something we think might be threatening, fear allows us to protect ourselves with caution, and act accordingly. Unfortunately, it can also make us act irrationally, and therefore not make the best decisions in the face of a threat. In Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, he uses the element of fear in order to showcase how certain actions taken in the novel might not be as rational at first glance as one might believe them to be—with Okonkwo being the prime example—and how this lack of awareness could lead to even more dangerous situations.

When we begin to delve into the earlier chapters, we get a glimpse of Okonkwe’s initial fears— mostly having to do with his father and not wanting to end up like him. Although he does not consider himself a bad man like he was, “his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and weakness…it was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father,” (10). This form of dread then translates to how he carries himself, and the actions he takes in order to become the exact opposite of his father. To him, that would be the greatest insult to his person, and although he has a right to feel the way he did about the man, his anxiety has taken a more irrational turn when it comes to how he acts because of it. “When he walked, his heels hardly touched the ground and he seemed to walk on springs…he had no patience with unsuccessful men. He had had no patience with his father,” (4). Because his father was known as a weak, lazy man with so much debt and no ambition, Okonkwo made every effort to be the exact opposite—a big man that is constantly ready to pounce and always keeping himself busy. This shows how much his irrational fear influences his life, and how he thinks its very rational to never relax or be gentle because it “might” make him look like his father. This then leads to him going to any lengths to not look weak, and also spills into how he treats his family. When it comes to his wife and children, Okonkwo is very strict, and does not appreciate laziness from anyone. With his eldest son Nwoye for example, he is not able to behave like a child normally would and was making Okonkwo nervous with is “incipient laziness”. This causes him to constantly nag and beat him, turning Nwoye into a “sad-faced youth,” (10). Again, simply because it “looks” like his son might become lazy, Okonkwo thinks it is rational to discipline his son ruthlessly.

Another fear is presented later on when the village hears the message of the crier. Again, there is a sense of dread among them because of the tone the crier has, with Okonkwo describing it as “a clear overtone of tragedy”. After the crier relayed his message and left, “darkness held a vague terror for [the village] people, even the bravest among them,” (7). Once they found out the cause of the message, which was asking for everyone to meet in the market-place because someone killed a daughter of the village, Okonkwo was tasked with bringing home the young boy and virgin girl as a result. This action, although seemingly rational to Okonkwo and most of the villagers, may not seem that way to others like the young boy. He recalls being scared the whole time since he had no idea that his father played a role in the crime, and that he would have to be the one to suffer because of it. The way in which fear plays out in these chapters signifies that it very much drives most of the actions taken, and not much thought is given to them beyond that initial fear. This then leads to the tragedy the boy faces later on in the novel, and signifies how certain actions made out of fear may very well produce something more fearful of out of a situation.

B1

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall ApartThings Fall Apart: A Norton Critical Edition, edited by Francis Abiole Irele, W.W. Norton & Co., 2009. 3-74.

 

An Abundance of Yams: Symbols of Masculinity, Power, and Wealth

Throughout Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, there is much symbolism that is used to discuss various themes. Examples include non-violent folklore representing femininity and the egwugwu symbolizing Igbo culture. Additionally, one vegetable frequently appears in the novel as a symbol to the point where one begins to expect it to be mentioned in every other sentence. This is of course the African yam, a cornerstone of Igbo culture, as well as a symbol of masculinity, power, and wealth in the story.

It is no coincidence that the African yam is constantly mentioned in a cultural story that takes place in Igbo society. The yam is described as being “a staple of the Igbo diet” that “requires sustained effort to cultivate; the various phases of their growth mark the progression of the year among the Igbo, hence their centrality to the culture” (Irele 5). Thus, this description helps give us some information on why yams are often brought up in Things Fall Apart. But aside from providing the Igbo people with food and a sense of time, the yam serves as a sign of a man’s capability as a worker, provider, and proper masculine figure.

African yams in a market

The connection between the yam and masculinity is first seen with Unoka, Okonkwo’s father. Unoka was known as being weak and lazy, with most of these negative personality traits stemming from his inefficiency as a yam farmer. To overcome his crop failures, Unoka approaches Agbala the priestess. But when Unoka lists out all of the necessary steps that he has undertaken, Agbala screams, “You, Unoka, are known in all the clan for the weakness of your matchet and hoe. When your neighbors go out with their axe to cut down virgin forests, you sow your yams on exhausted farms that take no labour to clear. They cross seven rivers to make their farms; you stay at home and offer sacrifices to a reluctant soil. Go home and work like a man” (Achebe 12). This outburst from the priestess clearly indicates that working hard in the fields to plant yams is the “manly” way of life while Unoka’s easy way out is not.

In addition to masculinity, cultivating yams symbolizes wealth and power. Because of Unoka’s failures, Okonkwo is forced to fend for himself and provide for his family. To overcome these issues, Okonkwo decides to approach “a wealthy man…who had three huge barns, nine wives, and thirty children. His name was Nwakibie and he had taken the highest but one title which a man could take in the clan. It was for this man that Okonkwo worked to earn his first yam seeds” (Achebe 13). This passage introduces Nwakibie, a man of wealth and power thanks to his many barns of yams. Nwakibie was able to earn powerful titles and riches because of his success with yams, hence why Okonkwo selects him as the person to earn yam seeds from. In doing so, Okonkwo asserts himself as a person who has access to good fortunes.

Achebe makes it clear that it is not the physical activity of farming that makes someone a wealthy, powerful man but specifically the growing of yams. This is demonstrated when the story mentions how hard Okonkwo’s mother and sisters had to work because of Unoka’s laziness: “His mother and sisters worked hard enough, but they grew women’s crops, like coco-yams, beans and cassava. Yam, the king of crops, was a man’s crop” (Achebe 15 – 16). We therefore see that there is clear distinction between “feminine” crops and “masculine” crops and how working hard in the yam fields proves how difficult and different it is from growing other crops.

By planting his own yams, Okonkwo proves himself to be a man. This is because growing yams is not easy and that by working hard to plant a “man’s crop” and provide for his family, he is able to show off his masculinity. The acquisition of more yams also symbolizes Okonkwo’s path to wealth and power since he is able to live comfortably unlike his father. All of these factors show how the African yam is a major symbol in Things Fall Apart and how something seemingly simple such as a vegetable can have various layered meanings.

B1

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. 5 – 16.

Image of yam market: https://goo.gl/images/ekmXB2

The Life of Death in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart

In Chinua Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart, death is given its own life through personification. In chapter nine of the novel, the story is told of how one of Okonkwo’s wives, Ekwefi, had the misfortune of bearing nine children who died ininfancy before her tenth and only living daughter, Enzima, was born. Achebe writes, “Her deepening despair found expression in the names she gave her children. One of them was a pathetic cry, Onwumbiko–‘Death, I implore you.’ But Death took no notice; Onwumbiko died in his fifteenth month. The next child wasa girl, Ozoemena–‘May it not happen again.’ She died in her eleventh month, and two others after her. Ekwefi then became defiant and called her next child Onwuma–‘Death may please himself.’ And he did” (Achebe 47).

In this quote, Achebe gives the concept of death a human quality. Achebe is successful in utilizing this writing device because he personifies death in multiple ways within the same quote. He begins by having Ekwefi appear to be in direct conversation with death when her character names the child Onwumbiko, meaning “Death, I implore you” (Achebe 47). Not only is her character speaking to death, but she directly asks something of death where it states, “I implore you” (Achebe 47). This name reveals that she is asking death (albeit sarcastically) to kill another one of her children as if death were a person who was physically able to kill them. Later on in the quote,Achebe has Ekwefi speaking to death again as if it were a human, where he writes, “Ekwefi then became defiant and called her next child Onwuma–‘Death may please himself'”(Achebe 47). Again, she utilizes a name that calls on death as if it was a figure. Not only is the character of death defined, but it is also given humanistic qualities such as a gender, when it is referred to as “himself”. In addition, the notion of motivation for pleasure, that killing another one of the children would equate to the quote, “Death may please himself”, suggests that not only is death a male figure that can promote harm, but also that he does so for the enjoyment of it (Achebe 47). Achebe adds to this premise with the final words of the quote, wherein he states, “Death may please himself’. And he did,” by revealing that not only does the character personify death, but the narrator does as well (Achebe 47).The last three words, “And he did” tell the reader that the narrator also views death under these human-like qualities (Achebe 47). Within that line, there is both a confirmation from Ekwefi and the narrator that not only is death given human-like qualities through personification, but that ‘he’ acts on those qualities.

Within the novel, there is a large focus on how death, as well as how spirits within the afterlife affect the living. This emphasis on death as a figure that carries both a gender and deliberate emotional intentions begs the question of why Achebe feels the need to personify this natural occurrence. His personification of death could be surface level, wherein he is simply reiterating the way in which this culture has historically viewed death. Regardless, the use of personification in the conception of death brings a whole new life to Achebe’s words.

Blog Number 1

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart, Francis Abiola Irele, W. W. Norton and Company,                        2009.

Common Spirits

Meditation ideology is sweeping the nation! Everyone, everywhere sings the praises of routine meditation: “When I meditate, I see the world differently” and “When I meditate, nothing beyond myself exists.” Meditation is thought to align the multiple dimensions in our universe; synchronizing the physical with the spiritual. Meditation ushers the spiritual into the everyday.

But us new-age-hippies weren’t the first receipts of daily otherworldly interactions. They mingled with our ancestors. Maybe even foretold our birth. Maybe tried preventing our birth. Either way they’ve been here. Chinua Achebe in Things Fall Apart (1958), illuminates the intimate relationship between the physical and the spiritual. In Things Fall Apart, Achebe’s coupling of the two, in a non-intrusive manner, normalizes the presence of the spiritual element; readers are forced to take this “uncommon” literally element as everyday.

In Chapter Five, Ekwefi (Okonkwo’s second wife) is prepping a meal for dinner. As innocuous as this may seem, the encroaching wrestling match acts as the backdrop. It’s what town-folk was anticipating:

Ekwefi and her daughter Ezinma are cooking. Simultaneously, Ezinma curiously pesters Ekwefi with trivial concerns and bodily twitches. Ekwefi, too preoccupied to fully entertain or argue with Ezinma, appears mentally removed from the scene. The narrator later describes Ekwefi’s mannerisms as “listless” (49). After offering Ezinma deeper insight into her twitching eye, and having finished plucking the hen, Ekwefi is called from outside. “‘Ekwefi!’ a voice called from one of the other huts” (26). The caller is identified, to us! For Ekwefi, it’s still a stranger. She responds: “Is that me?”. A rhetorical question? Not a response? The narrator explains: “That was the way people answered calls from outside. They never answered yes for fear it might be an evil spirit calling.” Phrases like the way implies normalcy. It suggests a customary routine of operation; something people always did. Ekwefi was not alone in her use of rhetorical questioning; it was a widespread phenomenon. The inclusion of context for Ekwefi’s response illustrates how custom such phrase was, but too how ordinary spirits are. The narrator admits, “[t]hat was the way people answered calls from outside.”

Three Mystical Figures

Outside is not defined here, but how often have you been called from outside the room you were in? Happens pretty frequently. I could imagine that for Ekwefi, and others, it’s regular as well. The narrator also described the spirits’ presence with familiarity. These beings were not alien; they shared homes with human beings. Such sentiment further establishes the intimate relationship between the physical and the spiritual.The regularity with which rhetorical questioning is used, spirits are present, and one may be summoned from outside of their room, implies that spirits are ever-present. They are an authentic aspect of society that can not be ignored; even the bad ones.

Ekwefi’s scene marks reader’s first encountering the mingling of the physical with the spiritual. But it too foreshadows later events that embody a similar spirit.

Achebe’s text suggests the spiritual element is omnipresent. Just as we roam this planet, mystical beings accompany us always missioned with a purpose. We must not journey through life ignoring their company. Instead, we must embrace them on all fronts. For they have a great deal to teach us. They have a deal to show us.

Achebe, Chinua. “The Text Things Fall Apart.” Things Fall Apart, edited by Francis Abiola Irele, W.W Norton, 2009, 3-74.

B#1

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.

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?

B1

Irele, Francis Abiola, editor. Things Fall Apart: Norton Critical Edition. W.W. Norton & Company INC, 2009.