Rejection of Change: Okonkwo’s Tragedy

Each time after reading Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart the complexities and depths within the novel become more apparent. This is a text that uses storytelling to educate readers about the Umuofia tribe of the Ibo village found in Nigeria. Achebe creates a story that ignites a conversation about his characters, and more largely, the results of western influence on African societies. The first part of the novel primarily focuses on developing Okonkwo as a character and establishing his space within Umuofia. Okonkwo is a character who initially appears to be a man of success, yet throughout the novel, Achebe continuously undresses Okonkwo in order to reveal his core. It is Okonkwo’s layers that give the text its depth and spark discussions of societal expectations found within the Ibo village. Achebe uses Okonkwo’s character to raise awareness of stress inflicted on men to uphold a manly status. Specifically, Okonkwo is depicted as a tragic hero in order to create a character the reader can have compassion for while simultaneously drawing on flaws of societal expectations.

To Okonkwo, being a man means being everything opposite of his father. The father/son relationship within Things Fall Apart builds Okonkwo’s tragedy and highlights his inability to change. The reader can immediately find compassion for Okonkwo within the first few chapters of the book by the way Achebe describes Okonkwo’s relationship with his father, Unoka. The reader knows Okonkwo is embarrassed by his deceased father, but he will do anything in his power to continue to remind his tribe that he is nothing like Unoka. Specifically, the relationship between Okonkwo and his son, Nwoye, illustrates Okonkwo’s desire to overcome his father’s past and prove his manliness. Nwoye is much quieter and does not satisfy his father with his work. It is not until Ikemefuna comes into the story that Nwoye and Okonkwo are able to mend their relationship.

Ikemefuna is another character that uses father/son relationship to emphasize Okonkwo’s overwhelming desire to prove he is a man and thus contributes to the tragic hero he becomes. Ikemefuna was sent to live with Okonkwo and he soon becomes one of family. He acts as an older brother to Nwoye and together they work to please Okonkwo. A new fire has been placed in Nwoye and Okonkwo is pleased, so pleased he invites the young boys to listen to “stories of violence and bloodshed” (Achebe 33). At this point in the text, it is clear that Okonkwo places a strong value on being a man and the reader can now see these values being passed on to Nwoye and Ikemefuna. Nwoye quickly learned that “it was right to be masculine and to be violent” (Achebe 33). So when his father is asked to kill Ikemefuna, Nwoye can only imagine his father’s role in the execution.

Okonkwo was given advice regarding the tragedy of Ikemefuna, yet he neglects it. Okonkwo is unable to change his loyalty to being a man and refuses to show any emotional attachment to Ikemefuna. That is the true tragedy. Okonkwo is so stubborn he walks his new son his deathbed. His inability to change causes further stress on Okonkwo’s relationship with Nwoye who now feels betrayed and hurt. When Okonkwo chooses to disregard the advice he receives of Ikemefuna’s death he not only loses one son but two. The divide between Okonkwo and Nwoye becomes larger as his son is able to adapt and challenge societal values of “violence” (Achebe 33). Okonkwo remains the same and finds himself exiled due to a violent act. A tragedy of a father losing his son is one that draws on the flaws of Okonkwo’s manliness and his powerlessness to change.

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.

Combining the Private and Public Self

In Solomon Iyasere’s piece, “Narrative Techniques in Things Fall Apart”, femininity plays a key role in identifying Okonkwo’s character. Okonkwo is a complex character that involves a lot of detailed attention when establishing his role in the novel. Early on in the text, it becomes obvious Okonkwo is concerned with upholding a masculine title, yet Iyasere suggests “many of the qualities which to Okonkwo were marks of femininity and weakness are the same qualities in which were respected by the society Okonkwo wished to champion” (377). Therefore, Iyasere is suggesting rather than accepting Okonkwo’s personal war to maintain maleness, the reader should analyze the importance of femininity and its effect on Okonkwo. Further, Iyasere states, “for Okonkwo, the conflict between private self and public man is the conflict between the feminine and masculine principle” (380). Throughout the novel, Okonkwo continues to struggle with upholding his title.

While masculinity is respected by Okonkwo’s society, it is important to consider all aspects of that make someone a man. In this case, Iyasere is suggesting Okonkwo needed to allow femininity into his life in order to succeed in his society. Specifically, looking at how motherly figures play a key role in the society and how their participation is one that Okonkwo should respect and strive towards. Okonkwo faces so much discomfort from the inability to connect his “private self” with the “public man”. His inability to accept change forces a barrier between his own personal desire for masculinity and the actual societal desire. It creates a character that is incomplete and confused.

The idea of the Mother Supreme in this novel illustrates this separation and highlights the significance of Iyasere’s argument. When Okonkwo is exiled he must learn the importance of the feminine role and is told “when a father beats his child, it seeks sympathy in its mother’s hut. A man belongs to his fatherland when things are good and life is sweet. But when there is sorrow and bitterness he finds refuge in his motherland. Your mother is there to protect you. (Achebe 78). This scene shows the important role femininity has on its society. Masculinity is still valued in the sense that when things are succeeding, it is associated with the fatherland. Yet, more importantly, when things are not going well comfort and support can be found from the mothering figures.

Okonkwo is at a point in his life where he is no longer succeeding, he is not the man he once was. When he returns to his clan they do not give him the arrival party he is expecting (Achebe 97). Yet, Okonkwo still will not accept the power of the motherland and what it can offer for him. In a time of need, Okonkwo rather continues to focus his energy on proving manliness through violence. Okonkwo does not allow protection as he believes he is the one doing the protecting. However, in the time that he has gone the society has changed and Okonkwo’s inability to accept the feminine role within his culture hinders his ability to be fully masculine. Okonkwo needs to connect his “private self” and the “public man” by accepting the power of femininity. By continuing to deny protection the reader finds Okonkwo dead at the end of the novel. Iyasere’s argument could change the outcome of Okonkwo’s story from a tragic hero to simply a hero. 

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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, Soloman O. “Narrative Techniques in Things Fall Apart.” Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. Ed. Francis Abiola Irele. New York City: W. W. Norton & Company Inc, 2009. 370-385.

Masculinity and the Public Self

As individuals, we are all the products of the circumstances we were raised in. For Okonkwo, the protagonist of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958), these circumstances are that of his clan in Umuofia, and his childhood home, headed by Unoka – who is notably irresponsible and lazy. However, attributing all of Okonkwo’s behaviors and actions to the environment he was raised in, overlooks the nuances of his decisions and diminishes his agency. In “Narrative Techniques of Things Fall Apart,” Solomon O. Iyasere argues that Okonkwo is not simply the product or embodiment of his clan’s values, but that both the clan and Okonkwo possess more intricacies than such a reading would allow the reader to have (371). Instead readers must understand the clan as both a rigid structure that is attempting to maintain “serenity, harmony, and communal activities,” and a group of individuals who can hold “personal doubts and fears” about the traditions they uphold (Iyasere 372-374).

Private Or Public Directions On A Signpost

As a result of this desire to maintain peace, Iyasere argues that the clan must find balance between masculine and feminine attributes (Iyasere, 380). He presents the death of Ozoemena, “a willed response to her husband’s death” after a long life together, as the “symbolic dramatization of the union between the masculine and feminine attributes essential in a great man” (380). Okonkwo is unable to reconcile the feminine and the masculine within himself – as a result of his father’s extemely feminine actions – and therefore creates a public self which is violent, immovable, and inherently masculine (Iyasere 380). His public self commits the murder of Ikemefuna, even though the boy calls him his father, while the private, feminine, self, runs to the aid of Ezinma (Iyasere 379-380). Later his drive for violent solutions is what leads Okonkwo to take his own life (Iyasere 385).

The inflexability that results from his insistence on masculine action – in this instance, the destruction of the Christian church – is evident in the moments before Okonkwo leads his clansmen to meet the District Commissioner. Directly beforehand, Okonkwo addresses his fellow leaders:

“Okonkwo warned the others to be fully armed. ‘An Umuofia man does not refuse a call,’ he said. ‘He may refuse to do what he is asked; he does not refuse to be asked. But the times are changed, and we must be fully prepared’,” (Achebe 109).

This speech demonstrates the rigid expectation he holds for his fellow men, by saying “an Umuofia man” must behave in a certain way. Locating the type of man and masculinity within the clan reinforces a sense of superiority that their actions must attempt to live up to.This is not a “white man” or a Mbainto man, but an “Umuofia man,” and that distinction means something. Using dialogue to present this moment, when the narrator could have described the interaction instead, draws attention to the fact that this is Okonkwo’s perspective. It is one man’s opinion. It also demonstrates Iyasere’s idea that Okonkwo will uphold rigid lines of masculinity in public. In this scene, Okonkwo is addressing five other men, in a matter related to the potential well-being of the clan. He is performing in the public sphere and must therefore project an image of strength.

While our protagonist is upholding rigid masculinity through his verbalized expectation of men, this moment complicates Iyasere’s reading of the text. Okonkwo presents the expectation that his fellow men respond to the request of the District Commissioner for a conversation, but through parallel structure declares that, “he may refuse to do what he is asked; he does not refuse to be asked” (Achebe 109). In his public self, Okonkwo is demonstrating flexibility. There is no expectation that a man must respond to the requests of another hostile man with violence, or a stern hand. He may respond how he chooses. While Okonkwo presents expectations for conduct, this final response is one that only the individual can make – just as he may follow his rigid definition of masculinity, while acknowledging that his decisions are his alone to make.

 

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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.

Iyasere, Solomon O. “Narrative Techniques of Things Fall Apart.” Things Fall Apart: Authoritative Text, Contexts and Criticism, edited by Francis Abiola Irele, W.W. Norton & Company Inc, 2009, pp. 370-385.

Image courtesy of http://jamalexploringbusiness.weebly.com/

Okonkwo: A Complexly Simple Outcast

Iyasere’s argument regarding the complex simplicity of Okonkwo in contrast with the adaptability of Umuofia in regard to change, while interesting, negates its own premise, and blames Okonkwo’s demise on his own emotional immaturity. Though I would agree with his early on assertion that the death of Okonkwo was not because he was a “victim of Umuofia’s traditional laws and customs” (Iyasere 371), the claim that the “duality of the traditional Ibo society” is used to “intensify the sense of tragedy and make the reader understand the dilemma that shapes and destroys the life of Okonkwo” (Iyasere 372).

Iyasere begins with the Umuofia traditions values, and states that these are “inflexible” particularly in response to threats and the “overall stability of the clan” (Iyasere 374). Yet, the beginning of Part Three within Things Fall Apart negate this claim completely by first stating that “the clan was like a lizard; if it lost its tail it soon grew another” (Achebe 97), and later stating that in Okonkwo’s seven year exile, “the clan had undergone such profound change during his exile that it was barely recognizable” (Achebe 103). Thus, according to the text, Umuofia and the clan are not stuck to their traditions, nor are they inflexible. Moreover, I would go so far as to say the Umuofia people are relatively accepting, given that they are not the ones—it is only Okonkwo—who actively and violently despise Christians. Instead, the Umuofia people give the white men a plot of land, though in the ‘Evil Forest’, and allow them to co-inhabit. They do not react violently, and though they do not agree with the white man’s religion, they allow it to exist and function just as their own does.

The idea that Iyasere illuminates—that Okonkwo is an outcast in every society due to his own immaturity—is one that I feel is key to understanding both his character and the ending of the novel. The idea that Iyasere states in that Okonkwo “does not grow and change with age and experience; as a man he is dedicated to the same stereotypes he formed in his youth” (Iyasere 380), is one which mimics the intricate hierarchy of elders to their successors. This is also seen in Part Two of Things Fall Apart when Uchendu tells Okonkwo “‘you do not know the answer? So you see that you are a child’” (Achebe 78), as he demonstrates to Okonkwo that his ignorance is childish, and thus inferior to those who have been enlightened with knowledge. Given that the only emotional outburst which Okonkwo has indicated to be acceptable is anger—and childish tantrums at that—the explanation that Okonkwo is stuck in the mindset of his own youth is revealing to the ending of the novel. For if Okonkwo is truly incapable of growing and becoming tolerant of change, which he proves countless times throughout the beginning of the white man’s co-inhabitance, his only option is to leave the world which does not accept him, and go to the one which does. In this case, Okonkwo’s perception of his religion will accept his anger and his final act of violence for it was in the name of preservation for a clan moving away from these customs. In this sense Okonkwo is complexly simple, as his complex justifications for outburst and violence comes from a simple mindset based on youthful immaturity.

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Works Cited
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York City: W. W. Norton & Company Inc, 2009.
Iyasere, Soloman O. “Narrative Techniques in Things Fall Apart.” Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. Ed. Francis Abiola Irele. New York City: W. W. Norton & Company Inc, 2009. 370-385.

God is a Woman

There is nothing more unappreciated than a Black woman. For Okonkwo, he does not see past anything that is not manly, therefore does not believe in the feminine aspect of how things should be done. This idea is highlighted by Iyasere when he mentions that “qualities of love and compassion…which to Okonkwo were marks of femininity and weakness are the same qualitites which were respected by the society [he] wished to champion”, (Iyasere 377). However, it is in fact femininity that saves him, and ultimately “saves” his son as well. This refusal to acknowledge the godliness that is associated with woman is what results in his “defeat” later on in the section.

In the beginning of chapter 14, we see that Okonkwo was not completing his tasks with the same vigor that he used to. This shows that his exile has taken a bigger toll on him than he initially let on, and that he consciously thinks his situation is one of the worsts. However, because he can not see the “feminine” side of things, it is clear that he cannot see how his exile is actually something good that has happened to him. It was a “feminine” crime that allowed him to live in exile, as opposed to something much worse like death in the Evil Forrest, and had his crime been considered “masculine” he would have suffered much worse.  His uncle Uchendu explains this to him when everyone has gotten settled after the ceremony. At first, he asks him why he thinks the most popular name among their children is “Mother is Supreme” despite their culture being very patriarchal. No one knows the answer, and so Uchendu goes on to say that he is a child that doesn’t understand and explains that although a child belongs to his father, it is with his mother that he finds comfort, and “when there is sorrow and bitterness he finds refuge in his motherland”, (Achebe 78). This shows that Okonkwo’s “mother’s land” is what saves him, and it is his mother’s tribe that welcomes him wholeheartedly, even helping him get back on his feet. During his time of sorrow and abandonment, it is his mother that he ultimately went to in seeking comfort, just as Uchnedu had explained. He also warns that the more Okonkwo rejects this comfort, the more disrespect he is throwing in the face of his mother and the dead. This speaks to the godliness that has to do with woman. If one were to reject God, he will spend eternity in damnation. However, all who accept God as the one and only will live in everlasting comfort with [Her] in heaven.

This is hinted upon again in chapter 17. We find out that Nwoye has become very interested in the new religion from the very first time he has heard of it. However, because of his overwhelming fear of his father, he does not go beyond watching them closely. To Okonkwo, Christianity is very feminine, and once he found out that Nwoye has been near the Christians, he confronts him and beats him because of it. He laments to himself about it later, saying “to abandon the god’s of one’s father and go about with a lot of effeminate men clucking like old hems was the very depth of abomination…How could he have a begotten woman for a son?”, (Achebe 88-89). This again shows Okonkwo rejecting the femininity that is associated with the religion, not understanding that it is something that brings his own son comfort. Nwoye uses this opportunity to finally leave his father and vows to never return except to convert his mother and siblings. The fact that he Nwoye easily accepted the idea of leaving his father for the “comfort of his ‘mother’ [God], shows that Nwoye has indeed been saved in a sense, and gets to live. For Okonkwo, however, his rejection has cost him his life.

 

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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, Soloman O. “Narrative Techniques in Things Fall Apart.” Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. Ed. Francis Abiola Irele. New York City: W. W. Norton & Company Inc, 2009. 370-385.

Okonkwo’s Defiance of the Victim and Hero Character Roles

In the beginning of Solomon Iyasere’s article, “Narrative Techniques in Things Fall Apart”, Iyasere reflects on two different arguments and offers his own take on the matter. The two views in discussion are related to Okonkwo and the way in which the viewer reads his character. While the author Killam offers the view that Okonkwo is the perfect

representation of achieving the highest values in Umofian society, Eustace Palmer carries the opposite view. In contrast, Palmer views Okonkwo’s character to be the victim of Igbo society due to the fact that most of his actions, including his successes, are driven by fear. However, in Iyasere’s opinion, assuming the roles of victim or hero to Okonkwo defeats the purpose of Achebe’s writing. Iyasere argues that, “this vision is based on a limited perception of that society…[and] to urge that he is either, as do Killam and Palmer, is to reduce the work to a sentimental melodrama, rob okonkwo of his tragic stature, and deny the reader’s sympathy for him” (Iyasere 371). I agree with Iyasere’s argument that the reader should not be too quick to assume Okonkwo’s role as the victim or hero. Achebe writes a very complex character identity for Okonkwo, allowing him to be seen iin both good and bad lights, which helps to create a very multidimensional character. By assuming the title of victim or hero, the reader misses the very important note that, although Okonkwo is a character in a story, he is representing the idea of a very real type of person who could have existed in the real world. For a western society reading this story of a foreign culture, it is entirely important for the characters to be seen as potential human beings, with all the multidimensionality of human emotion and thought. It is of even greater importance to read in this manor because this is one of the first novels written about colonialization that does not specifically look down on or patronize the presented culture.

In part two of Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart, a few years after Okonkwo is exiled to his motherland the christians begin to infiltrate the clan. Furious about the fact that these people have brought changes into his world, Okonkwo states, “If a man comes into my hut and defacates on the floor, what do I do? Do I shut my eyes? No! I take a stick and break his head” (Achebe 92). He follows this statement with the thought, “This is a womanly clan…Such a thing could never happen in his fatherland Umofia” (Achebe 92). Here, Achebe is utilizing this statement as a foreshadowing technique to the very same form of colonization that is also occurring in Umofia during his absence. To conflate Okonkwo’s actions to fear, as Palmer originally suggested, would only minimize the impact of the colonialization and white oppression that Achebe is writing into the story. To turn Okonkwo into a victim, acting only out of fear, takes away the power of his character, and in turn, the power of his people as a whole. Okonkwo is not defenseless, and to victimize his character and to strip him of his equal power would allow a sense of patronization from the reader. In contrast, the reader cannot follow Killam’s view that Okonkwo is the hero and representation of Igbo values within the society because, as Achebe forshadows in this quote, in Okonkwo’s absense, Umofia is following the same lines as Okonkwo’s current residence. Okonkwo ultimately defies the values of his own society in his eventual hanging of himself, which is ultimately correlated with the original foreshadowing within the quote. Just as Iyasere argues, to tally up Okonkwo’s actions as either a victim or a hero takes away from the dynamic character structure offered by Achebe. It not only reduces Okonkwo’s character, but it also reduces the perception of Igbo society as a whole, which directly contradicts the purpose of providing a text on colonizers to colonizers.

Works Cited

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

Iyasere, Solomon. “Narrative Techniques in Things Fall Apart.” Things Fall Apart. Frances                  Abiola Irele, W. W. Norton and Company, 2009.

Sowing and Reaping in Things Fall Apart

Courtesy: Musée du Protestantisme

My analysis on Solomon Iyasere’s essay, “Narrative Techniques in Things Fall Apart” actually begins by focusing on the end.  By the conclusion, Iyasere constructs the argument that Chinua Achebe juxtaposed the narratives of Okonkwo and Mr. Smith in order to illustrate the destruction that extremism causes, as well as the multi-dimensionality of the characters and plot of the novel.  In order to reach this ultimate conclusion, however, Iyasere argues that Mr. Smith was an “antithetical” figure to the previous white Christian missionary, Mr. Brown (Iyasere 384). Whereas Mr. Brown abided by a “law of peace and love” in Umuofia, Iyasere insists that Mr. Smith “undoes the good Rev. Brown had accomplished” (384) due to an extremism and aggressive nature that reflects Okonkwo’s.

While I found the ultimate conclusion of Iyasere’s essay compelling, I find his argument that Mr. Brown and Mr. Smith are on opposite ends of a ‘good/bad’ spectrum to be misguided.  Because Mr. Smith is introduced as an antagonist in the novel, it is easy to interpret the actions, words, and intent of his predecessor, Mr. Brown, in a more favorable light. Despite this, I argue that Mr. Brown and Mr. Smith are cut from the same cloth.  I acknowledge that Mr. Brown played a significant role in the lives of Umuofia’s outcasts and people like Okenkwo’s son, Nwoye. He, like other early converts, became captivated by the acceptance and meaning the new religion and its welcoming missionary seemed to promise.  Without expressive love from his father, Nwoye’s attachment to Christianity is rooted in vulnerability.  Behind his message of acceptance from God, Mr. Brown’s recruitment of Umuofia’s most vulnerable people was a conscious effort to build up a passionate community of converts, formally eradicate the religion and traditions of the clan that he deemed uncivilized, and bring ‘civilization’ – Western culture – to Umuofia and gradually, the rest of Africa.  And in this conscious effort to aid a colonial white supremacist system, Mr. Brown is equally as responsible for the ‘falling apart’ of Umuofia as is Mr. Smith, despite their different dispositions. Furthermore, contrary to Iyasere’s claim of Mr. Brown’s goodness, Achebe’s depictions of Mr. Brown and Mr. Smith represent two predatory figures that are central to colonization in a historical context: the white saviour and the white despot.

Mr. Brown only says one sentence in Part Two, but his words foreshadow what is to come for the people of Umuofia.  During a visit to the converts in Chapter Eighteen, Mr. Brown tells them, “When I think that it is only eighteen months since the Seed was first sown among you…  I marvel at what the Lord hath wrought,” (92). Mr. Brown’s observation that it has been ‘only eighteen months’ since the people of Umuofia began converting to Christianity, and the ‘marvel’ he attributes to this observation creates a sense of unease.  Achebe is implying that the adjustment to Christianity is accelerating at a quick pace amongst the clan, which emphasizes the growth of Western influence and the tolerance to its growth.

As a man of God, Mr. Brown’s allusion to a Seed being sown is not unusual as this imagery is mentioned throughout the Bible.  However, revisiting the scene after finishing Things Fall Apart and Iyasere’s essay, I interpreted these words as an ominous foreshadowing of how the relationship between the people of Umuofia and ‘the white man’ would unravel.  I argue that Achebe made a deliberate reference to the physical imagery of seeds being sown to connect with the theme of agriculture’s significance in Umuofia.  Mr. Brown says the conversion of the clan’s people to Christianity was the initiation of these seeds being sown, however, as any community so dependent on agriculture would know, there comes a time for harvest. Or, tying into another theme- a Biblical one- a ‘reaping’.  The implication of seeds being sown also implies that a reaping is inevitable, but unfortunately, due to the way they were sown, Achebe foreshadows that it will be the colonial forces reaping from the people of Umuofia- regardless of convert status. Through this, Achebe also highlights the ultimate intent of the kind of work men like Mr. Brown really accomplish.  By earning the trust of Umuofia’s most vulnerable and gradually the rest of the clan, it becomes easier to move Western customs into the clan, and eventually, colonial control. Through this control, the colonizers can exploit and collect the land’s resources and labor.

Iyasere’s ultimate conclusion would be improved if he were to acknowledge that that complexity he insisted lived so strongly in Okonkwo, Umuofia, and Mr. Smith, was also in Mr. Brown.  Mr. Brown brought about positive change to many of his converts- including Okonkwo’s own son. However, his condescension towards the clan’s beliefs and his function as a tool for colonial expansion should not be ignored.  Ultimately, there can be a conversation about Mr. Smith’s destructive extremity in comparison to Okonkwo’s that also acknowledges the destructive manipulation Mr. Brown was capable of.

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Sources:

Achebe, Chinua. “The Text Things Fall Apart.” Things Fall Apart, edited by Francis Abiola Irele, W.W Norton, 2009, (p. 92)

Iyasere, Solomon O. “Narrative Techniques in Things Fall Apart.” Things Fall Apart, edited by Francis Abiola Irele, W.W Norton, 2009, (p. 384)

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.

Google Image: https://goo.gl/images/zdPxgJ

Social Influence of Stories

Solomon O. Iyasere reveals Okonkwo’s “obsession with proving and preserving his manliness” as “dominat[ing] [his] entire life, both public and private” (377). Informal interactions, like story-time, Okonkwo even monitored closely. Iyasere says: “[R]elaxed story-telling sessions, Okonkwo sees [as] a threat to himself and his ‘dynasty’” (377). Iyasere links the act of story-telling with Okonkwo’s display and management of masculinity. Okonkwo’s defining and defending of manliness represents dependent variables, according to Iyasere; story-telling, the act of relaying a story, stands as the independent variable Okonkwo attempts control. Whereas I agree with Iysasere’s observation of the relationship between story-telling and masculinity, I believe story-telling’s social influence needs greater consideration.

Story-telling (the act) alone didn’t challenge Okonkwo’s sense of manhood; stories that could “make women of his sons, make them like their grandfather rather than like their father,” equally threatened Okonkwo (377).

Oknonkwo has always been hell-bent on stories. Always remarking on the difference between a masculine and feminine story; always remarking on the impotence imposed on his sons by virtue of their mothers’ stories. So he “‘encourage[s] the boys to sit with him in his obi, and he told them stories of the land—masculine stories of violence and bloodshed’” (377).

Okonkwo’s anxieties around story-telling implies its social power. A power that masks itself in “relaxed” settings and mingles with men and women. A power that is easily conferred to children. Story-telling’s oscillation, between the masculine and feminine, and its ability to bend will because of its banal mask, proves it to be one of Oknonkwo’s ultimate challenges. A challenge some may argue Oknonkwo lost.

Among the sons invited, or required, to sit with Okonkwo in his obi for story-time was Nwoye. A boy who has been described as resembling his grandfather, Unoka, in manner and appetite; a boy described as “degenerate and effeminate” (Achebe 88). These sessions sought to instill valor into the heart of Nwoye, thought to lack it by virtue.

In Part II readers begin to see colonization unfold. We see entire communities succumb to its flowery doctrine and pale demagogues. One of those new converts being Nwoye. A boy never earning his father’s favor; a boy who loves music and stories, he adopted an alien religion: “It was not the mad logic of the Trinity that captivated him. He did not understand it. It was the poetry of the new religion, something felt in the marrow…He felt a relief within as the hymn poured into his parched soul” (Achebe 85). Poetry is a form ofMaya Angelou quote storytelling. It contains a similar structure to a traditional story; however, poetry has traditionally been more flowery than a standard story. Poetry is like a song. Both poems and songs are mediums of stories. Similar to Unoka, who had a love for music and stories, Nwoye shared in such delights. Ultimately, it was those delights that encouraged Nwoye’s joining the missionaries. For it was the poetics of the religion—the metaphors, similes, hyperbole, etc—that engrossed Nwoye. It spoke his language. Christians, first named on page 87, practiced a religion that was poetic in nature. Such force, the speaker reveals, was perceptible in one’s “marrow” or bones. Not only was the religion poetic, but its use of poetics registered in the physical bodies of listeners; it meted well with those who had a natural attraction to song and stories. Nwoye’s intrinsic seduction by these two elements, marked Christianity as a natural point of situating. They are influential in Nwoye’s conversion to the religion.

However, it wasn’t until Oknonkwo relentlessly beats Nwoye concerning his affiliation with the missionaries that Nwoye fully submerges into the religious enclave (88). Whereas the new religion offered Nwoye a “relief” to his “parched soul,” Oknonkwo offered nothing but strife, and it was his behavior which, finally, ushered Nwoye into the arms of the missionaries. For “Nwoye did not fully understand. But he was happy to leave his father” (88).

It was the poetic stories that attracted Nwoye to Christianity; they meted well with his “callow mind” (85). But these stories were reinforced by the vile mannerisms of Oknonkwo, which ultimately drove Nwoye away. While Oknonkwo fixates on controlling his manliness, and by extension his sons’, domination over stories and their content is required.

There is power in story-telling, Achebe indirectly teaches. Not only does the story-teller hold power but the stories in general carry great social merit. Readers learn the value of telling stories, and the consequences of trying to control another’s.

 

B2

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

Gender Roles and Roaring Flames

Many people are guilty of experiencing the cliché late-night gaze into a fire, and Okonkwo is no exception. In Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo’s midnight reflection revolves around frustrations with gender, specifically in relation to his son Nwoye. In his piece entitled “Narrative Techniques in Things Fall Apart,” Solomon Iyasere defines Okonkwo’s rigid ideas about gender, explaining that “for Okonkwo, one is either a man or a woman; there can be no compromise, no composite” (Iyasere 380). Furthermore, Iyasere believes that Okonkwo never questions this dichotomy, sticking to his rigid code of gendered behavior without ever doubting his own actions: “Okonkwo becomes inflexible and his action allows no room for reflection” (Iyasere 380). However, I believe Okonkwo’s thought processes are slightly more nuanced. Although few and far between, several moments in the novel hint at Okonkwo’s self-doubt, specifically in regards to how he treats his children. Although Okonkwo frequently enforces strict beliefs based on assumptions about gender, moments of self-reflection (albeit brief) are illuminated in Achebe’s novel.

One such example occurs on the evening that Okonkwo hears of Nwoye’s involvement with the new Christian church. This passage uses metaphors and similes to subtly illustrate Okonkwo’s conflicting feelings surrounding his son’s perceived femininity. His first reaction to his son’s behavior is rage: “Now that he had time to think of it, his son’s crime stood out in its stark enormity. To abandon the gods of one’s father and go about with a lot of effeminate men clucking like old hens was the very depth of abomination” (Achebe 88). Clearly, this reaction is based on gender norms of the society, from the use of the word “effeminate” to the image of “clucking like old hens” (88). Old hens are not only female, but mindless. Okonkwo questions the intelligence of feminine men by comparing them to female animals. He goes on to imagine a posthumous embarrassment: a possible future where he and his forefathers receive no sacrifices because his sons are all “praying to the white man’s god” (88). Okonkwo therefore uses gender as an explanation for his son’s behavior. By failing to act like Okonkwo’s definition of a man, Nwoye has not only failed himself, but all of his ancestors. This passage would support Iyasere’s claim, if it were not for the short paragraph that follows.

Okonkwo’s initial rage is then contrasted with a small segment of self-reflection which also uses a metaphor. As he looks into the fire, Okonkwo reflects on his own nickname: “Roaring Flame” (88). In the last paragraph of the chapter, Okonkwo makes a realization: “He sighed heavily, and as if in sympathy the smouldering log also sighed. And immediately Okonkwo’s eyes were opened and he saw the whole matter clearly. Living fire begets cold, impotent ash. He sighed again, deeply” (Achebe 89). Okonkwo takes pride in his nickname. However, it is through the metaphor of his nickname that he is able to see how his own actions have possibly caused his son’s behavior. By admitting that “fire begets cold, impotent ash,” Okonkwo suddenly doubts his strict adherence to traditional masculinity. He calls his son impotent, but recognizes himself as the cause. This moment is brief, and the narrator does not delve deeply into Okonkwo’s thoughts after this discovery. This could signify Okonkwo’s mental change of subject. Although the moment is brief, in the symbol of a fire Okonkwo sees himself as a possible cause for his son’s “weaknesses” (Achebe 88). The passage signifies how Okonkwo cannot be defined as a one-sided character. Even though he values masculinity, the actions of those around him cause crises within him.

B2

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. Things Fall Apart: A Norton Critical Edition, edited by Francis Abiole Irele, W.W. Norton & Co., 2009. 3-117.

“Camp Fire at Bramble Bield.” Alasdar, Flickr, 31 Oct. 2014.