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.

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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

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.