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.

Blog Post #2

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.

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.

Blog #2

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)

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.

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