Chinua Achebe Works and Biography Essay Example

  • Category: Literature, Novels,
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Chinua Achebe was an Igbo novelist, poet and educator who wrote what was considered his masterpiece Things Fall Apart which told of when Britain colonized the land, bodies and  minds of Nigerians through Christian missionaries. It must be noted that Achebe was born after the colonization of Nigeria, not during it, though the  work is mainly critical on British influence on Igbo culture/ control of “Nigeria.” Igboland did not become more prosperous with Nigeria becoming a nation. In fact, soon after Achebe married his wife in the 60s, there was a failed Igbo revolution/ attempt of succession from Nigeria, known as the Biafran war. 

When Britain colonized Nigeria, and when Europe colonized Africa, the invaders did not care to know that Africa was not some homogenous land of savagery or such. This is why Things Fall Apart was somewhat of an unexpected read for colonizers, as it depicted a tribal society as an affiliate of people, not upright monkeys that needed saving from themselves by the oh so merciful Europeans.

Achebe was born 16 November, 1930. He was born and raised in the Igbo village of Ogidi, Nigeria until he left to study English and literature in a college simple named “University College.” Mr. Achebe then taught as a professor for a short while until he began working for a broadcasting company in Lagos for five years, 1961-1966. When the Biafran war of Independence broke out, Achebe was in staunch favor of it, as many Igbo people were. 

Form, Structure, and Plot

Things Fall Apart is organized into three parts, and further sectioned off into chapters. My copy of the novel contains 209 pages with 25 chapters total. The book begins with a flashback to several decades before Okonkwo came to power within his village. The flashback shows the life of the father of Okonkwo, and how his father motivated and haunted him to embody the ideals of a strong, respectable man in his village. The book’s plot mainly follows Okonkwo from impoverished childhood to a tragic death, having committed suicide after discovering his clansmen no longer have the bravery nor conviction to keep traditional Igbo values alive.

The novel uses foreshadowing to foretell the fall of Okonkwo through him cutting down Ikemefuna with a machete. This action causes his friend to say something terrible will happen to him because he killed a boy that called him “father." This friend then dies, and he accidentally kills the son of the man during the funeral and is thrown out of Umuofia for seven years. The time within he is shunned from his home village is the second part, and the third part takes place when Okonkwo and his family are back in Umuofia and they see the values of the village internally crumble. 

Point of View

Things Fall Apart is written in third person limited omniscient. The words written talk about personal trials, tribulations and thoughts of quite a few people, but they are always looking back. The narrative usually falls on Okonkwo, and how he falls into his duties and relationships. Whenever Okonkwo speaks to someone, the reader is also made known of the receiving person’s thoughts concerning the man. Most thoughts are made known through dialogue, however, as much of the book is focused on conversation.

Character

Okonkwo, the protagonist of Things Fall Apart is a very static yet believable character. The novel is “a simple story of a “strong man,” as written on the back cover of the book. Though he appears to be outwardly simple, Okonkwo has a struggle, and that struggle is with himself. After being raised by a man the village deemed effeminate and useless, he was desperate to prove that he was an honourable man. Early in his life, he has no desire to act in such a way that his father did, “He had no patience with unsuccessful men.

He had no patience with his father”(4).He rose to power, but he was never truly secure with that power because he always felt internally if she showed a hint of emotion, he would be deemed inferior by his clansmen and peers.The other men respected, but also slightly feared Okonkwo because of his extremely touch exterior and tendency to speak with his fists “Looking at a king’s mouth one would think that he never sucked at his mother’s breast”(Things Fall Apart p.27). His wives and eldest son feared him too. Ikemefuna feared him. He murdered Ifemefuna, murdered him as he reached to his father figure in trust for the last time. 

Okonkwo’s bravery and battle-readiness took him far, but one of the apparent faults in his character spring up in his first character description. This flaw is his unwillingness to converse, because the art of conversation was considered a virtue of a man. Okonkwo 

The eldest son, Nwoye, never forgave his father for aiding in the death of his “older brother.” Clearly hinted it is, during the duration of the entire book that Nwoye is not like his father, that he does not embody the masculine Igbo ideals that his father tries (and outwardly appears) to be. Having thus considered, it comes as no surprise that Nwoye converts to Christianity and forsakes his father’s ideals. As Okonkwo says, a strong fire only begets ash, him being a fire and his son being cold, useless ash.

A person who does not fear Okonkwo is his clever daughter, Ezinma. Ezinma is a respectable young woman, and Okonkwo wishes that she was born a boy. Ezinma does not let her feelings get in the way of her life and her duty. When Okonkwo and his harem fled to the village the mother of Okonkwo was raised in, Ezinma chooses not to marry until they are welcomed back into her home village. She does this because it would not benefit her father’s position for her to marry in such a trying time. 

Setting

Before the colonization of Nigeria, the tribes were their own societies. Things Fall Apart takes place in the late nineteenth century, just as British missionaries began to arrive on the doorsteps of these villages. The first and third parts of the novel take place in Okonkwo’s father's village, Umuofia, a town where he is respected and feared because of his feats of athleticism and strong will. The village is described as how it might be described to an outsider. The Igbo vocabulary is repeated and explained in definition, every time one is brought up, because the writer didn’t write the book solely for people who would know about general customs of rural Igbo people.

Diction

The spoken word in Things Fall Apart is very much a formal affair. This is especially true for the protagonist, Okonkwo, who speaks in a very eloquent, commanding, and formal manner. This is partially because, as explained within the novel, the Igbo take language, figures of speech, and the way words are spoken very important. One must be sure to not say anything too clearly, and mask much of what one says in proverbs. There are no contractions in the narrative, as absolutely everything is said in a drawn out and formal manner, as it were of great importance. However, the narratives that were not in conversations between characters very articulated straightforwardly, especially when the storyline was focusing on directly on Okonkwo’s thoughts. After all, he was not a man of many words, inwardly or not. This might be deliberate to get the reader in the head of Okonkwo’s way of thinking, but the direct way of narrating truly is effective.

Imagery

Much of the imagery in Things Fall Apart is focused on the “drum language” in Umuofia, which is often linked to the emotions of the residents of said village. 

Symbolism

Things Fall Apart is has quite a few symbols nestled in the book. To begin with, Okonkwo can be seen as a symbol for traditional Igbo masculine values. He is a figurehead for bravery and warrior spirit. Going along these lines, he also represents the pitfalls of masculinity in his extreme fear of weakness and effeminity. Okonkwo was brave, perhaps, but he was not a man courageous enough to show affection to his children, who he really was fond of.

Tropes

Language is important. This is an obvious statement, and yet it doesn’t quite give the Igbo language the justice it deserves. As soon as the seventh page in the novel, the importance of poetic and layered language is apparent, as shown through a conversation with Okonkwo’s father and some high-standing man. Said from the passage “having spoken plainly so far, Okoye said the next half a dozen sentences in proverbs.” This sentence encapsulates the idea that the Igbo language is not a surface level one, and that storytelling and common stories are integral for a meaningful conversation. In the final chapter of the book, the British government commissioner  negatively remarks about the speaking habits of the villagers “One of the most infuriating habits of these people was their love for superfluous words, he thought” (207). This quote captures the disrespect the common European held for a nonwestern society, especially an African society.

Ironic Devices

One of the most ironic events in Things Fall Apart is Okonkwo’s crime of killing a clansman’s friend. As one does, Okonkwo had committed many mistakes and broke many social rules in life, though he never got more than a slap on the wrist for these such actions, despite them being intentional“Okonkwo was not the man to stop beating somebody half-way through, not even for fear of a goddess”(P.30). For this, the proud man felt emasculated to be served the lighter and “female” crime sentence. To make matters worse, he is sent to his mother’s village, and cast out of his father’s. He also must get rid of his yam crops, which are considered the masculine king crop of the Igboland. Another case of situational irony in Things Fall Apart is Okonkwo’s death itself. When he dies, there is no ceremony, no honor, no respect. The villagers of Umuofia pay strangers to bury him because it is a crime against the Earth to take one’s own life.

Tone

Mr. Achebe paints a very understanding attitude towards the characters in the book. He does not mock them, he accepts their faults For Okonkwo especially, the writer makes clear that the man, though violent, is not evil or malevolent force to be taken down. The social outcasts, the Christians, Nwoye too, they also are not negatively judged by Achebe. He was very straightforward in his delivery, as he had no confusion even when the characters did.

At certain times in the novel, however, a humorous side of the narrator was shown, as they write the words to a song that the villagers came up with. It goes like this. Kotma of the ash buttocks, he is fit to be a slave, the white man has no sense, he is fit to be a slave. He speaks about the subject of ashy buttocks and the joke between the villagers very straightforwardly as well, but it feels like it is meant to be laughed at. 

For the majority of the novel, however, the narrator continues with the same straightforward, no looking back tone that somehow doesn’t feel detached from the people. On page 41, the sentence “ They never answered yes for fear it might be an evil spirit calling,” encapsulates the straightforwardness of the tone no matter what is being said. It explains matters to a western audience, but the text does not belittle those depicted in the novel.

Theme

The main theme of Things Fall Apart is that struggle between that which is traditional and what is foreign and new will always eventually happen. This conflict is highlighted most clearly towards the beginning of the end of the novel, when the offspring of Okonkwo, Nwoye, crosses the cultural line between the British missionaries and Igbo men to forsake the traditions of his family. To Okonkwo, Nwoye is a disappointment, a grey cloud with no silver lining in sight.. Nwoye knows this, but he does not care anymore; he has no fear for his father once he discovers that he can altogether exit the way of life his father and those before him lived. 

The osu, or religious slaves, are at first fearful of change, but they see it will benefit them to be freed from the restrictions Igbo society forced upon them, and so they join the Christians.  Okonkwo, too, is fearful of change, but it does not benefit him. This, being true, he takes an abject stand against imperialism showing up to his village, to his family, to his meaning of living, his drive.

Title

The words “things fall apart” do not invoke a feeling of hope in anyone who reads them.Conveyed are a sense of loss, a sense of hopelessness. The title fits the book quite well, as Okonkwo’s life, culture, mind, and general way of life began to unravel. This did not begin when the colonizers came, however. Okonkwo’s life was never truly complete. He never felt comfortable expressing his true feelings to his children, outside of scorn and reprimanding them on failures. With his older brother figure being slain, Nwoye is not at peace. With an “effeminate” son such as Nwoye, Okonkwo too, is not at peace. Nobody is at peace. 

No matter where one is, among their people, their customs, their villages, their beliefs, their anything, the state of a place, of a mind, of a community, will never remain static. In life, in a non repressive society, or one where repression can be fled from or fought, change is bound to happen. The trouble with British imperialism, however, was that the change was forced. The Igbo people did not 

Quotes

“WIth a father like Unoka, Okonkwo did not have the start in life which many young men had. He neither inherited a barn nor a title, nor even a young wife. But in spite of these disadvantages, he had begun even in his father’s lifetime to lay the foundations of a prosperous future. It was slow and painful. But he threw himself into it like one possessed. And indeed he was possessed by the fear of his father’s contemptible life and shameful death”(18) encapsulates the drive and fatal flaw of Okonkwo. He was a strong, noble man, but he, too, like most, was driven by fear. 

Comments

I highly enjoyed reading this novel. As an Igbo-American person who’s dad wasn’t a willing teacher of the language, I never picked up more than a couple words of Igbo besides kedu, nne, nzuzu, biko, and a handful of other words. This book helped me understand one person in my life better, which is my grandma. I remember when I was around six she told me she was one of the first people in her village to convert to Christianity or something along those lines. She is a devout Catholic and as far as I know, she attends church daily. There has always been a bit of a language barrier between us, and an even  bigger one has sprung from, as I have never been keen on the Church.    

Works Cited

“Chinua Achebe.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 15 May 2019, www.biography.com/writer/chinua-achebe.

“BOOK REVIEW : Things Fall Apart By Chinua Achebe.” Edited by Times Reporter, The New Times | Rwanda, The New Times, 22 Jan. 2010, www.newtimes.co.rw/section/read/93649.

 

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