Hello hello I’m back again with your weekly installment of What is Liz Reading and Why Should I Care, with the book Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. Before you ask, yes, I have been reading Hero With A Thousand Faces as well, but it will require more time than anticipated and thus I am going to break up the reading with other books.
Things Fall Apart was published in the UK in 1958. According to Wikipedia, it is seen as the archetypal modern African novel and is one of the first of its kind to receive any sort of critical acclaim. It chronicles the life of a native man named Okonkwo, who plays the role of the overly masculine and traditional character. As far as I can see, this novel is “about” the clash of the traditional and the new — or, as Wikipedia points out, the native and the colonial (thanks, Wikipedia!). The tale is told in moderately episodic chapters, each detailing a story that fits into the grand scheme of Okonkwo’s life and relationships with his family and tribe.
Some prevailing themes/things I found interesting:
- colonization and the problems it causes — This appears mostly toward the end of the novel, as Okonkwo’s tribe is infiltrated by white missionaries doing the Good Work and telling the Africans that their gods are useless or nonexistent. This obviously doesn’t end well for either party.
- colonial vs. traditional — A lot of attention is spent in this novel on the traditional roles of religion and gender in these African villages.
- guilt — At one point, Okonkwo becomes the caretaker of a 13-year-old boy, the son of a man who killed one of the women of Okonkwo’s village. The boy, Ikemefuna, is brought to the village as part of the price for the murder, and he soon becomes part of the family and like a brother to Okonkwo’s other children (especially his oldest son, Nwoye). Three years pass, and then the elders of the village come to tell Okonkwo that they have decided to kill Ikemefuna in order to complete the price for the woman’s murder. Okonkwo is saddened by this, but he knows it is the will of the gods, so he goes along with the elders and accidentally ends up killing Ikemefuna himself. Despite guilt and sadness being “womanly” traits, Okonkwo experiences both for days after this deed.
- masculine vs. feminine — This is nothing surprising. Everything “woman” is weak, and a man is supposed to be strong and unyielding. However, at one point in the novel, Okonkwo’s uncle gives a nice speech about why women, and more specifically the Earth Mother, are important.
- societal placement and mobility — In Okonkwo’s tribe it is possible to gain “titles,” which you wear as anklets. These titles are worth much in the eyes of the tribesmen; there are only a possible four total, and no one has gotten all four in living memory. It is Okonkwo’s passion to move upward in the tribe and look good in the eyes of his fellow tribesmen.
- distant/removed narrator, which creates an equally distant tone
That last part is especially interesting to me. Okonkwo is always concerned with how he needs to look in the eyes of the other men: he can’t appear weak, and he has to do traditionally masculine things. But in the end, he hangs himself because of his inability to accept the weaker position that his fellows are inevitably going to take with the white men. Hanging is the worst offense known to these people; they won’t even touch his dead body. So Okonkwo worked his whole life to gain face only to throw it all away for the higher, more traditional ideal — he wanted to fight the white men, to take the battle to them for pretty much destroying the villagers’ lifestyle. Is this pride? Inability to adapt? Or loyalty to the ideals that he grew up with and meant nothing without? I’m going to go with the last.
How does reading this affect my current project?
Things Fall Apart is a lesson in tradition and its importance in a group of people, which I think is important to study when dealing with any kind of “othered” people, as are the people of Ien in my book. Ien, the Navigator or magic-user and main secondary character, was born into a tribe of magic-users like himself that have been ostracized and used by society to fulfill a semi-slave function. When he was around ten years old, Ien was ripped from his family and forced into servitude in the world outside their village. Even though Ien retains little to no memory of his time with his people, perhaps a deeper look into the culture and traditions of these people is in order.
Things Fall Apart also deals well with the emotions of guilt and blame, both of which I am attempting to tackle. The main character of my novel, Ree, becomes so engrossed in her own self-loathing and guilt at one point that she nearly destroys herself and the people around her.
All in all, I enjoyed this book. It took me next to no time to read, and once I sat down to start these notes, it made me think pretty hard about some things.
More Reading List updates to come! Stay tuned!