in ,

Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’ as a Narrative Altering the Distortions of Africa by the West

For decades, the tales about colonies were known solely as told by the colonial masters, where the aboriginal people were seen as Kipling wrote – “half devil, half child”. But this was altered for good when the 28-year-old Achebe “wrote back to Europe” with his epoch-making novel – ‘Things Fall Apart’, bringing a true story from the heart of Africa.

Credits: Clare Owens

“… I had to be a writer. I had to be a historian…so that the story of the hunt will also reflect the agony, the travail – the bravery, even, of the lions.”

– Chinua Achebe

Reading as part of my class on world literature in high school, I recollect the lesson where my history teacher notably mentioned – the Berlin Conference of 1885 – concerning the barbarism Europe exhibited in the colonial seizure of Africa. At that time, perhaps due to my immaturity or maybe due to the dry nature of the facts, I perceived it as nothing more than just another figment of the countless texts I was being taught and was expected to learn.

But it was later in college while, I was reading and comprehending Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, that the utter bestiality of the European savagery of Berlin, dawned upon me. It was indeed, as Achebe’s acclaimed novel poignantly reflects upon, the beginning of the end of Africa’s freedom over its resources, the dignity of its people, and the falling apart of its indigenous culture.

Regarding this, I concluded and surmised that often history, with all its victories and defeats, becomes more comprehensible to us not only through raw facts but also via stories and fictional retellings of it. The necessity of individual stories, therefore, becomes pertinent all the more when we realize that histories are written by victors and not victims. In other words, the past is instilled with more meaning, appeal, and equal representation when we behold it through the lens of personal, or fictional narratives, through realistic and untold characters and their heroic and flawed lives.

Such a humanitarian perspective of history, which equally values not only the songs of valor of the victors but also addresses the tales of weaknesses and misery of the victims, is, therefore, closer to the truth, and also makes for a better story. In an interview in the literary journal – The Paris Review, Achebe said in relation to this as thus – “… I had to be a writer. I had to be a historian…so that the story of the hunt will also reflect the agony, the travail – the bravery, even, of the lions.”

And this is precisely what he succeeded in giving words to in his magnum opus – Things Fall Apart (1958), where he bases his story, primarily, into two time-frames in the world of the Igbo society of Nigeria; one is in the pre-colonial times, where we delve into the dynamics and socio-cultural structures of the clan itself. In the second frame, we witness the initial violent encounters and the eventual cataclysmic end of the Igbo society when it comes in contact with the European slavers in late nineteenth-century Africa (the aftermath of the Berlin Conference).

With this charged cultural and historic context, Achebe employs a definitive anti-European method of narration and turns the discriminatory method of English storytelling, especially with regards to African subjects, on its head and presents a very non-partial and humane portrayal of the Igbo people. As Achebe put it himself- “I wanted it (the Igbo tribe) to be seen with all its grandeur and weaknesses.”

Therefore, rather than casting them as the representatives of an “exotic” or “savage” race, Achebe carved his characters right out of the very soil of Africa and depicted them as members seeped into an intricate society of a complex civilization. A civilization that, just like any other human society, is not inert, so to speak, and has an organic existence that is profoundly shaped by values and customs which are collectively held.

It is crucial to point out here that despite the profoundly anti-colonial stance of the novel, Achebe never lets his imagination run partial so as to lead him to sentimentalize or patronize the Igbo community. That is to say, Achebe writes about his native culture with deep empathy but never outright prejudice. He makes it a definitive point and bases his entire plot on this premise that the eventual fall of the tragic protagonist – Okonkwo and the clan of Umuofia is, in part, because of their unacceptance of the inherent weaknesses they possessed which, ultimately, made them vulnerable in the face of foreign opposition.

Therefore, over the course of the narrative, the novel ends up questioning not only the dynamics of colonial exploitation but also the obsolete, and often self-demeriting practices of the clan itself, the hyper-masculinity of Okonkwo, and his repudiation in admitting his own tender emotions and failings. Hence, the story, at a philosophical level, becomes a rumination on the tragic flaws that can be possessed by the noblest of men, like Okonkwo, and the most cohesive, well-functioning tribal society like that of Umuofia.

Thus, Achebe, in the very act of bringing stories from the remote and misconstrued land of Nigeria nearer to the world, concocts a faithful, complex, and representative story of the African tribes. He offers numerous pages giving detailed insights into the tribal ceremonies, their laws of the land, festivals, folklore, marriages, their sense of loss and pride, and also their limitations. In the process, he succeeds in altering our perspective, which was conditioned of yore by the European telling of African stories, for good.

Vinay Rajoria is a student pursuing English Literature from Jamia Millia Islamia.

Edited by: Farzan Ghani

What do you think?

Written by Vinay Rajoria

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

GIPHY App Key not set. Please check settings

Victim-blaming is Just Another Form of Abuse

This Cinderella has PTSD!