Achebe has commented that African writing has the advantage of ‘a largely unrecognised, huge oral tradition.’ Discuss the ways in which he puts this into practice in Things Fall Apart.
The Nigerian writer and academian Chinua Achebe (born 1930,) wrote his first novel, Things Fall Apart in 1958, whilst his homeland was still a Federal protectorate of the British Commonwealth, and not an independent country. A native of Eastern Nigeria, or Igboland, and bilingual in English and Ibo, Achebe’s work demonstrates a dual understanding of the two cultures, European and African that have influenced his thought and writing.
Despite a conventional Christian upbringing at the early mission of Ogidi, and the influence of a traditional European style education, Achebe has always been deeply influenced by the traditional oral wisdom and culture of his people, the Ibo. In Things Fall Apart, Achebe’s concern for an awareness of African culture amongst African and European readers alike is seen in his constant description of cultural and sociological features within traditional Ibo society.
Similarly, Achebe attempts to demonstrate the validity of pre-colonial civilisation in Africa, through the presentation of traditional African society and morality. One of Achebe’s main impetuses in writing Things Fall Apart, was a sense of misinterpretation of African culture and society by European canonical writers, such as Kipling. Achebe seems to challenge the Imperial definition of African society as amoral, uncivilised and unchristian. Controversially, in his essay, An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1), Achebe describes Conrad’s novel as a ‘negative’ assessment of pre-colonial Africa, which fails to recognise the validity and rich cultural heritage of traditional African society, and instead uses Africa as a metaphor for the fragility of the civilised psyche. It is this stereotypical European understanding of Africa as the savage and backward ‘Dark continent,’ that Achebe attempts to deconstruct through his deliberately positive description of pre-colonial African society in Things Fall Apart:
‘Here is an adequate revolution for me to espouse – to help my society regain
belief in itself and to put away the complexities of the years of denigration (*) and self-abasement. And it is essentially a question of education, in the best sense of
that word.’ Chinua Achebe (2.) (* – to blacken / slander.)
At first glance, Things Fall Apart may seem an uncomplicated novel, consisting of a simply conveyed narrative style, unsophisticated language, and a single linear plot. However, this apparently unsophisticated novel does seem to capture the spirit of traditional Ibo society, not through interpretative analysis of their beliefs etc., but through an
objective description of the rich incidental language, ceremony and ritual that is the heritage of Ibo culture. It is through this accurate and intimate presentation of the African oral tradition, that Achebe conveys most powerfully the linguistic richness and social harmony of traditional African society.
Unlike modern European artists, who have encouraged an awareness and appreciation of traditional African culture, such as Pablo Picasso (1881-1973,) from an aesthetic or anthropological interest, Achebe’s novel clearly seems to stress the importance of empathy and appreciation for African cultures in existence today, amongst both Africans and Europeans:
‘Some of the earliest African novelists – Tutuola, Camara Lye, and Chinua Achebe – derived their inspiration from traditional lore, indigenous customs, and the oral tradition, in a bid to demonstrate to their readers, African and non African alike, that Africa has a culture she could be proud of.’ Eustace Palmer (3.)
Ibo band, photographed by G. I. Jones, 1930 (20.)
One of the most interesting ways in which Achebe represents Ibo oral tradition is in the narrative style of Things Fall Apart. The narrative voice of the novel acts as a chronicler, or as Achebe has called, a ‘witness,’ (4.) to the history of Umuofia. We are struck by the sincerity and unintrusive objectivity of the narrator, who informs us, without subjective analysis, of events – past and present within the society of the clan. Rather than adopt a subjective style, as might benefit the critical perspective of Achebe, we are presented with a seemingly unbiased account of Umuofia’s history. In Chapter 1, Achebe declines from describing the geographical location of Umuofia from a western perspective, (the ‘nine villages’ is the only major geographical reference,) instead we are forced to patiently observe, understand and therefore to empathise with Umuofian society itself:
‘Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on personal solid achievements. As a young man of eighteen he had brought honour to his village by throwing Amalinze the Cat…’ Things Fall Apart (5.)
The narrative style of Achebe seems to imitate the cultural assumptions of an insular or indigenous people, and it is this quality that adds to the oral or bardic quality of the narrative. Similarly, Achebe’s prose possesses a dramatic and rhythmic structure reminiscent of European epic poetry, such as Beowulf, The Odyssey or The Gododdin. Like these originally oral works, Things Fall Apart possesses an omniscient narrative voice, and is concerned largely with a central heroic figure, who has to meet the threat of a powerful external danger:
‘The incidents are related in such a way that we feel their relevance, and they are dramatically evoked in such powerful prose that their reality is enacted, and we do not stop to question either their relevance or their authenticity.’ Eustace Palmer (6.)
Throughout the narrative structure of Things Fall Apart, we are always aware that the narrator is speaking in the past tense, and that we are reading the transcription of a story. The question of whether this story is an original prose work or the transcribed knowledge of an individual is at first ambiguous. One reason for the reader’s sense that Achebe’s work is a transcription from the oral tradition of Africa, is the considerable detail and intimacy with which the narrator describes the history of Umuofia. This is seen in the seamless narrative movement in chapter 1, from the description of Okonkwo, to the drama of the wrestling match. The vitality and social cohesion of Umuofia is reflected in the drama and rhythm of Achebe’s prose, and in his use of simile to associate Ibo culture with the vitality and graceful beauty of the natural world:
‘The drums beat and the flutes sang and the spectators held their breath. Amalinze was a wily craftsman, but Okonkwo was as slippery as a fish in water. every nerve and every muscle stood out on their arms, on their backs and their thighs…’
Things Fall Apart, (8.)
In addition to Achebe’s narrative style, which is clearly in the bardic tradition, and itself an endorsement of African oral art, we are also presented with an array of ceremonial, poetic and liturgical detail within Umuofian society and culture.
Several aspects of Achebe’s presentation of the African oral tradition seem of particular importance. Firstly, the ceremonial and religious elements of the oral tradition seem to illustrate the validity of a highly developed social and moral order within Ibo society.
Ibo Priest at shrine of Agbala,
G. I. Jones, 1930. (21.)
It is through the power of language and ceremony that divine moral order is made
manifest in society, through semi-divine elders like the ‘Egwugwu,’ and Chielo. The ritual of religion maintains the social and moral cohesion of the African psyche:
‘Agbala do-o-o-o! Agbala ekeneo-o-o-o-o!…’ Chielo began once again to chant greetings to her god…’ Things Fall Apart, (9.)
Similarly, the sacred laws of the village are enforced by the power of the Earth Goddess, so that when Okonkwo commits the crime of ‘ochu’ or manslaughter, he is driven out of Umuofia by her ‘messengers’. Despite his sympathy for Okonkwo, Obierika must adopt the dual identity of the spirit-messenger in carrying out the retribution of the Earth-Goddess. Language and ceremony are the outward manifestations of this divine metamorphosis of the psyche, which serve to administer justice in the clan:
‘It was the justice of the earth goddess, and they were merely her messengers…’
Things Fall Apart, (10.)
Another aspect of the way moral and social order is reinforced through language is seen in the ceremony of politics, law and rank. The status of an individual in Ibo society is defined by merit, with the most successful contributing to village politics; the elders or ‘ndichie’ comment of Okonkwo that,
‘If a child washes his hands, he is fit to eat with kings.’ Things Fall Apart, (11.)
The Egwugwu, add supernatural awe and divine endorsement to the laws of the clan. It is through the power of poetry and oratory, that the ‘Spirits’ sit in judgement of the clan, rather than as mere mortals:
‘Then came the voices of the Egwungwu, guttural and awesome… Evil forest addressed the two groups of people facing them.
‘Uzowulu’s body, I salute you,’ he said…’ Things Fall Apart, (12.)
This detailed accuracy with which Achebe describes the oral traditions of the Ibo is described by the anthropologist Ruth Finnegan in her book, Oral Traditions in Africa:
‘Long speeches are given by plaintiff and defendant to explicate their cases… The Ibibio audience is particularly appreciative of a speech which abounds in original or unusual proverbs to capture their interest…’ Ruth Finnegan (13.)
Another aspect of Achebe’s representation of the African oral tradition is his constant reference to traditional proverbs, parables, idioms and incidental verse. The richness of the Ibo oral heritage is often displayed through everyday conversation and domestic activities, stressing perhaps the importance of the oral tradition in Africa as a genuine literary form of the people, comparable to the folk tales, proverbs and the unwritten oral culture of any European language:
‘Since the evaluation of some form as literature is as we have seen a matter ofopinion, it seems reasonable to take seriously the local opinion on this. Thus, amongst the Ibo.. this ought to incline us to consider including at least some rhetorical speeches as part of Ibo oral literature…. metaphorical names, elaborate greeting forms, the serious art of conversation, and in some cases proverbs or rhetoric.’ Ruth Finnegan (14.)
Another feature of the novel’s oral framework, is its poetry, both incidental and ceremonial. It is interesting that some poems, such as those of Ikemefuna, are rendered in Achebe’s own Ibo dialect, rather than English, suggesting the unique linguistic characteristics of Ibo verse.
Ikemefuna’s obsession with stories and fables seems to symbolise the innocence of pre-colonial society, and the importance of the oral tradition for traditional African culture. The death of Ikemefuna, an ‘abomination to the Earth Goddess,’ suggests the spiritual decline of Umuofia:
‘Eze elina, elina!
Eze ilikwa ya…’ Things Fall Apart (15.)
Uchendu’s dirge to women is both a parable and elegy, suggesting the practical and philosophical nature of Ibo poetry:
‘For whom is it well, for whom is it well?
There is no one for whom it is well.’ Things Fall Apart (16.)
Song and verse also symbolise the vitality of village life. The marriage song in chapter 12 is a traditional fertility song, but it is also significant because it was ‘the latest song in the village,’ demonstrating artistic creativity and dynamism within the framework of traditional oral art.
Proverbs and allegorical stories also feature heavily in the everyday language and conversation of the Ibo. The proverbs contain traditional Ibo wisdom on a wide range of topics, adding a rich cultural flavour to the everyday life of ordinary people, this is seen in Achebe’s comment that:
‘Proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten.’ Things Fall Apart (17.)
We later learn how palm oil, like the greedily collected artefacts of African culture was exported out of Africa by Europeans.
Additionally, proverbs and allegorical stories illustrate the traditional African psyche, representing its interrelation with the supernatural world and natural environment. The fable of the Tortoise suggests the consequences of greed, but also serves as an explanation for why the tortoise has a rough shell. Similarly, the mosquito fable explains why the insect is attracted to human ears. Perhaps the most profound proverb is that which explains human fate, where the success of the individual depends both upon the ‘chi’ spirit, which may represent chance or fate, and the individual will.
Ibo Obi house, photographed by G. I. Jones, 1930, (22.)
In addition to poetry, one of the most powerful forms of traditional oral art is the ceremonial performance of the Egwugwu, the spiritual guardians and legislators of the clan. In African Literature Today, Eldred Durosimi compares the Ibo ritual to Eurasian performance art:
‘In spite of the fact that the village audience recognised some of the impersonators through their disguise, it was prepared nonetheless to accept them in their new identity, to enter into the mood of make-believe, sometimes with awe and sometimes with laughter. We are her quite close to the art of drama and the spirit of the secular theatre.’ Eldred Durosimi Jones (18.)
Perhaps the most striking evidence of the African oral tradition in Things Fall Apart is the presentation of a rich linguistic structure of everyday language.
When asked about Okonkwo’s assault, Ezinma says, ‘I cannot find a mouth to speak of it.’ Achebe deliberately preserves the metaphorical and symbolic forms of Ibo speech in their correct syntax.
Another metaphorical use of language is seen in personal names, which often reflect the concerns of individuals or personal character. Thus ‘Okonkwo’ means ‘manliness.’ The concern of Achebe for the preservation of traditional respect and honour for women and for the apparently feminine attributes of creativity and spirituality is seen in the repetition of the name ‘Nneka,’ or Mother is supreme.
Similarly, Achebe uses traditional Ibo names to emphasise the validity and deep spirituality of the Ibo religion, as opposed to Christianity. ‘Chuckwu’ is often described simply as ‘God,’ and the ‘Egwungwu’ spirit as ‘My Father.’
Thus, it can be seen that Chinua Achebe attempts to deconstruct both the Imperial conception of Africa, as a backward and uncivilised society, and what he believes to be the negative African outlook on traditional African culture. Achebe’s educational aim, in encouraging an appreciation of African culture, can therefore be seen in the detailed and accurate depiction of pre-colonial African life, in Things Fall Apart.
Integral to the success of Things Fall Apart is the simply told, but powerfully conveyed narrative structure of the novel. We are struck by the sincerity and objective style of the prose, and by the raw passion and energy conveyed through Achebe’s dramatic use of language and rhythm; Achebe’s novel seems to convey the living essence of a once proud and vital community.
Another reason for the success of Things Fall Apart, is the empathy which the author is able to generate within the reader for the Ibo community and their plight under Imperialism.
Despite its alien appearance to European readers, the culture and social order of the Ibo bears a striking resemblance to our own, and to earlier European traditions with which we can associate. The ethical, moral and religious institutions so familiar to us are all present in relative forms within Ibo society. Similarly, it is largely through our shared oral tradition in speech and verse, through the common poetry of language in everyday routine and ritual, that our empathy for traditional African culture is evoked.
Ultimately, however, the novel seems to represent an original literary form distinct from the conventions of the contemporary novel. Achebe’s tale seems to exist as a cultural entity in its own right, a work representative of the cultural psyche of a vigorous and noble society, much in the European tradition of epic tragedy. Perhaps Achebe achieves most success through the symbolic juxtaposition of Ibo oral and cultural heritage with the loss of their traditional psyche following European indoctrination and exploitation. This tragic sense of loss, of a way of life, and of the pre-colonial spirit, with its ‘ceremony of innocence,’ is evoked in the epigram found at the beginning of the novel:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned…’
From ‘The Second Coming’ by W. B. Yeats, 1919. (19.)