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Achebe’s Things Fall Apart: A Study in Cultural Understanding

14 Sep 2017Literature Essays

Early works by Europeans on the African continent spoke of their wonder as well as profound misunderstanding of the ways of other peoples. Chinua Achebe's work is an antidote to early Western works on Africa. Things Fall Apart (1958) is an important novel because of its portrayal of African culture and its 'subdued' theme of cultural understanding.

The Bible says that "Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord" (Deuteronomy 8:3; Matthew 4:4; and, Luke 4:4). In Things Fall Apart, we see this suggested to be so - that bread and faith, or material survival and meanings, are interwoven. A society's integrity and survival are dependent on its political economy and culture. To carelessly pass judgment on the ways of another people is irresponsible as different societies do things differently and there are valid historically rooted reasons for such differences as suggested in Things Fall Apart.

History would show, and Achebe's Things Fall Apart depicts this, that things fall apart, as it were, in some societies not because of calamities or direct natural causes but because of very human actions or peculiar social structures and arrangements.

In the book, one sees the falling apart in the "meeting" of different cultures which lead to profound changes in the lifeways of a community. Such changes have been tragic and destructive for certain peoples. In the case of the Igbo tribe and the young man Okonkwo in the novel, it was indeed tragic. The "colonizer" in the book: "put a knife on the things that held the Igbo together and they have fallen apart."

The Bible, in this way, could be seen perhaps as an instrument of repression since moral guidance can translate to power arrangements. In the encounter of the African characters and community in the book and the Bible-carrying colonists, deep lessons in history are suggested by this fascinating book. In Things Fall Apart, published in 1958 and the first novel of Chinua Achebe, we see a man, Okonkwo, whose tragic life is set at the time of the European colonization of Africa. He writes from the eyes of the colonized, narrating the story of the tribe of Igbo, and shows us how the meeting of two different cultures - Western Christianity and African Animism - can have profoundly disastrous consequences.

However, it should be pointed out that there was no real judgment in the book cast about the Bible per se or the faith and religion that it embodied or carried. It may be said that the religions or religious practices portrayed were only instrumental to the main story.

What the author actually does is an excellent job of providing the reader an understanding of Okonkwo's life and struggle to be successful from the perspective of the culture of his tribe. The author enriches our "cultural literacy" or our knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of another way of life. Achebe does this by going beyond mere description of the rituals and practices of an African tribe. He provides us with meanings that are embedded in the described tribal practices. The meanings provided are those of the tribal people themselves - not of the outsiders or colonizers.

Thus, the subtleties and complexities of an African tribal community are captured well in the book as it explodes myths created by early Western writers about Africans lacking in "civilization" or culture. How is this done precisely? Achebe includes detailed descriptions of various aspects of Igbo tribal life. The author writes about the justice codes and the trial process, the social and family rituals, the marriage customs, food production and preparation processes, the process of shared leadership for the community, religious beliefs and practices, and the opportunities for virtually every man to climb the clan's ladder of success through his own efforts.

Moreover, Achebe also lays bare the motivations and desires of Okonkwo whose dreams are fundamentally no different from that of other individuals in other cultures. One would see how Okonkwo actually aspired for the ideals of love, family, peace and understanding. The brilliance is that Achebe placed this tragic character in the context of a clash of cultures. This clash led Okonkwo to a most unacceptable act in his tribe - his suicide.

Now, to highlight the point regarding the author's description of tribal life, two selected quotes from the book are cited here to suggest the author's generally positive regard for early African culture. First, regarding "conversation," which is a very cultural material, Achebe writes: "Among the Igbo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten." This short and crisp description suggests much appreciation of a reportedly Igbo tradition. This quote from the narrator's recounting in the first Chapter pertains to the sophisticated art of rhetoric practiced by the tribe. The metaphor of words as food is something an anthropologist might expect given the almost exclusively agricultural nature of Igbo society. Food was valued for sustenance of physical life while words sustained social interaction and hence community life.

Here is a more lengthy and telling quotation. This comes from an exchange between Obierika and Okonkwo at the end of Chapter Twenty, which deals with events that have come to pass since the arrival of the colonizers. These lines written by Achebe suggest the illogic of disparaging unfamiliar customs:

As night fell, burning torches were set on wooden tripods and the young men raised a song. The elders sat in a circle and the singers went round singing each man's praise as they came before him. They had something to say for every man. Some were great farmers, some were orators who spoke for the clan. Okonkwo was the greatest wrestler and warrior alive. When they had gone round the circle they settled down in the centre, and girls came from the inner compound to dance. At first the bride was not among them. But when she finally appeared holding a cock in her right hand, a loud cheer rose from the crowd. All the other dancers made way for her. She presented the cock to the musicians and began to dance. Her brass anklets rattled as she danced and her body gleamed with cam wood in the soft yellow light. The musicians with their wood, clay and metal instruments went from song to song. And they were all gay.

Descriptions like this contrasted with the dreadful end that came to pass for Okonkwo in his tribe. Okonkwo's passing is magnified and made meaningful in the context of these descriptions. Achebe's character Okonkwo and the Igbo tribe did fall apart but not before the author gave us excellent descriptions of what was a very proud man and his equally proud people.

Achebe was successful in making the reader see how the meanings that she might hold dear and the seemingly disparate events that she could be experiencing can be rooted in interrelated realities beyond the self. This translates to a sharpening of the sociological imagination (to borrow from C. Wright Mill, 1959). The author's sociologically imaginative mind, in effect, showed how a man's life, his biography, is intimately related to his community's history. Okonkwo's dreams, desires and meanings in life intricately shape and, in turn, have been shaped by his tribe's values and practices. As his tribe experienced social change, so he experienced the normlessness that slowly took root and eventually took away his life. Culture is about meanings and those meanings translate to realities. The culturally broken Okonkwo just had to take his own life and thus Achebe impresses on us the despair of the colonized. Hence, the book tells us to appreciate not merely individual life experiences or one's milieu (as C. Wright Mills suggests), but the "big picture" or the reality of cultural differences. With the image of the big picture in his mind, I doubt if Okonkwo would still just take away his own life. In history, we have seen how the tragedy of men, especially of leader-types, like Okonkwo, has led to movements for national liberation, or to aspirations for a better life and not suicide.

Struck by the end that came for Okonkwo and bearing an emphatic understanding of how societies could fall, one may close the book learning a truly magnificent lesson in social relations: a lesson in cultural understanding - that is, to respect the meaningfulness of other cultures, however "different" such cultures may appear.

In Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo's passing was the necessary end. It enhances and is enhanced by the colors of the big Igbo-African picture that is sketched for us by Achebe. Okonkwo symbolically bore the grief not only of his family and clan, but of a whole society. Things Fall Apart is both a reaction to and a shaper of history. As a piece of literature, it is a response to a particular and very real historical experience. It has, in turn, shaped African literature in English and traiblazed in this regard.

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