Do you agree that Achebe shows an - awareness of the human qualities


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Do you agree that Achebe shows an - awareness of the human qualities
common to all men of all times and places - or do you find the novel
only uniquely African and of its time?

Achebe’s style has been described as one of “remarkable economy and
subtle irony… uniquely and richly African .. revealing Achebe’s keen
awareness of the human qualities common to all men of all times and
places”. Do you agree that Achebe shows an “awareness of the human
qualities common to all men of all times and places” or do you find
the novel only uniquely African and of its time?

“Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe is a twentieth-century African
tragedy written about the destruction of the African Igbo tribe by
‘white men’ from the west. The novel focuses on Africa’s gradual
invasion by white Westerners and the effects of colonisation on
specific individuals and groups within the society. The novel has many
distinct African features that define the pre-colonial culture of the
Igbo tribe. The very beginning of the novel describes an African
festival, in which drums and flutes are being used whilst the
spectators look on in awe,

“The drums beat and the flutes sang and the spectators held their
breath.”

Achebe’s use of sensory language, such as the sounds of the
instruments, gives the audience a greater sense of shared experience
of what it was like to be part of the Igbo tribe. Achebe’s style of
writing throughout the novel allows the audience to imagine being in
the position of characters such as Okonkwo who had their common,
traditional beliefs and rituals gradually overridden by the
increasingly-dominant Western ideology.

Achebe uses simple language throughout the novel, particularly at the
beginning and this reflects the simplicity of the African oral
storytelling tradition. As most African stories were told in
traditional verbal ways by illiterate people, the language used tended
to be simple,

“Unoka went into an inner room and soon returned with a small wooden
disc containing a kola nut, some alligator pepper and a lump of white
chalk.”

Achebe uses this technique to provide some simple, vivid visual
imagery for the reader, while making them aware of traditional African
foods such as kola nuts. This type of sentence perfectly illustrates
Achebe’s intentions of making this novel ‘uniquely African’.

Henrickson suggests “Things Fall Apart uses language and structures …
that make its world seem familiar to Western readers; but questions
whether it really is familiar to us.” Henrickson believes that the
novel is there to provide an understanding of the African perspective
of colonisation; however, he does not argue that the novel is relevant
to us.

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This continues the debate of whether or not this novel is
‘uniquely African’. It is highly ironic that as a descendant of the
colonised tribe, Achebe is writing this story in the language of the
coloniser. This is done because English is the most widely learnt
language in the world today and writing in English allows the book to
reach a wider audience.

Many of the themes of this novel are relevant to men of any period of
time and culture, such as religion and status. Religion is important
to the moral understanding of this novel as it places all men at an
inferior level to Chielo, the Agbala, or possessor of the spirit of
God of the tribe. Despite men being superior to women at the time the
novel is set, Chielo humbles any man of the novel by possessing powers
superior to mortal beings. The men in the novel all possess the human
quality of respect and obedience. This is further illustrated by the
status of Okonkwo after the hard work he has provided the community
during the yam seasons and Okonkwo’s acceptance of his punishment for
breaking the ‘week of peace’. In this respect, the moral understanding
of the novel can be generalised to men of all times and cultures.

Achebe’s use of imagery throughout the novel provides the reader with
a sense of being involved in the Ibo tribe, like the reader is
watching these events unfold before them. This is particularly odd
since the narrative of the story is told in the past tense. Many have
noted that the ability Achebe displays to allow the reader to
empathise with his protagonists is one of Achebe’s literary strengths.
This is particularly illustrated in Achebe’s portrayal of Okika, a
relatively minor character who delivers an important speech that
changes the mood of the reader during chapter twenty-four. This speech
is particularly important, as it portrays the vulnerability of the
clan and foreshadows Okonkwo’s fatal actions,

“All our gods are weeping. Idemili is weeping. Ogwugwu is weeping,
Agbala is weeping, and all the others. Our dead fathers are weeping
because of the shameful sacrilege they are suffering and the
abomination we have all seen with our eyes.”

Okika’s speech is referring to the unmasking of an egwugwu in public,
which was a tremendous crime against the Ibo tribe. Achebe is showing
the cultural importance of the egwugwu and is also causing the reader
to feel like they have just been betrayed by their fellow man. This
type of betrayal is relevant to men of all times and places but
illustrated in an African context, further continuing the debate of
whether or not the novel is ‘uniquely African’ or ‘relevant to men of
all times and places.

Many other themes are clearly present in the novel, such as the idea
of the Aristotelian hero. An Aristotelian hero generally begins life
from humble beginnings, works hard and moves up the social ladder. He
gains wealth and status and having an admirable personality, but the
want for happiness leads to one fatal flaw bringing about the
character’s own destruction, usually resulting in death. Okonkwo
begins life in his father’s shadow, borrows yam seeds, plants them and
is eventually able to have his own harvest. Despite having a high
status by the end of the novel, Okonkwo’s own pride and honour will
not allow him to be colonised by the ‘white men’ and this leads to
Okonkwo’s suicide.

“You have a manly and a proud heart. A proud heart can survive general
failure because such a failure does not prick its pride. It is more
difficult and more bitter when a man fails alone.”

The character of Okonkwo serves to show how the relationship between
father and son can differ between generations. Okonkwo’s relationship
with his father is not shown throughout the novel, but his father is
the main motivation for Okonkwo’s disdain of laziness and weakness.
Achebe is emphasising the importance of a healthy role-model, which
the character of Okonkwo clearly doesn’t have, but the downfall of
Okonkwo at the end of the book implies that Okonkwo should have been
more respectful of his father and his heritage. Achebe has created a
very deterministic character, who believes that the only way of being
successful is to be hard-working, strong and determined. However, the
Ibo tribe did not frown upon Okonkwo for his father’s sins. This lead
critic Umelo Ojinmah to argue, “This flexibility of the society
contrasts markedly with Okonkwo’s single-mindedness”. Although the Ibo
tribe do not seem to mind about Unoka’s lazy and weak past, Okonkwo is
still driven to ensure he does not end up like his father.

In contrast, Okonkwo has a strained relationship with his son because
of Okonkwo’s mission to avoid showing weakness. Okonkwo treats his
family harshly and his son, Nwoye, in particular is not impressed by
his father’s actions. A comparison can be drawn between the two
father-son relationships in the book. Both sons are dissatisfied with
their fathers and this leads to destruction in different ways. The
lack of tolerance Okonkwo shows towards Nwoye joining the missionaries
divides father and son, just as Unoka’s laziness divides he and
Okonkwo. Okonkwo’s death at the end of the novel stems from the
relationship problems he has had with both his son and his father. His
intolerance and lack of emotion lead to the disowning of Nwoye and
this can all be directly related to the unstable relationship between
Okonkwo and his own father. Achebe’s inclusion of these relationships
highlights the importance of a healthy relationship between father and
son, as a father should be seen as a positive role-model and be
helpful to the development of a child. This theme is universal to men
of all times and is perhaps less relevant to specific African culture.

Okonkwo seems to treat Ikemefuna as his own son, despite the fact that
he is not. Achebe makes it clear to the reader that, despite very
rarely showing it, Okonkwo cares a great deal for him and he becomes
integrated into the family.

“Even Okonkwo himself became very fond of the boy – inwardly of
course.”

Ikemefuna grows to see Okonkwo as his father and Okonkwo is viewed as
being wrong for having a hand in killing him. In the Ibo culture,
having a hand in killing somebody who calls you father is immoral and
looked upon unfavourably. Ogbuefi Ezeudu, a wise old man, warns
Okonkwo not to be included in the murder of Ikemefuna, but Okonkwo
feels that he will be perceived as weak should he not finish Ikemefuna
off,

“They will take him outside Umuofia as is the custom, and kill him
there. But I want you to have nothing to do with it. He calls you his
father.”

Okonkwo’s actions, specifically culturally are viewed as immoral. His
actions would likely be condemned by men from all times and places
though and this is Achebe’s intention. The use of the phrase ‘as is
the custom’ emphasises the African nature of what is to come in the
novel. This would appear to suggest that the novel can be viewed as
both ‘uniquely African’ and ‘common to men of all times and places’,
but specifically as uniquely African.

However, Okonkwo’s relationship with his daughter Ezinma is more
stable than that of Okonkwo and his son. Ezinma appears to be his
favourite child and Okonkwo can actually be seen as showing some
emotion for her through his actions. A good example of this is where
Ekwefi falls ill and Okonkwo finds her the medicine she needs. Okonkwo
wishes she could have been a boy, because he feels that she is
stronger than Nwoye,

“She should have been a boy,”

Okonkwo’s relationship with Ezinma is surprising, as Okonkwo is very
harsh towards Ezinma’s mother, Ekwefi, firing a gun at her and beating
her during the ‘week of peace’. Okonkwo’s attitude towards women is
typical of contemporary African culture, where women were seen as
inferior to men and treated as such. This is why Okonkwo feels that
Ezinma should have been a boy, because she is able to match up to the
expectations Okonkwo has for his own son, Nwoye. It’s ironic that
Okonkwo perceives women and weak and inferior, yet he has more respect
for Ezinma than he does Nwoye. However, it is also ironic that the
Chielo, who is the priestess of Agbala, is in fact a woman and is
superior to even the highest of tribesmen. This illustrates some level
of importance for women at the time of the novel, but generally they
were oppressed by men. Men were even allowed to marry more than once
at a time, whereas women were not. These particular aspects of African
culture would be more difficult to relate to both men and women of
more recent times and places. These, it could be argued, are
specifically African aspects of life.

Okonkwo is a tragic hero and so has qualities applicable to men of all
places and times. Okonkwo has many likeable, admirable qualities but
one fatal mistake leads to his death. His strength and courage would
be admired by modern readers and this results in the novel having
human qualities relevant to men all over the world. However, the
circumstances in which these qualities are drawn out of the character
by Achebe seem to appeal more to African readers. In the past, Achebe
has pointed out that it is his duty as an African novelist to inform
the wider audience about his culture and the way it has progressed
over time. An internet critic has agreed, arguing “Achebe is not only
trying to inform the outside world of Ibo cultural traditions, but to
remind his own people of their past and to assert that it had
contained much of value.” This critic appears to be implying that this
novel is both ‘uniquely African’ and ‘relevant to men of all places
and times’.

In conclusion, Achebe’s portrayal of both men and women are ‘uniquely
African’, but the general themes and narrative can be related to men
of all times and places. ‘Men’ need not be interpreted literally, as
the universal themes apply to both genders. It appears that Achebe’s
intention was to provide a novel that could inform both descendents of
the Ibo tribe and descendents of the colonisers of the events taking
place during colonisation in Nigeria. The result is a novel that
informs and educates readers of these events.


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