‘According to Achebe an important role for the writer in a new nation is to show a colonised people ‘’what they have lost’’. How might we read Things Fall Apart as doing this? The novel ‘Things Fall Apart’ is written by popular African writer Chinua Achebe. It was published in 1958, around the time Nigeria was approaching independence which it finally gained in 1960. The novel itself is based in Nigeria in a small village called Umuofia. The novel follows the life of the main protagonist Okonkwo Unoka. It is important to note that Achebe uses many characteristics associated with African culture throughout the novel. He does so to maintain its authenticity even though it is printed in English. Proverbs, folk songs, esoteric language and imagery are all used to create realistic, honest portrayals of tribal life in Nigeria, these are all aspects used in how we read ‘Things Fall Apart’. (1) Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’ is written in English and belongs to the European form . Some words in the novel are left untranslated. This is a common trait of Achebe’s work. These words are meant to represent ideas and these ideas could not be translated properly into English in fear of becoming ‘lost’ in translation.(1) As I will mention further down in my essay, the art of oral storytelling features strong in how we might read Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’. The early parts of the novel belong to oral storytelling, however it does not read very well and what we see is scenes and repetition of lines. As the novel progresses, this oral tradition becomes something ‘they have lost’ (the natives) and the novel begins to read as a narrative. As the European colonisers intervene more into African society, the form of the text intervenes more. The move of register in tone is that of European intervention. The main protagonist in the novel, Okonkwo becomes a typical classical and tragic hero. He is depicted as a good man but his flaws ultimately cost him his life.(2) His failure to open up to new ideas results in him becoming lost in the colonised society. ‘Things Fall Apart’ portrays the clash between Nigeria’s white colonial government and the traditional cultures of indigenous African tribes. In the novel this clash leads to the reader seeing just exactly ‘what they (the natives) have lost’ as a result of the western colonisation. In the novel, the western white man’s religion challenges the long the held beliefs and traditions of the tribes. Before colonisation spirits and belief in the spirts such as the forest spirit are the only beliefs held by the natives but when the coloniser arrives they bring a new religion from the Western world which attracts many of the natives. Throughout the novel there is a power struggle between the coloniser and the colonised. The coloniser, also known as the white man represent an imposing figure that try to force their way of living onto the colonised, the black indigenous community. Throughout the novel Colonisation is presented to us as an eroding process. It comes to Africa and unsettles the balance and structured lives of the people there. (1) As a result confusion and anarchy ensues as a new way of life grabs hold. What Achebe really desires from his novel is to tell the story of his colonised people and show what they will lose from colonisation. ‘Things Fall Apart ‘ seeks to tell the story of the colonial encounter in Nigeria ‘from the inside’, and also to remind his readers in Nigeria that African peoples did not hear of civilization from the first time from Europeans as commonly believed.’ (3 pg 43,44) There is no doubt that the western world believed they were the first to bring civilization to Africa ‘seen as the ‘Dark Continent’ and as Frantz Fanon puts it, the home of ‘barbarism, degradation and brutality’. Throughout ‘Things Fall Apart’ we read about the different things that have been lost by the indigenous people of Africa. For example, one very important tradition lost by the people is that of their oral history. At the beginning of the novel we meet our protagonist Okonkwo. He is a well known and highly respected farmer, warrior and man in his community. (1) The oral tradition contributes significantly to his personal status. We are told of his ferocious fight with Amalinze The Cat, a man unbeaten for seven years from Umofia to Mbaino. He was so called ‘The Cat’ as his back was never believed to have hit the ground. ( 4 pg 3) Okonkwo defeated this great man and through the oral tradition the news spread across the tribes. It is also significant to note the importance of the old men of the tribes view on the fight. The fact they described it as one of the ‘fiercest’ fights ever seen added to its significance and its authenticity and Okonkwo became a man of power and integrity. He revelled in his masculinity. However, when these tribes start to become colonised we see that the oral tradition of Africa loses significance. The colonisers do not see Okonkwo as a man of power and significance because of the stories about him, in fact far from it. At the end of the novel we see the coloniser’s true feelings on Okonkwo after he commits suicide. Despite the fact Okonkwo dominates the novel from start to finish the commissioner seems him as a minor detail.(1) He believed that the story of this man who had killed a messenger and hanged himself would make interesting reading. ‘One could almost write a whole chapter on him, perhaps not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph, at any rate.’(4 pg 152) This shows the level of contempt that the colonisers held for the Africans and clearly depicts that the importance of the oral tradition is something ‘they have lost’ as a result of colonisation. As a result of being colonised, the African tribes ‘lost’ their own indigenous system of law. We see examples of this indigenous law when Okonkwo is found guilty of breaking the sacred peace when he beats his wife. As a result he is ordered to make a sacrifice and pay a dowry, another example of the indigenous law in ‘Things Fall Apart’ can be seen when Okonkwo is banished for seven years as a result of killing Ezeudu’s son. However this system of law is lost during colonisation and the white men build a court where cases are heard and sentences are passed. This represented a huge change to the African community as the law was taken out of their hands. It is also important to note that the coloniser built a court to help protect all the followers of their new religion. In Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’ many traditional views held by the native Africans is lost when they are colonised. For example, at the beginning of the novel when we meet Okonkwo we immediately learn that he is seen as a hero by the others in his community and other surrounding community. He is depicted a strong, fierce, wealthy masculine warrior who is not afraid of hard work. This very tradition ‘supreme male’ image allows him to hold a status amongst the tribes. Okonkwo himself believed very strongly in the importance of masculinity. We see this insistence on the masculinity in his desire for his son Nwoye to be more masculine. He fears that he will be lazy just like Okonkwo’s own father was. However, much to Okonkwo’s disgust, the desire and importance for traditional masculinity becomes lost in the new westernised society. In this new era, Nwoye is actually quite suited to the structured and settled lifestyle that now exists. It becomes much more important to be an all rounded person than a traditional dominant male. At the end of the novel we see that Oknokwo ‘mourned for the warlike men of Umuofia, who had so unaccountably become soft like women’. (4 pg 122) Ultimately by the end of the novel we see Okonkwo’s failure to change with the new society costs him his life. Just like the importance of masculinity, Okonkwo himself becomes something that is ‘lost’. In conclusion from my close reading of ‘Things Fall Apart’ by Chinua Achebe I am in no doubt about just how much the colonised people lost as a result of being colonised. Okonkwo and his tribe lose many things that had always been so familiar to them for example their religion and moral values change drastically in so far that the western white religion impose and even begin to convert the indigenous people and masculinity becomes unimportant. This is just one of the examples I have chosen to highlight from my essay to show just exactly ‘what they have lost’. Finally, what Achebe really desires from his novel is to tell the story of his colonised people and show what they have lost as a result of colonisation, something he undoubtedly achieves.
1.Price, Graham . Lecture notes., 22-10-2013
2.McNulty, Dr. Eugene. Lecture notes., 13-10-2013
3.C.L. Innes (2007). Postcolonial Literatures in English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 43-44. 4.Chinua Achebe (2001). Things Fall Apart. London: Penguin Books. 3, 152.