My students and I are reading Chinua Achebe’s classic novel Things Fall Apart over our Spring Break, and just today, I heard the news of Achebe’s death at the age of 82. He has contributed something remarkable to the world with his work. We frequently say that history is written by the victors, and so it is that the bulk of colonial literature we have has been written by white men. A recurring theme of the latter part of Things Fall Apart, after the missionaries arrive, is that white men do not understand the ways of the Igbo people they seek to evangelize, and further, they do not see them as worthy in and of themselves, which is shown perhaps no more clearly than in the book’s final paragraph.
My students are studying the book through a chosen anthropological lens: gender, religion, family, community, coping which change/tradition, and justice. I think this book has really interesting insights into the Igbo culture in each of these areas. On the surface, it’s easy to make snap judgments about the way that the people of Umuofia do certain things, and Okonkwo in particular can be infuriating because he seems, on the surface, so cruel to his family. Given the values of his clan, however, I can understand why he did some of the things he did. His fear of turning out like his father, or that his children would turn out like his father, drove many of his decisions, and above all, he seemed concerned about presenting himself as masculine.
I hope my students will find the journey interesting. I know I learned a lot through my own reading of the book. In the obituary I linked above:
“It would be impossible to say how Things Fall Apart influenced African writing,” the African scholar Kwame Anthony Appiah once observed. “It would be like asking how Shakespeare influenced English writers or Pushkin influenced Russians. Achebe didn’t only play the game, he invented it.”
The obituary calls Things Fall Apart “the opening of a long argument on his country’s behalf.” Achebe said, “Literature is always badly served when an author’s artistic insight yields to stereotype and malice… And it becomes doubly offensive when such a work is arrogantly proffered to you as your story.”
Things Fall Apart is an important book, an “education,” as Toni Morrison described it. I highly recommend it.