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Literary Analysis and Modern Relevance of "Things Fall Apart"

"Things Fall Apart" critical analysis

"Things Fall Apart" critical analysis

Things Fall Apart Analysis

Chinua Achebe wrote the novel Things Fall Apart for a distinct purpose: to tell a side of history that tends to get ignored. He realized there was an abundance of books written by white people about Africa but not written by Africans. Centuries of having the African tale told by foreigners has affected just how much control modern Nigerians have in their own lives. Based on how Achebe portrays the white men stripping the Igbo people of their agency, he would think the cultural agency in modern-day Nigeria is constricted by subliminal messages created by Igboland's colonialism.

A Response to "Heart of Darkness"

In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's TED talk, she speaks of the dangerous effects of telling a single story of a people creates; this is something Achebe feels strongly about as well. He wrote Things Fall Apart in response to the single story of Africa; he read A Heart of Darkness, a book about colonialism portraying the white men as saviors of the “savage” Africans. He would not stand for that story of Africa being the only one. In Things Fall Apart, he portrays traditional Igbo culture, as well as the upturned society it becomes after colonialism. When the white men come, they gradually take control of Umuofia, the main village of the plot. Initially, the white men peacefully built their churches and taught Christianity without incident, but soon after the Igbo people are coerced into following the white men’s rules. For example, the District Commissioner invited the Igbo leaders to a discussion, making them believe the two groups of people, Igbo and white, would have a civil conversation about the burning of the white man’s church.

Manipulation From the White Man

The Igbo burned down the church because one of their followers unmasked an egwugwu, a spirit of an ancestor that the Igbo see as a god, effectively killing him. This was a great offense to the Igbo, and some form of punishment had to occur. When the Igbo leaders came to the District Commissioner ready to discuss both of their views, he takes them as prisoners. Then, he forces the village to pay 200 bags of cowries, their currency, for their release. The fine of 200 bags is given to the villagers through the white court messengers; these messengers increase the fine to 250 bags so that they can benefit from the Igbo’s situation as well. Acebe included this detail to bring attention to how much the white men coerce and lie to the Igbo, effectively taking the Igbo’s agency. Achebe also uses the manipulativeness of the District Commissioner to characterize the overall interaction between Africans and Europeans during this time period. The District Commissioner represents not just the white people in Igboland, but the leaders of all white people colonizing Africa at this time.

Deeper Analysis

Achebe also uses Igbo characters, such as Okonkwo, to represent the African and European conflict. In Umuofia, this man of great social standing is strong and quick to violence. He also has an intense fear of being seen as weak like his father. Okonkwo represents Igbo culture because he is a combination of all of the traditional Igbo values; he’s a powerful man who rules his family, is physically strong, and is quite a hard worker. Initially, he is greatly respected in his community. That changes when the white men come. Like Okonkwo’s respect, traditional Igbo culture fades as the white men enforce more and more of their rules on the Igbo. At the end of the book, Okonkwo kills one of the court messengers, believing his people would unite and follow him to fight against the white man. No one does, and he realized what this means for him; he doesn't have any significant influence in his society anymore, and the white men will punish him for killing one of them. He soon hangs himself. His death is the metaphorical death of the traditional Igbo culture, which will no longer be the same after the white man's intervention. As the Igbo loses their agency, their culture dies, but Okonkwo’s suicide is the “official” end of the traditional culture. The reader sees Okonkwo’s suicide through the District Commissioner; he’s thinking about writing a book on his African experiences. He decides Okonkwo’s story would be a good paragraph in his book The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger. Even in death, the African story is told by white men, and the white men write themselves as superior to Africans. After centuries of stories like these, Africa’s culture and reputation are still greatly affected.

Other Aspects of the TED Talk

One can see the effects of stripping the Igbo’s agency in modern Nigerian culture. In the TED talk of Chimananda Ngozi Adichie, she said that most of the books that were readily available to her were stories of white people who experienced things with which she had no connections (Adichie 0:38). There weren’t many stories with African characters when she was growing up (Adichie 0:38). Centuries later after colonialism, there is still only one story of Africa, and it is still not written by the Africans themselves. When she began to write her own stories, elements of the stories she read appeared in her works, although they weren’t elements she identified with (Adichie 1:11). For example, she says in the TED talk, “All my characters were white and blue-eyed, they played in the snow, they ate apples, and they talked a lot about the weather... despite the fact that I lived in Nigeria. I had never been outside Nigeria. We didn't have snow, we ate mangoes, and we never talked about the weather, because there was no need to” (Adichie). Because of the lack of stories about Africans, Adichie wrote about things that were foreign to her. She was forcing herself to write about white people’s lives and not lives like her own. Because the African tale wasn’t being told, she had to identify with foreign characters in foreign lands.

Modern Day Effects

Modern Nigeria has a similar lack of agency to post-colonial Igboland because of the lack of African stories by Africans. For example, a popular beauty technique in modern Nigeria is to bleach one’s skin to appear a lighter skin tone (Adow). Bleaching the skin is dangerous because it increases the risk of blood cancers, cancer of the liver and kidney, as well as causes grave skin conditions (Adow). Also, to actually get an effect of the treatment, one must continually bleach their skin (Adow). Despite the danger, people continue to bleach their skin in order to feel more beautiful; they see having a lighter complexion as more appealing than having a darker one (Battabox). In the words of Battabox presenter Adeola "Black is beautiful, but white is selling."

The implication of this represents another side effect of the lack of authentic African stories. Each person can choose whether or not to bleach their own skin, but their decisions are influenced by society. Although the idea that only the European feature of light skin is beautiful was seemingly not intentionally spread as Christianity was in the colonization of Africa, they did spread through the same process. When the white people imposed their rules on the Igbo, it's logical that many of their values and ideas, not just Christianity, grew among the Igbo, which would affect modern-day Nigeria. Since most of the stories in Africa, at least during Adichie’s childhood, were from the white perspective, there would be nothing challenging the idea that White is beautiful, nor would there be any stories portraying Black as beautiful either. There would be no promotion of anything the Africans experience, leading them to attempt to identify with things that are foreign to them.

"Black is beautiful, but white is selling."

— Battabox Presenter Adeola

How to Fix the Issue

Achebe would think this lack of agency on a cultural level in modern Nigeria could be addressed through the creation of stories of Africa by Africans. As said before, Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart as a response to a book depicting Africa by that one false story of it; he understands just how impactful these stories are. He would put more focus on promoting the African perspective; he’s aware of just how much modern Nigerian culture lacking these stories is affecting the society’s agency. There are only horrible effects of having the white man’s African story be the only African story; Nigerians are bleaching their skin to appear lighter despite its harmful effects, and young Nigerian writers have no idea characters they relate to and identify with can exist. The white men’s view of Africa would no longer be the only or the common view of Africa if there were a great number of created novels of African characters by Africans themselves.

The Story of the Lion

“Until the lion learns to write, the story of the hunt will always glorify the hunter” is an African proverb that the modern world is still learning (Adagba). Through Achebe’s and Adichie’s words, one can see it is not only dangerous for a people’s history to be told only through the eyes of a foreigner for those people, as was the case of the Igbo, but it is dangerous to the rest of the world as well. The world still has an idea of Africa in its head based on centuries of that single false story. The only way to correct it is to read the work of Africans and analyze them thoroughly. Writers like Achebe and Adichie create commentaries in their works to fill in the African voice that has been missing for too long. It is time for the African voice to be heard and for the lion to tell its story of the hunt.

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor, 1994. Print.

Adagba, Simeon M. "" Apr. 2006: "Until the Lion Has His or Her Own Storyteller, the Hunter Will Always Have the Best Part of the Story." Web. 23 Mar. 2016.

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. "Transcript of "The Danger of a Single Story"" Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The Danger of a Single Story. July 2009. Web. 24 Feb. 2016.

Adow, Mohammed. "Nigeria's Dangerous Skin Whitening Obsession." - Al Jazeera English. Apr.-May 2016. Web. 24 Feb. 2016.

BattaBox. "Why Nigerian Women Bleach Their Skin." YouTube. YouTube, 20 Jan. 2016. Web. 24 Feb. 2016.

© 2018 Christina Garvis