Chinua Achebe is the man.
In An Image of Africa, Chinua Achebe criticises the portrayal of Africa in the eyes of the West as one lacking in ‘factual knowledge’ and deliberately construed to help ‘Europe’s own state of spiritual grace’ manifest (1613). In Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo becomes this ‘Image’ of Africa because he is characterised by Western pre-conceptions. Achebe uses him to guide the narrative spotlight to the difference between Okonkwo and the rest of the Igbo people who defy such generalisations and challenge Western assumptions. This is not to say that Achebe has created a complete colonial stereotype with Okonkwo, but his being the protagonist is a very deliberate decision. Furthermore, this exposure to Igbo culture challenges a Western reader’s impulse to judge Okonkwo according to Western cultural norms and morality, rather than that of the Igbo’s.
The idea of Achebe leading us through a novel with a Western generalisation for a protagonist seems odd, however it helps to fulfil his aim of portraying Africans as ‘not angels, but not rudimentary souls either’ (Achebe, Image 1622). Okonkwo is immediately portrayed as a man who is physically intimidating because when he was angry and ‘could not get his words out quickly enough’ because of his stammer ‘he would use his fists’ (Achebe, Things 4). Despite this behaviour which seems ‘rudimentary’ at first, our perceptions are tempered by Achebe actually giving his character a history (unlike many colonial writers who were and still are prolific). The immediate contrast given of his father is telling: he was a man who was ‘lazy and improvident’ (4) who was laughed at because ‘he was a loafer’ (5), and whom Okonkwo chiefly associates with ‘gentleness’ and ‘idleness’ (13). Okonkwo’s behaviour indicates that he is trying to escape his father’s legacy of ‘idleness’ and ‘gentleness’, thus he escapes the image of simply being a ‘rudimentary’ person who cannot think past violence. We are also treated to an indirect image of the culture in which they live, which gives evidence of the ‘Igbo ethos of communal living and individual awareness’ (Irele 9, my emphasis). The Igbo culture values hard work because they laugh at a ‘loafer’ who does not prosper, suggesting that there is competition and a form of meritocracy. Furthermore, there is the issue of Okonkwo’s stammer, which Achebe implies sometimes hinders his ability to articulate himself. This seems to be an even greater difficulty in a culture like that of the Igbo’s, for whom ‘the art of conversation is regarded very highly’ (6). At first it is easy to draw links to works such as Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which barely credits Africans with speech, let alone an ‘art of conve rsation’, and yet here is where Achebe’s genius asserts itself: we are already comparing Achebe’s work to fantastical, unrealistic and often racist conceptions of African culture and we are forced to see how false they are. Similarly, the word ‘art’ suggests that there is a tradition of art inherent in Igbo society that we are also ignorant of. Additionally, Okonkwo’s stammer does not hinder his respect and fame because his high esteem ‘rested on solid personal achievements’ (3) which we know to have come mainly from fighting in wars. Clearly there is no one single way to gain respect, which suggests a tolerance in Igbo society for difference. As a result of all of this the Western reader is being forced to confront their own ignorance of Igbo culture and their false generalisations that have thus far satisfied them – and it is almost all because of Okonkwo’s difference to the rest of his clan.
In his essay, Achebe argues against the Western ‘need’ to ‘set Africa up as a foil to Europe; as a place of negations’ (Achebe, Image 1613). His argument against alienating an entire continent of people simply as a way to assert European superiority and difference is another engaging aspect of the book. This is facilitated by having a western ‘image’ of Africa (Okonkwo) placed right next to a realistic portrayal of an Igbo clan for the reader to compare, and the idea of power and justice is a revealing theme here. Okonkwo is a very authoritarian figure, we are told that he ‘ruled his household with a heavy hand’ (Achebe, Things 12), suggesting that he is an uncompromising figure, even with regards to his own family. Furthermore, he is a man who sees worth in immediate action and shows of strength. When the royal python is killed, he demands that the clan should ‘not reason like cowards’ (140) and should retaliate violently. Contrastingly the custom in the clan is very similar to democratic system. When Ezeugo is killed in Mbaino, we are told that the villagers ‘spoke, and at the end it was decided to follow the normal course of action’ (11). That several villagers ‘spoke’ suggests that they were responding to one another in a debate. Similarly, the word ‘decided’ suggests a majority decision to respond in the ‘normal’ way which in turn infers that there are rules and set responses to such a tragedy. It also implies that what the men were not debating over whether or not to respond, but whether there were any details that should influence the standard course of action that they would take. Furthermore, ‘in the end’ suggests that the decision took time, which in Okonkwo’s mind may constitute idleness and cowardice when he believed immediate action was more necessary. But it is because of Okonkwo’s strict and often intimidating eagerness to use force that we are able to perceive the contrast between our pre-conceptual images of Igbo law and the reality.
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of facing our incomplete understanding of other cultures is that it forces us to weigh our ideas of morality against those of others’. Ikemefuna’s death is fundamental in understanding this. In order to understand Okonkwo it is necessary to understand how Igbo tradition sees an archetypal hero, Nnoromele asserts that a hero’s life is ‘defined by ambivalence, because his actions must stand in sharp contrast to ordinary behaviour’ (148). If Okonkwo is the hero of this Igbo story as Nnoromele suggests, it seems acceptable to expect Okonkwo to take exception to the death sentence of his surrogate son whom we know he is fond of. But perhaps one of the most shocking, and important things about Ikemefuna’s death is the lack of contestation against the decree to kill him. We are told that ‘Okonkwo was surprised’ and that afterwards he ‘sat still for a very long time’ (50). However, the word ‘surprise’ in this situation seems just as passive as sitting ‘still’, and for a man of Okonkwo’s disposition this is the opposite reaction of what a reader might have predicted. But this tells the reader something extremely important, that Ikemefuna’s killing is not the issue – the issue in Igbo culture is who will kill him. Ezeudu says, ‘that boy calls you father. Do not bear a hand in his death’ (50). This isn’t a suggestion, Ezeudu uses the imperative ‘do not’, as though this is an order that has come straight from the Oracle, and yet Okonkwo goes so far as to be the one who ultimately kills Ikemefuna. A Western reader, following Western ideas of morality, cannot consider either the death sentence or Okonkwo’s actions to be moral, and yet when Okonkwo visits Obierika, the friend’s issue is not with the sentence but that Okonkwo did not ‘stay at home’ (58). In fact, Obierika says that if his own son was to be killed he ‘would neither dispute it nor be the one to do it.’ This relatively calm denunciation of Okonkwo’s hand in the killing remains alien to a Western reader until it becomes clear that it is not possible to understand and judge this culture according to our foreign ideas of morality, when the text is so deeply engrained in a culture with its own legitimate ideas. And yet I believe that Achebe deliberately exacerbates this issue by including heart-wrenching moments that make us sympathise with Ikemefuna, such as his childish nursery rhymes (53), his friendship with Nwoye, and his running to Okonkwo for safety at the end of his life (53). The reason for this is that without this emotional connection with Ikemefuna, it wouldn’t be so easy to demonise Okonkwo for his actions at first, only to have these impulsive emotions checked by Obierika’s unexpected acceptance of the Oracle’s decision, thus leaving the reader unable to process the events without considering the Igbo’s own view of morality and accepting it as equal to their own.
Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is a profound work of writing back to colonial and current social generalisations. And yet in order to do this effectively, he had to embody this ‘Image of Africa’ in his novel to make the text politically and culturally aware, as opposed to becoming yet another folk story which the wider world may not consider seriously.
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. England: Heinemann Ltd, 1971. Print
—“An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: Norton, 2010. Print.
Irele, Abiola F. “Introduction” The Cambridge Companion to the African Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 1-4 Cambridge Companions Online. Web. 29 January 2014.
Nnoromele, Patrick C. “The Plight of a Hero in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart” College Literature. Vol. 27. No.2. 2000. Web. JSTOR. 29 January 2014.