Prior to the appearance of Things Fall Apart
(1959), there were virtually no novels of literary significance published in the English language
by African writers
. Of course, that is not to say that Africans were not producing narratives or art. A major problem for English-speaking readers interested in African literature
is that many cultures in Africa
have relied on an oral tradition of story-telling. Consequently, Achebe
‘s novel made literary history based not only on the quality of the story-telling, but also on the fact that it was written in English. As to whether it belongs within the “Western canon” (described more fully by this article http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_canon
), I am not going to immerse myself in that debate. Our group focuses on quality literature, regardless of its origin.Achebe was born in Nigeria
, and was educated in schools within Nigeria created as a result of colonization. Speaking English was required. Like many writers, Achebe mines his life experiences – and those of others – for material in creating a story that is, in a number of ways, “English” literature. Things Fall Apart
can be viewed as a summation of African village experience in two parts: pre and post-colonization. His main character, Okonkwo, is modeled on the traditional (Western or Greek) model of the tragic hero. The plot includes oracles, religious figures, omens, folk tales, violence, irony, and conflict with outsiders. And along with tragedy, there is some humor.
One of the most refreshing and unexpected aspects of the novel is Achebe’s criticism of not only some of the harsh practices of the English missionaries, but also of African villagers who, in the eyes of both Westerners and other Africans, commit acts of barbarism. Achebe skillfully avoids the temptation to elevate one culture above another and instead chooses to describe the ways in which all cultures can negatively affect individuals through brutal, arbitrary customs that have the effect of weakening a group.
Ultimately, Okonkwo’s village chooses a path that is at odds with Okonkwo’s individual and traditional values. What does a man do when his culture changes in a way that he cannot or will not accept? Is it better to die or change?
No discussion of African literature is complete without acknowledging Achebe. Achebe, in turn, cannot discuss literature created in response to the colonization of Africa without referencing Joseph Conrad and Heart of Darkness. The Norton Critical Edition of Heart of Darkness (1988) includes a number of essays about the work, including Achebe’s now (in)famous “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” (based upon a lecture by Achebe at the University of Massachusetts in 1977, amended in 1987).
In his essay, Achebe asserts “that Joseph Conrad was a thoroughgoing racist. That this simple truth is glossed over in criticisms of his work is due to the fact that white racism against Africa is such a normal way of thinking that its manifestations go completely unremarked.” (257, Norton ed.) I agree. Having read and discussed Things Fall Apart, Heart of Darkness, and A Bend in the River (V.S. Naipaul–also set in Africa) the condescension of European novelists writing about colonialism comes through in Naipaul’s work in the same way it emerges in Conrad. Achebe is a vital counterbalance to Conrad and Naipaul, and should be read by anyone interested in the viewpoint of an African regarding colonialism.