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university of toronto quarterly, volume 73, number 2, spring 2004 NEIL TEN KORTENAAR Becoming African and the Death of Ikemefuna Chinua Achebe=s Things Fall Apart, the classic account of the colonial encounter and arguably the most influential text to come out of Africa, is cast in the form of a tragedy. As its representative Igbo and African, the novel features a self-made man, Okonkwo, acknowledged by his community to be >the greatest wrestler and warrior alive= (82). Okonkwo is an overreacher who pits his will and strength against unjust and inhuman fates much larger than himself, which take the form of the historical forces of colonialism and which eventually destroy him. Achebe himself has accepted the parallels to Aristotelian notions of tragedy (Rowell, 179), and it is clear that casting the story of colonization as a tragedy provides narrative shape and teleological drive. As Ode Ogede argues, however, the tragic form also gives rise to a narrative contradiction: colonization appears inevitable and even a just punishment for Okonkwo=s tragic flaw, his fear of appearing weak. Timothy Reiss has argued that, as a literary mode, tragedy is essentially Western and therefore doubly harmful: it takes Africans away from both their Africanness and their basic humanity. >Tragedy and the tragic make things destined, personally irresponsible, fated by greater nonhuman forces= (144), while >To denominate a culture and its members as tragic, its deeds and experiences as tragedy, replaces the local ambiguities of life and the realities of particular place and time, with someone else=s overlaying transparency= (145). The novel=s internal contradiction has produced a similar division in the criticism, which cannot decide whom to blame for Okonkwo=s tragedy. The novel is frequently treated by critics, including Achebe himself, as a nationalist statement that valorizes precolonial Igbo society and, by extension, Africa. According to Abiola Irele, Things Fall Apart presents >the whole drama of a society, vividly and concretely enacted in the tragic destiny of a representative individual= (14). But how then are we to understand Okonkwo=s bitter rages, his beating of his wives, and, most difficult of all, his execution of Ikemefuna, the boy who called him father, which together have the effect of muting our sympathy for him? Some critics are willing to say that, at the moment of colonization, Umuofia itself was ready to collapse under the weight of its own internal divisions, in particular, the community=s brutal treatment of twins and of the abject members of the osu caste. According to such a reading, when things fall 774 neil ten kortenaar university of toronto quarterly, volume 73, number 2, spring 2004 apart under the pressure of the colonial encounter, it is according to fault lines already present. Derek Wright finds that Okonkwo serves to expose Umuofia=s >real failure to provide for humane and compassionate feelings= (79), and Simon Gikandi believes that the character shows the >Achilles heel= of Igbo society, which is >its blindness [to], or refusal to contemplate, its own ethnocentrism= (38). Achebe himself will sometimes speak of >the weakness of this particular society= being >a lack of adaptation= (Nkosi and Soyinka, 11), even though such a reading contradicts his sense of the flexibility and tolerance built into Igbo culture.1 Other critics attribute Okonkwo=s fall to his difference from his society and especially his inability to appreciate its core values of balance and pragmatism. Okonkwo=s compensatory hypermasculinity contravenes the Igbo ideal, which, the novel makes clear, holds in equilibrium the qualities characterized as masculine and feminine. Wright says, >Far from embodying or personifying the communal ethos, Okonkwo repeatedly violates both it and the organic balance of human life, nature, and the clan gods which it sustains= (78). Achebe himself has said, >Okonkwo is cut off from reality, and becomes a victim of illusion, of a false perception of himself. Hence his self-governing chi cannot hold him together, he falls apart; so does his outer world, which suffers an ecological, historical and existential breakdown and displacement= (Raghavacharyulu et al, 89). According to this reading, the shape that change took when things fell apart can be understood by Igbo logic: Okonkwo=s ignominious suicide is the price...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 773-794
Launched on MUSE
2014-07-02
Open Access
No
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