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Contemporary Literature 48.3 (2007) 423-450

Okonkwo and the Storyteller:
Death, Accident, and Meaning in Chinua Achebe and Walter Benjamin
Jonathan Greenberg
Montclair State University

Walter Benjamin's essay "The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov" famously examines the transition from oral to written narrative, a transition Benjamin elucidates with a dichotomy between what he calls "story" and "novel." This transition from the oral to the written is also central to Chinua Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart, and to Achebe's writing about literature more generally. This essay brings Benjamin's trenchant analysis of narrative, and its functioning within an emergent modernity, to bear on Achebe's work; its primary aim is to use Benjamin's theory to discern crucial tensions in Achebe's novel. At the same time, however, it might offer the additional benefit of demonstrating how Achebe's novel, in its vivid particularity, can illumine the more shadowy corners of Benjamin's terse and gnomic prose. What I argue, in brief, is that Achebe's novel can be seen as a portrait of Igbo culture precisely at the moment of transition from one Benjaminian discursive category to another, from story to novel.1 By this I emphatically don't mean merely that the novel shows us a society in transition, or that it combines elements of oral narrative practice with novelistic devices and structures: it deploys, after all, a European genre, the English language, and the medium of print. [End Page 423] My claim is more specific: Things Fall Apart is by no means a Benjaminian "story," but rather a novel that theorizes the concept of story much as Benjamin himself does. It does so, I venture, by offering us competing models of the relationship between narrative and meaning, or, better put, competing models of how narrative imposes meaning, models that Benjamin's essay makes explicit on a theoretical level. Thus the terms "death" and "accident" become crucial in this discussion—"death" because, as Benjamin and Achebe both recognize, it is only death, sometimes figurative but often literal, that in ending narrative can confer meaning on life, or on a life, and "accident" because accident is precisely that which refuses meaning. If narrative bestows meaning, the representation of accident in narrative always threatens an interpretive paradox. I will enlarge on these premises further on, but first it will be useful to review some of Benjamin's key points and their applicability to Achebe's novel.


Benjamin's discussion of storytelling, written in the late 1930s, begins with the observation, "the art of storytelling is coming to an end" (83). Benjamin attributes the decline of storytelling to the fact that "experience has fallen in value" (83–84), a fall that in turn results from the constitutive conditions of modernity—its new technologies and machineries, its forms of social and economic organization, its irrational yet cynical militarism: "[N]ever has experience been contradicted more thoroughly than strategic experience by tactical warfare, economic experience by inflation, bodily experience by mechanical warfare, moral experience by those in power" (84). As storytelling has fallen in value, it has been replaced by a new, essentially modern form of narrative, the novel, whose very emergence is "[t]he earliest symptom of a process whose end is the decline of storytelling" (87). The difference between story and novel is the difference between speech and writing, craft and art, voice and text, presence and absence. Thus while the novel is at heart a solitary, printed form, a story—even a published story read silently to oneself—belongs to "the realm of living speech" (87):

[T]races of the storyteller cling to the story the way the handprints of the potter cling to the clay vessel. Storytellers tend to begin their story with a presentation [End Page 424] of the circumstances in which they themselves have learned what is to follow, unless they simply pass it off as their own experience.... Thus [Nikolai Leskov's] tracks are frequently evident in his narratives...


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