- Achebe’s Things Fall Apart: A Reader’s Guide
Ode S. Ogede’s book is one rare vehicle of refreshing advanced students’ knowledge and introducing beginners to the main reading contentions of canonical texts beloved by schooling systems that provides, as they say in Nigeria, more than “how-for-do” information. This “guide” ventures new insights about its subject and proposes new questions (by which I do not mean the conventional examination revision aids attached to the end of each chapter) that are worth pursuing seriously by the critical reader. It falls short of being a monograph only because it does not offer fully considered answers to the most important reading problems it identifies.
The first of the book’s four chapters illuminates the historical contexts of the contents of Things Fall Apart with Achebe’s autobiographical reflections on the role of colonization and Christianization. Ogede suggests that the novel’s attitude towards Okonkwo could only have been invented by a writer whose colonial schooling probably inspired to appreciate the multicultural environment that colonization fostered in spite of itself. The second chapter discusses the storytelling strategies, mainly the adaptation of Aristotelian principles for depicting the hero and the use of “embedded narrative forms—anecdotes, animal fables, ballads, sung tales, parables, proverbs, and myths” (7) to nativize the events. The closing chapter summarizes under four headings—anthropological explanations, formalism, thematism, and feminism—the kinds of criticism and reception Things Fall Apart has commanded. The chapter also outlines the different types of fiction and other cultural forms that the novel has influenced.
The third chapter, where the novel is described as an allegory “in a pastoral mode” (41), covers the novel’s themes. (It remains a surprise to this reviewer that we still do not think of Things Fall Apart as a proverbial story despite its profuse and profound use of proverbs.) According to Ogede, Achebe’s allegory depicts “traditional African culture in all its vibrancy” and highlights “the fallout resulting from its destabilization by European imperial expansion” (4). “Fighting,” in confrontations that bear epochal consequences, drives storytelling. Ogede’s extensive interpretation of the opening wrestling match illustrates how the story dramatizes “male performance” and “female spectatorship” in complex ways that criticism is yet to unravel. The narration of that contest is not so much about Okonkwo’s emblematic function—he is not that strong when judged within the total structure, Ogede says—but about the transience of brute force. While this is [End Page 102] one of the truly new reading signposts this book proposes, it reveals at the same time a general weakness of seamless, totalizing allegorical interpretations that aim to demonstrate how the end of a novel is finalized in the beginning and that everything in between only repeats.
The theme chapter also attempts to intervene in the interpretation of women’s presence (or lack of presence) in Things Fall Aaprt. Ogede speculates that Okonkwo’s fear of women is not an inborn trait but a pathology he picked up during his early strivings to become a noteworthy Umuofian, precisely during his obsequious self-presentation when he goes to borrow yam seeds from Nwakibie. Ogede argues that self-presentation conventions that Okonkwo has to adopt at the yam borrowing ceremony feminize him so effectively that he is almost indistinguishable from the lender’s wives. Ogede speculates that the event “eventuates a significant psychological slide” (51), hurts Okonkwo’s pride, “transform[s]” him “into a snub” (52, 53), hardens his opposition to his father’s ways, and fuels the acute snobbishness and brashness that define the rest of his life. In short, the son of Unoka, man full of “compassion, taste, integrity, friendliness, intelligence, and creativeness” (56), turns against his father because he discovers that the artist’s “laid-back personality” (56) carries little material value to the class that determines what is socially significant in Umuofia. Okonkwo’s excessive masculinity cannot and should not be separated from Umuofia’s class rule protocols that make self-abnegation into an admission of sorts into worthy manhood. This...