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  • Rethinking Aristotle’s Hamartia: The Igbo Nigerian Tragic Form in Chinua Achebe’s Fiction
  • Ignatius Chukwumah (bio)

Tragedy as a literary form is no doubt present in African literature. Like most human creations, it arises from “a pan-human universal experience unlimited by national or ethnic barriers” (Anyokwu 1). In Wole Soyinka’s words,

[t]he persistent search for the meaning of tragedy, for a redefinition in terms of cultural or private experience is, at the least, man’s recognition of certain areas of depth-experience which are not satisfactorily explained by general aesthetic theories; and of all the subjective unease that is aroused by man’s creative insights, that wrench within the human psyche which we vaguely define as ‘tragedy’ is the most insistent voice that bids us return to our own sources.


Implied in Soyinka’s comment above are a couple of truths: first, the reaffirmation of the universality of the tragic principle, and second, the inadequacy of any one extant aesthetic theorizing of tragedy to account for the concept, since the examination of tragedy as human experience will continue. In other words, any one perspective of tragedy is not the last word on it, with many cultures articulating the tragic experience in varied ways. Accordingly, Henry A. Kelly agrees that tragedy is of different kinds (xv). Despite its uniqueness, the African thought on tragedy, with the exception [End Page 223] of the Yoruba espoused by Soyinka, remains on tentative ground and un-theorized. That is especially true of Igbo approaches to tragedy even as some narratives of the Igbo of Nigeria are highly praised as tragic. For example, Jeffrey Easto, while glossing over textual references and filial relationships in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958) and No Longer at Ease (1960), identifies what he terms “the commonalities of tragedy and fate” of their protagonists: Okonkwo and Obi Okonkwo, respectively (60). Both men, he contends, bow to pressures emanating from the white man’s world, and suffer a depressing end. Arrow of God (1964), another of Achebe’s novels, is an eminent text with an imposing tragic hero. However, Owen Mordaunt offers a twist to this, from the tragedy of the individual to that of the community, by seeing “the tragedy of Umuaro” inscribed in “the tragedy of Ezeulu,” the work’s protagonist (160).

But if these narratives substantially qualify as tragedy, a concept that takes “in narrative as well as dramatic works” (Kelly xv), how can one be well acquainted with their peculiar form? What sort of tragedy are they; in what form do Africans capture their experience as tragedy, in contrast to the Western idea of it; and how can such African aesthetic concepts as, say, the Igbo notion of nso—the code of order ordained by Ala, the Igbo Earth goddess and guardian of morality—illuminate Aristotle’s key element of tragedy, hamartia? Insights generated by these queries will enrich our understanding of suffering in modern Igbo narratives, which will constitute our primary context, though extra-literary references will assist in mounting the argument of this essay. This work argues that the tragic form in African literature varies from the Western sort, as elaborated in Sophocles’s Oedipus the King and theorized in Aristotle’s On the Art of Poetry. I seek to establish the distinctiveness of African tragedy by revising Aristotle’s fundamental concept, hamartia, and substituting the nso concept for it, as discernible in the existing Igbo worldview of these narratives, with a focus on the tragic works of Chinua Achebe. Achebe is not only a foremost Igbo novelist, but Africa’s leading light in the tragic genre. Analysis of his novels proceeds in the order of the sequence of represented historical realities inasmuch as they evince the theoretic purposes of this project and disclose useful insights beneficial for the rest of the African tragic narrative tradition. [End Page 224]

Aristotle’s Theory of Tragedy

S. A. Dseagu, in his insightful essay on “The Tragic Ethos in African Literature,” proposes that the African concept of man departs from the Western sort (238–58). Whereas it fits Western orientation that the individual paves way for the general public, resulting in tragedy that...


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