Sidharth Vardhan

Weakness of strong men – a review of ‘Things Fall Apart’

Things fall apart chinua achebe sidharth vardhan review analysis
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Published: 1958
A simple story of a "strong man" whose life is dominated by fear and anger, Things Fall Apart is written with remarkable economy and subtle irony. Uniquely and richly African, at the same time it reveals Achebe's keen awareness of the human qualities common to men of all times and places.

(A review of 'Things Fall Apart',
a novel by Chinua Achebe
First written on April 6, 2015)

Called the father of modern African literature, Chinua Achebe is widely respected in Africa. Nelson Mandela, recalling his time as a political prisoner , once referred to him as a writer in whose company the prison walls fell down. He has inspired some big names in literature including Tony Morrison, Margret Atwood etc.

‘Things fall apart’ despite its ridiculously simple story is very aptly recognized. It involved breaking new grounds – the very choice of language of colonialists over any of domestic dialects was a major decision – Achebe thought English was the only language that can be used to communicate all over Nigeria; rather than country's multiple dialects. There was an effort at creating a common dialect but the common dialect ‘just didn’t sing’.

Set in Nigeria of 1890s, Things Fall Apart (Title is taken from a poem of W.B. Yeats) doesn’t wave any Tolstoyan worlds or tries to go into the depths of individual psyche like James Joyce. What TFA does is that it breaks new grounds; puts a dot of light in that undiscovered plane, which was so far summed up by colonial mentality as ‘dark continent’. The strange use of words and phrases, description of religious practices and marriages in TFA are an effort to extend boundaries of English language to create an African voice. They may fail on many of us, but they worked really well on me – may be because I have seen Indian writers openly using phrases from regional languages in English to accommodate local thought.

TFA is read in schools across Africa and being in English, it has gain popularity all over world, giving people a perspective to look at Africa that is different those colonialists (Joseph Conrad) or in present times, from Discovery-Channel-Men-in-wild way .

Masculinity

Set in Nigeria of 1890s, where people were entirely involved in Agriculture, with almost no division of labor except priests and farmers, the society is divided into small inter-fighting villages, no education to talk about, women being given as trophies for victors in wrestling matches; TFA points from very beginning to a society where physical strength is the sole virtue that can lead to success (wrestling and hunting are only sports mentioned). Thus being strong is good and manly; and being weak or so much as display a little emotion is being like a woman. A successful man can marry as many times he wishes to, a warrior takes pride in drinking from skull of the enemy he killed etc are common ways of recognizing honor.

Before we start judging this society, we must remember life was hard to these people. There is so much of talk of dying children - a few of women have lost multiple children. Add to that no education and the fact that lack of division of labour wouldn’t allow any art to prosper (except community songs and dances). It is almost imposible for these people to think in any way different from old ways.

An exemplary citizen

Okonwho, the protagonist, is one of best citizens of this society. Along with above mentioned socializing factors, there is also his repulsion from his considered-weak-and-not respected father to try to be more masculine.

He is the strongest in the village but also he has to maintain an appearance of being strong. He makes no display of emotions – not even in private to his family. The whole family is scared of him. He is too close minded to share any of his thoughts with his family. It is ironical that in effort to maintain his appearance of strength, he won’t protest against villagers’ decision to kill his adopted son. Again, carrying his masculinity to another extreme, he scolds himself for feeling sorry for loss of his son. However, after losing his honor due to a few tragedies he commits suicide – completing his tragedy. Too strong to live ,Uh!

Illiteracy and Oratory

One of effects of illiteracy, is that there is too much of superstation and religion in lives of people (Okonwho killed his son because of such superstations) ; another and more interesting thing is great stress given on oral language.

Proverbs and stories are widely used among people – as a kind of oral books. They are only way to remember anything wise, also only way to explain an otherwise inexplicable physical phenomena. It seems that art of oratory among masses suffers with an advance of education - you won’t see too many proverbs used in societies where literacy levels are high. Story telling must also had been a sort of entertainment – a beautiful skill killed by television. Of course even in oratory, there is no specialization, and thus these stories are so small. Bards like Homer and Valmiki can nourish only in larger civilization than a mere village.

Anyway here are some of proverbs:

"sun will shine on those who stand before it shines on those who kneel under them."

Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart)

"As the elders said, if a child washed his hands he could eat with kings."

Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart)

"an old woman is always uneasy when dry bones are mentioned in a proverb."

Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart)

"The lizard that jumped from the high iroko tree to the ground said he would praise himself if no one else did."

Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart)

"A child's fingers are not scalded by a piece of hot yam which its mother puts into its palm."

Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart)

"‘It is like Dimaragana, who would not lend his knife for cutting up dogmeat because the dog was taboo to him, but offered to use his teeth.’"

Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart)

"‘As our people say, 'When mother-cow is chewing grass its young ones watch its mouth.'"

Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart)

"…. as the dog said, 'If I fall down for you and you fall down for me, it is play'."

Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart)

"Looking at a king's mouth," said an old man, "one would think he never sucked at his mother's breast."

Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart)

"Eneke the bird says that since men have learned to shoot without missing, he has learned to fly without perching."

Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart)

"As our fathers said, you can tell a ripe corn by its look."

Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart)

The white People

Why 1890s? Because that is when first western contact was made. Achebe fictionalizes the history of Nigeria from then on in his tri series. The first effect is that social outcasts (those not macho enough or those who are victim of some superstations) convert to Christianity. There is advent of schools (education and religion must go hand in hand) which offered great career opportunities. There is not enough opposition in beginning because there is a chance for local people to have a wider market. Later, when opposition is made – they are threatened by force. The book ends at point when these cultures are still clashing.

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