Things Fall Apart

A critical essay about things fall apart.

The statement “Good Literature is relevant beyond its immediate context” is justified by Chinua Achebe’s novel Things fall apart. The universal figure of Okonkwo, the tragic protagonist in Achebe’s novel resonates as a character well beyond an African context. Achebe has adopted the notion of the Aristotelian tragic protagonist along with universal themes such as masculinity and power. Furthermore through Achebe’s use of narrative techniques such as characterisation and the thematic exploration of Masculinity and Power in conjunction with cultural values in the form of motifs and proverbs, textual integrity is achieved as the novel forms a cohesive whole. These qualities allow Achebe’s novel things fall apart to have an enduring nature and be valued from a variety of perspectives such as post-colonial and through gender as well as a tragedy of universal relevance.

Achebe explores the universal themes of masculinity within his novel things fall apart through the use of characterisation and symbolism. Masculinity plays a vital role in the downfall of Okonkwo, his unbalanced machismo and “inflexible will” caused by his fear of failure are part of his tragic “fatal flaws” which make him a tragic protagonist with universal appeal. Throughout the text, the symbolism of the yam is significant; the yam also known as “the king of crops” is portrayed as a masculine crop by which only men are able to cultivate and that “he who could feed his family on yams from one harvest to another was a very great man indeed.”  This emphasises how the Culture in which Achebe has presented is very patriarchal, valuing masculine features.

Masculinity is further highlighted through the characterisation and contrast of Okonkwo. Okonkwo was indeed a great, respected and macho man; through his own perseverance he established a wonderful life. He claimed that he was “a self made man”, and disregarded feminine qualities which in turn lead to his unbalanced character. Achebe utilises character foil and contrast with Okonkwo to highlight his fatal flaws and unbalanced character. Unoka, his lazy and effeminate father left Okonkwo with nothing and was a man who never worked. Due to this Okonkwo began to fear that he would become a failure like his father thus discarded all traits that his father showed. Unoka’s was a man who clearly lacked masculine features, however he was a gentle and loveable character and such was able to be aided numerous times by people within his village. This highlights the fact that masculinity was not the only quality valued in the society which further emphasises the lack of balance within Okonkwo; who discarded all feminine qualities.

Achebe’s characterisation of Ezeudu, the oldest man in the village, reinforces the need for balance in a person between feminine and masculine qualities. After the fate of Ikemefuna had been decided, Ezeudu gives Okonkwo advice telling him that he should not take part in the killing of the boy because “That boy calls you father.” However because of Okonkwo’s fear of failure and his overwhelming masculinity he delivers to final blow to ikemefuna himself. This emphasises the lack of balance in his character, he shows no signs of empathy or compassion, and however it also shows his inflexible will which arose from his fear of failure. These character flaws of Okonkwo can be linked to the notion of the Aristotelian tragic protagonist which can be related to due to its universal appeal. Textual integrity is also achieved through Achebe’s use of effective characterisation of masculinity along with the use of recurring motifs to reinforce the cultural values of the context.

Additionally, Achebe explores the universal theme of Power through the use of Symbolism and Traditional proverbs. The universal theme of Power plays a vital role in the downfall of Okonkwo, the role of Chi and Fate/Destiny within the Igbo culture is very prevalent. This is shown through the traditional idiom, “When a man says yes, his Chi affirms it”. Okonkwo a strong believer in his Chi believes that he has control over everything he does. The incident of the “bad year” demonstrates the issue of fate and destiny and that no-one has control over nature. However due to Okonkwo’s misinterpretation of the incident he believes that it was due to his own Chi and perseverance that allowed him to overcome the bad year. Through Okonkwo’s misinterpretation of the “bad year” the composer effectively conveys Okonkwo as a tragic hero, one of his flaws being his inflexible will, which demonstrates his lack of balance. Achebe implements cultural proverbs such as the story of the tortoise and the birds to accentuate the lack of humility and ingratitude of Okonkwo. The recurring motifs of the proverbs reflected the morals and contributed to the overall meaning of the story. The tortoise’s quote, “I’m a changed man. I have learnt that a man who makes trouble for others is also making it for himself” emphasises the inflexible will of Okonkwo and his lack of humility.

Achebe utilises Foreshadowing and symbolism in order to demonstrate how Okonkwo’s lack of balance will lead to his downfall. An example of this would be “A cold shiver went down Okonkwo’s back as he remembered the last time the old man had visited him”, the use of a cold shiver symbolises a foreboding sense of destruction, which we find out soon is his exile. On his return back after exile, many things have changed and he has lost his place within the village. This accentuates the futility of Okonkwo and destiny. With the village undergoing change and cultural clash with the invading European settlers, Okonkwo faces great humiliation and shame which in turn leads him to suicide. Through the notion of Aristotelian Tragedy, Achebe has effectively portrayed a tragic fall within Okonkwo, his resulting death is the only course of action left to him which is ironic in the sense that it clashes with his original village laws, whereby a man who takes his own life can no longer be treated as his former life no matter how great they were, thus Okonkwo doesn’t even receive a burial. Thus Textual integrity is achieved through Achebe’s effective use of symbolism with regard to cultural values.

Achebe’s novel Things fall apart is of an enduring nature which allows it to be viewed from different perspectives. From a post-colonial perspective, Things Fall Apart uses the English language in a rich and complex way to give authentic voice and cultural value to what would have traditionally been seen from a European perspective as a primitive culture. This can be seen during the District Commissioners response to Okonkwo’s death; “The story of this man who killed a messenger and hanged himself would make interesting reading—the title of the book: The pacification of the primitive tribes of lower Niger.” One would say that Okonkwo’s fall is partly due to colonisation along with his own lack of balance. Another way that the text can be valued by contemporary responders is through the perspective of gender. Achebe presents an authentic text in that the male and female values within the patriarchal Ibo society are depicted in a traditional context, with all their inherent flaws. From a feminist perspective, it can be seen that Okonkwo himself lacks a ‘feminine’ balance in his masculinity which brought his downfall. Through the novel it is seen that Okonkwo disregards feminine qualities, with this it can be said that this suppression of feminine qualities lead to Okonkwo’s destruction.

Achebe’s novel Things fall apart is relevant due to its universal significance of masculinity and power which is effectively conveyed through the use of characterisation, symbolism and recurring motifs. The notion of Aristotelian tragic protagonist can be seen within Okonkwo who highlights masculinity. The use of an Aristotelian tragic protagonist demonstrates that the novel things fall apart can relevant beyond its immediate African context. Achebe achieves textual integrity through the effective use of narrative techniques which in turn creates a piece of good literature that is relevant beyond its immediate context.

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