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Critical Essay by Stephen Criswell
SOURCE: "Okonkwo As Yeatsian Hero: The Influence of W. B. Yeats on Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart," in The Literary Criterion, Vol. XXX, No. 4, pp. 1-14.
In the following essay, Criswell traces thematic parallels between Things Fall Apart and Yeats's play On Baile's Strand, focusing on conceptual similarities that characterize the tragic hero in each work.
The title of Chinua Achebe's first novel, Things Fall Apart, is taken from W. B. Yeats's poem, "The Second Coming." Many critics, such as Judith Gleason and A. G. Stock, have commented on the influence of Yeats's view of history and time (his notion of the cyclical nature of existence symbolized by his "gyres," or intertwining cones, illustrated in such poems as "The Double Vision of Michael Robartes," "The Phases of the Moon," and "The Second Coming") on Achebe's novel. However, Chinua Achebe may have found in the writings of W. B. Yeats more than merely a shared view of the rise and fall of civilizations (as A. G. Stock suggests); it is possible that Achebe was influenced by the way Yeats utilized Irish folklore to dramatize his interpretation of the historical process. Yeats found the legends of the Irish hero, Cuchulainn, to be an especially useful vehicle for his cosmological paradigm and his notion of the tragic hero's place within that cosmology. One such legend, "The Death of Aife's One Son," seems to have served as the inspiration for certain events in Things Fall Apart. Several parallels between the Irish legend and Achebe's novel suggest that the Nigerian novelist was inspired by the "The Death of Aife's One Son" and, more specifically, by Yeats's version of the legend, and in comparing Yeats's play as well as certain poems with Achebe's novel, it appears that in creating Okonkwo, his novel's hero, Achebe has constructed an Igbo version of the Yeatsian tragic hero.
"The Death of Aife's One Son," from the Ulster cycle of Irish myths, legends, and tales, began as an orally-transmitted legend and was eventually recorded in the Yellow Book of Lecan (a fourteenth-century monastic manuscript) as one of the pre-tales, or remscela, of the Irish Epic, the Tain Bo Cuailnge (Kinsella x). The legend recounts an episode in the life of the Tain's hero, Cuchulainn, who according to Ulster legends was trained in arms in by Scathach, the warrior queen of Alba (Scotland). While under Scathach's tutelage, Cuchulainn aids his teacher in defeating a rival warrior queen, Aife, whom Cuchulainn defeats in single combat. In exchange for her life, Aife agrees to bear Cuchulainn's child. Cuchulainn returns to Ulster before the child is born, but before departing, he tells Aife to name the child Connla (or Conloach). He gives her a gold ring and tells her that when the boy's finger has grown to fit the ring, she must send him to Ulster.
Years pass, and Aife receives word that Cuchulainn has married someone else. Jealous, Aife vows to get revenge through her and Cuchulainn's son. She sends Connla, who by now has grown into a young man and, like his father, possesses extraordinary strength and ability, to Ulster. Before Connla leaves, Aife gives him three commands:
The first never to give way to any living person, but to die sooner than be made turn back; the second, not to refuse a challenge from the greatest champion alive, but to fight him at all risks, even if he [is] sure to lose his life; the third, not to tell anyone his name on any account, though he might be threatened with death for hiding it. (Gregory 658)
When Connla arrives on Ulster's shore, the high-king, Conchubar, sends one warrior after another to intercept the boy and get his name. When he refuses to reveal his name, the boy is challenged to single combat by the warriors, each of whom Connla easily defeats. Finally, Cuchulainn, seeing that the young man should prove to be a worthy opponent, challenges Connla. The two warriors fight equally in strength and skill, but Cuchulainn eventually uses his secret weapon, the gae bolga, the terrible javelin that only Cuchulainn can use. The gae bolga's blow is fatal, but before the young man dies, he reveals his name and shows his father the gold ring that Cuchulainn had given to Aife. Cuchulainn becomes maddened with rage and grief. Fearing that the crazed hero will turn on his fellow warriors, King Conchubar orders his druids to bewitch Cuchulainn into taking his rage out on the sea. The druids' spell takes hold of Cuchulainn, and he fights the waves for three days and nights until he is eventually exhausted.
W. B. Yeats retells this legend in his play, On Baile's Strand (1903), making several changes to the story in order to use the legend to dramatize his conception of history. In A Vision, which Yeats published in 1925, the poet outlines his complicated and at times mystical system of history. According to his system, history moves in cycles, or gyres, from objectivity (the "primary gyre") to subjectivity (the "antithetical gyre") and from subjectivity back to objectivity. The period of the subjective age emphasizes the individual, the heroic, passion, worldly glory, and human achievement; the objective age is marked by service to others, passivity, civil concerns, conformity, and uniformity. When the objective age reaches its zenith and soon begins its decline, the subjective age begins its ascension, and vice-versa. As Yeats explains in A Vision:
Each age unwinds the thread another age has wound, and it amuses one to remember that before Phidias, and his westward-moving art, Persia fell, and that when full moon came round again, amid east-ward moving thought, and brought Byzantine glory, Rome fell; and that at the outset of our westward-moving Renaissance Byzantium fell; all things dying each other's life, living each other's death. (271)
According to Yeats, as one civilization or age begins to fall (for example, the Greco-Roman period), an age or civilization with opposing or antithetical concerns (in this case, Christianity) begins to grow.
In On Baile's Strand Yeats reworks the legend of "The Death of Aife's One Son" to illustrate the decline of one age—the subjective age, represented by the self-determined, physically powerful Cuchulainn—and the rise of another—the objective age, represented by the civic-minded leader of the society, King Conchubar. While the plot of Yeats's play superficially follows the ancient Irish legend, Yeats makes specific deliberate alterations to the story. In his version, the story opens with Conchubar's having called Cuchulainn to a meeting of the kings of Ireland. Conchubar convinces Cuchulainn to swear obedience to him and his state. In the growing objective age, the subjective hero is feared and distrusted and must be brought under civil control. Conchubar explains to Cuchulainn:
Look at the door and what men gather there—
Old counselors that steer the land with me,
And younger kings, the dancers and harp-players
That follow in your tumults, and all of these
Are held there by one anxiety.
Will you be bound into obedience
And so make this land safe for them and theirs? (29)
Cuchulainn yields to Conchubar's command, reflecting on the days when men "praised whatever life could make the pulse run quickly," and realizing "that's all over" (32). Cuchulainn understands that the gyre of the heroic age is winding down.
The first order that Conchubar gives Cuchulainn is to defeat the young man who has just arrived on Ulster's shore. As in the legend, Yeats's Cuchulainn does not know that the boy is his son, but he admires his strength and prowess. At first the hero refuses Conchubar's command, but his warrior's pride soon gets the better of him. He fights and kills the boy. When he soon discovers that he has killed his own son, he flies into a rage. But in Yeats's version it is unclear if Cuchulainn is tricked into attacking the waves, or if he chooses to do so, having no one else upon whom to exact his revenge. The play ends with the image of Cuchulainn foolishly but tragically, even heroically, fighting the sea, the "invulnerable tide" (Poems 36) which serves as a symbol of the endless process of change. It is this process, or cycle, that is the source of Cuchulainn's pain. Cuchulainn, in the ultimate heroic act, takes up arms against the eternal process that potentially makes all heroism meaningless. He cannot stop the rise of the objective age, but he can remain true to his heroic nature and stand against the process of change, though it means his defeat.
Yeats takes this heroic, but often futile, stand against the inevitable as his theme in a number of his poems and plays. Some of his most memorable, and anthologized, poems honour doomed but determined heroes. Probably Yeats's most famous doomed hero, Major Robert Gregory, the airman of "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death," knows his fate; he knows that his death will not change the lives and futures of his countrymen:
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan's poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
However, Gregory confronts death freely for one moment of self-determination:
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove me to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death. (135)
As Jahan Ramazani has pointed out in Yeats and the Poetry of Death, "The airman affirms this intense life of death as his chosen fate and freedom" (85). Otto Bohlmann has noted that Yeats's Cuchulainn is "of the same breed as Robert Gregory" (145), as are the tragic heroes of the Easter Rising commemorated in Yeats's "Easter 1916." In an age and place "where motley is worn" and people spend their days at "counter or desk" (85), Yeats celebrates the doomed leaders of the seemingly futile Easter Rebellion, who displayed the heroism of an earlier age:
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born. (180)
The heroic act transcends and transfigures history. Standing courageously with self-determination even in the face of death, the Yeatsian hero rises above the endless gyres of existence that inevitably seem to make all heroism meaningless. In On Baile's Strand Yeats's Cuchulainn, in Maeve Good's words, "battle[s] against a world hostile to the heroic temperament" (13), but like the leaders of the Easter Rebellion, he behaves heroically in an unheroic age and stands against the inevitable process that has created this age.
It is this tragic-heroic stand against change, along with the motif of infanticide, that most clearly links Yeats's play with Achebe's Things Fall Apart. Obviously, Achebe was inspired to some degree by Yeats, taking the title of his novel from Yeats's "The Second Coming" A. G. Stock, in her article "Yeats and Achebe," examines the relationship between Things Fall Apart and the poem that provided the novel's title. She notes specifically the similarities between Yeats's and Achebe's concept of history:
It is startling to find the Yeatsian pattern traced most closely where Yeats himself was least likely to look for it, in an imaginary village of the lower Niger…. [Yeats] looks at Europe with its two-thousands-year-old tradition of Christian civilization, which itself once made chaos of the values that proceeded it and is now collapsing before the onset of something new, something more frightening because it is nameless, being all that our inherited civilization has incapacitated us from understanding. Achebe is … primarily interested in Europe: from the standpoint of Umuofia the western world is itself the fabulous formless darkness. But his instrument of interpretation is the same; his Umuofia is a civilization in miniature, and the chaos finds its way in through slight flaws in its structure, murmurs that might have remained inaudible if they had not found an echo in the darkness. (106)
While she makes the important observation that Christianity and, more significantly, the British raj, are to Okonkwo's village "mere anarchy let loose on the Umuofian world" (110) and she shows how this idea is played out in the novel, Stock limits Yeats's influence on Achebe's novel to a shared view of history and, of course, to the novel's title. Judith Gleason in her study of African novels, This Africa, also notes the influence of Yeats's conception of the historical process on Achebe's first novel: "For Things Fall Apart comes from the world of Yeats' cataclysmic vision, and how the Irish Poet would have appreciated the wild Old Nigerian" (132). While most critics acknowledge, at least to some degree, the influence of Yeats's concept of history on Things Fall Apart, few if any see Yeats as having any further influence. However, if it is clear that in writing his first novel, Achebe had in mind Yeats's poem and the view of history which it dramatizes, then it is reasonable to assume that Achebe was familiar with and possibly inspired by Yeats's other works, particularly On Baile's Strand. Both works contain the key plot elements of the hero murdering his own son (or in the case of Okonkwo his fosterson), which in thematic terms becomes, for both works, the destruction of the future of the protagonists' way of life and the hero's final futile stand against inevitable change. While these motifs are by no means limited to these two stories, the pairings of the motifs and the theme which they both develop seem unique to these two works.
The first motif, the murder of the hero's son at the hands of the hero himself, plays itself out in Things Fall Apart somewhat differently than in Yeats's play; however, the contexts and results of the action are similar. Okonkwo does not kill his own son, Nwoye, but rather Ikemefuna, the hostage-child who becomes part of Okonkwo's family and, for all practical purposes, his foster-son. Achebe describes Ikemefuna's feelings for Okonkwo, stating "he could hardly imagine that Okonkwo was not his real father" (58). Like Cuchulainn with his son, Okonkwo admires Ikemefuna's qualities ("manly" qualities that Okonkwo himself possesses and that he fears are lacking in his own son, Nwoye) and regrets having to kill him. Unfortunately the village has decided that the boy must die, and fearing that the community might think him weak, Okonkwo refuses not to participate in Ikemefuna's execution. Okonkwo, like Cuchulainn, is so driven by his pride that he willingly kills his own foster-son, and in the process he destroys the possibility of continuing his way of life. Ikemefuna, like Connla, embodies, if only in rudimentary form, many of his father's ideals of manhood, ideals antithetical to those of the fast-approaching new order. Though killing Ikemefuna does not drive him mad, Okonkwo's participation in this act seems to initiate his eventual downfall, culminating in his final actions—the killing of the messenger and his subsequent suicide—actions which could be perceived as insane, but which nevertheless have tragic-heroic quality to them.
These final actions of the novel's protagonist closely parallel, thematically, the actions of Cuchulainn at the conclusion of On Baile's Strand. Okonkwo is faced with the collapse of his whole way of life. The arrival of the Christian missionaries signals the beginning of a new way of life contrary to Umuofia's old order. The process of change that Okonkwo faces is "incomprehensible, uncomprehending, invincible" (Stock 109), and completely unsympathetic toward Okonkwo's old ways. The District Commissioner best represents not only the power of the British Empire, but also this indifference of the process of change: he tells Okonkwo and others in his community:
We shall not do you any harm … if only you agree to cooperate with us. We have brought a peaceful administration to you and your people so that you may be happy … in the dominion of our queen, the most powerful ruler in the world. (178)
Okonkwo must choose between accepting this powerful new order or standing firmly, but perhaps futilely, against it. He chooses to fight though he realizes that the days of Umuofia's heroes are over. Like Cuchulainn, Okonkwo recalls the "days when men were men," but realizes "worthy men are no more" (184). He takes the only opportunity for action open to him and kills one of the "white man's" messengers. His actions seem unreasonable to the other villagers: "He heard voices asking: 'Why did he do it?'" The only response Okonkwo gives to their questions is to hang himself. However, Okonkwo's friend, Obierika, provides the answer, telling the British officials, "That man was one of the greatest men in Umuofia. You drove him to kill himself" (191). The source of Okonkwo's suffering and his seemingly incomprehensible actions lies in the coming of the British to Umuofia, or more accurately to the process of change their arrival represents. Like Yeats's Cuchulainn, Achebe's Okonkwo recognizes the inevitable end of his old way of life, but he chooses to act against the process of change and commit some act of self-determination, even if his only choice is suicide. Charles E. Nnolim has pointed out that "in committing suicide Okonkwo displays another Igbo characteristic—a characteristic that slave traders discovered to their chagrin—that of resorting to suicide as a way out of difficulties in which every other alternative leads to personal humiliation and defeat" (60). While suicide is an offence against the Earth-goddess, it does not seem to have for the Igbo the same sense of weakness or shame often associated with it in the West (In fact, Nnolim, in arguing that Things Fall Apart is an Igbo epic, cites Okonkwo's suicide as one of the characteristics that makes him an epic hero.), and in the novel Okonkwo's suicide has an air of martyrdom, like Yeats's description of the Rebellion leaders' suicidal stand against the British, or his description in "Parnell's Funeral" of the deaths of Irish nationalists Robert Emmet, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, and Wolfe Tone (Emmet was executed by the British, Fitzgerald wounded and eventually died, and Tone committed suicide while awaiting execution).
One further element connects Achebe's novel with Yeats's works: the effects of colonialism. Much of Yeats's work is, in tone and substance, often nationalistic and even at times propagandistic. Yeats's poetry and plays, like Achebe's works, are situated historically in a colonial and post-colonial context, and as Edward Said has noted, "It is helpful to remember that 'the Anglo-Irish conflict' with which Yeats's poetic oeuvre is saturated was a 'model of twentieth-century wars of liberation'" (235). While A. G. Stock criticizes Yeats for his "nostalgia for the lost Hellenic world" (111), Said argues that Yeats's historic concerns were for his country's present situation, its struggle against colonial oppression:
His greatest decolonizing works concern the birth of violence, or the violent birth of change … Yeats situates himself at that juncture where the violence of change is unarguable but where the results of the violence beseech necessary, if not always sufficient, reason. His greatest theme … is how to reconcile the inevitable violence of the colonial conflict with the everyday politics of an ongoing national struggle." (235)
Said points out that one of the ways that Yeats treats this theme is by taking the "inevitable violence" and the "disorder" of the colonial conflict "back to the colonial intervention in the first place—which is what Chinua Achebe did in 1959 in his great novel Things Fall Apart" (235). One of the purposes of both writers' works is to reconnect their countrymen and women with their pre-colonial past and restore their dignity and identity, for as Frantz Fanon has noted:
Colonialism is not simply content to impose its rule upon the present and the future of a dominated country. Colonialism is not satisfied merely with holding a people in its grip and emptying the native's brain of all form and content. By a kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of the people, and distorts, disfigures and destroys it. (210)
Yeats attempted to reconnect himself and his fellow Irish to their past and their culture, in part, through his use of Irish folklore and mythology, especially the tales of Cuchulainn, and his celebration of those Irish men and women who stood against British rule. Achebe, in much the same way, has dealt with this issue; he has said:
African people did not hear of culture for the first time from Europeans;… their societies were not mindless but frequently had a philosophy of great depth and value and beauty,… they had poetry, and above all, they had dignity. It is this dignity that many African people all but lost during the colonial period and it is this that they must regain. The worst thing that can happen to any people is the loss of their dignity and self-respect. The writer's duty is to help them regain it by showing them in human terms what happened to them, what they lost. ("The Role of the Writer" 8)
In Things Fall Apart, Achebe succeeds in showing "what happened," and in creating Okonkwo, Achebe gives his Nigerian readers a pre-colonial hero who is the epitome of dignity and self-respect, and as Judith Gleason notes, "Okonkwo alone defies the disintegrative effects of colonial occupation" (81). Achebe has constructed a figure like Yeats's Cuchulainn, a warrior from "the heroic past" (Nnolim 56), who, though defeated in the end, tragically and heroically confirms "the fundamental worth of the personality of the nation" (55).
While A. G. Stock seems to suggest that Yeats and Achebe are too different in "their minds, their perspectives, and their fields of vision" for Yeats to have had a direct effect on Achebe's novel (She makes a point of stating that Things Fall Apart does not "smell of discipleship" ), the parallels between Achebe's novel and Yeats's On Baile's Strand suggest that Things Fall Apart owes something to Yeats's play and its ancient Irish source, and the thematic similarities—from their shared concepts of history to their similar portrayals of the tragic hero to their concern with the effects of colonialism—between Achebe's novel and much of Yeats's work suggest that Achebe found in Yeats's poetry more than just the title of his first book. More importantly, however, examined together Achebe's novel and Yeats's poetry and plays illuminate each other, bringing out in both the essential idea of the tragic-heroic stand against the inevitable eternal processes of history.
This section contains 3,708 words
(approx. 13 pages at 300 words per page)