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Critical Essay by Clayton G. Mackenzie
SOURCE: "The Metamorphosis of Piety in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart," in Research in African Literatures, Vol. 27, No. 2, Summer, 1996, pp. 128-38.
In the following essay, Mackenzie details the transformation of indigenous religious beliefs and practices in Things Fall Apart, comparing it to the relatively static portrayal of religion in Arrow of God.
Matters of religion are thematically central to Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God. Both novels reflect revisions in the nature of traditional worship, and both attest to the demise of traditional mores in the face of an aggressive and alien proselytizing religion. The disparities between the two novels are equally significant. Possibly for reasons of historical setting, Things Fall Apart differs from Arrow of God in its presentation of the status of indigenous beliefs and in its precise delineation of the evolutionary process of those beliefs—a process not articulated in any detail in the later novel. The shifts of belief in Things Fall Apart are marked by the pragmatic transference of old pieties for new, a metamorphosis demanded by the realities of a revised socio-economic hierarchy.
The first mention of the religious beliefs of Umuofia in Things Fall Apart is a reference to the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves. It is a decisive allusion, correlating the will of the Oracle with the life and direction of the clan, and leaving no doubt as to the significance of the divine agency and of the necessity of obedience to it:
… in fairness to Umuofia it should be recorded that it never went to war unless its case was clear and just and was accepted as such by its Oracle—the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves. And there were indeed occasions when the Oracle had forbidden Umuofia to wage a war. If the clan had disobeyed the Oracle they would surely have been beaten, because their dreaded agadi-nwayi would never fight what the Ibo call a fight of blame. (9)
That the Oracle is perceived as supreme there can be no doubt. The sacrifice of the boy Ikemefuna is undertaken expressly because the "Oracle of the Hills and the Caves has pronounced it" (40). Though the execution may run counter to clan feelings of attachment to the youngster, a profound sense of individual and collective religious belief lends to the sacrifice an inexorable determination. It is a mysterious decision but the Umuofia, for the maintenance of the universal well-being, must comply with it. Not even the most powerful paternal feelings of Okonkwo can stand in the way of the expression of religious duty and faith.
Opposition of a sort comes only from Obierika who asserts a defiant passivity in response to Okonkwo's charge that he appeared to be questioning the authority of the Oracle: "… [I]f the Oracle said that my son should be killed I would neither dispute it nor be the one to do it" (47). Lekan Oyeleye suggests this indicates that "Obierika's loyalty to the community gods is not as over-zealous and thoughtless as Okonkwo's brand of loyalty" (22). But the issue of Obierika's exceptionalism is stronger than this. Achebe's narrative characterizes Obierika's inaction as being not only at variance with Okonkwo's view of things but with the received canon of traditional deific lore. Obierika claims that "the Oracle did not ask me to carry out its decision" (46), but this is a spurious absolution since, as a member of the clan, he is as responsible as the next clansperson for the execution of the Oracle's instructions.
His impiety is further censured by the source of the rebuke, since even the iron-willed Okonkwo, who has by this time himself transgressed against the earth goddess Ani in the beating of his wife, has duly and humbly atoned for his crime.1 Had Obierika's unapologetic misgivings found any sympathetic ear one might have thought it would have been that of his friend—but not so. True, part of Okonkwo's interrogative tone stems from his own inner turmoil about the death of Ikemefuna but, on a more significant level, as a penitent transgressor he speaks for the devotional mores of the clan in asserting the preeminence of collective obedience and action.
Okonkwo has been mentioned and, since he tends to dominate most critical deliberations on Things Fall Apart, it is worth offering an explanation of his diminished role here. Undoubtedly, Okonkwo's relation to the deific system is important, but it may not be as pivotal as some critics have contended. Bonnie Barthold, for example, believes that the "narrative structure of Things Fall Apart is defined by Okonkwo's relationship with the earth goddess, Ani, and the ever-increasing seriousness of the offenses he commits against her" (56).2 The Ani-Okonkwo colloquy is intriguing but in fact most of the novel's allusions to deities come from persons other than Okonkwo and, as shall be argued. Achebe goes to some lengths to construct a religious pantheon that ranges beyond any single god or goddess. It is significant, too, that the initial religious allusions of the novel locate themselves firmly in the territory of an Oracle-clan discourse, and that, subsequently, the spiritual experiences of individuals are repeatedly referenced to that all-pervading dialogue.
Elsewhere in the novel, the strength of other oracles is attested. A group of fugitives who have found sanctuary in Umuofia recount the story of the arrival of the first white man in their village. The elders of the village consulted their Oracle. It foretold the demise of the clan and the arrival of more strangers: "It said that other white men were on their way. They were locusts, it said, and that first man was their harbinger sent to explore the terrain. And so they killed him" (97-98). All true, of course, and all the more reason for the clan to believe in the efficacy of oracular worship and counsel. The role of the Oracle in Umuofia at the outset of Things Fall Apart is unambiguous, unequivocal, certain.
In Achebe's other novels there is little reference to oracles. Arrow of God, the most religious of these, is steeped in traditional belief but focuses essentially on the Chief Priest, Ezeulu. He is given some oracular functions: for instance, it is for him to name the day of the Festival of Pumpkin Leaves (3)—but for the most part, there is articulated no elaborate ritual of oracular consultation. The world of Arrow of God has the feel of a monotheistic world, as its title suggests. Personal "chi" are mentioned, but Ulu stands firmly as the tutelary god; and Ezeulu is, essentially, the agent of Ulu rather than an intermediary priest who brings back divine messages from places of holy conference.
This may seem a minor, even insignificant, distinction between the two novels but it is important. After all, it is made clear in Things Fall Apart that Chielo, who at first dominates belief and worship in Umuofia, is the priestess of Agbala. Yet, the religious pantheon of Things Fall Apart is essentially polytheistic. Agbala is divine, but the novel explicitly styles him as only one of many divinities who are material to the life of the clan. Achebe, in fact, goes to some lengths to reveal a cosmology of deities in the novel. The notion of personal gods, or "chi," is established early (10); the narrator offers an account of the dispute between the sky and earth (38); their presence and that of Amadiora, the divine thunderbolt, is forcefully reiterated (102-3); the gods and goddesses of the traditional system are a source of disparagement on the part of the Christian intruders (103); a group of converts derisively repudiates the clan's worship of more than one god (110); the clansman Okika reminds the clan of their constellation of gods and goddesses: Idemili, Ogwugwu, Agbala, "and all the others" (143).
This is not necessarily to infer that the setting of Things Fall Apart is a more "traditional" setting or a more authentic religious setting than that of Arrow of God. But it does indicate differences in the indigenous theistic designs of the two works. These may be traced further. In Arrow of God, the powers of the Chief Priest of Ulu, Ezeulu, are considerably less than his equivalent in Things Fall Apart—the priestess of Agbala, Chielo. On the question of going to war, an option expressly raised in both novels, oracular authority of the priest in Arrow of God is notably less secure than it is in the earlier work. Here, for example, is how Nwaka advocates war against the Okperi (a course of action opposed by Ezeulu):
Nwaka began by telling the assembly that Umuaro must not allow itself to be led by the Chief Priest of Ulu. 'My father did not tell me that before Umuaro went to war it took leave from the priest of Ulu,' he said. 'The man who carries a deity is not a king. He is there to perform his god's ritual and to carry sacrifice to him….' (27)
In Things Fall Apart we are told that there can be no war without validation from the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves. This, as Cook rightly maintains, "is not a rationalisation of weakness but takes its stand from a position of strength" (72). In Arrow of God, the oracular right of Ezeulu to forbid war is diminished by personal slanders as to his true earthly intentions. Obligations of divine belief have been weakened by the doubts and meanderings of mortal integrity. That Nwaka is at least partially successful in his argument is evidenced by the narrator's assertion that "Umuaro was divided in two" (27) on the matter.
The disparities between the two novels may be partially explained by the variant time frame that separates the events they describe. Things Fall Apart is located at points immediately before and after the arrival of the colonialists. The work is a third over before white people are even mentioned (51), and even there the allusion is merely a trivial speculation about whether they have toes or not. The novel is more than two-thirds over before a white person actually appears in Umuofia—an occasion that brings out every man and woman in the village (101). Arrow of God, on the other hand, presents not simply a single white missionary but an entire colonial community within the opening three chapters. Here, white people are not fantastical rumors but a familiar and integral part of the social landscape. Their leader, Captain T. K. Winterbottom, has already spent fifteen years in the African colonial service and is now firmly entrenched in his bungalow atop "Government Hill" (29).
Clan attitudes towards the indigenous religion in Arrow of God have been tempered, before the novel has even started, by contact with a dominant, monotheistic creed—and one which, though regarded with hostility by many clanspeople, has not yet seriously challenged the supposedly inviolate nature of indigenous belief and worship. By way of contrast, Things Fall Apart presents the process of attitudinal beliefs in relation to the indigenous religion prior to the socio-historical point at which Arrow of God begins. It appears that the arrival of Christianity not only secures native converts but also distorts, even among hostile clan non-converts, responses to and perceptions of indigenous beliefs. This goes beyond what some critics have called a simple "hybridization of culture" (Ashcroft 129). Hybridization implies a compromise of differences, a common meeting ground. It cannot of itself encapsulate the spirit and movement of Achebe's representation. Homi Bhabha has written incisively of "the cultural and historical hybridity of the postcolonial world … as the paradigmatic place of departure" (21; emphasis added). It is that point of "departure" in which Achebe seems acutely interested. He seeks to move beyond espousal of a dualist model of cultural attrition and inter-adaptation, to a delineation of the metamorphosis of faith-oriented traditional pieties into economically-driven "new world" pieties.
Once the first white person has arrived in Umuofia (101), a repudiation of indigenous clan religious beliefs follows almost immediately:
At this point an old man said he had a question [for the white man]. 'Which is this god of yours,' he asked, 'the goddess of the earth, the god of the sky, Amadiora of the thunderbolt, or what?'…
'All the gods you have named are not gods at all. They are gods of deceit who tell you to kill your fellows and destroy innocent children. There is only one true God and He has the earth, the sky, you and me and all of us.' (102-03)
After this, the notion of the traditional "Oracle," so strong hitherto, disappears without a trace from the novel. It is never again mentioned, or even intimated. There are many opportunities when it could have been. The killing of the royal python is one. Achebe makes clear to us that the python is "the emanation of the god of water" (12) and therefore sacred. Accidental killing of such an animal could be atoned through sacrifices and an expensive burial ceremony. But because no one has ever imagined that someone would knowingly kill a python, there is no statutory sanction for the crime. A decision about action, even if it is to be that no action should be taken, is required by the clan. What is interesting is the nature of the consultative process leading to that decision, and what does not happen rather than what does.
Chielo, the priestess, is not consulted. In fact, after she has called the clan's Christian converts "the excrement of the clan" (101), we hear nothing more from or about her in the novel. A priestess, the high priestess of Agbala, who has hitherto played a central role in the process of traditional life, takes no further part in the story or the events it describes. Certainly no one suggests that the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves should be consulted over the killing of the python. The clan's first instinct is to resolve the issue through human discussion:
… the rulers and elders of Mbanta assembled to decide on their action. Many of them spoke at great length and in fury. The spirit of war was upon them…. (112)
We know from the first chapter of the novel that the clan never went to war unless its cause was confirmed as just by the Oracle9. Why is it that consultation of the Oracle is now not even mooted as an option? Indeed, divine conference with the Oracle, once so integral a part of clan life, is suddenly abandoned to a new order of things—to a secular consultative context in which those wishing to go to war are opposed by those who do not wish to go to war. The reasons put forward by the latter are interesting:
'It is not our custom to fight for our gods,' said one of them. 'Let us not presume to do so now. If a man kills the sacred python in the secrecy of his hut, the matter lies between him and the god. We did not see it….' (113)
In other words, the gods can look after themselves, why should we do their fighting for them? A fascinating modification of devotion has occurred here. The cosmology of deities, the very cornerstone of clan being, has suddenly become distanced from the actuality of the existence of Umuofia. At one time an integral weave in the fabric of clan life, the indigenous religious order has abruptly become remote and distant. It is now located in a schemata of parallel activities in which the divinities of an ordered universe and the mortals of an ordered world function independently, avoiding interference in each other's affairs and linked only by a respectful cordiality of verbal oblation on the part of the traditional worshipper.
The transformation is dramatic and arresting. But is the new equation of relation plausible? In a sense and for a time, yes. It looks as if it is working in the case of the slaying of the royal python, an act which has apparently precipitate consequences. Okoli, a prime suspect in the crime, falls ill and dies: "His death showed that the gods were still able to fight their own battles. The clan saw no reason then for molesting the Christians" (114). Perhaps Obierika's thesis of godly acceptance and human inertia, of belief and oblation without enactment, was a credible modus vivendi after all?
The assumption is false. The narrative rapidly and subtly undermines any thoughts that divine sanction comes without a reciprocation of mortal action. Okoli had, in fact, denied the crime and Achebe is careful to present no evidence against him. Not long after, we learn that Enoch was most likely the real offender (131). What is significant is not whether Okoli is guilty or innocent but that his death enables the clanspeople to seize upon a bogus exemplar of divine self-help in order to reassert the new order of things—to withdraw to the sanctuary of a piety that is passive, undemanding and removed, one which places no burden of sacrifice or atonement or forceful action upon the celebrant.
To the chagrin of Okonkwo, the spokesperson of the old faith now as he had been earlier in the face of Obierika's heretical passivity, the most the clan can offer against the Christians for the slaying of the emanation of the god of water is ostracization. It is an action calculated not to avenge the outrage against the god, but rather to distance the village from the crime that has been committed: "We should do something. But let us ostracise these men. We would then not be held accountable for their abominations" (113). And the death of Okoli, be it fortuitous or not, removes from a grateful clan even that necessity.
This sense of wily self-preservation which now characterizes the clan may be usefully compared, for example, to their response earlier in the novel to Okonkwo's beating of his youngest wife. During the beating, his first two wives and a host of neighbors beg him to stop since this is a sacred week—and "it was unheard of to beat somebody during the sacred week" (21). Ezeani, the priest of the earth goddess, Ani, visits Okonkwo to rebuke him, and refuses to eat "in the house of a man who has no respect for our gods and ancestors" (21). His is not a humanitarian concern but a religious one:
'The evil you have done can ruin the whole clan. The earth goddess whom you have insulted may refuse to give us her increase, and we shall all perish.' His tone now changed from anger to command. 'You will bring to the shrine of Ani tomorrow one she-goat, one hen, a length of cloth and a hundred cowries.' (22)
The whole episode is marked by certainties of transgression, of censure, of atonement. At the center of this process stands the priest, the intermediary between deity and mortal. There is no questioning of his position, no doubt about his authority, no possibility of his denial. Just as in the killing of Ikemefuna, there is no ambiguity or blurring of responsibilities and significances. The progress of the clan, divinely guided and humanly effected through the collective obedience of the clanspeople, is distinct and emphatic.
How rapidly things change. The only decisive communal action that occurs in the last third of the book is the burning of Mr Smith's church (130-35). This act, in revenge for the unmasking of an egwugwu (131), an ancestral spirit and therefore part of the indigenous religious cosmology, fills Okonkwo with something approaching happiness (136). We are told:
When the egwugwu went away the red-earth church which Mr Brown had built was a pile of earth and ashes. And for the moment the spirit of the clan was pacified. (135)
The destruction of the church is framed in terms of a human victory. Immediately after the burning of the building, we learn that Okonkwo's clan "which had turned false on him appeared to be making amends" (136); Okonkwo himself rejoices that it was "like the good old days again, when a warrior was a warrior" (136); and a few lines later we learn that "[e]very man in Umuofia went about armed with a gun or a machete" (136). There is a sense of the clan's human destiny having been reasserted as the prerogative of the clan itself. No one thanks the gods for the building's destruction; no one even credits them with a hand in it.
Yet, why should this be? It is, after all, the egwugwu who have burned down the church. The egwugwu are explicitly linked, through their patronizing deity, with the world of the godly immortals:
'All our gods are weeping. Idemili is weeping. Ogwugwu is weeping, Agbala is weeping, and all the others….' (143)
Technically, it is not the living clanspeople at all who have been responsible for the action. Though the egwugwu masks are worn by living beings, according to traditional doctrine a transmigration of flesh and spirit occurs in which the human impersonators become unearthly spirits. If the victory over the church is a victory of the deific world (and we are told, after all, that "the spirit of the clan was pacified") how is it that the clan itself interprets the destruction of the church as a human act and never alludes to it in terms of divine intervention?
One explanation may be that they are no longer convinced of the divinity of the egwugwu, regarding the ritual of the nine spirits as no more than an historic re-enactment of people and actions from times past. Whether this is the case or not, the clanspeople appear not to covet further the idea that the path to community survival is traceable irrevocably to the cosmology of indigenous gods. If they did they would surely have left the issue of the egwugwu unmasking to the gods. Instead, they take up arms, apparently without any kind of oracular consultation, and steel themselves for the worst.
Adewale Maja-Pearce has speculated that one of Achebe's purposes in Things Fall Apart is to assert that "the spiritual values of pre-colonial Africa were in no way inferior to those of Europe, merely different" (10). That difference became a source of vulnerability. The religious codes and practices of Umuofia, unchallenged for centuries and perhaps millennia, had not evolved strategies for adaptation or confrontation. Like the sacred python, no one ever thought their sacredness would or could ever be challenged. The real power of missionary proselytization lay in the breaking down of community norms. The evil forest became no longer evil; the outcasts became no longer outcasts; the objects and rituals of traditional sacrament were destroyed.
Despite this, some Umuofians yet seek an accommodation, a hybridization perhaps, with the new theology. As he struggles to find a compromise between the religion he has always known and that which has suddenly arrived, the village elder Akunna debates the issue of the gods with the missionary Mr. Brown:
'You say that there is one supreme God who made heaven and earth,' said Akunna on one of Mr. Brown's visits. 'We also believe in Him and call Him Chukwu. He made all the world and the other gods.'
'There are no other gods,' said Mr. Brown. 'Chukwu is the only God and all others are false….' (126-27)
Mr. Brown is no intercessor, no hybridizer. He spurns the idea that he is the earthly representative of his God, leading Akunna to exclaim, aghast, "but there must be a head in this world among men" (127). There is no compromise on offer. Mr. Brown rejects not only the central indigenous notion of a multi-deity system, but also the pivotal function of a high priest or priestess within a religious framework.
It may be possible to see in Arrow of God how both of these crucial tenets of traditional worship—polytheism and priestly intercession—have been corrupted in the revised perception of traditional lore. As noted earlier, not only is Ulu a rather "singularized" god, but his earthly messenger, Ezeulu, is emphatically disrobed of the trappings of infallible or absolute authority by the clanspeople. Further, the clan's attitude towards Ulu becomes less than coherent in the latter stages of the novel. When Ezeulu says he cannot enact a ritual that will enable new yams to be planted because Ulu has not sanctioned it, a clan delegation urges him to perform the rites anyway and to lay the blame on them (208). When he refuses, a new choice is mooted:
So the news spread that anyone who did not want to wait and see all his harvest ruined could take his offering to the god of the Christians who claimed to have power of protection from the anger of Ulu. (216)
The contest is styled as a battle of singularities, one god versus another. It is an essentially Biblical construct; a binary contest between feast and famine, between protection and threat, between the knight and the dragon—and, implicitly, between good and evil. Traditional theology has been undermined by Christian mythology, and subsumed into a Biblical schemata of loss and salvation. Gone are the ordinances of seasonal and festive celebration; gone the multiplicities of divine representation, of elemental hierarchies, of ancestral phantasm and conference. The shape and detail of traditional beliefs have evaporated. Ulu, disconnected from his deific order, must battle for authority in the pavilion of his foe. Of course Ulu will lose. He may offer only the mysterious piety of suffering; Christianity, as it is unfolded and displayed in Arrow of God, offers the clear piety of economics, a simple exchange of spiritual faith for material prosperity.
Joseph Swann speculates that the demise of Ulu may have been self-willed, "not for any reason of cultural dissatisfaction, but as a simple historical necessity, to safeguard the bare existence of the clan" (194). But what is existence without faith? In the clan's ancient frame of things it should be as nothing. The fact that it is now feasible attests to a shift in the devotional perspective of the clan members. Knowingly or otherwise, they are trapped into a revisionist interpretation—in effect, a Christianization—of their traditional beliefs. Where once they might have accepted the ruling of the divinity, and starved in the certainty of a mysterious but painful purpose, now an alien creed offers an alluring alternative.
Things Fall Apart reveals a time when this was not so, and goes on to present the temporal nexus point between the ways of the old religion and the ways of a new world order. On the face of it, the new order seems more logical and democratic, and, to contemporary sensibilities, humane. The clanspeople meet and discuss their tactics; the imperatives of action are no longer handed down to them by unseen deities who communicate imperiously through their human emissaries. It is, of course, a superficial freedom. In truth, they now act under a new and equally powerful imperative, a colonial imperative. This new relationship, however, is not founded on mystical ordination or divine machination. It is a relationship of pragmatism and commodity.
That point is made abundantly clear in the abduction of the six clanspeople by the District Commissioner's officers (137-39). This may be compared with the abduction of Okonkwo's child, Ezinma, by Agbala's priestess Chielo (70-76). After a bizarre odyssey, the child is returned unharmed, and without explanation (77). The six men, on the other hand, are ransomed. Either the clan pays up the requisite cowrie fine or the six will be hanged. Just as no one questions the motives of Chielo, so no one questions the motives of the District Commissioner. But the reasons for the silences are quite different. Chielo is not challenged because the ways of the gods are beyond mortal comprehension; the District Commissioner is not challenged because, by contrast, his position is abundantly comprehensible. He goes to some lengths to explain the readily discernible economics of commodity transfer: the freedom of six human beings for two hundred bags of cowrie shells. It is a logical, business transaction, and the clan finds it as compelling as it did obedience to the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves.
There is no talk of gods or goddesses or holy wars. The clan's financial penance is part of the new order that has enveloped their traditional life. An egwugwu has been unmasked; their six leaders have been captured through false promises of parley; an extortionate ransom demand has been made—yet the response of the clan is pragmatic. The men of the clan meet at the marketplace and agree to raise the fine without delay (139). The matter is settled on a commodity basis. Faith in oracular arbitration has been replaced by faith in a new kind of fiscal logic. This eclipse is signed by the fact that the night preceding their decision is a night of the full moon. Normally a time of sacred and secretive communal ritual, it is on this occasion presented as a time of desolation and emptiness (139).
The economics of religious school education provide momenta no less forceful than the exchange of prisoners for money. This is how the novel describes the impact of Mr. Brown, a missionary educator, on the life and times of the village:
Mr. Brown's school produced quick results. A few months in it were enough to make one a court messenger or even a court clerk. Those who stayed longer became teachers; and from Umuofia labourers went forth into the Lord's vineyard. New churches were established in the surrounding villages and a few schools with them. From the very beginning religion and education went hand in hand. (128)
Mr. Brown's school offers advantages to its enrolment and to the work of the missionary himself. For the local participants it promises advancement within the prevailing socio-economic system; for Mr. Brown it accords the opportunity to convert to Christianity those who have entrusted their education to his care. But the benefits come at a price. The need for court messengers or court clerks, or indeed for people who can read or write, is one generated by the demands of a colonial hegemony, not by the requirements of clan administration. The knowledge and understanding that Mr. Brown's school seeks to promulgate is openly abrasive to the organization and culture of the clan.
Eustace Palmer argues that "[a]s long as a reasonable person like Mr. Brown is in charge of the mission station, coexistence is possible between the new religion and traditional society" (58). In fact, the interrelation between the two can never be characterized in terms of co-existence, because the economics of Mr. Brown's religion demand ideological substitution, not concurrence or hybridization. In Things Fall Apart, Christianity, like colonialism in general, is depicted as offering a clear rationale of "exchange" for Umuofia. In return for adherence to Christian doctrine, the church offers explicit routes for individual economic advancement.
As the meaning and decisiveness of that interaction dawns on the clan it corrupts the ancient way of things. What use is there in praying to Agbala for the white people to go away when the new order presents so persuasively the dimensions of its power that only co-operation and attempted advancement within its structure seems practicable? Achebe's irony, of course, is that the Umuofia come to believe in the supremacy of the missionary colonizers as devoutly as they once had in their own theater of gods. But these are devotions engendered by quite different experiences: the former, through the compulsion of physical aggression and economic inducement; the latter, through the magnificence and munificence of faith. In the end, the metamorphosis of piety is not a change from belief in one religious system to belief in another religious system but rather a switch from faith in a world where life is given, to commitment to one where security and achievement are measured and earned very differently.
Authors write novels for a multiplicity of reasons, not all of them obvious or cogent. It is possible, as Theo D'haen has suggested, that some postcolonial literatures seek to "take revenge upon the mother country, among other things by means of their shared post-colonial literatures" (16). But Things Fall Apart is not about revenge—though Achebe misses few opportunities to satirize the colonial presence. The Nigerian poet Tanure Ojaide offers another possibility:
Literature might be devoted to leisure in other cultures, but for us Africans who are experiencing the second half of the twentieth century, literature must serve a purpose: to expose, embarrass, and fight corruption and authoritarianism…. It is understandable why the African artist is utilitarian. We do not have the luxury of some Western writers, who are apolitical and can afford to write art for art's sake and be confessional (a euphemism for self-therapy). (17)
While no one may accuse Achebe of complacency, Ojaide's premise of utilitarianism is more difficult to decipher in Things Fall Apart. The problem is that once things have irrevocably fallen apart, once a unique and intricate construct of a matured civilization has been irreversibly dismantled, then rehearsing the indiscretions of the past can easily be regarded as motiveless reminiscence. Yet, there is clearly a purpose to Things Fall Apart and it may be discernible as much in the need for personal therapy as in the quest for historical truth. Achebe perceives a gap between how things were and how things are. The intercessionary phase has been typically fashioned as the sublimation of one culture by another. This is a neat enough postcolonial aphorism but without the detail and minutiae of human circumstance, its veracity can remain only intuitive.
Things Fall Apart, and Arrow of God after it, provide the detail, the historical glimpses, of a traditional and colonial past. These are not concurrent glimpses, and not even consecutive. But, in a sense, their temporal dislocations are all the more informative. In particular, the shifting time frame of Umuofia in Things Fall Apart delineates not only how things fell apart but theorizes on why they fell apart. It bestows no ebullient credit; it lays no absolute onus of blame. As Aijaz Ahmad has written, history cannot decisively resolve theoretical debate because "[t]he difficulty with theoretical debate … is that it can neither ignore the facts nor be simply settled by them; thought … tends always to exceed the facts" (287). Obscurities of absolution and blame are of themselves the ironically definitive truths of history. The decline of Umuofia was a decline effected by a concatenation of unfortunate and calamitous and mysterious circumstances. It cannot be argued that the learning of this past is overtly utilitarian for what has been lost will not exist again and therefore cannot be lost again. What can be said is that the novel reconstructs the detail of grand and momentous events, rejecting nineteenth-century ahistorical polarities of Africa and Occident, and asserting a process of metamorphosing piety against a backdrop of seemingly irresistible social and economic imperatives.
1. For a discussion of Okonkwo's transgressions against the earth goddess, see Maja-Pearce 10-16 and Barthold 56-58.
2. See, as well, Lindfors, who explores Okonkwo's relationship with his chi (78-79).
Achebe, Chinua. Arrow of God. London: Heinemann, 1974.
――――――. Things Fall Apart. London: Heinemann, 1962.
Ahmad, Aijaz. In Theory. London: Verso, 1992.
Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. The Empire Writes Back. London: Routledge, 1989.
Barthold, Bonnie J. Black Time: Fiction of Africa, the Caribbean and the United States. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1981.
Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994.
Cook, David. African Literature: A Critical View. London: Longman, 1977.
D'haen, Theo. "Shades of Empire in Colonial and Post-Colonial Literatures." Shades of Empire In Colonial and Post-Colonial Literatures. Ed. C. C. Barfoot and Theo D'haen. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1993. 9-16.
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