Things Fall Apart | Critical Essay by Richard Begam

This literature criticism consists of approximately 25 pages of analysis & critique of Things Fall Apart.
This section contains 7,270 words
(approx. 25 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Richard Begam

SOURCE: "Achebe's Sense of an Ending: History and Tragedy in Things Fall Apart," in Studies in the Novel, Vol. XXIX, No. 3, Fall, 1997, pp. 396-411.

In the following essay, Begam describe's three distinct conclusions to Things Fall Apart in relation to three different conceptions of history produced by reading the narrative in a post-colonial context, arguing that the novel offers various responses to tragedy as an art form as well.

One of the more notable consequences of cultural globalization has been the exchange that has occurred over the last decade or so between what we have come to call postmodernism and postcolonialism.1 This meeting of First World and Third World has inspired more controversy than consensus, but on one point there seems to have been wide agreement: if we want to understand colonialism, then we must understand how it is represented. As Hayden White has argued, speaking of historiography in general, the "form" is the "content," and this means that the language, vocabulary, and conceptual framework in which the experience of colonialism is produced inevitably determine what can and cannot be said about it.2 To borrow Homi K. Bhabha's formulation, "nation" and "narration" are not easily separated—the one implies the other.3

The present paper explores the intersection between narrative construction and colonial representation by focusing on an aspect of literary form that has received little attention in postcolonial studies—namely, the question of closure or ending. It is puzzling that this subject, which has generated so much commentary in modern and postmodern studies, has gone virtually unexamined in the area of postcolonial literature. Yet it is certainly reasonable to assume that a literature that identifies itself as postcolonial and defines itself in terms of the aftermath of colonialism, will have a passing interest in the way endings are narratively achieved, in what they mean and how they are fashioned. Of particular interest in this regard is the highly problematic relation that postcolonial literature has to its own past and, more specifically, to the writing of its own history.4

We may begin to appreciate some of the difficulties entailed in this relation by considering a number of connected questions. First, where do postcolonial writers locate their past? Is it to be found in the colonial, precolonial, or postcolonial period? Second, can we neatly separate the different historical strands that traverse and intersect these various epochs? Can we confidently assign to them decisive beginnings and conclusive endings? Third, what historical stance should postcolonial writers assume toward their own history, especially if they wish to forge a sense of national identity after colonization? To what extent does "critical history," of the sort described by Nietzsche, become a luxury that the postcolonial writer cannot afford?5

In examining these questions, I want to take up the case of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart because, as an exercise in historical recuperation, it is necessarily concerned with issues of formal shaping and narrative closure. Of course, at first glance, the novel appears to have a perfectly transparent narrative line: it tells the tragic story of Okonkwo's rise and fall among the Igbo people, concluding with that least ambiguous of all endings, the death of the hero. With only a few exceptions, critics have understood the novel in precisely these terms, seeing its closing pages as entirely unproblematic.6 Yet any straightforward reading of Achebe's ending must reconcile itself with the fact that the novel describes a situation of profound cultural entropy, a society in which the norms of conduct and institutions of governance are in the process of "falling apart." What is more, while Achebe's novel movingly elegizes the passing away of traditional Igbo culture, the long view it adopts—looking ahead to the future establishment of Nigeria—suggests that Achebe's own position on the modernization of Africa is, at the very least, complicated. Given the subject of Achebe's novel and his own divided response to it, we would expect a fairly open-ended conclusion, one that acknowledges its own closure as tentative, even contingent.

In what follows, I will argue that Things Fall Apart resists the idea of a single or simple resolution by providing three distinct endings, three different ways of reading the events that conclude the novel. At the same time, I will relate these endings to three different conceptions of history, especially as it is produced within a postcolonial context. First, Achebe writes a form of nationalist history. Here the interest is essentially reconstructive and centers on recovering an Igbo past that has been neglected or suppressed by historians who would not or could not write from an African perspective. As Achebe observed in 1964, four years after Nigerian independence: "Historians everywhere are re-writing the stories of the new nations—replacing short, garbled, despised history with a more sympathetic account."7 Nationalist history tends to emphasize what other histories have either glossed over or flatly denied—namely that "African people did not hear of culture for the first time from Europeans; that their societies were not mindless but frequently had a philosophy of great depth and value and beauty, that they had poetry and, above all, they had dignity."8 Second, Achebe writes a form of adversarial history. Here the emphasis falls not on the reconstruction of an authentic past that has been lost, but on the deconstruction of a counterfeit past that has been imposed. Adversarial history enables Achebe to write against what he himself has called "colonialist" discourse, against the attitudes and assumptions, the language and rhetoric that characterized British colonial rule in Nigeria. Third, Achebe writes a form of metahistory. This kind of history calls attention to itself as a piece of writing, a narrative construction that depends on principles of selection (what material will be included?), emphasis (what importance will be attached to it?) and shaping (how will it be organized and arranged?).9

Yet Things Fall Apart is concerned not only with writing history, but also with fashioning tragedy. Achebe himself made this point in an interview with Robert Serumaga, in which he discussed the political implications of tragedy and explicitly referred to his novel as an example of that genre.10 A good deal of the critical literature has focused on this issue, addressing the question of whether the novel is indeed a tragedy and, if so, what kind of tragedy. Thus, Bruce Macdonald and Margaret Turner maintain that Things Fall Apart fails as an Aristotelian tragedy; Alastair Niven asserts that it succeeds as "modern" tragedy; while Afam Ebeogu treats it as an example of Igbo tragedy, and Abiola Irele considers it more generally as an instance of cultural and historical tragedy.11 It will be my contention that much of the disagreement over generic classification has resulted from a failure to identify Achebe's multi-perspectival approach to the problem—a failure to recognize that he has written three distinct endings. Hence, I also want to argue that the novel offers us a variety of responses to tragedy, as well as history. According to the model I shall develop, nationalist history is associated with classical or Aristotelian tragedy; adversarial history is associated with modern or ironic tragedy; and metahistory is associated with critical discourse. My larger purpose in pursuing this line of analysis is to suggest that Things Fall Apart demands what is, in effect, a palimpsestic reading, a kind of historical and generic archaeology, which is designed to uncover, layer by layer, those experiences that have accreted around colonialism and its protracted aftermath.

The first of the novel's three endings centers on Okonkwo's killing of the messenger, his failed attempt to rouse his people to action, and his subsequent suicide. This ending presents the events of the novel largely from an African perspective, equating Okonkwo's demise with the collapse of Igbo culture. The idea that Okonkwo is a great man whose destiny is linked with that of his people is immediately established in the novel's celebrated opening:

Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievements. As a young man of eighteen he had brought honor to his village by throwing Amalinze the Cat. Amalinze was the great wrestler who for seven years was unbeaten, from Umuofia to Mbaino. He was called the Cat because his back would never touch the earth. It was this man that Okonkwo threw in a fight which the old men agreed was one of the fiercest since the founder of their town engaged a spirit of the wild for seven days and seven nights. (p. 7)

In this passage history recedes into myth, as the narrator presents the seven-year reign of Amalinze and the seven-day struggle of the founder of the village in epic terms (here seven obviously functions as a conventional rather than a naturalistic number12). The passage also serves both to connect Okonkwo with the beginnings of Umuofia (through his wrestling exploits he is compared with the village's symbolic progenitor) and to look forward to his own and his people's end (the "spirit of the wild," representing Nature, will be replaced by the more powerful alien force of British imperialism.) In a few deft strokes, Achebe illustrates how Okonkwo has come to personify the destiny of his community, extending from its earliest origins to its final destruction.13

The larger effect of Achebe's opening is to establish Okonkwo as a particular kind of tragic protagonist: the great warrior who carries with him the fate of his people. Seen from the standpoint of the first ending, he is, as Michael Valdez Moses has argued, a Homeric hero cast in a distinctly Achillean mold:

Like Achilles, Okonkwo is "a man of action, a man of war" (p. 7). His "fame" among the Igbo rests "on solid personal achievements" (p. 3), foremost of which are his exploits as the greatest wrestler and most accomplished warrior of the nine villages. He is a man renowned and respected for having brought home from battle five human heads; and on feast days and important public occasions, he drinks his palm wine from the skull of the first warrior he killed.14

Okonkwo is, in other words, identified with his community to the extent that it esteems the martial ethos he embodies, and while his village certainly does more than make war, it especially prizes those men who win distinction on the battlefield ("in Umuofia … men were bold and warlike" [p. 151]).

This is not to say, however, that Okonkwo epitomizes all the virtures of Igbo culture, or that he is himself without fault. On the contrary, Achebe himself understands that, within an Aristotelian framework, his hero is necessarily a flawed character, guilty of errors in judgement—guilty, to use the Greek term, of hamartia. As Achebe has observed in an interview with Charles Rowell: "[The tragic protagonist is] the man who's larger than life, who exemplifies virtues that are admired by the community, but also a man who for all that is still human. He can have flaws, you see; all that seems to me to be very elegantly underlined in Aristotle's work."15 Obviously Okonkwo is "larger than life" ("He was tall and huge, and his bushy eyebrows and wide nose gave him a very severe look" [p. 7]) yet his epic proportions carry a figurative as well as a literal significance: they indicate the difficulty he experiences fitting within the boundaries of any social order. So it is that as a "man of action," a great athlete and warrior, he is excessive both in his high-spiritedness, what the Greeks called thymos ("whenever he was angry and could not get his words out quickly enough, he would use his fists" [p. 8]), and in his prideful arrogance, what the Greeks called hybris ("The oldest man present said sternly [to Okonkwo] that those whose palm-kernels were cracked for them by a benevolent spirit should not forget to be humble" [p. 28]). Indeed, like many of the heroes of classical tragedy, Okonkwo's immoderate behavior consistently places him at cross-purposes not merely with his fellow Umuofians, but with the gods themselves ("Okonkwo was not the man to stop beating somebody half-way through, not even for fear of a goddess" [p. 31]), and it comes as no surprise when, in the second part of the novel, he is sent into temporary exile for offending Ani, the Earth deity. Nevertheless, if we are to appreciate the tragedy of the first ending—something that Achebe clearly intends—then we must recognize that Okonkwo's faults are essentially virtues carried to an extreme, and that while he is obviously not perfect, he nevertheless represents some of the best qualities of his culture.16 As Obierika remarks near the novel's end, "That man was one of the greatest men in Umuofia" (p. 191).17

The crisis of the novel comes in the penultimate chapter when an impudent messenger, sent by the colonial authorities, orders a tribal meeting to disband. Okonkwo the warrior is moved to action:

In a flash Okonkwo drew his machete. The messenger crouched to avoid the blow. It was useless. Okonkwo's machete descended twice and the man's head lay beside his uniformed body.

The waiting backcloth jumped into tumultuous life and the meeting was stopped. Okonkwo stood looking at the dead man. He knew that Umuofia would not go to war. He knew because they had let the other messengers escape. They had broken into tumult instead of action. He discerned fright in that tumult. He heard voices asking: "Why did he do it?"

He wiped his machete on the sand and went away. (p. 188)

The scene is presented with a devastating simplicity. From the perspective of the first ending, the people of Umuofia have deserted Okonkwo and in the process betrayed themselves, but the wiping of the machete is the only eloquence he permits himself. It is an ordinary and everyday gesture, yet in the present context it acquires special significance: Okonkwo remains true to the martial ethos that his people have abandoned, here represented by the warrior's care of his weapon; at the same time, he symbolically dissolves his connection with his people, wiping away the blood bond that has joined them. This gesture is especially resonant because, as critics have pointed out, in killing the messenger he is shedding the blood of a fellow Igbo.18

The suicide that follows is itself a profound violation of Igbo law, which strictly prohibits acts of self-destruction. The question of how we should respond to Okonkwo's final deed has been examined in detail by Kalu Ogbaa and Damian Opata, but with strikingly different results. For Ogbaa the suicide grows out of Okonkwo's failure to act with sufficient piety toward the Igbo gods and traditions, while for Opata it is a consequence of the Igbos' refusal to rally around Okonkwo and join him in resisting the British.19 As was the case with discussions of the novel's tragedy, the disagreement arises in the first place because the reader has difficulty establishing Achebe's position on a number of issues—difficulty knowing, for example, where he stands on the question of violent resistance to the British. Of course, this interpretive problem largely disappears once we begin to read the novel palimpsestically as a layering of diverse perspectives on history and tragedy. Hence, understood within the terms of the novel's first ending, Okonkwo's suicide is the logical and necessary consequence of an idealistic and absolutist position. Both nationalist history and heroic tragedy demand that he remain unyielding and that the Igbos honor their cultural heritage by refusing assimilation. Even in this final gesture, then, Okonkwo functions as the true representative of his people. For, as he sees it, Igbo culture has willingly succumbed to its own annihilation, committing what is a form of collective suicide by submitting to the British. In taking his own life, Okonkwo has simply preceded his people in their communal destruction. Once again he has led the way.

The novel's second ending, which I associate with adversarial history, views events from the heavily ironized perspective of the District Commissioner. Igbo culture is now presented not from the inside as vital and autonomous, but from the outside as an object of anthropological curiosity, and its collapse is understood not as an African tragedy but as a European triumph. As the final scene of the novel unfolds, the Igbos take the District Commissioner to the place where the suicide was committed:

Then they came to the tree from which Okonkwo's body was dangling, and they stopped dead.

"Perhaps your men can help us bring him down and bury him," said Obeirika. "We have sent for strangers from another village to do it for us, but they may be a long time coming."

The District Commissioner changed instantaneously. The resolute administrator in him gave way to the student of primitive customs.

"Why can't you take him down yourselves?" he asked.

"It is against our custom," said one of the men. "It is an abomination for a man to take his own life." (p. 190)

What is particularly noteworthy in this episode is the way the District Commissioner effortlessly shifts from the "resolute administrator" to the "student of primitive customs." Here Achebe demonstrates that, within a colonial context, the Foucauldian power-knowledge nexus is much more than a speculative theory—it is an inescapable and omnipresent reality. Thus, those who wrote historical and anthropological accounts of the Igbos were typically either representatives of the British government or their semi-official guests, and the colonial administration not only helped to enable such research by "opening up" various regions, but also relied upon it in determining local policy.20 In the case of Igboland, the earliest anthropological studies were written by P. Amaury Talbot, himself a District Commissioner, and G. T. Basden, a missionary whose safety and well-being literally depended on the colonial office. As Robert M. Wren has shown, both Talbot and Basden were, by the standards of the day, sympathetic observers of the Igbos—indeed, the latter was a personal friend of Achebe's father—but this did not prevent them from expressing in their published writings typically European attitudes towards the Africans.21 By way of illustration we might consider how the scene with the District Commissioner continues:

"Take down the body," the Commissioner ordered his chief messenger, "and bring it and all these people to the court."

"Yes, sah," the messenger said, saluting.

The Commissioner went away, taking three or four of the soldiers with him. In the many years in which he had toiled to bring civilization to different parts of Africa he had learned a number of things. One of them was that a District Commissioner must never attend to such undignified details as cutting a hanged man from the tree. Such attention would give the natives a poor opinion of him. In the book which he planned to write he would stress that point. (p. 191)

Achebe makes much the same point himself, though obviously to very different effect, in his essay, "Colonialist Criticism":

To the colonialist mind it was always of the utmost importance to be able to say: "I know my natives," a claim which implied two things at once: (a) that the native was really quite simple and (b) that understanding him and controlling him went hand in hand—understanding being a pre-condition for control and control constituting adequate proof of understanding.22

Yet notice how carefully Achebe has chosen his words: it is important for the colonialist mind not to know the natives but to be able to say "I know my natives." What the District Commissioner ultimately achieves is not genuine understanding but the illusion of understanding that comes with the power to control:

Every day brought him some new material. The story of this man who had killed a messenger and hanged himself would make interesting reading. One could almost write a whole chapter on him. Perhaps not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph, at any rate. There was so much else to include, and one must be firm in cutting out details. He had already chosen the title of the book, after much thought: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger. (p. 191)

With these words, Things Fall Apart completes its passage from the heroic tragedy of the first ending to the biting irony of the second ending. In his well-known essay on Heart of Darkness, Achebe argues against European accounts of Africa that have reduced its people to—I quote Achebe quoting Conrad—"rudimentary souls" capable only of "a violent babble of uncouth sounds."23 In presenting Okonkwo's epic story, epitomized by the first ending, Achebe offers a powerful counter-statement to the "dark continent" idea of Africa. But with the second ending he does something more. By ironically undermining the perspective of the District Commissioner, by exposing the latter's personal ignorance (not a "whole chapter" but a "reasonable paragraph") and political interests (the "pacification" of the Lower Niger), Achebe seeks to confront and finally to discredit the entire discourse of colonialism, those quasi-historical, quasi-anthropological writings that have treated Africa as nothing more than—again I quote Achebe—"a foil to Europe, a place of negations."24

At the same time, the second ending begins to redefine our point of view on the tragic events of the novel. Although this ending is clearly meant to undermine the District Commissioner's position, indeed to portray him as a fool, it nevertheless substantially alters the tone and mood of Achebe's resolution. Obviously the novel would read very differently—and its tragedy function very differently—if it concluded with, say, a heroic recitation of Okonkwo's suicide by Obeirika. In other words, the final chapter of Things Fall Apart serves not as a simple denouement—one that helps us sort out a rather messy climax—but as a significant qualification of what has gone before, a distinctly new ending that complicates our sense of Achebe's approach to both history and tragedy.25 In this regard, it is important to remember what Achebe himself has observed in interviews and essays: that while the passing away of traditional Igbo culture involved profound loss, it also held out the possibility of substantial gain. Thus, when he was asked about returning to pre-colonial society, the kind of world Okonkwo inhabited before "things fell apart," Achebe responded, "It's not really a question of going back. I think if one goes back, there's something wrong somewhere, or else a misunderstanding."26 In another interview, he pushed this position further, arguing that colonization was a multifaceted phenomenon, which had produced benefits as well as burdens: "I am not one of those who would say that Africa has gained nothing at all during the colonial period, I mean this is ridiculous—we gained a lot."27 Finally and most tellingly, he has insisted that, despite his own ambivalence on the subject, modernization is a necessary and essential part of Africa's future: "The comprehensive goal of a developing nation like Nigeria is, of course, development, or its somewhat better variant, modernization. I don't see much argument about that."28

What all of this means is that Achebe's response to colonization is far more nuanced, far more complex, than most critics have recognized or been willing to acknowledge. How such complexity expresses itself, and how it modifies Achebe's sense of tragedy, is further explored in the third ending.

What I shall identify as the third ending is located in No Longer At Ease, the sequel to Things Fall Apart. No doubt, the assertion that one text contains the ending of another will immediately strike some readers as dubious. Such a claim begins to gain credibility, however, when we remember that Achebe originally conceived of his two novels as the first and third sections of a single work.29 In other words, the compositional history of Things Fall Apart and No Longer At Ease provides some justification for treating the latter as a continuation of the former, an extension that qualifies Okonkwo's story, even redirects its course. Indeed, there is good reason to argue that No Longer At Ease is not only a continuation of Things Fall Apart but also a rewriting of it, one that essentially recapitulates the action of the earlier novel, though in a markedly different setting. Hence, both novels tell the story of a representative of the Igbo people who takes a stand on a question of principle and is destroyed in the ensuing collision between African and European values. To paraphrase one critic, the fall of Okonkwo's machete is replaced by the fall of the judge's gavel, as we are transported from a heroic to a legalistic world, but the narrative outline remains essentially the same. The very structure of No Longer At Ease indicates, then, that Okonkwo's story has not reached its end, that the tragic destiny it implies continues to be lived out.

This does not mean, however, that in writing Things Fall Apart and No Longer At Ease as independent works Achebe somehow betrayed the internal logic of his own narrative. On the contrary, the decision to treat Okonkwo's and Obi Okonkwo's stories separately contributes to what I have called Achebe's palimpsestic effect, the sense that the same or similar events acquire new meanings in different contexts. It is therefore not surprising that in moving from the first novel to the second, we observe Okonkwo's traditional tragedy transform itself into Obi's modern tragedy, as the heroic gives way to the ironic.

The point of intersection between the two novels, the scene in which I locate the third ending of Things Fall Apart, occurs when Okonkwo's grandson, Obi, a university-educated civil servant, finds himself discussing tragedy with a British colonial officer. Obi advances the opinion—of special interest given the first ending of Things Fall Apart—that suicide ruins a tragedy:

Real tragedy is never resolved. It goes on hopelessly forever. Conventional tragedy is too easy. The hero dies and we feel a purging of the emotions. A real tragedy takes place in a corner, in an untidy spot, to quote W. H. Auden. The rest of the world is unaware of it. Like that man in A Handful of Dust who reads Dickens to Mr. Todd. There is no release for him. When the story ends he is still reading. There is no purging of the emotions for us because we are not there.30

Obi draws a distinction in this passage between two kinds of tragedy. In traditional or Aristotelian tragedy, there is a clear resolution, an aesthetic pay-off that comes in the form of catharsis; but in modern or ironic tragedy, the tragedy described in Auden's "Musée des Beaux Arts," the fall from a high place is likened to Brueghel's famous painting of Icarus. In the foreground the ploughman ploughs his field; in the background a ship sails on its way. And it is only after careful inspection that we are able to discover the place of tragedy: there in the corner, barely perceptible, we see Icarus's two legs breaking the surface of the water, sole testimony of his personal catastrophe.

While the point of departure for Obi's discussion of tragedy is Graham Greene's The Heart of the Matter, his observations have an obvious application to Things Fall Apart. Okonkwo's story as viewed from the Igbo perspective presents history in the form of classical or heroic tragedy. Okonkwo's story as viewed from the District Commissioner's perspective presents history in the form of modern or ironic tragedy. One of Obi's remarks is particularly apposite: there is no purging of the emotions in modern tragedy, because "we are not there." These words perfectly describe the situation of the District Commissioner. He "was not there" in the sense that he was never in a position genuinely to understand Okonkwo, to appreciate who he was and what he represented.

It is important to stress, however, that the novel's first ending is not in some way compromised because it is associated with the "conventional," while the novel's second ending is in some way enhanced because it is associated with the "real." Indeed, if Achebe provides us with any controlling point of view, it comes with the third ending, which illustrates the vexed and ambiguous relation in which the postcolonial stands to its own past. For with his remarks on tragedy, Obi is offering a narrative analysis of what is literally his own past. In describing a tragedy that ends in suicide, he is describing his grandfather's tragic fall and its significance for Igbo culture after it was lost, after "things fell apart."

What the novel's third ending illustrates, then, is that the boundaries between the "conventional" and the "real," the heroic and the ironic, are not clearly or cleanly drawn. From Obi's perspective—and, for that matter, the reader's—Okonkwo functions both as a literary persona and a living person, an epic hero and an historical anachronism. Yet the novel does not invite us to select one of these alternatives so much as to understand the various, though decidedly distinctive, truths they articulate. In other words, we are not meant to choose from among three possible endings, but to read all of them, as it were, simultaneously and palimpsestically. If we are able to do this, we shall see how Achebe's sense of an ending is intimately bound up with his sense of cultural loss; how the tragedy of the past necessarily depends on the perspective of the present; and how history is inevitably written for both the "they who were there" and the "we who are not there."

At the beginning of this paper I asked three questions about the relation of postcolonial literature to the writing of history. I would now like to propose, however provisionally, some answers to these questions. First, where do postcolonial writers locate their past? There is certainly no single or definitive response to this question, but a writer like Achebe is acutely aware of how problematic are the issues it raises. For this reason Things Fall Apart and No Longer At Ease not only situate themselves in periods of historical transition (Nigeria at the turn of the century and in the late 1950s) but also superimpose these periods on each other through a series of intertextual connections, suggesting that postcolonial writers are the products of all the historical periods through which their cultures have lived. Second, can we confidently assign decisive beginnings and conclusive endings to the various epochs of colonial and postcolonial history? It is not immediately apparent how Achebe would answer this question, but his experiment in extended closure reminds us that the narrative shaping that necessarily comes with beginnings and endings in a human creation—a product of what Richard Rorty calls "contingency"—rather than a naturally occurring or divinely given reality.31 So it is that each of the three endings with which Achebe concludes Things Fall Apart grows out of different interests, different assumptions, different intentions, and none of these is, ultimately, true in itself. Finally, what historical stance should postcolonial writers assume to ward their own history? This is a particularly difficult problem and one that cannot be fully treated in the space that remains. Still, it is worth observing that Achebe has not only qualified the kind of nationalist history with which his work is so often associated, but also that he has shown a willingness to criticize traditional Igbo culture. While Achebe urgently feels the need to recuperate an African past that has been lost or overlooked, to tell the story that has not been told, he nevertheless recognizes the importance of maintaining a sense of intellectual and historical integrity:

The question is how does a writer re-create this past? Quite clearly there is a strong temptation to idealize it—to extol its good points and pretend that the bad never existed … [But] The credibility of the world [the writer] is attempting to re-create will be called into question and he will defeat his own purpose if he is suspected of glossing over inconvenient facts. We cannot pretend that our past was one long technicolour idyll. We have to admit that like other people's pasts ours had its good as well as its bad sides.32

The last general point I would like to make touches upon methodology. Too often the literature we call postcolonial has been read as little more than an exercise in political thematics. Such an approach is not surprising, given the enormous historical pressure out of which this literature was born, but it has led many critics to ignore crucial issues of form and technique. Yet, as I have sought to show, we can only begin to appreciate how a writer like Achebe envisions his past, both as history and tragedy, if we understand how he narratively shapes his material, how he achieves his sense of an ending. Attention to formal organization is particularly important in the case of Achebe, because he conceives of history neither in teleological nor positivistic terms, but as something human beings create, a series of stories built around beginnings and endings, a narrative construction. This is not to say that Achebe is fundamentally a postmodern writer, but neither is he exclusively a postcolonial writer. Or rather, to put the matter more precisely, he is a postcolonial writer insofar as he is a product of cultural globalization, insofar as he is an African who has grown up and continues to live at "the crossroads of cultures."33

Obviously, life at the crossroads is not easy. As a student of classical tragedy—not to mention a sometime rebellious son—he is aware of the perils, as well as the possibilities, that await us at those places of Oedipal intersection: "the crossroads does have a certain dangerous potency; dangerous because a man can perish there wrestling with multiple-headed spirits, but also because he might be lucky and return to his people with the boon of prophetic vision."34 But if forebears like Okonkwo, and alter egos like Obi, have been vanquished wrestling the demons of multiplicity, Achebe has emerged from these spiritual contests with a deeper and more comprehensive sense of what it means to inhabit the alternate worlds of postcolonialism, worlds that are at once aristocratic and democratic, heroic and ironic, ancient and contemporary. We are all of us the heirs of Achebe's prophetic vision, grappling with the problems and promises of a globalized modernity, working our way through its diverse scenarios, its different endings.


1. For a discussion of "globalization" and "postcolonialism," see Michael Valdez Moses, The Novel and the Globalization of Culture (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1995). The relation between "postmodernism" and "postcolonialism" has produced an exhaustive, not to say exhausting, bibliography: some of the better known essays are Kwame Anthony Appiah's "The Postcolonial and the Postmodern," in Appiah's book In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1992); Reginald Berry's "A Deckchair of Words," Landfall 40 (1986): 310-23; Diana Brydon's "The Myths that Write Us: Decolonising the Mind," Commonwealth 10.1 (1987): 1-14; Simon During's "Postmodernism or post-colonialism today," Textual Practice 1.1 (1987): 32-47; Linda Hutcheon's "'Circling the Downspout of Empire'; Post-Colonialism and Postmodernism," Ariel 20.4 (1989): 149-75; and Helen Tiffin's "Post-Colonialism, Post-Modernism and the Rehabilitation of Post-Colonial History," Journal of Commonwealth Literature 23.1 (1988): 169-81.

2. See Hayden White. The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1987).

3. Bhabha discusses the connection between "nation" and "narration" in the introductory essay of Nation and Narration (London: Routledge, 1990).

4. On narrative closure and postcolonial history, see Homi K. Bhabha, Nation and Narration, pp. 1-3 and Robert Young, White Mythologies (London: Routledge, 1990), pp. 33-41, 65-67, 137-40, 156: on historiography and postcolonialism, see Stephen Slemon, "Post-Colonial Allegory and the Transformation of History," The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 23.1 (1988): 157-68 and Helen Tiffin, "Post-Colonialism, Post-Modernism and the Rehabilitation of Post-Colonial History."

5. In "On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life," the second section of Untimely Meditations (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1983), Nietzsche argues that there are three different species or kinds of history: the "monumental," which celebrates the past; the "antiquarian," which investigates the past; and the "critical," which condemns the past.

6. Helen Tiffin, Simon Gikandi, and Michael Valdez Moses are among the few critics who have seen the ending of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart (New York: Fawcett, 1969) as less than straightforward. In "Post-Colonialism, Post-Modernism and the Rehabilitation of Post-Colonial History," Tiffin maintains that Achebe's novel "resists linear narrative techniques" (p. 174) until the British appear in Umuofia and asserts that the novel as a whole works against "closure" and "British textual containment" (p. 174). While I am not persuaded that the novel may neatly be divided into a linear, European narrative vs. a non-linear, African narrative, I agree with Tiffin's larger argument—namely, that the novel deliberately plays with the narrative conventions of linearity, chronology, and closure. While neither Gikandi nor Moses has focused on the novel's ending, both have suggested how the narrative shift to the District Commissioner's perspective introduces important complications into the novel's closing pages; see Gikandi, Reading Chinua Achebe: Language and Ideology in Fiction (London: James Currey, 1991), pp. 49-50 and Moses, pp. 132-33.

7. Chinua Achebe, "The Role of the Writer in a New Nation," African Writers on African Writing, ed. G. D. Killam (Evanston: Northwestern Univ. Press, 1973), p. 7.

8. Ibid., p. 8.

9. Such a conception of history may initially appear to be more postmodern than postcolonial, but it is closely related to the figure of the griot, the African storyteller who combines the functions of historian and poet. Achebe discusses the griot in an interview with Charles Rowell: "the role of the writer, the modern writer, is closer to that of the griot, the historian and poet, than any other practitioner of the arts"; Charles H. Rowell, "An Interview with Chinua Achebe," Callaloo 13.1 (1990): 86.

10. Robert Scrumaga, "Interview," African Writers Talking: A Collection of Interviews, Dennis Duerden and Cosmo Pieterse, eds (London: Heinemann, 1972), pp. 16-17.

11. For a discussion of tragedy in Things Fall Apart, see Afam Ebeogu, "Igbo Sense of Tragedy: A Thematic Feature of the Achebe School," The Literary Half-Yearly 24.1 (1983): 69-86; Abiola Irele, "The Tragic Conflict in Achebe's Novels," Introduction to African Literature: An Anthology of Critical Writing from "Black Orpheus". ed. Ulli Beier (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1970); Roger L. Landrum, "Chinua Achebe and the Aristotelian Concept of Tragedy," Black Academy Review 1.1 (1970): 22-30; Bruce F. Macdonald, "Chinua Achebe and the Structure of Colonial Tragedy," The Literary Half-Yearly 21.1 (1980): 50-63; Michael Valdez Moses, The Novel and the Globalization of Culture; Alastair Niven, "Chinua Achebe and the Possibility of Modern Tragedy," Kunapipi 12.2 (1990): 41-50; Chinyere Nwahuananya, "Social Tragedy in Achebe's Rural Novels: A Contrary View," Commonwealth Novel in English 4.1 (1991): 1-13; Clement A. Okafor, "A Sense of History in the Novels of Chinua Achebe," Journal of African Studies 8.2 (1981): 50-63: Margaret E. Turner, "Achebe, Hegel, and the New Colonialism," Kunapipi 12.2 (1990): 31-40.

12. Both Gikandi and Innes observe how Achebe's manipulation of time in the novel's opening scene points the reader toward issues of history and myth: see Gikandi, pp. 29-30 and C. L. Innes, Chinua Achebe (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990), pp. 36-37.

13. I am of course referring to the fact that colonization destroyed the premodern culture described in Umuofia. Obviously the Igbo people survived the arrival of the British, but their ethical, social, and religious systems ceased to exist as they had in the nineteenth century.

14. Moses, pp. 110-11.

15. Rowell, "An Interview With Chinua Achebe," p. 97. Achebe's views on Okonkwo as an example of an Aristotelian tragic hero are complicated, suggesting that any single theory of tragedy is not adequate to describe how the novel handles its tragic material. Thus, while Achebe rejects the idea that Okonkwo is, tout court, an Aristotelian hero, he goes on to explain at length how Things Fall Apart can be read in Aristotelian terms: "Rowell: How do you respond to critics reading Okonkwo as a hero in terms of Aristotle's concept of tragedy?" "A: No. I don't think I was responding to that particular format. This is not, of course, to say that there is no relationship between these. If we are to believe what we are hearing these days the Greeks did not drop from the sky. They evolved in a certain place which was very close to Africa … I think a lot of what Aristotle says makes sense" (p. 97). Achebe then proceeds to make the comment I quote in the body of this paper.

16. A number of critics, arguing against the tragic elements of Things Fall Apart and, reading the novel from a postheroic, Western perspective, contend that Okonkwo is not representative of his tribe—indeed, that he is fundamentally hostile to its interests and traditions; see, for example, Harold Scheub, "'When A Man Fails Alone,'" Présence Africaine 72.2 (1970): 61-89.

17. I agree with Moses when he maintains that Obierika's "assessment of Okonkwo's end is only partially correct" (p. 132); it is "correct" within the terms of the novel's first ending.

18. Kalu Ogbaa, "A Cultural Note on Okonkwo's Suicide," Kunapipi 2.3 (1981): 133-34.

19. See Kalu Ogbaa's "A Cultural Note on Okonkwo's Suicide," pp. 126-34, and Damian Opata's "The Sudden End of Alienation: A Reconsideration of Okonkwo's Suicide in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart," African Marburgensia 22.2 (1989): 24-32.

20. Achebe offers a memorable example of the power-knowledge nexus in Arrow of God (New York: Anchor Books, 1989, [pp. 32-33]) when he shows a colonial officer reading The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger by George Allen, the District Commissioner in Things Fall Apart. For Michel Foucault's treatment of power-knowledge, see Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), and Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972–1977, ed. Colin Gordon (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980); for critiques of Foucault's application of this idea to Western democracies, see Richard Rorty, "Moral Identity and Private Autonomy: The Case of Foucault," Philosophical Papers, Vol. 2: Essays on Heidegger and Others (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1991), and Michael Walzer, "The Lonely Politics of Michel Foucault," The Company of Critics: Social Criticism and Political Commitment in the Twentieth Century (New York: Basic Books, 1988).

21. Robert M. Wren, Achebe's World: The Historical and Cultural Context of the Novels (Washington, DC: Three Continents, Press, 1980), pp. 17-20.

22. Achebe, Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays (New York: Anchor Books, 1989), p. 71.

23. Achebe, "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness," Heart of Darkness: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources, Essays in Criticism, edited by Robert Kimbrough (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1988), p. 255.

24. Ibid., pp. 251-52. As Simon Gikandi has written, "whenever [Achebe] looked around him, he was confronted by the overwhelming hegemony of colonialist rhetoric on Africa—what he called 'the sedate prose of the district-officer-government-anthropologist of sixty or seventy years ago'—which the African intellectual has had to wrestle, like Jacob and the angel, at almost every juncture of our contemporary history. To invent a new African narrative was then to write against, and decentre, this colonial discourse as a prelude to evoking an alternative space of representation"; Reading Chinua Achebe, p. 6.

25. Moses is the only critic who has argued that Achebe is not simply ironizing the District Commissioner: "While Achebe's irony invites us to dismiss the District Commissioner as the unfeeling and pompous representative of a racist and imperialist perspective, the novel ultimately subsumes rather than rejects the official British view" (p. 133).

26. Kalu Ogbaa, "An Interview with Chinua Achebe," Research in African Literatures 12.1 (1981): p. 6.

27. Interview with Serumaga, p. 13.

28. Achebe, Hopes and Impediments, p. 155.

29. See, for example, Achebe's interview with Serumaga, p. 16.

30. Achebe, No Longer At Ease (New York: Fawcett, 1969), pp. 43-44, my emphasis.

31. For a discussion of "contingency," see Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989), especially Chapter One, "The Contingency of Language."

32. Achebe, "The Role of the Writer in a New Nation," p. 9.

33. Achebe, Hopes and Impediments, p. 34.

34. Ibid.

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