Things Fall Apart | Critical Essay by Simon Gikandi

This literature criticism consists of approximately 16 pages of analysis & critique of Things Fall Apart.
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Critical Essay by Simon Gikandi

SOURCE: "Chinua Achebe and the Poetics of Location: The Uses of Space in Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease," in Essays on African Writing, A Re-evaluation, edited by Abdulrazak Gurnah, Heinemann, 1993, pp. 1-12.

In the following essay, Gikandi analyzes the development of meaning in Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease in terms of narrative representations of space and location.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the works of Chinua Achebe have up to now been read almost exclusively in terms of time and historicity. But this privileging of temporal terms has not arisen because of critical oversight or theoretical blindness: Achebe seems to have written his works so close to the axis of temporality that his whole oeuvre has an uncanny way of forcing us to read it not so much in the sequence in which his novels were written, but in the progressive historical relation these texts have established vis á vis the African experience. In the circumstances, even when our critical paradigms are generated by the desire to trace the formal and ideological relations between Achebe's texts—as I have tried to do in Reading Chinua Achebe1—we are more likely to follow a trajectory from Things Fall Apart, through Arrow of God, to No Longer at Ease, than one which reads these novels in the order in which they appeared. It is indeed difficult to promote a programme of reading Achebe's novels that will seek their cultural and symbolic value in the genetic relation between Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease, although the latter is considered to be a sequel to the former.

Why does it seem easier to insert Arrow of God in the temporal space that separates Achebe's first and second novels even when the three works are not related in any fundamental sense? Or, to put the question another way, why has Arrow of God become a supplement for the Nwoye Okonkwo story that Achebe, by his own admission, could now write? The most obvious answer to these questions has to do with our own engagement with the novel as a genre: we are still imprisoned in a critical tradition—whose most fervent advocate has been Georg Lukács—in which the history and development of the novel is explicated in strictly temporal terms.2 In addition, the peculiar condition in which Achebe's novels have been produced—the history of colonialism and nationalism—has affirmed the centrality of the temporal axis in our theoretical and critical reflections.

There is, in other words, such a close affinity between Achebe's narratives and his subject—the African historical experience—that it is difficult, if not impossible, not to read these texts as both representations of this experience and a metacommentary on their condition of possibility. The temporal axis offers readers a secure framework for reading Achebe's novels.

My essay seeks to propose a different approach to the epistemology of narrative in Achebe's first two novels, to pose the question of location and space and its relation to the development of meaning in both Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease. Can a methodical interpretation of spatial relations and what Foucault has called 'the fatal intersection of time and space' cast new insights into the epistemology that drives Achebe's works?3 Can an interpretation of the numerous spatial and geographical metaphors that have such a palpable presence in Achebe's texts proffer us new ways of reconvening the central problems in these texts—problems about identity and location, power and knowledge, and the topography of the nation? Surely, a reconsideration of the poetics of location—and the politics of space—is warranted by the current reconfiguration of global cultures. It is warranted by the simple fact that the present period, a period in which the postcolonial cultures of formerly colonised areas are challenging older, temporal organisations of power and knowledge, has come to be defined, in the words of Foucault, as 'the epoch of space … when our experience of the world is less that of a long life developing through time than that of a network that connects points and intersections with its own skein' (p. 22). If this is so, how is a poetics of location exemplified in Achebe's texts, and what is its relation to the inherited nineteenth-century (colonial) discourse on the place and space of the African in the taxonomy of world cultures?

It is important to begin with the question of inherited spaces, and the geopolitics surrounding African cultures, because if metaphors of location seem to play a more prominent role in Achebe's earlier works than they do in the later ones, this has to do with his proximity to the colonial text which had deployed colonised spaces as a key element in the debate on Englishness and its domain. For Englishness, as I have argued elsewhere, defines itself through gestures of situatedness: English identity, especially in the period of high imperialism, is enacted against the backdrop of the spaces of the Other which function as what Foucault has aptly called heterotopias.4 If utopias are sites that have no real places and present society in perfected form, says Foucault, heterotopias are the real spaces in which the central meanings of a culture 'are simultaneously represented, contested and inverted' (p. 24). Heterotopias are hence spaces of representation and interpretation. Such spaces, according to Foucault, are mirrors that exert 'a sort of counteraction' on the positions occupied by the writing subject; from the standpoint of this mirror, this subject, counteracting itself against the Other, comes back towards itself (p. 24). It is not by accident, then, that some of the most important colonial texts on Africa in the modern period, texts such as Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Cary's Mister Johnson, and Greene's Journey without Maps, are dominated by the problematic of location, of spaces, of maps and roads. As numerous critics have observed, these texts provide the English with mirrors in which to gaze at themselves; but the African is absent from such works except as a projection of European desire.5

Now in writing against this tradition in Things Fall Apart, Achebe provides us with an ingenious, but paradoxical, deployment of space; he wants, on one hand, to counter the heterotopic representation of the African in the colonial text by making Umuofia an epistemological presence, one defined not only by the process of time, but also by an ensemble of spaces; the African space hence functions as a Foucauldian 'space of emplacement' (p. 22). On the other hand, however, Achebe's narrative does not seek to represent the African space as a utopian counter to European heterotopias; if he were to do so, he would merely be valorising the romantic image of Africa to counter the western projection of the continent as a savage space. To avoid these two traps—that is, the image of Africa as the place of the savage or as the cradle of human values—Achebe invokes a double image of Umuofia: the village is shown to be both an autonomous geographical entity, and a place torn by contending social and historical forces. This doubleness accounts for the chronotopic disjuncture that leads to the triumph of colonialism at the end of the novel.

Moreover, when we consider the tension between time and space in the novel, we realise how Okonkwo's narrative is both progressive and retrogressive. From a temporal perspective, the structure of the novel, especially in the first part, encourages us to see Okonkwo's story as a progressive struggle in which he ultimately triumphs over the process of time. The wrestling match that opens the novel is the quintessential space of emplacement and empowerment because it makes Okonkwo's subjectivity parallel the character of his community and culture: his triumph takes place in 'a fight which the old men agreed was one of the fiereest since the founder of their town engaged a spirit of the wild for seven days and seven nights'.6 Okonkwo's victory in the wrestling ring has become, over the years, one of the founding stories of the village: 'That was many years ago, twenty years or more, and during this time Okonkwo's fame had grown like a bush-fire in the harmattan' (p. 3).

But if the first part of the novel promotes a progressive narrative in which time brings fame and prosperity to the cultural hero, the second and final parts negate the temporal process. In exile, Okonkwo is forced into a historical hiatus; on his return to Umuofia, he realises that his life (and hence his story) has been reduced to zero ground. Moreover, the ending of the novel appears to be a void in which the hero is silenced and, in his abomination, is cut off from the spirit of his community. As the District Commissioner notes, Okonkwo's story, which opened the novel by being compared to the mythical narratives of Umuofia's founding father, can only be confined to 'a reasonable paragraph' (p. 148). And although it is possible to argue that the compression of the hero's story to only a paragraph in the colonial text arises from the coloniser's ethnocentric negation of the African narrative, we also need to remember that by the time Okonkwo returns to Umuofia after his exile, his story has become marginal even in his own community.

The relation between the space of emplacement and that of negation is, however, more complicated than the structure of the novel suggests. We can discern this complication if we refuse to follow the linear plotting of the novel and focus our attention on the constant juxtaposition of different spatial configurations and the uncanny ways in which the hierarchy of social spaces that emplaces Okonkwo in Umuofia is also responsible for his displacement. We need, in effect, to reconsider Okonkwo's troubled relation with his communal territory, a relation that is defined in the narrative by the tension between space and time in his engenderment. Consider, for example, how the incipient moment of the novel derives its power from the subtle evocation of the metaphorical identity between Okonkwo and Umuofia and his metonymic displacement from it; the novel surrounds the heroic character with innumerable spaces in which his relation with his community is affirmed and his hierarchy within it is denoted. In the wrestling arena of his youth, Okonkwo's identity as a powerful man is realised (p. 3); in the market place where 'the normal course of action' (p. 8) is a connotation of the norms by which the community lives, Okonkwo is recognised as Umuofia's representative man and is 'asked on behalf of the clan' to look after Ikemefuna 'in the interim' (p. 9).

In all these instances, Okonkwo's authority as the protector of the Umuofian doxa is closely related to the character of his household space: 'Okonkwo's prosperity was visible in his household. He had a large compound enclosed by a thick wall of red earth … The barn was built against one end of the red walls, and long stacks of yams stood out prosperously in it' (p. 10). This household is, in effect, represented as a replica of the larger social spaces that sustain a cosmos which, in turn, provides natural ground and cultural stability to the larger community. In this household, celestial power becomes symbolised in material terms (Okonkwo's prosperity is written on his household) and also functions as a spatial mirror for both idealised social production and the localisation of the communal doxa. In other words, when we gaze at Okonkwo's social space (his household), we witness not only the materiality of 'his personal god and ancestral spirits', but also the gods that have 'built' Umuofia. Moreover, the novel provides us with a crucial juxtaposition between this individualised space and the communal space (ilo) that it replicates. Both function as crucial symbols of the organic community.

But even as we trace Okonkwo's advancement along the temporal axis that elevates him from the son of a pauper to one of the strongest men in Umuofia, we cannot fail to notice how his temporal progression is constantly being challenged by what would appear to be the undialectical force of space.7 In the first part of Things Fall Apart, as most readers will recall, Okonkwo's struggle to succeed is a manifest struggle against the process of time, a struggle that is commented on retrospectively (p. 17). On the temporal axis, the subject has transcended his past; his suffering and penury are narrated in the past tense (Chapter 2) as a qualifying appendix to his present prosperity (Chapter 1). But in spatial terms, the present doesn't have any primacy over the past: Okonkwo rémembers his first 'tragic' year as a farmer 'with a cold shiver throughout the rest of his life' (p. 17). In Okonkwo's body and psyche, the very forces he thought he had transcended rule his life, for in this internal landscape his selfhood is mapped by a repressed past association with his father.

So if in the visible space of his household we read Okonkwo's material and temporal advancement from the regime of his father, his internal landscape is defined by Unoka: his 'whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness … It was fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father', 'he was possessed by the fear of his father's contemptible life and shameful death' (pp. 9, 13). If his household is an affirmation of masculinist power ('Okonkwo ruled his household with a heavy hand'), his masculine aggression arises in his attempt to deny the feminine forces he associates with his father (pp. 30-2).8

Moreover, if Okonkwo's masculine ideologies are predicated on the belief that the household (and natio) ruled by men is a natural entity, the Ikemefuna subtext both affirms masculinity and carefully questions the intrinsic value of the male-dominated space. Consider, for example, the process by which Ikemefuna is temporarily incorporated into Umuofia: 'For three years Ikemefuna lived in Okonkwo's household and the elders of Umuofia seemed to have forgotten about him. He grew rapidly like a yam tendril in the rainy season, and was full of the sap of life. He had become wholly absorbed in his new family' (p. 37). The images of vegetation and growth are important here: they suggest that Umuofia is an organic community with the natural capacity to absorb and assimilate those who enter it. And yet we know that Ikemefuna does not have natal rights within this community; he can only inscribe himself within it by appealing to Umuofia's implied discourse of what is 'right', especially through the evocation of masculinity (and hence homosociality). In other words, Ikemefuna becomes part of Umuofia by establishing the 'deep, horizontal comradeship' that Benedict Anderson has isolated as a key facet of nationness.9

It is through Ikemefuna that Nwoye is masculinised, at least temporarily, thus allowing Okonkwo to sustain his fantasy of an overarching male hegemony that will reproduce itself through his son: 'Okonkwo was inwardly pleased at his son's development, and he knew it was due to Ikemefuna. He wanted Nwoye to grow into a tough young man capable of ruling his father's household when he was dead and gone to join the ancestors' (p. 37). But no sooner has this desire been asserted than it is negated: in the Obi, the male domain, the men bond through 'masculine stories of violence and bloodshed', but in his inner space, Nwoye, eager to please his father and to conduct himself as a man, 'feigned that he no longer cared for women's stories' (p. 38). Masculine stories are hence not able to transform Nwoye's 'essential' character.

In addition, masculine ideologies are exposed as inverted—rather than natural and organic entities—at that crucial junction in the novel when Ikemefuna is 'cut down' by Okonkwo, in spite of his unconditional identification with male hegemony and masculinist spaces. We are told that Ikemefuna could 'hardly imagine that Okonkwo was not his real father', but his evocation of the name of the imagined father does not save him in the end (pp. 42, 43). Indeed, soon after Ikemefuna dies, we are left to witness the collapse of the 'deep, horizontal comradeship' that held the household together: a 'snapping' takes place inside Nwoye (p. 43) and a cold shiver descends on Okonkwo (p. 44). So, if Okonkwo seems to have reached the height of success (in temporal terms), his spaces of empowerment are shown to be in a state of crisis because they were founded on unstable male relationships.

It is in this context that Okonkwo's subsequent exile acquires several important resonances. Okonkwo's exile, it must be emphasised, is not merely the opposite of belonging, nor does it simply denote the hero's displacement from the masculine space he has dominated; it is, above all, the process that compels the hero to confront his repressed feminine space. Although exile displaces Okonkwo from his space of emplacement—'everything had been broken' (p. 92)—the maternal space, as his uncle reminds him, provides him a sanctuary in moments of distress (p. 94). The motherland, then, functions as an example of what Foucault calls a 'crisis heterotopia', a place 'reserved for individuals who are, in relation to society and to the human environment in which they live, in a state of crisis' (p. 24).

But in this part of the novel we notice, once again, a crucial tension between temporality and spatiality. On one hand, from the perspective of time and historicity, Okonkwo's life in exile is denoted either by temporal suspense (he has to wait seven years before he resumes his place in Umuofia), or by his marginalisation in relation to the grand narrative of colonisation (he hears of the great historical events of his time second hand). In both cases, however, the narrative sustains the illusion that the hero will, in time, return to his proper place. On the other hand, Okonkwo (in exile) inhabits a heterotopic space that is at once privileged (because it is a sanctuary), but is not very different from the desecrated space occupied by the missionaries (the evil forest), or the marginal social spaces inhabited by outcasts. Indeed, when Okonkwo returns to Umuofia in the last section of the book, the narrative constantly calls attention to his loss of place in Umuofia: 'Seven years was a long time to be away from one's clan. A man's place was not always there waiting for him' (p. 121); the hero returns to a community that no longer recognises him ('Umuofia did not appear to have taken any special notice of the warrior's return'); he is forced to mourn for 'the clan, which he saw breaking up and falling apart' (p. 129).

If the novel opened with a symmetrical relationship between the hero and his communal space, they are now placed in opposition. Hence we can say that Okonkwo's exile from his natal space constitutes a radical break with his space of emplacement. In fact, the only reason why we don't read his exile as a radical form of marginalisation is because the narrative promotes the illusion that Okonkwo will be rehabilitated (in time); until the end, the narrative sustains the false belief that the space of exile is really not one of absolute loss. If we ignore this illusion, however, we can see why Okonkwo's exile is both a negation of the progressive narrative promised at the beginning of the novel and an ironic retour to the space inhabited by his father, the space from which he sought to escape.

Let us recall that Okonkwo, by killing a kinsman, has 'polluted' the earth, the source of his masculine power; his act is hence an abomination that recalls Unoka's death; the father's fatal sickness 'was an abomination to the earth, and so the victim could not be buried in her bowels' (p. 13); by committing suicide, Okonkwo, too, has committed 'an offence against the Earth' (p. 147). We may quibble about ostensible differences in the two men's deaths, but we cannot escape the similitude. Above all, we cannot escape the fact that Okonkwo, the great defender of the Umuofian doxa, has in his death (and possibly his life) gone, in Obierika's words, 'against our custom' (p. 147). But one of the questions the novel has raised at the same time is this: now that Umuofia is being challenged and transformed by the forces of colonialism, what exactly is the authority of custom and what spaces sustain it?

This is the question taken up by the asymmetrical spaces in No Longer at Ease. In this novel, Achebe uses as his epigraph a verse from T. S. Eliot's 'Journey of the Magi' to foreshadow the unstable places and spaces in which the poetics of identity formation are played out: 'We returned to our places, these Kingdoms. / But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation.'10 The theme of dislocation is also underscored by an Igbo proverb that appears strategically in the novel's moment of closure, a moment that is haunted by the dialectical tension between Obi's desire for identity and the reality of displacement: 'Wherever something stands, another thing stands beside it' (p. 145).

Now, because critical attention has often been focused on the temporal progression of this novel, that is, Obi's transformation from an idealistic young man to a corrupt bureaucrat, we have not paid enough attention to how this crisis of selfhood is generated by the contending loyalties between inherited and designated locations. Obi's inherited location is Umuofia, but far from being a place with a stable space, a natural ground that sustains a tradition, the ancestral home is a schizophrenic and transplanted locale, which is under the hegemony of colonialism, the designated space. In the circumstances Obi has to define himself in relation to, or even against, two contending spaces.

There is, first of all, an Umuofia space that exists as a marginal space in Lagos: this is a small village that subsists on 'its past when it was the terror' of its neighbours (p. 4), but it neither has the authority of the original nor can it sustain its traditions. This space speaks a deracinated language as it tries to negotiate its mythical past and its colonised present (pp. 5, 6). Obi's position, in relation to this space, is one of liminality: he belongs to a nationalistic generation that has rediscovered the value of tradition as a discursive formation, but cannot appropriate the spaces in which this tradition first emerged.

Then there is the Umuofia of colonial desires, the community that had sent Obi to England. This is not the community associated with his legendary grandfather; it does not proffer him a space in which he can fulfil his desire for the past. Indeed, this Umuofia expects him not to be a representative of its mythical history, but a custodian of its communal desire for Englishness (pp. 28-30). For the 'modern' Umuofians, power is vested in the fantasmic image of England which Obi embodies: he is praised as 'Obi who had been to the land of the whites. The refrain said over and over again that the power of the leopard resided in its claws' (p. 29). But Obi cannot identify with this given image either, because once he has lived in England for some time, he becomes convinced that if the notion of Nigeria is to have value, it has to negate the eromania associated with England and Englishness—hence his craving for 'things Nigerian' (p. 31).

And yet, Obi cannot escape from his colonial heritage because his identity is mapped, as it were, by England and Englishness in ironic ways. First, it is only in an oppositional relation to England that Nigeria 'first became more than just a name to him' (p. 11): the realities of English life ('the miseries of winter') necessitated a counteracting value that would, in turn, be imagined as the Nigerian national space; and it is around this space that memories and desires can be reorganised. In the sense of Obi's discovery of it, there would be no Nigeria if England did not exist as its geographic and cultural Other. There is even a second, more pervasive irony: even as he decries the colonial mentality, the cultural spaces that Obi inhabits are exclusively English. His technology of identity formation is English literature, which connects him to the colonial chairman of the civil service commission in ways he cannot be linked with his Umuofian kinsmen and women.11 Above all, Englishness realises the cultural geography of England in ways that are more definitive than the Nigeria Obi wants to imagine: Housman's poetry hence seems to have a palpability which Obi's poem on Nigeria does not have (pp. 136-7).

In the end, Obi has to negotiate three spaces with contradictory claims and cultural contours: an Umuofia that is displaced from its traditions and is in a perpetual state of cultural crisis; a Nigeria that he had earlier hoped would be an erotic space of fulfilment but has become corrupted in its genesis: and an England whose cultural transcripts have shaped his character but whose function as a colonial power is a negation of the most important ingredients in his Africanity—history, home, language. All these spaces and their problems crystallise in Obi's relation with Clara and the failure of the marriage plot which, in traditional fiction, provides an ideal place for resolving problems of cultural and national identity. In quite unexpected ways, Clara confronts Obi with the problem of abomination that had plagued his ancestors. As an osu she inhabits what Foucault would call the 'heterotopia of deviation' (p. 25); she inhabits a place that is part of Igbo culture, but outside its norms.

Obi's intention to marry Clara forces him, in effect, to reflect on what his Umuofian compatriots consider to be his estrangement from the Igbo norm. For example, when Joseph asks him whether he knows what an osu is, we are told, he was saying 'in effect that Obi's mission-house upbringing and European education had made him a stranger in his country—the most painful thing one could say to Obi' (pp. 64-5). And yet there is a sense in which marrying Clara would have been the apotheosis of Obi's desire for a Nigerian space. It would have been a willed entry into the desired nationalist space, a space transcending ethnic traditions and family loyalties. At the same time, however, he could not reach his desired space without evoking the (colonial) doctrines of modernity and Christianity.

At the end of the novel, we come to realise that these are not real options: his mother will stand up for tradition and will even commit an abomination to stop her son from marrying an osu; his father will not countenance the thought that modernity and Christianity are good enough reasons to defy the inherited norm. So, like his grandfather before him, Obi is left suspended in limbo. His presumed imprisonment at the end of the novel could well be Achebe's way of valorising the split between cultural geographies that have, at the same time, been spatialised by history. For this reason, the way African spaces have been organised and reorganised by Achebe's early novels points towards interesting directions in which the poetics of location can be examined.


1. Simon Gikandi, Reading Chinua Achebe, London: James Currey, 1991.

2. Georg Lukács, The Theory of the Novel, trans. Anna Bostock, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1971, pp. 120-5.

3. Michel Foucault, 'In Other Spaces', trans. Jay Miskowice, Diacritics 16 (Spring 1986), pp. 22ff. Further references will be included in the text.

4. I am pursuing some of these questions in Maps of Englishness: Postcolonial Theory and the Politics of Identity, in progress.

5. See Abdul JanMohammed, Manichean Aesthetics: The Politics of Literature in Colonial Africa, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1983; and Christopher Miller, Black Darkness: Africanist Discourse in French, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.

6. Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart, London: Heinemann. 1958, p. 3.

7. See Edward Soja, Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory, London: Verso, 1989, p. 11.

8. An excellent discussion of masculinist ideologies in Things Fall Apart can be found in Rhonda Cobham's 'Making Men and History: Achebe and the Politics of Revisionism', in Approaches to Teaching 'Things Fall Apart', ed. Bernth Lindfors, New York: Modern Language Association, 1991, pp. 91-100.

9. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism, London: NLB, 1983, p. 16.

10. Chinua Achebe, No Longer at Ease, London: Heinemann, 1960.

11. The relation between space and identity formation is discussed by Caren Kaplan in 'Reconfigurations of Geography and Historical Narrative: A Review Essay', Public Culture 3 (Fall 1990), p. 27.

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