Comments by Bob Corbett
This is the story of Okonkwo, prominent man in a small village of the Ibo area of Nigeria. The story takes place in a time we don't quite know, but just at the period when white Christian missionaries and British government and law are first penetrating the area of this remote tribe.
At another level this is the story of colonialism almost anywhere at any time; the brutal struggle to the death of one culture coming face to face with another in a geographic space where one or the other will dominate.
Okonkwo is the son of a lazy father whom he sees as shameful. Given this boyhood experience Okonkwo rises from his status as a poor kid to become one of the strongest, wealthiest and most honored men of his village, even of the larger area. Achebe doesn't give us some total paragon of virtue in order to build a one-sided case. While Okonkwo has many fairly universally recognized virtues of honesty, hard work, loyalty to the group, courage and so on, he is also very quick to anger, a relatively brutal husband and father, a man who careful shuts up any emotions of love and care lest he show some weaknesses to his concept of virility.
His village is on a collision course with the western world. Christianity is first introduced to his village and the surrounding neighborhood by a relatively kind and understand missionary who preaches his new gospel with fervor, but approaches the Ibo with understanding and gentleness. This approach works and before long a significant number of the people have converted to his religion, sent their children to his school and embraced the western medicine of his clinic.
Relatively in the background comes the British system of government, law and courts, supported by a military with weapons far beyond anything any resisting Ibo could muster or challenge.
The title tells it all: the life of the Ibo, their entire cosmology and structure of life simply falls apart when faced with the invading British colonial religion and administration.
Achebe recognizes that his audience won't know the Ibo life, thus about 3/4ths of the novel is a carefully detailed account of everyday life, centering on the rising fortunes of Okonkwo and how life battles are played out within his family of three wives and many children. Given this plan of development it was necessary that Okonkwo would be a resistor, even a visionary who saw that the life they knew was threatened unto death -- that indeed things would fall apart.
The novel touched me deeply and in the bitter conflict at the end, where what little history of the Ibo and of Africa in general which I knew told me that things would not go well for Okonkwo and his people and that, indeed, things would fall apart, left me with a deep sense of sadness, puzzlement and even emptiness.
We are at a time when two large notions of value and understanding seem to be popular catchwords, and yet they seem to be views that are fundamentally mutually contradictory. These are the worlds of universal human rights and the multiculturalism which supposedly respects all cultures. I just don't see how the two views work together in any serious manner.
What is perhaps the strongest feature of Achebe's account is to make clear that the life of the Ibo is not just a collection of dozens of particular customs, among which one can, at a later time, pick and chose which parts of the customs fit with the notion of universal human rights and then just eliminate any offending parts. Rather, the life of a culture is a unified whole. Over long periods of time people have developed an entire cosmology, peopled, often, not only with the physical world which people most directly encounter of other people, animals and the natural objects of our experience, but a spiritual forces and beings, all of which have been blended into a relatively coherent world view which directs the lives of people. These cosmologies often divide people into categories in which they are not all equal as human, frequently giving men dominance over women, selecting categories of people inside the culture as systematically inferior and usually of viewing outsiders and inferior to natives.
The world of universal human rights seems necessarily to set preconditions on what is and what is not allowed: violations of the universal human rights would be (and are) resisted, intellectually, militarily and governmentally.
On the other hand there is the ideology of multiculturalism which seems, if I at all understand it correctly, to celebrate cultures in their native forms. However, and this is where I think Achebe's book is so instructive, a native culture is not just the "good" stuff that may fit within universal human rights and other such values, but it is what it is, and if one attacks one piece of it, then often, if not even usually: things fall apart.
I find myself deeply troubled by this seeming puzzle. Perhaps I just misunderstand and there is no puzzle. Interventionism, as I see it tends to be defended in a line of arguments running from a hard core notion of: we simply WANT you and your property -- we'll take it. Or, a slightly less brutal form: we know what is best and we are going to make you take it. (Universal human rights seems to fit in this category.) Or it come down to the seemly (but only seemingly) sweeter paternalistic mode: we have this good stuff and if only you really understood you'd want it, thus we're going to give it to you and in time you'll embrace it (which often the now dead or dying culture really does! As in Achebe's book, it falls apart as much from internal abandonment toward the invading culture as by pure aggression.).
I would welcome any who want to talk about this puzzle, or who might clear it up to show me that there is no puzzle at all.
Comments from ND OKOSE
I read your comments on Things Fall Apart with a sense of satisfaction. The puzzlement you feel must have been one of the driving forces that drove Okonkwo to taking his own life. I noticed that your puzzlement was more concentrated on the paternalistic and colonialist elements. However, we must understand that like Okonkwo, Chinua Achebe also seems to be of the opinion that even if things were to fall apart, the Umuofia people neednt be mere spectators in the battle for their destinies.
You mentioned the internal disintegration which I believe to be the eye of the gyre. the war was more spiritual than physical. Despite the fact that Okonkwo was a physical person, he seemed to understand that the spiritual ethos of his people had been destroyed. or more succinctly put, that the people had destroyed their spiritual ethos. Chinua Achebe did not paint a helpless people in Things Fall Apart. He painted a people whose web of culture linked even more profoundly than the concept of Trinity being spun by the colonial christians. He painted a people who could not act because they came to a crossroad between the old and the new.
The reason for this might be attributed to the fact that from the beginning, the Ibos never had Kings and as a result could not muster a centralized response to the invasion. This phenomenon is still true in the present day Nigeria where leaders of the Ibo nation are sometimes abandoned like Okonkwo was by their people.
Another internet reader comments in 2007:
As you know, this year is the 50th. Anniversary of the publication of that seminal work, Things Fall Apart. In fact, after I read your insightful article, I started looking at the work in a new light; I started pondering over the element of contradiction you highlighted. Your reply to my email has opened my eyes wider and ironically deepened the sense of bewilderment and contraction. The element of choice you mentioned is very intriguing. I'm sure many people face the choice dilemma you occasionally face. I certainly do even though I cannot pretend to call myself a utilitarian although I'm attracted to the concept.
Referring specifically to Achebe's Okonkwo, do you sense that he reflects on his choices or does he rather act mechanically in response to imbedded obsessions and/or fears? I don't know the answer myself. He and the society he appears to typify seem to engage in blatant violations of universal human rights in pursuit of self or perhaps collective interest. Do most infractions of human rights derive from similar mindset? Twins are snatched from their parents and thrown away to the evil forest to die; individuals are marginalized and ostracized because they are born into osu families (kind of caste system), a child Ikemefuna that calls Okonkwo father was butchered in the name of religion, etc. I don't know where choice comes in in these violations of human rights, but I certainly agree with you that contradictions abound in the novel.
Achebe laments the actions of the invading white missionaries who come to put a knife into what unites the people and things start falling apart. But one wonders whether things hadn't started falling apart even before the advent of the intrusive missionaries. Perhaps communal cohesion and cultural imperatives required that certain basic human tenets be violated or compromised and women treated as second-hand citizens. But is that not the same argument that perpetuators of egregious crimes advance? By no means, Umuofia is not an evil society, but their culture allows them to do things shocking to decent minds. How does Achebe feel about that? Do you think he knows? Hence the contradiction.
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