Change Vs Tradition: Interpretations of Masculinity & Animal Imagery in Things Fall Apart.
Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe's first novel was first published in 1958 and is one of the masterpieces of 20th century African fiction. Things Fall Apart is set in the 1890s, in Umuofia, a cluster of nine villages on the lower Niger, during the coming of the white man to Nigeria. In part, the novel is a response and antidote to a large tradition of European literature in which Africans are portrayed as primitive and mindless savages. The story in this novel is the ‘tragedy of Okonkwo,' an important man in the Obi tribe who has risen from nothing to a man of importance in his tribe. However, the tragedy of Okonkwo's death is seen as part of a greater tragedy: the defeat and forced transformation of a great people. Okonkwo rules his family with an iron fist. He is deeply dedicated to the traditions and social hierarchies of his people, and he is determined that his sons and daughters follow his demanding example. This Essay aims at discussing the themes of, Struggle between Change and Tradition, Interpretations of Masculinity, and Animal Imagery in the text Things Fall Apart.
Chinua Achebe depicts the Igbo as a people with great social institutions. Their culture is rich and impressively civilized, with traditions and laws that place great emphasis on justice and fairness. The people are ruled not by a king or chief, but by a kind of simple democracy, in which all males gather and make decisions by consensus. Ironically, it is the Europeans, who often boast of bringing democratic institutions to the rest of the world, who try to suppress these clan meetings in Umuofia. The Igbo also boast a high degree of social mobility. Men are not judged by the wealth of their fathers, and Achebe emphasizes that high rank is attainable for all freeborn Igbo. We see this through Okonkwo's rise from a ‘nobody' to a respected man in society.
As a story about a culture on the verge of change, Things Fall Apart deals with how the prospect and reality of change affect various characters. The tension about whether change should be privileged over tradition often involves questions of personal status. Okonkwo, for example, resists the new political and religious orders because he feels that they are not manly and that he himself will not be manly if he consents to join or even tolerate them. To some extent, Okonkwo's resistance of cultural change is also due to his fear of losing societal status. His sense of self-worth is dependent upon the traditional standards by which society judges him. This system of evaluating the self inspires many of the clan's outcasts to embrace Christianity. Long scorned, these outcasts find in the Christian value system a refuge from the Igbo cultural values that place them below everyone else.
In their new community, these converts enjoy a more elevated status. Nwoye is disturbed by some of the practices of his own people. They fill him with a vague fear and sorrow, thus, he later seeks solace in a foreign religion. We see in chapter XVI that Nwoye is among the first people in Mbanta who embrace the new faith. Another example of those who embrace the new religion is Mr. Kiaga, who took charge of the new church in Mbanta while the white priest went to Umuofia. An Example of other people who remained midway can be that of Akuna in chapter XXI, who though resisting change, sends his son to a missionary school.
In chapter XX, we see that Okonkwo had hoped to return to his fatherland with joy and celebration, but he finds Umuofia sadly changed. The Igbo are no longer free to dispense justice. For the crime of manslaughter, Igbo custom demands the relatively humane punishment of exile. The white man, in contrast, demands execution. White laws are not superior or more humane than the laws of Umuofia, yet the whites insist that Igbo laws are inferior. In building their courthouse, they rob Umuofia of its self-determination.
The villagers in general are caught up between resisting and embracing change and they face the dilemma of trying to determine how best to adapt to the reality of change. Many of the villagers are excited about the new opportunities and techniques that the missionaries bring. This European influence, however, threatens to extinguish the need for the mastery of traditional methods of farming, harvesting, building, and cooking. These traditional methods, once crucial for survival, are now, to varying degrees, dispensable. Throughout the novel, Achebe shows how dependent such traditions are upon storytelling and language and thus how quickly the abandonment of the Igbo language for English could lead to the eradication of these traditions.
Achebe does not shy from depicting the injustices of Igbo society. No more or less than Victorian England of the same era, the Igbo are deeply patriarchal. They also have a great fear of twins, who are abandoned immediately after birth to a death by exposure. Violence is not unknown to them, although warfare on a European scale is something of which they have no comprehension.
Masculinity is one of Okonkwo's obsessions, and he defines masculinity quite narrowly. He sees any tender emotion as feminine and therefore weak. His culture is as patriarchal as any other, but in his need to be strong Okonkwo carries the preoccupation with manliness to an extreme. For him male power lies in authority and brute force. In his sincere desire to see his son Nwoye become great, he has made the boy extremely unhappy. However, we see in chapter VII that Ikemefuna has imparted ideas and actions of masculinity into him. Thus Nwoye begins to develop into a more confident and hard-working young man. Okonkwo is pleased by the change, and he knows it is due to Ikemefuna. To make Okonkwo happy, Nwoye grumbles about women and pretends to scorn his mother's folktales (although in truth he still loves them). Instead, he listens to Okonkwo's stories of war and violence. These exaggerated demonstrations of masculinity that Nwoye begins to make are only contrived and for the pleasure of his father.
Okonkwo's relationship with his late father shapes much of his violent and ambitious conduct. He wants to rise above his father's legacy of spendthrift, indolent behaviour, which he views as weak and therefore feminine. This association is inherent in the clan's language. The narrator mentions that the word for a man who has not taken any of the expensive, prestige-indicating titles is agbala, which also means "woman." For the most part, Okonkwo's idea of manliness is not the clan's. He associates masculinity with aggression and feels that anger is the only emotion that he should display. For this reason, he frequently beats his wives, even threatening to kill them from time to time. His beating of Ojiugo, his youngest wife, in chapter IV is the first concrete incident in the book during which we watch Okonkwo lose control. We see another such incidence in chapter V where he beats and threatens to kill his second wife Ekwefi over a banana tree, which was in fact very much alive. His anger over the banana tree is completely unfounded; he uses it as an excuse to beat someone. Although he begins the beating having forgotten that it is the week of peace, when reminded he does not stop. He is not a man to do anything half-way, even if he knows there are consequences. Even when Okonkwo feels repentant, he takes great pains to hide it. This drive and fierce pride have made him a great man, but they are also the source of all of his faults.
We are told that Okonkwo does not think about things, and we see him acting rashly and impetuously. Yet others who are in no way effeminate do not behave in this way. Obierika, unlike Okonkwo, "was a man who thought about things." Whereas Obierika refuses to accompany the men on the trip to kill Ikemefuna, Okonkwo not only volunteers to join the party that will execute his surrogate son but also violently stabs him with his machete simply because he is afraid of appearing weak or feminine. He delivers the killing blow, even as the boy calls him "Father" and asks for his help. Ezeudu, an old man in Umuofia, advised him to stay home because to kill kin is considered a terrible offense to the Igbo, but Okonkwo is determined to prove himself unshakeable. In the proving, he does damage to himself and creates a rift between him and Nwoye that will never be healed. We see such an attitude in Okonkwo even in chapter XI, where the priestess of Agbala caries Ezinma to her cave. Because he considers any show of feeling to be a weakness and as a way of affirming his masculinity, Okonkwo does not follow the Priestess immediately, but instead waits for a suitable "manly" interval. His feelings for Ezinma however, are strong. Despite his desire to appear manly and detached, he returns to the cave four times, gravely worried for his favorite daughter.
During Ezeudu's funeral in chapter XIII, Okonkwo's gun explodes, killing one of Ezeudu's sons. Even though the death is accidental, the act is an abomination to the Igbo. Okonkwo is to be exiled for seven years. Okonkwo's seven-year exile from his village only reinforces his notion that men are stronger than women. While in exile, he lives among the kinsmen of his motherland but resents the period in its entirety. The exile is his opportunity to get in touch with his feminine side and to acknowledge his maternal ancestors, but he keeps reminding himself that his maternal kinsmen are not as war-like and fierce as he remembers the villagers of Umuofia to be. He faults them for their preference of negotiation, compliance, and avoidance over anger and bloodshed. In Okonkwo's understanding, his uncle Uchendu exemplifies this peace lover (and therefore somewhat effeminate) mode.
Because Uchendu's youngest son is taking another wife, in chapter XIV, the family performs a ceremony marking her arrival. This ceremony is dominated by women. Uchendu gives a lecture centering on the important role of a mother and maternal bloodlines. Okonkwo, so proud of manhood and obsessed with masculinity, is being asked to accept a mother's comfort. He is also asked by Uchendu to be a source of tenderness and comfort to his wives. Okonkwo has always associated such behavior with weakness. Uchendu is reminding his nephew that strength is not synonymous with force and violence. He is also reminding Okonkwo that strength is not a uniquely male domain.
Animal Imagery is yet another theme we shall discuss in Things Fall Apart. In their descriptions, categorizations, and explanations of human behavior and wisdom, the Igbo often use animal tales to naturalize their rituals and beliefs. The presence of animals in their folklore reflects the environment in which they live-not yet "modernized" by European influence. Although the colonizers, for the most part, view the Igbo's understanding of the world as rudimentary, the Igbo perceive these animal stories, such as the account, in chapter XI, of how the tortoise's shell came to be bumpy, as logical explanations of natural phenomena. Another important animal image is the figure of the sacred python in chapter XXII. Enoch's alleged killing and eating of the python symbolizes the transition to a new form of spirituality and a new religious order. Enoch's disrespect of the python clashes with the Igbo's reverence for it, epitomizing the incompatibility of colonialist and indigenous values.
In chapter VII, Achebe depicts the locusts that descend upon the village in highly allegorical terms that foreshadow the arrival of the white settlers, who will feast on and exploit the resources of the Igbo. The fact that the Igbo eat these locusts highlights how innocuous they take them to be. Similarly, those who convert to Christianity fail to realize the damage that the culture of the colonizer does to the culture of the colonized. The language that Achebe uses to describe the locusts indicates their symbolic status. The repetition of words like "settled" and "every" emphasizes the suddenly ubiquitous presence of these insects and hints at the way in which the arrival of the white settlers takes the Igbo off guard. Furthermore, the locusts are so heavy they break the tree branches, which symbolizes the fracturing of Igbo traditions and culture under the ambush of colonialism and white settlement. Perhaps the most explicit clue that the locusts symbolize the colonists is Obierika's comment in Chapter XV "the Oracle ... said that other white men were on their way. They were locusts...."
In conclusion, we can say that the Europeans penetrated Africa through the Bible, yet they supported imperial expansion of Britain. They simply came with religion as a shield within which British imperial exploits were disguised. Okonkwo is seen determined to resist this change even if it is at the expense of his life. Other people, like Nwoye embrace this change yet others such as Akuna are only mid-way. Masculinity is one of Okonkwo's obsessions. He believes that any tender emotion is feminine and therefore weak. In his bid to affirm his masculinity, Okonkwo has a hot temper and beats his wives and children even over trivial matters. Later we learn that it is this quest to affirm his masculinity that is the sours of all of Okonkwo's problems. Animal Imagery in Things Fall Apart is as well an important theme. The presence of animals in Igbo folklore reflects the environment in which they live-not yet "modernized" by European influence.
Achebe Chinua, Things Fall Apart, London: Heinemann Educational Books Ltd, 1962.
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