By Marc Murr
This classic novel of African literature is the first in a trilogy that traces the colonization of Africa. Wrapped in rich mythology and delivered in a terse style, it unfolds in three levels of conflict. The universality of its appeal, however, is in the third, or macro, level – the individual versus society. (The others: individual vs. him/herself; individual vs. other individual). From the treatment – and resolution – of these conflicts, Achebe describes the successful administration of African tribal societies in a pre-colonial world, until the arrival of European religious missionaries and the political forces behind them. Then, “[t]hings [f]all [a]part.”
Okonkwo, though whom the author speaks as the main character, is moody. A warrior, leader, and father, “[he] was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievements.” He prevailed over Amalinze the “Cat” to be a champion fighter; he climbed the ranks of authority in his clan; and, he oversaw a family of three wives and children. He might fall into despair or sadness over a death or other misfortune, but Okonkwo is remarkably unconflicted. He has to be, because he’s the author’s mouthpiece and telescope in presenting the tragedy of European colonization of Africa. These moods reflect his humanity, and his actions in executing tribal custom sustain a theme of Africa’s largely peaceful and productive existence before the “White Man” comes.
Okonkwo’s champion strength and status give him much moral authority in his clan. As he climbs the rungs of power and prestige, he does not have to engage much serious competition. At this level, the author uses the lack of conflict between individuals to portray a society that works. It has rules and customs that, when enforced, allow its members to thrive and for the clan to grow and prosper. The source of authority traces to the Deity, and a corresponding clan of helper gods, who enforce a clear code of conduct through direct interventions, even appearances, in daily tribal life. Things, in a word, work.
Achebe’s theme states that the Colonial forces that invaded Africa corrupted an in place civilization without any moral authority to do so. It is emphatically told from the subject’s perspective, not the conqueror’s, a perspective with which we are ingrained to this day by Western schooling. The conflict of individual vs society, Okonkwo vs his clan, derives directly from the forces being loosed upon him and his clan when white missionaries arrive and attempt to convert his people to their own religion. If they just presented options, Achebe implies, it might be fine. But, the Europeans operating under the authority of the “Queen,” brought a governing apparatus also, a District Commissioner, whose messengers were called by the clan “Ashy Buttocks,” because of their ash-colored shorts. They were the enforcers of an alien system of rules, laws, and religious customs. The Europeans belittled Okonkwo’s religión of “gods [who] are not alive and cannot do you any harm…[t]hey are pieces of wood and stone.” The clan easily exposes the irony of the invaders’ entreaties: forsake your gods and risk punishment. Would not that be the invaders’ destiny also, if they denied their god? Moreover, the Church of England’s head was the monarch herself, not any cleric or deity; and, weren’t her cathedrals and statues and icons also made of wood and stone? Achebe’s insight reveals the invaders’ religious hypocrisy in the light of gentle, piercing questions and metaphors. At heart Achebe demonstrates how remarkably similar the belief systems are, and thus evaporates any semblance of moral superiority.
Okonkwo’s conflict with his Society foreshadows the destiny of Africa. He warns them, “[y]ou do not know what it is to speak with one voice. An abominable religion has settled among you. A man can now leave his father and brothers. He can curse the gods of his fathers and his ancestors, like a hunter’s dog that suddenly goes mad and turns on his master.” For this conflict over the path to immortality, Achebe indicts those European forces that instead brought mortality, symbolized by the tragedy of how Okonkwo resolves his own conflict.
This universal theme of subjugation in the name of righteousness hits close to home – remember the horrific treatment of Native Americans in the latter half of the 19th century, wrought by a central government of white European immigrants, led by, among others, none other than William Tecumseh Sherman. And, preaching peace and prosperity, the African colonizers’ ultimate evil plays out through the ploy of a peace conference. The six tribal chiefs attended in good faith, but “were handcuffed and led into the guardroom.” “We shall not do you any harm,” said the District Commissioner, “if only you agree to cooperate with us.” For defending their land, customs, and people, the chiefs were punished, as the Commissioner dictated “[t]hat must not happen in the dominion of our queen, the most powerful ruler in the world.” The encircling irony of the religious conflict is that the supreme deity of the tribal religion also is female – the Earth Goddess or “Mother Supreme.” But, political (and military) power ultimately resolves the collision between civilizations, not any moral suasion. Indeed, having grasped the magnitude of Achebe’s theme, the reader realizes that “bury my heart at wounded knee” happened here, and there in Africa, and, sadly, in so many other places and times.
Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, February 3. Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Monday, February 5 for a discussion of Things Fall Apart at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome, and the Club meets the first Monday monthly all year long. Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.