The novel “Things Fall Apart” takes a central role on the changing system of contemporary literature in Africa. The author refutes a widespread stereotype claiming that before colonization, Africa did not have a culture. It represents political and social background in a detailed realistic method. The foundations of African oral tradition which include proverbs, tales and symbols are frequently used in this novel.
“Things Fall Apart” is an exhilarating novel that uses vast literature styles such as symbolism to illustrate the principles of African cultural erosion as a result of embracing the western culture. By use of symbols, the author illustrates how the African culture was shattered by European style of life when Christianity was embraced in the African society. In this book, numerous symbols are used as discussed below.
This is a crop that is commonly grown by men. Growing of this crop requires intensive labor, and the work ethics of a man can be measured by the portion of field and harvest obtained. In the African set up, the sole objective of growing yams is to acquire wealth and feed the family.
They symbolize a man’s ability to provide. In this novel, a man who was in possession of bulk yams was portrayed as not a failure like Unoka-he had a large barn full of yams (Chinua, 1958, p. 4). Nwakibie refuses to give the young men yams citing that they would dump them on earth rather than taking care of them as a man would do for his family to flourish. Yams are very precious and would only be owned by hardworking individuals.
The central positioning of the yam highlights the defining traits of the tribe. The symbolic meaning is illustrated by its use as a source of satisfaction. Owing to the intensive efforts needed in cultivating it, bulk harvest represents yearly achievement gained from the nature. A yam’s image is brought out as an essential necessity of the culture.
According to Okonkwo, most of the folktales in the novel featuring small animals symbolize women’s behavior, for example the Ekwefl’s tale that talks about the birds and the tortoise who were invited for a feast in the sky. This blocked out the tortoise since he had no wings to fly and the birds were aware of his ungratefulness and cunning behavior, thus could not help him out.
The tortoise was starving and had to sweet talk the birds in order to nurture his hunger. In their journey, the tortoise claims of a custom that demands them to take new names though the idea was to acquire the most respectable position. Since the women were all inferior, they gave in and the cunning tortoise ended up feasting on the best food leaving leftovers for the birds. The tales depicts indecisive character of women and also provides useful morals in the society.
Okonkwo is compared to fire by other characters and the narrator; he is branded “Roaming Flame in the town” (Chinua, 1958, p. 122). According to him, fire is a symbol of strength. While seated in his hut after a quarrel with his son Nwoye, Okonkwo stared on a log fire and felt a strong feeling to rise up, take up a machete and clear the Christians who Nwoye was associating with. Whenever Okonkwo would gaze at fire, a wild feeling of strength would fill his body.
Mother of the spirits
Mother of the spirits can be viewed as personification by the clan of Umofia and the mother of Egwugwu. At this juncture, the style of life of Umuofia is deeply disregarded and the damage committed is irreparable. The mother of spirits mourns her son’s death loudly after the unmasking night.
A comparison between the clan and Mother of spirits is drawn, “…it seemed as if the very soul of the clan wept for the great evil that was coming its own death”(Chinua, 1958, p. 145). Its imperative that the Mother of spirits does not revenge her son’s death but rather mourns and weeps. People of Umuofia would not revenge for crimes committed against them.
He symbolizes masculinity; a character deeply opposed to the Christian belief of love. The spirit of African people is represented collectively by his personality. Just like the Igbos, he is a strong person who is very independent. Weinstock and Ramadan (1978) pointed out the following in regard to Okonkwo:
Okonkwo is consistently associated with masculinity, and he virtually always mistrusts, opposes and attacks anything feminine or linked with femininity. Christianity embodies and stresses the qualities Okonkwo considers to be womanish- love affection, and mercy; and he characteristically valuates the missionaries as a ‘lot of effeminate men clucking like old hens (p.128).
Okonkwo fights courageously against ideologies opposing what he valued. The death of African culture is symbolized by Okonkwo’s death. Achebe decided to illustrate the hands of Africans’ giving in to Christianity to take charge by the act of Okonkwo committing suicide rather than being killed and subsequently wiping out the culture of Africa. It is a conspiracy to have written a whole book about negativity of colonization that the last statement in the book could belong to the Britain District commissioner.
He makes a remark on the suicide act by saying it was possible to dedicate Okonkwo a paragraph in his book. This slightly contradicted the theme meant by Achebe since portraying Africans as primitive differed from what Achebe wanted to demonstrate. By using the symbol of Okonkwo’s death through suicide, Achebe points out that Africans should also be blamed for letting in foreign ideologies to develop in their land.
Nwoye’s personality was a symbol of Christianity. His father always fought against feminine behavior. His conversion to Christianity was to strengthen the symbol created by Achebe. Okonkwo’s joy and pride was his family while Nwoye’s conversion to Christianity was the last pain he would endure. Owing to his son’s rejection of his lifestyle, the only option left was to cease living.
Nweoye’s adoption22 of a new name
His decision to take up a new name, Isaac, with the importance it carried confirms his loyalty to Christianity religion. Though the exact name that he picks imply significance beyond the immediate sense of personal salvation, it brings out memories of the Biblical story of Abraham where an animal was substituted for his son, Isaac. Adoption of this name by Nwoye’s portrays the complete meaning of his conversion which was the key sign of liberation from limitation of the family creation.
Weather takes up a crucial role in the lives of Nigerians especially the Igbos. Availability of rain or its unavailability illustrates that the tribe was dependent on weather for survival. Weather limits the extent to which their crops grow and the flow of the rivers which in turn influence their water and food supply. On sunny days, the sun is utilized by the crops and in warming up things. Nevertheless, excess rain or sun is likely to cause damage (Rand, 1966).
Invasion by locusts symbolizes grand invasion with devastating destruction. Two important events are considered to establish the locust link. In the text “…At first, a fairly small swarm came…” implying that “…they were the harbingers sent to survey the land…” (Chinua, 1958, p. 43). He pointed out the first arrival of whites and others on the way. This link of events was done deliberately.
The cognition gulf is linked up by the myth of locust through establishment of the unknown and known. People were not aware of locusts though it was the myth behind them and the danger of economic failure. The author illustrates the locusts that invaded the village using allegorical phrases which foreshadowed the coming of white men in African land. Their intentions were to exploit all the resources of Igbo tribe. Owing to the fact that Igbo consumed locust, it shows that they are not offensive.
In the same way, individuals who were simulated to Christianity overlooked negative impacts; the white people’s culture would impact to their culture. The language used by Achebe in describing the locust invasion depicts their symbolic reputation.
Use of repetitive style draws emphasis on the pervasive presence of locusts and a hint in the manner in which the white settlers would occupy Igbo’s land by surprise. It is noted that the locusts were too heavy, and that is why they broke the branches of a tree. This was a symbol of how the traditions and culture of the Igbo’s would fracture on attack by colonialism as well as white settlement (Oyekan, 1993).
The death of Okonkwo is a heroic death that is analogous to a warrior who is attached to his people. This symbolizes catastrophic demise that great people face. This is because committing suicide is regarded as abomination contrary to the earth and thus should not be buried by clansmen.
But in the right of African style, Okonokwo’s death could not be considered as a heroic death; rather, it can only be seen as a shameful death. The irritating final words Obierika casted to the District Commissioner hold indisputable ambiguity within Igbo point of view, in memory of heroism and shameful act of killing himself (Okonkwo). From the novel, he was portrayed as the greatest man in Umuofia and was forced to commit suicide and buried in a disrespectful manner (David, 1998).
Things Fall Apart is a thrilling novel that uses symbolic literature style to demonstrate the credo of Africa cultural erosion through embracing of the western culture. Most of the Africans were not ready to give in to the white man’s way of life, and as such, Okonkwo would rather cease living than adopt the white man’s way of life. Colonization plays a bigger role in the society, and the culture takes up a central role. Symbolic events and characters are used to help the reader have a deeper understanding of the society.
Chinua, A. (1958). Things Fall Apart. New York: Heinemann Education Books.
David, K. (1998). The African Novel and the Modernist Tradition. New York: Peter Lanng publishers.
Oyekan, O. (1993). A History of Twentieth-century African Literatures. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska.
Rand, B. (1966). Contributions in afro- American studies. Greenwood: Greenwood press.
Weinstock, D., & Ramadan, C. (1978). Critical Perspectives on Chinua Achebe. Washington D.C: Three Continents Press.