Having read Achebe’s essay on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness last year, I felt that the time was right for me to explore some of his earlier fiction works. And what better place to start than with his first, and definitely most famous, novel, Things Fall Apart.
Okonkwo is a young man in the village of Umuofia, somewhere in Western Africa. He lives with his three wives and their children in relative harmony, and he is considered a strong man in the village – partly because of his wrestling prowess. As he moves up the village hierarcy. however, something happens that will see the eventual fall of Okonkwo’s name in the village, as everything he thought he knew about life and the world around him is changed forever.
So much contemporary post-colonial literature that deals with interactions between native tribes and the invading conquerors seems to be so angry – there is clearly still a lot of feeling about these issues. And quite right, too. Yet Achebe manages to make his novel about Africa, without resorting to an angry diatribe about the negative impact of the colonising powers on his lands that so many authors feel the need to spurt forth these days. Which is a shame, because this can often lessen the impact of the inevitable finale – something that Achebe manages to keep intact. When the colonisers finally arrive at this village, at the same time that Okonkwo is returning from his exile, their actions are initially met with laughter and mild annoyance – once the big stuff begins to happen, though, everything goes downhill. And Achebe doesn’t seem to place the blame squarely at the feet of the colonisers – he sees it as a combination of the colonisiers, and the gradual weakening of the men of the tribe, which Okonkwo himself tries to stamp out.
Gender roles within this village, and the role of masculinity, are central to this novel. The women of the tribe are expected to marry for money and dowries, and when they do, they are expected to look after the children and their husbands. Those women who do not follow these rules are severely punished. Mind you, there’s some pretty terible punishments for other things out of their control, such as giving birth to twins. Again and again, everything that is going wrong is blamed on the women. Im contrast, the men of the village are expected to be strong, tough, and warrior-like. Okonkwo particularly is worried that his son is not tough enough, and goes out of his way to try and toughen up his son, for fear of him becoming ‘womanly’. There seems to be this fear of weakness, a fear that, by not being strong, you will shrivel up and die. Which, I suppose, is what would happen. There doesn’t seem to be any room for much variation, for individuality, for very much. And yet, these people are content and happy with their lives. They have good company (restricted to one’s own gender), swift justice (there’s an excellent court scene that renews your hope in gender equality – just), access to food and water (for the most part) and, no doubt, an excellent view from the back porch.
Achebe has achieved fame because of his nationality and culture. As has Things Fall Apart. As with so many authors who come from outside the mainstream, it would be easy for him to ride on this, and simply write a story with some local flavour. Fortuantely, he has not done this in Things Fall Apart. While culture is a vital part of the novel, it is not the focus. Instead, we get a very understated, very relaxed look at gender roles, how this affects interaction with other people, and interaction with the world around us. Oh, and the last sentence is one of the greatest ever.