April 22, 2014
Identity in Things Fall Apart
Fiction writing presents a diverse look at the issues that plague societies across the world. In postcolonial societies, there are more issues than a typical independent nation. There are clashes of beliefs of the Ibo tribe and from what England is trying to integrate into the already established culture of the Ibo in Nigeria. The English have tried to integrate modern ideas like Christianity, hospitals, and schools into the culture of the Ibo. The main conflict that Chinua Achebe presented in his novel Things Fall Apart is that identity is a convoluted concern for people in postcolonial Nigeria, especially for the protagonist, Okonkwo. Okonkwo’s identity underwent numerous changes throughout the course of the novel, from a man of pride, to a man who encountered questions in search of his identity, and whose identity ultimately devolved into one of a coward.
Before examining the identity issues in the novel, it’s important for the context of Achebe’s novel to be explained. Abiola Irele wrote in his essay The Crisis of Cultural Memory in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart:
We are presented rather with a corner of human endeavor that is marked by the web of contradictions within which individual and collective destinies have everywhere and at all times been enmeshed. A crucial factor, therefore, in any reading of Achebe's novel, given the particular circumstances of its composition, is its deeply reflective engagement with the particular order of life that provides a reference for its narrative scheme and development (Irele, 2000).
Therefore, in reading Things Fall Apart, the reader has to understand more than what is presented at face value. Consider the fact that most readers of Things Fall Apart aren’t familiar with Achebe’s culture of the Ibo people in Nigeria, the reader has to investigate deeper into the text and seek out answers for questions. The reader must seek find puzzle pieces to solve the puzzle of Okonkwo’s identity. If the reader doesn’t complete these two important steps, all of the meaning of the novel will be lost upon the reader.
The puzzle pieces for Okonkwo begin to take shape early in his life. Achebe writes “Okonkwo did not have the start in life which young men usually had. He did not inherit a barn from his father. There was no barn to inherit” (Achebe, 19). This particular passage demonstrates that Okonkwo’s identity has been convoluted since the beginning of his existence. However, Okonkwo wasn’t a person who had a weak will. He was determined:
to lay the foundations for a prosperous future. It was slow and painful, but he threw himself into it like one possessed. And indeed he was possessed by the fear of his father’s contemptible life and shameful death (Achebe, 21).
This passage is intriguing in that Okonkwo was a man who lived in fear of becoming a failure like his father was. The question then becomes: how could Okonkwo truly transform his identity while his father was still alive? The answer to that question never truly gets answered until the end of the novel, but Okonkwo’s identity confusion is prevalent early in the novel and never truly gets resolved. While the identity of Okonkwo is confusing, this passage provides foreshadowing the end of the novel and the way in which Okonkwo will die. There is also a certain sense of irony in the way the novel ends for Okonkwo.
There was a divide between Okonkwo and his wives and children; it was established from the beginning of the novel. Achebe wrote:
Okonkwo ruled his household with a heavy hand. His wives lived in perpetual fear of his fiery temper and so did his little children. Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and weakness. It was deeper and more intimate than the fear of evil and capricious gods and magic, the fear of the forest, and of the forces of nature, malevolent red tooth, and claw. Okonkwo’s fear was greater than these. It was not external, but lay deep within himself. It was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father (Achebe, 16-17).
Achebe has established Okonkwo’s identity in the early part of the novel. Achebe creates the identity for Okonkwo that has at least two distinct personalities that dictate his action towards others. Okonkwo is clearly conflicted between identities, and that conflict is created by the fear of Okonkwo becoming his father.
Okonkwo, while living in fear of becoming his father kept working for his father and defending his father’s house. However, Achebe describes the situation “like pouring grains of corn into a bag full of holes” (Achebe, 25). The importance of Achebe using a simile to compare the relationship between Okonkwo and his father demonstrates not only the continued strain of the relationship between them, but also how efforts made to close the gap in their relationship were meaningless. No matter what Okonkwo did to try and close the gap, it was futile as Achebe demonstrated eloquently with the use of a simile based off of agriculture in the Ibo culture.
While Okonkwo was a man with at least two conflicting identities, he remained a hard worker throughout the course of the novel. He was a man who was focused on his crops and never complained about his work. When his oldest son, Nwoye was annoying Okonkwo with his incessant laziness, Okonkwo took it upon himself to nag and beat Nwoye until “Nwoye was developing into a sad-faced youth” (Achebe, 17).
As the novel comes to a close, it is revealed that Okonkwo has hung himself. The bush behind Okonkwo’s compound “was a little round hole in the red-earth wall through which fowls went in and out in their endless search of food. The hole would not let a man through” (Achebe 190). That passage highlights the distance that Okonkwo had from the rest of his Ibo society. No other person could reach him no matter how hard they tried, and Okonkwo couldn’t escape and transform his identity throughout the course of his life. Ironically, Okonkwo is found at this bush hanged. The location of Okonkwo not only accentuates the importance of the bush to Okonkwo, but it also demonstrates how the many times when Okonkwo tried to break free from the cultural norms that were established initially by the Ibo culture and later by the English culture were unsuccessful. When the district commissioner ask about Okonkwo, one of the men in the tribe reply to the commissioner:
It is against our custom . . . it is an abomination for a man to take his own life. It is an offense against the Earth and a man who commits it will not be buried by his clansmen. His body is evil and only strangers may touch it. That is why we ask people like you to bring him down because you are strangers (Achebe, 190).
What the tribe’s actions demonstrate to the reader is that Okonkwo has not only disgraced his own identity by committing suicide, but he also damaged the tribal identity as a whole. The tribe wants nothing to do with Okonkwo after his actions. The tribe lets the responsibility for burying Okonkwo to fall onto strangers.
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Fawcett Crest , 1969. Print.
Irele, F. Abiola. "The Crisis of Cultural Memory in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart." African Studies Quarterly 4.3 (2000). Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Jeffrey W. Hunter. Vol. 278. Detroit: Gale, 2010. Literature Resource Center. Web. 15 Apr. 2014.