One of my fondest Literature texts is undoubtedly, “Things Fall Apart”, by African writer, Chinua Achebe.
Who could forget the story of Okonkwo, once “the greatest warrior and wrestler alive,” but whose death ironically made him an outcast.
Okonkwo was a man of contrasts; he was outwardly fierce and made a show of bravery. In truth, his whole life was ruled by fear – fear of failure and fear of being seen as weak. He believed that the only thing worth showing was strength. No doubt, he was a brave and great warrior. However, true bravery and strength is the courage to show and do what one’s heart feels is right to, and not fear what others think of him.
He resorts to anger and violence to settle all matter. And it inevitably, brought his own downfall. Although to a certain extent, his last action was justified in a way, his doom became inevitable.
Okonkwo was a self-made man who rose from humble beginnings to become a man of status in his clan. His success was certainly commendable given his disadvantaged background and his early difficulties. However, his fear of being seen as weak made him a perpetually angry and violent man. He was impatient, quick-tempered and suffered no fools.
He wasn’t sympathetic to the less successful and could be unreasonable. In the end, his eldest son, Nwoye’s sensitive soul is buoyed and eventually won over by the ‘new religion’. In all fairness, Nwoye’s conversion could not be attributed entirely to Okonkwo’s heavy-handed ways. Nwoye also questioned certain traditions; like the killing of twins and especially the innocent killing of his best friend and surrogate elder brother, Ikemefuna. Something in him snapped after these 2 significant incidents. Since he had no one else to turn to for answers; the ‘new religion’, Christianity, seemed to offer him answers for these nagging doubts and comfort his parched soul.
Despite his shortcomings, one still feels for Okonkwo and his ultimate downfall is heart-rending. He was after a responsible man who cared for his family in his own ways. What is more poignant is the tragedy that befalls him after his successful comeback from exile. It is as if the gods have played a cruel joke on him. Somehow, one feels that he deserves better.
Was his ultimate downfall the result of his own doing or his fate? This begs the question, “Does character maketh a man?” and “Can one escape one’s destiny? Was Okonkwo a victim of his circumstances or his character or both? If he had adapted better to the changes in society, would he fared better?
It is interesting to note that Chinua Achebe, a son of missionary, chose to tackle the subject of white man’s destructive nature on the traditions and unity of one’s clan. He saw clearly that while the white men brought them progress, they also exploited the natives. Through “Things Fall Apart”, we see the negative impact of the white men on the African traditions and kinship. Those who do not adapt to the changes fast enough are left high and dry. But in adapting successfully, they had also compromised and lost a little of their own culture.
However, the winds of change run through the course of history worldwide. It is as inevitable as the passage of time. Alas, no men could stop the changes that sweep through a society.
This is a book that had remained close to my heart for many years. It is poignant, realistic, honest as well as informative. Needless to say, it is also a great tale!
Note: This article first appeared in my other site, http://lithistcul.blogspot.com/, on 28 February 2008.