Chinua Achebe

ongoing impact of colonialism on native cultures, and
expose present-day corruption, Achebe had to clearly
communicate these concerns first to his fellow countrymen but also to those outside his country. Instead of
writing in his native language, Achebe judged the best
channel for these messages to be English, the language of
colonialism. He did so because he wished to repossess the
power of description from those, like Joseph Conrad,
Joyce Cary, and H. Rider Haggard, who had, as he said,
secured ‘‘an absolute power over narrative’’ that cast
Africans as beasts, savages, and idiots. Achebe views the
English language not as an enemy, ‘‘but as a tool.’’
Reclaiming the Oral Tradition Since the 1950s,
Nigeria has witnessed ‘‘the flourishing of a new literature
which has drawn sustenance both from traditional oral
literature and from the present and rapidly changing
society,’’ writes Margaret Laurence. As she maintains,
‘‘Chinua Achebe’s careful and confident craftsmanship,
his firm grasp of his material and his ability to create
memorable and living characters place him among the
best novelists now writing in any country in the English
‘‘Proverbs are cherished by Achebe’s people as . . . the
treasure boxes of their cultural heritage,’’ explains Adrian
A. Roscoe. ‘‘When they disappear or fall into disuse . . . it
is a sign that a particular tradition, or indeed a whole way
of life, is passing away.’’ Achebe’s use of proverbs also has
an artistic aim, as Bernth Lindfors suggests. ‘‘Proverbs
can serve as keys to an understanding of his novels
because he uses them not merely to add touches of local
color but to sound and reiterate themes, to sharpen
characterization, to clarify conflict, and to focus on the
values of the society.’’
Works in Critical Context
Achebe’s five novels to date follow some one hundred
years of Igbo civilization. Europeans have not yet penetrated Umuofia, the setting of the first novel, when it
begins. Over the course of the novels, colonial rule is
established, significant change takes place, and the character of the community—its values and freedoms—are
substantially and irrevocably altered. They therefore form
an imaginative history of a segment of a major group of
people in what eventually became Nigeria, as seen from
the perspective of a Christian Igboman.
Anthony Daniels wrote of Achebe’s novels in the
Spectator, ‘‘In spare prose of great elegance, without any
technical distraction, he has been able to illuminate two
emotionally irreconcilable facets of modern African life:
the humiliations visited on Africans by colonialism, and
the . . . worthlessness of what replaced colonial rule.’’ Set
in this historical context, the novels develop the theme of
what happens to a society when change outside distorts
and blocks the natural change from within and offer, as
Eustace Palmer observed, ‘‘a powerful presentation of
the beauty, strength, and validity of traditional life and
values and the disruptiveness of change.’’ Even as he
resists the rootless visions of postmodernist globalization, Achebe does not appeal for a return to the ways of
the past.
Things Fall Apart ‘‘In 1964 . . . Things Fall Apart
became the first novel by an African writer to be included
in the required syllabus for African secondary school students throughout the English-speaking portions of the
continent,’’ writes Charles R. Larson. Later in the 1960s,
the novel ‘‘became recognized by African and non-African
literary critics as the first ‘classic’ in English from tropical
Africa,’’ he adds.
Ghanaian writer and critic Kofi Awoonor writes:
‘‘Achebe’s thematic construction and dramatisation of the
conflict in
Things Fall Apart utilises the ‘chi’ concept—‘chi’
being the dominating ambiguous force in the life of an

Chinua Achebe
individual. The structure of the novel is firmly based in the
principles that are derived from this piece of Igbo ontological evidence. Okonkwo’s life and actions seem to be prescribed by those immutable laws inherent in the ‘chi’
concept. It is the one significant principle that determines
the rhythm and tragic grandeur of the novel. Okonkwo’s
rise and fall are seen in the significant way in which he
challenges his ‘chi’ to battle.’’
Arrow of God The artistry displayed in Arrow of God
has drawn a great deal of attention, adding to the esteem
in which Achebe is held. Charles Miller commented that
Achebe’s ‘‘approach to the written word is completely
unencumbered with verbiage. He never strives for the
exalted phrase, he never once raises his voice; even in
the most emotion-charged passages the tone is absolutely
unruffled, the control impeccable.’’ He concludes, ‘‘It is a
measure of Achebe’s creative gift that he has no need
whatever for prose fireworks to light the flame of his
intense drama.’’
‘‘With remarkable unity of the word with the deed,
the character, the time and the place, Chinua Achebe
creates in these two novels [
Things Fall Apart and Arrow
of God
] a coherent picture of coherence being lost, of the
tragic consequences’’ of European colonialism, suggested
Robert McDowell in a special issue of
Studies in Black
dedicated to Achebe’s work. ‘‘There is an
artistic unity of all things in these books, which is rare
anywhere in modern English fiction.’’
Anthills of the Savannah Larson states, ‘‘No other
novel in many years has bitten to the core, swallowed and
regurgitated contemporary Africa’s miseries and expectations as profoundly as
Anthills of the Savannah.’’
Nadine Gordimer commented in the
New York
Times Book Review
that Anthills of the Savannah is ‘‘a
work in which twenty-two years of harsh experience,
intellectual growth, self-criticism, deepening understanding and mustered discipline of skill open wide a subject to
which Mr. Achebe is now magnificently equal.’’ It is a
return to the themes of independent Africa informing
Achebe’s earlier novels but it gives the most significant
role to women, who invent a new kind of storytelling,
offering a glimmer of hope at the end of the novel.
‘‘This is a study of how power corrupts itself and by
doing so begins to die,’’ wrote
Observer contributor
and fellow Nigerian Ben Okri. ‘‘It is also about dissent,
and love.’’
Responses to Literature
1. Colonialism is defined by Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary as ‘‘control by one power over a dependent
area or people.’’ How would the definition change if
it read ‘‘control by one power over
another area or
people?’’ Which definition do you think Achebe
would be more in agreement with?
2. Certain social movements choose to use negative or
pejorative terms as terms of pride. But these words
can still be hurtful if spoken by an outsider. Can
language and words really be reclaimed, or should
one reject the language used by the colonizer or
3. Research a common American idiom or expression.
Write an essay discussing its obvious meaning, as well
as what its literal meaning implies about American
culture. How would you explain it to someone
unfamiliar with American culture?
4. Africa is sometimes seen by Westerners as one
country with one culture. In fact, Africa is the name
of the continent, and it is made up of forty-eight
countries and hundreds of ethnic groups, cultures,
and languages. Research three writers from different
African countries, and write an essay examining the
similarities and differences in their outlooks. What, if
anything, do they have in common, apart from the
experience of colonization?
Carroll, David. Chinua Achebe. New York: Macmillan, 1990.
Ihekweazu, Edith, ed.
Eagle on Iroko: Selected Papers
from the Chinua Achebe International Symposium,
Ibadan, Nigeria: Heinemann Education
Books, 1996.
King, Bruce.
The New English Literatures: Cultural
Nationalism in a Changing World
. New York:
Macmillan, 1980.
Emenyonu, Ernest and Pat Emenyonu. ‘‘Achebe:
Accountable to Our Society.’’
Africa Report (May
1972): vol. 17: 21, 23, 25–27.
Egudu, R.N. ‘‘Achebe and the Igbo Narrative
Research in African Literatures (1981):
vol. 12: 43–54

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