Chinua Achebe the Novelist as Teacher

In the novel Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe, the history of the Ibo society is displayed to the reader through the story of Okonkwo and his family. In the essay “The Novelist as Teacher” Achebe talks about how he feels that it is his duty, as an African writer, to bring the accurate history of pre-colonial Ibo culture to the people of the present day. Achebe feels that the post-colonial sentiment that is taught to the current society needs to be rectified through his novels. This is his task. Achebe accomplishes this task through Things Fall Apart, but he does so through the use of contradictions. There are places in the novel where he contradicts his own mission, but it is in order to achieve a greater understanding of the true meaning of the character.

Achebe states in the essay: “I would be quite satisfied if my novelsâÂ?¦did no more than teach my readers that their past-with all its imperfections-was not one long night of savageryâÂ?¦” Achebe states that he wants to display to people that the common misconception of the African man being a large brute is just a myth that was conceived by the colonial powers. To do this, however, he must display to the reader a character that Seems like the perfect African man, one who will appear to have these qualities but will in fact need further understanding on the side on the reader.

Throughout the novel the main character, Okonkwo, is depicted as a large, semi-emotionless, powerful fighter with in his tribe. He, in many ways, embodies and symbolizes the “stereo-typical” African male that Achebe states he wants society to denounce and liberate itself from. He lives his life based on the fear that he will one day turn in to the kind of man that his father was, who no one in his tribe thought was a useful part of their society. His father was a lazy, weak, title less man, and Okonkwo lives his life to the extreme opposite in order to never become this. In turn, Okonkwo appears to have fashioned himself in to what the stereotypical African male is in many post-colonial mind; a savage-like, war-hungry, brute.

Throughout the novel Okonkwo lashes out violently. His rage and anger consume him and he disobeys tribal custom in order to release his beast-like emotions. “He walked back to his obi to await Ojiugo’s return. And when she returned he beat her very heavily” (29). This event took place during the week of peace, which is a time where no one is to commit such acts. Okonkwo not only resorts to physical violence when provoked, he also disregards tribal custom in order to do so. He is showing his disrespect for his wife, and also for his tribe.

Another important part to the novel that displays this is when Okonkwo returns to the village and tries to persuade the villagers to fight against the missionaries and their “white man” beliefs. He viewed the villagers acceptance of the missionaries as a form of being soft and weak, “Okonkwo was deeply grievedâÂ?¦he mourned for the warlike men of Umuofia, who had so unaccountably become soft like women.” (183). This displays how he feels that the missionaries are turning the once war-like and manly society in to one of woman-like qualities. Okonkwo would rather the society be one of war and fighting, than one of emotion and religiousness. He is once again embodying the quality of the stereo-typical African male brute, which Achebe is trying to reeducate his people about and steer them from through his novel.

However, through this contradiction that I have been skeptical of, Achebe inadvertently proves another of his goals to be true. “I think that it is part of my business as a writer to teach that boy that there is nothing disgraceful about the African weatherâÂ?¦” By stating this Achebe is saying that even through things that may apparently seem disgraceful to some, that there is a true unmasked beauty that lies within the practices and happenings of the Ibo, and also African society as a whole. This behavior by Okonkwo can also be interpreted as beautiful representation of one man’s struggle to hold on to a world that is familiar to him while it is inevitably slipping away from him, while it could be seen as a disgraceful way for the African male to be depicted in regards to stereotypes.

Through this fear Okonkwo does act like the stereo-typical African male, but it is not to make him appear as a contradictory character, it is also to reveal to the reader that Okonkwo actually has a humanistic side to him. More importantly, that he has a tragic flaw. “Okonkwo’s return to his native land was not as memorable as he had wishedâÂ?¦.The clan had undergone such profound change during his exile that it was barely unrecognizable” (182). This quote shows that Okonkwo was immediately hit with the reality of the changing society from the moment that he returned to his village. Okonkwo’s fear consumes his every thought and action, and when he learned of this transformation he had no other reaction than that of anger and outlash.

While Achebe presents Okonkwo as representing the typical African male, it is something else that drives him to act in such a way that he could be perceived as that. On the surface of the character he is a rugged brute who only cares about titles, wives, and property. This, however, is not the case entirely. Through this novel Achebe hopes to teach the reader that there is significance to why it is that Okonkwo acts the way that he does. That it goes beyond the stereotype and moves in to a realm of understanding the African male that many of the younger generations have been removed from by post-colonization.
The novel also offers insight in to what the pre-colonial Ibo society was like. What it typically means to be a member, and to be regarded as a successful contributor to society. Achebe uses the Ibo society as a tool to take the reader on the journey of European colonization, just as he uses Okonkwo to show the reader how this colonization was not always accepted. That the people of the tribes did not go peacefully, asking the Europeans to help make their society a “civilized” one.
Achebe takes the information that the reader thinks he/she knows and makes them see why it is not always true. Through his characters he shows the reader why these “stereo-types” are wrong, and then gives insight as to why this common misconception is made, he allows the reader to gain an understanding of the characters in his novels which allows them to truly understand how the African people are.

Another misconception that Achebe sets out to rectify is that the people of the Ibo tribe do have a language, and it is not a primitive animalistic language as depicted in some other books. Achebe takes this misconception and forces the reader to reevaluate his/her opinion by inserting Igbo words throughout the novel. The reader is forced to make the realization that this language is actually a complex one, even containing some words that we, in the English language, do not even have a word for. Words pertaining to spiritual beings, feelings, and personality traits add a new dimension to the Ibo society. They, in many ways, have a better language than English due to this remarkable collection of words to better and more accurately describe emotions and thoughts.

Achebe has taken on a great task by trying to be a teacher to the reader, but it is only fitting that the novelist be considered one of the most important types of teacher today. The novelist takes the reality of the situation at hand and molds it in order to help convey a point to the reader, so that the reader walks away with the knowledge to make informed judgments about topics previously less unknown. Through taking that experience, of being part of a society, and turning it in to a piece of literature that can be used as a tool to unlock the misconceptions of a society is one of the most important lesions that Achebe could be teaching.

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