Things Fall Apart is not necessarily a novel about globalization, but the implications of a changing world -- and that includes issues related to globalization along with the fading of colonialism -- are an important part of this novel. On the surface this novel is the telling of a nationalistic-themed tale about the tragic circumstances surrounding the initial respect that Okonkwo had from the Igbo culture, along with his demise, which is the tragic fall of a hero.
Richard Begam -- History and Tragedy in Things Fall Apart
In his scholarly piece in the journal Contemporary Literary Criticism, Begam discusses culture in the context of the postcolonial dynamics four years after the Nigerian independence, by quoting the author Achebe from four years after the independence movement had succeeded. "African people did not hear of culture for the first time from Europeans," Achebe explained; "…their societies were not mindless but frequently had a philosophy of great depth and value and beauty" (Begam, 1997, p. 2). Moreover, Achebe is quoted as saying, African people "…had poetry, and, above all, they had dignity" (Begam, p. 2).
So, given the author's strong statements about the West's misreading of African culture and nationalist history, can a reader expect to experience Achebe's provincialism playing out through the characters, the theme and the setting? Begam suggests not; he asserts that Things Fall Apart is really only concerned with "fashioning tragedy" and writing history, and that along the way Begam believes that the novel "…offers us a variety of responses to tragedy" and in the process Things Fall Apart weaves those responses through the concept of colonialism.
Establishing Okonkwo as a great man is done at the outset of the novel, which Begam notes resulted from the fact that he brought great honor to his village. Okonkwo was a great wrestler and warrior, renowned for "…having brought home from battle five human heads; and on important public occasions, he drinks his palm wine from the skull of the first warrior he killed" (Begam, 2).
But by page 3 Begam is ready to paint a picture of Okonkwo that is not so perfect and brave. After all, according to Aristotelian history, any hero also has flaws, and certainly Okonkwo has his flaws: to wit, "…whenever he was angry and could not get his words out quickly enough, he would use his fists" (Achebe, p. 8). He used more than his fists; on page 188 Achebe brings the hated colonial dynamic into the book for Okonkwo to respond to, as though the author of this book had to make a point about the way in which native peoples drove the colonists out.
In the 24th chapter a messenger is sent to the village by colonial authorities, and the message is that Okonkwo is supposed to disband a tribal meeting. "The white man whose power you know too well has ordered this meeting to stop," said the messenger (Achebe, 188). "In a flash Okonkwo drew his machete. The messenger crouched to an avoid the blow. It was useless. Okonkwo's machete descended twice and the man's head lay beside his uniformed body" (Achebe, 188). Okonkwo wiped the machete in the sand and walked away from the head lying on the ground. In this way, according to Begam, Okonkwo has "…symbolically dissolved his connection with his people, wiping away the blood bond that has joined them" (p. 3). Begam makes that point because the messenger sent and killed was not a European; he was a fellow Igbo.
Possibilities and Pitfalls of Ethnographic Readings -- Carey Snyder
Carey Snyder writes about the 25th and final chapter in the novel -- in which Okonkwo hangs himself -- commenting that the final chapter represents "a dramatic shift of perspective" (Snyder, 2008, p. 1). That perspective is dramatically different from the rest of the novel because the passing of Okonkwo is "unceremoniously condensed into a brief anecdote," which is bizarre because the protagonist in this story has been the subject (and the central subject at that) of the previous twenty-four chapters. The District Commissioner demands that the men standing around in the village (where the messenger was killed) take him to Okonkwo (or be shot); and without telling the Commissioner that Okonkwo is dead, and is hanging from a tree, they arrive at the grim scene.
This is the place in the story at which Snyder makes a good point about colonialism, and in particular colonialism in Nigeria. The Commissioner had just threatened the men with death if they didn't take him to wherever Okonkwo was hiding. And upon finding Okonkwo hanging from a tree, the Commissioner "changed instantaneously. The resolute administrator in him gave way to the student of primitive customs," Snyder writes on page 1. And along with this change -- from anger to a kind of ethnic curiosity -- the Commissioner began to think "…about the book he planned to write" because after all, in this part of Africa, "…every day brought him some new material" (Snyder, 1).
And what a stalemate Achebe presents in this chapter: One of the most respected and high-ranking warriors is dangling from a rope but the culture forbids the act of taking him down. "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," said Obierika (Achebe, 190). And while the clansmen can't cut him down and bury him, the Commissioner can't do it either. So he orders on of his messengers to do it.
The book ends rather abruptly, with the Commissioner letting readers know that he has already come up with a title for his book: in fact, the title -- The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger -- serves as the last words in the book. Snyder believes that what Achebe is doing in this section of the novel is "…positioning himself as a kind of native anthropologist" and in the process Achebe has "contributed to the aura of authenticity that surrounds his book" (Snyder, p. 1).
The poor treatment of women in Things Fall Apart
Is Achebe also showing his cultural understanding of these primitive peoples by pointing to the horrendous behavior of men towards women? I ask that because in addition to the scholarship from peer-reviewed publications presented in this paper, it seems worthy to editorialize about the man vs. woman culture itself. At the outset of the paper author Achebe asserts that the African people -- notwithstanding what the Europeans thought about African culture -- had their own culture which included poetry, beauty and value, and "…above all, they had dignity." But apparently the dignity was only for the male members of the Igbo society.
To wit, indigenous women in Things Fall Apart are constantly being dominated by the males in society. Protagonist Okonkwo seems to think women are slaves. Obviously we are not talking about slavery but in Ibo villages females are quite a ways down the ladder, nearly to the bottom rungs.
On page 64 when Okonkwo wants his daughter Ezinma (who is 10 years old at the time) to fetch him some "cold water," he is thinking to himself how nice if would have been in Ezinma would have turned out to be a male. "She should have been a boy," he said but nevertheless his daughter hurries to get the water and returns just as she was ordered to do.
The protagonist wants his bag and orders his daughter to bring it to him which she dutifully does. After his meal his daughter takes the water bowl back to her mother's hut and again Okonkwo mutters that he would have been better off if his wife had given birth to a boy. Clearly this is more than chauvinism -- it is fact a brutally unfair and biased attack on females.
The reader can get the idea very quickly that women are not respected, and obviously author Achebe wants readers to have the impression notwithstanding his assertions (quoted earlier in this paper) that if "…Ezinma had been a boy I would have been happier" (p. 66) Also, there are several more examples of the prejudice shown for the female gender in the Ibo society. For example, on page 13, Okonkwo's several wives, "especially the youngest, lived in perpetual fear of his fiery temper," which for a woman trying to do her best becomes a psychological issue.
Again on pages 29-30, when Okonkwo's youngest wife Ojiugo does not prepare the dinner for Okonkwo, he is outraged. When Ojiugo returned to Okonkwo's hut "…he beat her very heavily." Indeed if spousal abuse is part of a man's lifestyle, having several wives to beat on would be a blessing. His raging goes against the values during the "Week of Peace" for the Ibo culture. Men are supposed to be gracious and kind to others during this week,…