Of feminism: Gaps in the evaluation of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart

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In the cool evening of 2008 during which time a group of us student-writers at Benue State University assembled to share views on our literary produce, i presented an award-winning short story entitled ‘Young As  I Was’ to an appreciative audience. Commenting on the Short story, my distinguished friend, Su’eddie Agema, praised my effort saying that in the short fiction I had recognized women, something he said that Achebe was guilty of in Things Fall Apart. Like my friend, a number of critics like Helen Chukwuma, Rose Acholonu, Adewale Maja-pearce, Chielozona  Eze, Remy Oriaku and others have variously accused Achebe of downgrading womanhood in the novel.

This essay disagrees with this view. It argues that while it cannot be gainsaid that in the novel Okonkwo is a male chauvinist who disrespects the personhood of women including his wives, this is entirely his own flaw, and not Achebe’s. For one thing, Achebe’s creative impulse as he wrote the novel was, as it is well known, to respond to European stereotype of Africa in novels such as Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. For another, as this essay would show, the society in Things Fall Apart accorded great respect and importance to the woman – and men like Okonkwo and Uzowulu who maltreated their wives could neither be supported by the society nor are they backed by the writer.

Things Fall Apart tells the story of Okonkwo, a famous warrior and skilled farmer who rises from a humble family background and achieves renown by becoming a rich and revered leader of his clan. Okonkwo’s entire life has been one of grim struggle to achieve celebrity status. He has all but achieved the very pinnacle of it when inadvertently he kills a kinsman. For this, Okonkwo is to leave his clan for seven years after which he could be allowed to return. When eventually he returns, Okonkwo discovers to his disgust that his clan, Umuofia, is no longer  what it used to be;  white  missionaries  have  established a church as well as a court  and were  making  inroads  into the lives of  Umuofians. He desperately tries to rouse fellow clansmen to resist this change but gains no support even when he kills the white man’s messenger. Heavily traumatized, Okonkwo commits suicide.

Quite clearly, Okonkwo’s misfortunes derive largely from the metaphysical. His chi was not made for great things. But it is also  true that Okonkwo  himself does  not help  his situation,  for  rather  than  being shrewd  we  see him  behave rashly. This rashness is born of fear, the fear of being thought weak. Thus, while cherishing strength, valour, and masculinity, Okonkwo detests weakness, cowardice, and femininity. Can it be said then that since Things Fall Apart is the story of Okonkwo, and that because Achebe imbues him with an overbearing attitude towards women, Okonkwo is then an archetype of all men and Achebe discriminates against women?

According to Adewale Maja-pearce:

 

It is not enough to say, as Achebe does in Things Fall Apart, that pre-colonial African societies recognized the importance of the female principle in terms of the society’s pantheon, or that Okonkwo’s purnishment is in part explained by his offence against Ani, the earth goddess; it is not even enough to say that Ani ‘played a greater part in the life of the people than any other deity’, if the position of women as human beings is then denigrated to the extent that Okonkwo’s crime is not so much that he beats one of his wives, but that he does so at an unpropitious time (qtd. in Eze, 108).

 

 

The eloquence of Maja-pearce’s case is attractive. Even so is his very argument which, though erroneous, is moderately advanced especially as it concludes on a conditional note, thus requiring correction. Now, Maja-pearce’s thesis is erroneous in that it makes sweeping generalizations, as when we first hear him say: ‘[i]t is not enough to say, as Achebe does in Things Fall Apart, that pre-colonial African societies recognized the importance of the female principle in terms of the society’s pantheon… ‘(108).The same spirit of this statement can be seen manifested later when he says: ‘… if the position of women as human beings is then denigrated to the extent that Okonkwo’s crime is not so much that he beats one of his wives …’ (108). In response to his first opinion, what Maja-pearce ought to have known even before he wrote his thesis was that in writing Things Fall Apart Achebe only set out to chronicle the happenings in, as well as the customs and traditions of, his pre-colonial/colonial Igbo society, and not ‘pre-colonial African societies’ (108) as his phrase reads. Equally, this critic needs to know that in the wife-beating scene which he makes reference to, Ojiugo, Okonkwo’s wife, was actually at fault. It is improper for a woman to leave her children hungry and go to make her hair at some friend’s house. Even Ezeani, the priest of the earth goddess, despite his burning anger directed at Okonkwo for desecrating the Week of Peace and its goddess, Ani, by beating his wife during the holy period acknowledges this when he expresses the opinion that ‘[y]our wife was at fault…’ (24). However, Maja–Pearce completely ignores this fact and contends that for the singular act of Okonkwo beating his wife—not minding whatever wrong she did, the ‘position of women as human beings is then denigrated’ (12). Here, it seems appropriate to say that if the beating of Ojiugu by Okonkwo is a neat exemplar of man’s inhumanity to man, so too is Ojiugo’s action of leaving her children and her husband hungry and going to beautify herself. Achebe and the Igbo tradition are therefore not wrong, as Rose Acholonu thinks when she says that

 

Achebe, true to tradition and the precepts of Igbo custom, seems to condone this inhuman treatment of Okonkwo’s wives. Commenting on Okonkwo’s rash anger with his wives, Achebe says, he (Okonkwo) “was provoked to justifiable anger by his youngest wife who went to plait her hair at her friend’s house and did not return early enough to cook the afternoon meal. And when she returned, he beat her very heavily” (41).

 

 

Besides, logic seems missing in the judgment that because Okonkwo beats ‘one’ of his wives, this singular incident constitutes the denigration of the humanity of ‘women’. This is because although his general attitude towards women is unpleasant; there are times as in the very case of beating Ojiugo, when it seems only fair, given his rash foul rage, to give even Okonkwo some modicum of credit for exercising a bit of mildness and of self-restraint, as expressed through his logical questioning. It helps then as it provides sufficient allibi to ignore the length of quotation and reproduce it here:

‘Where is Ojiugo?’ he asked his second wife…

‘She has gone to plait her hair’.

Okonkwo bit his lips as anger welled up within him.

‘Where are her children? Did she take them?’ he asked with unusual coolness and restraint.

‘They are here’, answered his first wife, Nwoye’s mother. Okonkwo bent down and looked into her hut. Ojiugo’s children were eating with the children of his first wife.

‘Did she ask you to feed them before she went?’

‘Yes’, lied Nwoye’s mother, trying to minimize Ojiugo’s thoughtlessness.

Okonkwo knew she was not speaking the truth. He walked back to his Obi to await Ojiugo’s return. And when she returned he beat her very heavily (23-24).

As pointed out earlier, Ojiugo is in the wrong. But eventhough Okonkwo is commended for initially exhibiting some measure of self- restraint, his latter action of beating her, as it were, reveals the gross moral extremism of his true character. For, we are told that ‘Okonkwo was not the man to stop beating somebody half-way through, not even for fear of a goddess’ (24). Typically, Okonkwo nearly kills his ‘favourite’ wife Ekwefi with a gun, aimed and shot at her. Reason: she merely makes an inaudible sneering remark at him after he beats her over the allegation of killing a banana tree. Indeed, the author does not side with Okonkwo against Ekwefi, as he himself explains: ‘As a matter of fact the tree was very much alive. Okonkwo’s  second wife [Ekwefi] had merely cut a few leaves off it to wrap some food, and she said so’ (30). Infact, the very fact of Okonkwo ‘walking about aimlessly in his compound in suppressed anger’, and ‘suddenly [finding] an outlet’ (30) is sufficient proof of the crack in his character. It is this gross moral extremism that also leads him to kill Ikemefuna despite the fact that he had been cautioned against doing so. (Interestingly, even in his positive deed we can see a streak of this extremism running through, as when intending to show gratitude to his mother’s kinsmen for accommodating him throughout his exiled years by given a feast, Achebe tells us that ‘Okonkwo never did things by halves’ (132). Thus, he makes extravagant arrangements for the feast to the protest of Ekwefi.) Okonkwo is then to be blamed, not Achebe or the Igbo tradition as Maja – Pearce and Acholonu give the broad hint. To substantiate this claim, there is a portion of the novel which testifies that Uzowulu situates a similar behaviour to Okonkwo’s in the external locus of the code of conduct of both the writer and Umuofia. It is in the scene where Evil Forest, a powerful spirit of the clan, judges a case between Uzowulu and his in-laws represented by a man called Odukwe. Actually, we are told ( it is indeed so) that Uzowulu is a brute of a man who beats his wife regardless of whatever condition she is in. Infact, it is said that on one such occasion when his wife was pregnant, he beat her up to the extent that she miscarried. Thus, Achebe, irritated at Uzowulu’s behaviour, allows Odukwe to aver: ‘My in-law, Uzowulu, is a beast’ (73). Later, though still angry but having the peaceful co-existence of man and woman in view, Achebe using the same outlet, lets his speech take on a reconciliation tone:

 

If, on the other hand, Uzowulu should recover from his madness and come in the proper way to beg his wife to return, she will do so on the understanding that if he ever beats her again we shall cut off his genitals for him (74).

 

The judicial system of Umuofia, symbolized by Evil Forest, can be seen adapting the same mode of behaviour. After the hearing from both parties, Evil Forest comments that ‘ [o]ur duty is not to blame this man or to praise that, but to settle the dispute’ (74). And yet, Evil Forest’s disapproval of Uzowulu is never in doubt in the cautionary remark of the former to the latter that ‘ [i]t is not bravery when a man fights with a woman’ (75). Thus, as Evil Forest, on behalf of the community, earlier expressed the one desire of fixing the problem and not merely chiding one of the two parties while applauding the other, he proceeds to say to Odukwe: ‘If your in-law brings wine to you, let your sister go with him’ (75). Evident in the psychology as well as the dialectic of the judiciary of Umuofia is the fine morals of the womanists/Accommodationists which, according to Chikwenye Ogunyemi, ‘want […] meaningful union between black women and black men […] and will see to it that men will change from their sexist stand …’ (qtd. in Nnolim, 251).  It is then easy to see that although Achebe and the community of Umuofia dislike the battering of women by men; they realize that in the togetherness of a man and a woman, this kind of issue must naturally occur, and only by diplomatic handling of the matter can peace be retrieved. Certainly, this point will irk hypersensitive feminists, those with utopian ideals like Ama Ata Aidoo who in an elegantly written essay: ‘To Be an African Woman Writer—an Overview and a Detail,’ complains of something similar. Actually, Aidoo complains of a certain Professor by the name of Dieter Riemenschneider who in 1985 came to Harare to deliver a lecture on African Literature, and how in the two hours that his lecture lasted did not mention an African Woman Writer. And later, when this was brought to his notice he apologized, saying that it had been ‘so natural’ (514). As she further adds: ‘I could have died.  … Why should it be ‘natural’ to forget that some African women had been writing and publishing for as long as some African men writers?’ (514). What infuriates Aidoo is quite apparent. But anyone with sharp sensibility should know that however much we try to restore human love in the idyllic sense, that cannot be. Thus, we find that there is discrimination in every facet of human society – in the workplace, school, family, even in church, etc. Infact, there is even such a thing as self- rejection!

However, this is not saying that Professor Riemenschneider’s failure to mention an African woman writer in his discourse is ethical. Nor is this saying that Aidoo shouldn’t have felt bad. One is rather saying that Aidoo misses the point by over-reacting even when Riemenschneider, realizing his fault, offers his apology, saying that it had been ‘so natural’ (514). ‘I could have died’, Aidoo declares. Next she wonders, ‘why should it be ‘natural?’ This question is like also asking: ‘Why is Riemenschneider not perfect?’ or ‘Why should it happen at all?’ These, infact, are the questions that Maja-pearce seems to be asking in his rhetoric. ‘Why does Okonkwo beat Ojiugo?’ ‘Why should it happen at all?’ But whereas Aidoo’s anger relents thereby making way for sense to prevail as it is obvious later in her statement that ‘[a]ctually, it is not only the good German Professor who forgets African women and their books. He is only nice enough to admit it’ (515), Maja-Pearce, quoted earlier, tactfully avoids dogmatism but fails to safeguard the overall effect of his view. As mentioned earlier, the latter is not alone in holding such a view of Things Fall Apart. Remy Oriaku thinks similarly when he says that

‘[…] the women in Things Fall Apart […] are “unimportant” ’ (74). Again, and without mincing words, this is a fallacy. For evidence abound in the novel that women are ‘very important’ human beings. To sample some, attention must be given first to a striking passage in the book where Obierika and Okonkwo sit discussing and Ofoedu joins them to tell them of the mysterious death of Ozoemena, which was actually an extension of her reaction to her spouse’s demise, but which is also a serious pointer to the height of value she attached to her husband Ndulue who, according to Obierika, also attached the ‘same’ value to her while alive. Infact, it is arresting how the passage reads:

 

‘It was always said that Ndulue and Ozoemena had one mind’, said Obierika. ‘I remember when I was a young boy there was a song about them. He could not do anything without telling her’ (54).

 

If Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet  has been roundly hailed for its moving portrait of genuine love between a man and a woman, or, Michael Bloch’s Wallis and Edward is a reverberating story of two, happy lovers turned married couples, that same charming and prodding force for human ties is ever so present in the love match between Ndulue and Ozoemena. Indeed, it can well be said that they shared a breath! And for expressing such powerful love for each other, we can see that the community of Umuofia celebrated them through a song. But Okonkwo, ever so unchanging in his immodest behaviour, questions the manliness of Ndulue saying: ‘I thought he was a strong man in his youth’ and even when Ofoedu replies that ‘[h]e was indeed’, Okonkwo still doubts only to be given the stunning reply by Obierika, that: ‘He led Umuofia to war in those days’ (54). Here, too, we can see that other men in the society are not like Okonkwo or Uzowulu.

Secondly, that a woman, Chielo, occupies such a position as the priestess of Agbala, the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves, says much of the importance of the female in the Igbo Pantheon. In a well-written essay, ‘Women and Creative Writing in Africa’, Flora Nwapa enunciates the same idea when she says that

Priestesses feature prominently in many parts of Nigeria, especially in the riverine  areas of the south. They wield tremendous powers in many areas, including healing and predicting the future. As women, they mediate between the supernatural and natural worlds, between the divine (deities) and the human. Those of you who have read Things Fall Apart will remember Chielo, the mouthpiece of the Oracle (527)

 

It is then to hold Okonkwo up to ridicule that Achebe makes him plead with Chielo when she is possessed by her god and comes to take Eziama with her. Chielo even shouts at him saying ‘Beware, Okonkwo!’ (80) and yet Okonkwo does nothing to validate his strength of character. How is it then that Chielozona Eze refuses to acknowledge this truth and rather aligns himself with Maja-Pearce’s

falsehood, saying:

 

Recognizing the role of goddesses as controlling the lives of people has no existential relevance. It is comparable to calling, Africa ‘Mother Africa’ and thereby giving African women the impression that they were taken seriously by the continent

(108).

 

Perhaps we need to be patient with Mr. Eze and lead him safely onto the path of righteousness. Consequently, he has to be told with strength of feelings that the recognition of the role of goddesses as controlling the lives of the people certainly has existential relevance. If not, why does Achebe painstakingly tell us not just of Chielo being the priestess of Agbala, the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves, but also of Chika who held the same office many years ago when Okonkwo was a boy. Why does he tell us that ‘Ani played a greater part in the life of the people than any other deity’ (29), or that ‘[w]e live in peace with our fellows to honour our great goddess of the earth without whose blessing our crops will not grow?’ (24). Infact, why does Achebe expand on this idea in an essay, ‘African Literature as Restoration of Celebration,’ in which he informs that

 

Mbari was a celebration through art of the world and of the life lived in it. It was performed by the community on command by its presiding deity, usually the Earth goddess, Ala, who combined two formidable roles in the Igbo pantheon as fountain of Creativity in the world and custodian of the moral order in human society (9).

 

 

 

 

 

Surely, truth will always prevail. And those not so humble enough to acknowledge it openly will do so inwardly!

Next, and noteworthy, is the fact that when Okonkwo is banished from his fatherland (Umuofia) and he goes to take refuge in his motherland (Mbaino) and then begins to despair, the comforting words of the old man Uchendu, his Uncle, bear testimony to the inestimable value of the woman in Things Fall Apart.  Hear how he puts it:

 

‘…We all know that a man is the head of the family and his wives do his bidding. A child belongs to its father and his family and not to its mother and her family. A man belongs to his fatherland and not to his motherland. And yet we say Nneka—“Mother is supreme” […]’ (106).

 

After this, even Okonkwo is a bit liberated from his sexist disposition. Thus, he calls ‘the first child born to him in exile Nneka – ‘Mother is supreme’ (130).

Furthermore, quite early in the novel we learn how the  whole community of Umuofia prepares to go to war when their daughter (the wife of a man called Ogbuefi Udo) is  murdered by Mbaino, thus making the spokesman for Umuofia, Ogbuefi Ezeugo, to curse: ‘Those sons of wild animals have dared to murder a daughter of Umuofia’ (9). This too indicates the seriousness with which a woman as a human being is taken by the society of Umuofia. Of course, the society has some unfair strictures against women. For instance, we are told that ‘[n]o woman ever asked questions about the most powerful and the most secret cult in the clan’ (71). But as earlier suggested, no person (male or female) or group can entirely be rid of discrimination. It will therefore be a noble cause for feminists to rather fight against the excess of discrimination against women and where there is not much of it, they should see it as a natural situation.

Besides, one wonders if in the feminist critique of Things Fall Apart and the charge that Achebe trivializes womanhood there is a consideration of not just the points stated above, but of the fact that the writer’s love for his female characters is also evident in the scene where Obierika’s daughter is getting married and he gives a passionate and whole- hearted description of the bride, thus:

 

She wore a coiffure which was done up into a crest in the middle of the head. Cam wood was rubbed lightly into her skin, and all over her body were black patterns drawn with uli. She wore a black necklace which hung down in three coils just above her full, succulent breasts. On her arms were red and yellow bangles, and on her waist four or five rows of jigida, or waist- beads (56).

 

 

 

 

 

 

In conclusion, we can see (can’t we?) that the author of Things Fall Apart is innocent of the charge against him. Achebe wrote his first novel to restore the full humanity of the African peoples which was lost in European literatures, and not to dehumanize women. If, however, the argument is adamantly advanced that because his novel has as its major character a tyrant, Okonkwo, who maltreats his wives and this is therefore a marker of Achebe’s discrimination against women, the truth is that the writer does not support Okonkwo. Like the community of Umuofia, he dislikes the oddities of Okonkwo’s behaviour and this is why he lets Okonkwo fall alone. In fact, it is for all the crimes committed by him that Achebe metes out such a poetic justice to him as making him hang himself. Worse still, he will be buried shamefully.

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