Things Fall Apart and Négritude

Student Responses

One of the main ambitions of African writing is to dispel colonial attitudes towards Africans in general. For example, Achebe said, regarding Things Fall Apart: “Colonial education was saying that there was nothing worth much in my society, and I was beginning to question that.” However, it has been said that some of the African post-colonial writing actually does the opposite to this and reinforces stereotypes. In Things Fall Apart, Achebe presents certain tribal rituals and describes them using similar language, surprisingly, to Conrad in Heart of Darkness. For example, he uses the words “frenzy” and “mad rush” in the description of Ezeudu’s funeral. To some readers this may suggest a sense of uncontrollable passion that spills into violence, confirming colonial prejudice.

However, by first describing a rich Ibo culture in the first part of the novel, Achebe seems to avoid the criticisms of Négritude in Things Fall Apart. For the first section, Europeans or “white men” are given at most a passing reference. This allows Achebe to create an image of an Ibo society completely independent of European influence. This is a very conscious decision. The idea of Négritude is to avoid European attitudes or styles of writing, but this deliberate departure from European methods leads to the criticisms of negritude, as being as much a stereotype as the European view.

Defining Ibo civilisation without reference to Europeans avoids the criticism that black culture is only defined by contrast to white culture in Négritude thought. However, we know from Achebe’s subsequent comments on the novel that he had the European reader in mind when he wrote the novel, so there may be an implicit comparison with European civilisation.

Alex Dismore and Tom Rawlinson

Achebe is in an awkward position of attempting to define his own culture in the language of another in Things Fall Apart. By setting the novel in pre-colonial Africa, he avoids having to directly refer to European culture, and can establish Ibo society on its own terms with its own traditions and culture. Achebe therefore challenges the colonial perception that ‘there was nothing worth much in my society.’ However, one cannot avoid the fact that Achebe was consciously writing for a European readership, and is obviously aware of the context of centuries of colonial oppression and the denial of the Ibo identity. He therefore is referring implicitly to the European view of Africa, relying on the European to fill in the blanks, and in a more subtle way is creating a distinct African identity in literature. The European reader is dropped into Ibo society with no regard for his ignorance, and is submerged in Ibo cultural reference so that by the time the Europeans arrive in the narrative, it is they who appear alien. Writing in English also shows Achebe’s awareness of the colonial tradition, yet one could argue that by rendering Ibo proverbs into English he modifies their sense and makes them live on, and he creates English with an Ibo accent by using terms like egwugwu and obi. In defining his culture by appropriating the language of the white man, Achebe could be being even more subversive than is first apparent.

Alex Turner and Tom King