Have you read this novel? (if not, spoilers coming. Go read the book and return)
It’s the first of its kind. Meaning, it’s the first that gained popularity of it’s kind. At 28 years young, Chinua Achebe published Things Fall Apart. It popped off. Why? ‘cause he it was the first we heard of Africa from the African’s perspective in English.
I recently re-read it. In 10thgrade, I remember I was the only person in my class who enjoyed the book. Mainly because I had had a conversation with my eldest brother, Jordan, about time in the African perspective v.s time in the American perspective.
Time is a character in the novel. How one perceives time heavily effects how one experiences the novel.
In the African perspective, Time is a tide coming in and the narrator is looking at the sand. Whereas, in the Western perspective, Time is a time coming in and the narrator is looking at the ocean. In one view, we are confronted with looking back while moving forward, in the other time is moving forward and to hell with looking back at how the waters of the present interact with the sediment of the past.
After TFA is published, my forever editor crush, Rajat Neogy holds the first African writers writing in English conference ever. It’s 1962. Ghana has already began the independence domino. And the diaspora is calling to itself. Who else was there? South African Ezekiel Mphahlele, African-American Langston Hughes, Nigerian Wole Soyinka. And of course, Nirgerian Chinua Achebe.
Y’all gotta read that issue. (https://www.jstor.org/stable/i348153)
In my re-read of TFA, I, again, felt myself confronted with Time. The main question I kept coming back to was: why does nothing happen after Okonkwo takes Ikemefuna’s life? Why does the momentum slow down?
It is not hard to argue that Ikemefuna’s murder is the climax of the book. Let’s call this event the Death Party.
After the Death Party, it’s like the novel derails to many other subplots/sub-conflicts occurring within Umuofia.
This is why I love questions. Questions are the only way to answers. Asking this question brought me to an answer: exactly.
The narrative voice shifts after the Death Party. It broadens to those in the village and other clansmen. It’s like we hear less and less about Okonkwo’s direct body, and more and more about the events and bodies surrounding him.
I think the motivation in that shift lies in the purpose of a narrator. Which begs, what is the purpose of a narrator?
To be play God of course. To communicate whose life is primary subject of the narrative.
This is to suggest that the narrator is author, is God. And if the narrator lingers in Okonkwo’s consciousness pre-Death Party, then this suggests Okonkwo as God.
But once, Okonkwo lends his hand in his Ikemefuna’s killing, what happens to the narrator? The narrator becomes preoccupied with those things surrounding Okonkwo— court, marriage, crops, etc… In this way, the Okonkwo is a part of the Death Party, and the narrator’s authoring out of Okonkwo’s consciousness foreshadows Okonkwo’s own suicide.
I say this because Okonkwo’s decision to take Ikemefuna’s life is him giving up his life. And the narrator gives up Okonkwo’s life. He is no longer author or authority. He is an actor. And the narrative shift from Okonkwo’s consciousness to the consciousness of the all that surrounds him, and eventually to the white missionaries, thoroughly shows this death.
And what kind of death is it?
Let’s look at Okonkwo’s choices. He is not a character of inaction. He despises laziness. He thinks its womanly. He thinks a man is a man if and only if he is working or in war. A man only sits to eat food from all 3 of his wives. A man taps palm wine. A man drinks palm wine.
When he goes into the bush with Ikemefuna’s Death Party, he goes because he does not want to be thought of as a coward, or more exactly, a woman. He goes because he is a man.
Before he goes on this Death Party, the oldest man in the village warns him: “the boy calls you father. Do not have a hand in his death.”
But what does Okonkwo do?
Well, of course, he is going to do. He is doing. He is a man with an overdeveloped sense of will. His will is his power. His power is his masculinity. His masculinity is his wealth. In doing, and not thinking before doing, he is acting on his manhood, his authorship.
So what were his choices?
Doing nothing was not a choice for his character.
Instead, his choices were to:
1. embrace Ikemefuna
2. cut Ikemefuna down.
But Okonkwo doesn’t understand that the consequence for doing is the consequence of his life. In this way, his hand in Ikemefuna’s death is Okonkwo’s hand in his own. This is the last act of him as author, as narrator. From here, he steadily descends into a role as an actor in his life and therefore assumes the "womanly" death of suicide.