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Critical Insights: Things Fall Apart
The Critical Reception of Things Fall Apart
By Amy Sickels
Before Things Fall Apart was published, most novels about Africa had been written by Europeans, and they largely portrayed Africans as savages who needed to be enlightened by Europeans. For example, Joseph Conrad's classic tale Heart of Darkness (1899), one of the most celebrated novels of the early twentieth century, presents Africa as a wild, "dark," and uncivilized continent. In Mister Johnson (1939), which in 1952 Time called "the best novel ever written about Africa" ("Cheerful" para. 15), Irishman Joyce Cary's protagonist is a semieducated, childish African who, on the whole, reinforces colonialist stereotypes about Africans. In 1958, however, Chinua Achebe broke apart this dominant model with Things Fall Apart, a novel that portrays Igbo society with specificity and sympathy and examines the effects of European colonialism from an African perspective.
No one could have predicted that this novel, written by an unknown Nigerian, would one day sell nearly 9 million copies. Today Things Fall Apart is one of the most widely read books in Africa; it is typically assigned in schools and universities, and most critics consider it to be black Africa's most important novel to date. Further, the novel has been translated into more than fifty languages and shows up frequently on syllabi for literature, world history, and African studies courses across the globe. The first African novel to receive such powerful international critical acclaim, Things Fall Apart is considered by many to be the archetypal modern African novel.
Though Achebe went on to write numerous novels, short stories, poems, and essays, all of which have received critical attention, he is still best known as the author of Things Fall Apart. Of all of his works, it is the most widely read, and in the fifty years since its publication, the novel has generated a breadth of critical responses. Things Fall Apart has endured years of close examination through a variety of critical lenses as trends in literary criticism changed with the emergence of new insights and ideas. The novel continues to be a popular subject for critical studies even as it has become an African classic and won a place in the international literary canon.
To understand the impact that Things Fall Apart had on both the African and international literary worlds, it is useful to briefly examine the novel's historical context. England took control of Nigeria in the late nineteenth century and imposed upon the country a British-run government and educational system. Achebe, born in 1930 in the village of Ogidi in Eastern Nigeria, grew up under colonial rule. He lived in a Christian household, though his grandparents still followed traditional tribal ways, a tension that, as he once remarked in an interview with Conjunctions, "created sparks in my imagination" (para. 47). He attended the prestigious University College, Ibadan, on scholarship, first as a medical student then as a literature major, during a time in which more and more Africans were questioning colonial rule and the European justification of it as a way to bring enlightenment to the "dark continent." In his literature classes, Achebe read William Shakespeare, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Joseph Conrad, William Wordsworth, and, as he notes in Morning Yet on Creation Day, "some appalling novels about Africa (including Joyce Cary's much praised Mister Johnson)" (123). Though Western critics had praised Cary for his sympathetic and convincing African protagonist, Mr. Johnson, Achebe and his classmates found the novel insulting and racist. Conrad's Heart of Darkness would similarly repulse them; in an interview with Conjunctions, Achebe described it as a story about "Europeans wandering among savages," adding, "In the beginning it wasn't clear to me that I was one of those savages, but eventually it did become clear" (para. 102). It was these two novels in particular that convinced Achebe that "the story we [Africans] had to tell could not be told for us by anyone else, no matter how gifted or well-intentioned" (Morning 123).
Achebe wanted his own story about Africa to show the complexity and sophistication of African society before European arrival and to reveal the deep wounds colonialism had inflicted on the country's social, cultural, and political fabric. Yet Achebe was uncertain of what he could expect for his novel; as he recalled in a 2009 interview with The Atlantic, "There was no African literature as we know it today. And so I had no idea when I was writing Things Fall Apart whether it would even be accepted or published. All of this was new--there was nothing by which I could gauge how it was going to be received" ("African" para. 6). Although today the majority of critics consider Achebe to be the founding father of the modern African novel, Achebe was far from the first African to publish a novel. Before Things Fall Apart, the best-known African novel was The Palm-Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola, who was also Nigerian. Published by the prestigious Faber and Faber in London in 1952, the novel was acclaimed in the West; however, some African scholars were wary of it, fearing that Tutuola's use of pidgin English and his depiction of a drunk would cast Nigerians in a negative light.
Throughout the 1950s, a decade of hope in which many African countries gained independence, many other authors published works that countered colonialist racist claims and celebrated African culture, history, and society. Things Fall Apart, which the London house Heinemann published in 1958 with a modest print run of two thousand copies, came at the end of an intense nationalist movement and preceded Nigeria's independence by two years. It also appeared just as a national artistic and cultural renaissance was beginning. Yet Achebe's novel stands out from all the other African novels that soon followed it, partly in the effectiveness with which it engages the European literary tradition, and partly because it established a model that so many African novels of the next few years followed, at least in part. For example, simply writing in the European genre of the novel was an important and politically charged strategic decision as was Achebe's choice to write in English, accented with elements derived from the spoken traditions of the Igbo. As Isidore Okpewho comments, "What marked Achebe's novel as a pioneering effort was the seriousness of purpose and the depth of vision contained in his reaction to the European novel of Africa" (7). Things Fall Apart rose as a symbol of the Nigerian and African renaissance, and it served as an inspiration for the next generation of African writers.
The first reviews for Things Fall Apart appeared in Britain, then the United States. Though a few of these early Western reviewers took a condescending or Eurocentric tone, for the most part they were positive and emphasized the novel's significance as an African's insight into the lives of Africans at the time of colonization. Three days after the novel's publication, a Times Literary Supplement review praised Achebe's ability to draw "a fascinating picture of tribal life among his own people" ("Centre" 341). Positive reviews also appeared in The Observer and The Listener. The UK-based journal African Affairs attested: "This powerful first novel breaks new ground in Nigerian fiction" (Mackay 242). In the United States, the New York Times called Achebe a "good writer," and claimed, "his real achievement is his ability to see the strengths and weaknesses of his characters with a true novelist's compassion" (Rodman BR28).
Many of these early reviews emphasized Achebe's Nigerian roots, and, while they often praised the subject matter and his description of the African society, they tended to pay less attention to the novel's literary qualities, often dismissing its narrative as "simple" ("Centre" 341). Reviewers dwelled on Achebe's vivid portrayal of the Igbo village and the "insider" quality of the work. The New York Times called it one of the "sensitive books that describe primitive society from the inside" (Rodman BR28), and the Times Literary Supplement claimed that "the great interest of this novel is that it genuinely succeeds in presenting tribal life from the inside" ("Centre" 341). African Affairs chimed in: "In powerfully realistic prose the writer sets out to write a fictional but almost documentary account of the day to day happenings in a small Nigerian village without evasion, sophistry or apology" (Mackay 243).
Although Achebe, who feels strongly that an author must be responsible to his own society, in part wrote his novel to tell the story of his people for his people, in the beginning, Things Fall Apart received more recognition in England than it did in Nigeria. This was partly due to the facts that, at the time, only a tiny minority of Nigerian society was literate in English and that the book was quite expensive for most Nigerians; furthermore, since the book was published in England, its earliest audience was naturally made up of Europeans. However, shortly after Nigeria gained independence in 1960, a cheap paperback edition of the novel was printed and became widely available throughout Africa. In 1964, Things Fall Apart became the first novel by an African writer to be listed on the syllabi for African secondary schools throughout the continent. By the mid-1960s, sales of the novel in Nigeria far surpassed those in Britain.
During the same period that Things Fall Apart was published, African literary criticism was developing, and, though it was not until the 1960s that African critics wrote extensively about the novel, a few African scholars commented on it within a year of its publication. Nigerian Ben Obumselu, one of the founders of African literary criticism, was one of the book's first African reviewers. His review, which appeared in the journal Ibadan in 1959, provided a more nuanced reading than many of the early British reviews; while overall it is positive, Obumselu also pointed out what he considered to be problematic about the book:
The form of the novel ought to have shown some awareness of the art of this culture. We do not have the novel form, of course, but there are implications in our music, sculpture and folklore which the West African novelist cannot neglect if he wishes to do more than merely imitate a European fashion. . . . I am in particular disappointed that there is in Things Fall Apart so little of the lyricism which marks our village life. (qtd. in Bishop 88)
Obumselu was prescient in two ways: he was one of the first critics to focus on the novel's language and one of the first to raise the question of whether Achebe's novel imitates or subverts European models. Both concerns would become major points of debate for latter critics.
Obumselu was also one of the first critics to analyze the novel from an African perspective. In their review, the majority of Western critics had tended to celebrate the novel's "otherness." For instance, the early British and U.S. reviews tended to take anthropological or sociological viewpoints when discussing Achebe's descriptions of African culture and the Igbo village. Similarly, the early scholarly responses to Things Fall Apart were informed by anthropology, and this approach dominated the scholarly criticism until the 1980s.
In a way, Achebe's novel invites anthropological interpretation, for one its major strengths is its vivid descriptions of the day-to-day village life of the Igbo. The best of these studies provide a strong contextual background for Achebe's writing and a close analysis of the text. Yet, as M. Keith Booker explains, these vivid descriptions of Igbo society and culture also make "the book particularly vulnerable to the kind of anthropological readings that have sometimes prevented African novels from receiving serious critical attention as literature rather than simply as documentation of cultural practices" (African Novel 65). Thus the more problematic pieces of anthropological criticism tend to generalize or read the text from a biased Eurocentric or Western perspective. Still, many of the anthropological studies published during these early years provided important jumping-off points for later Achebe studies.
Most tend to focus on Igbo culture and its presentation in Things Fall Apart; topics included Igbo religion, the meaning of Chi, and the cultural norms in Igbo society. Representative articles include: Austin J. Shelton's "The `Palm-Oil' of Language: Proverbs in Chinua Achebe" (1969); Ernest N. Emenyonu's "Ezeulu: The Night Mask Caught Abroad by Day" (1971); Lloyd Brown's "Cultural Norms and Modes of Perception in Achebe's Fiction" (1972); Carolyn Nance's "Cosmology in the Novels of Chinua Achebe" (1971); John Johnson's "Folklore in Achebe's Novels" (1974); and Bernth Lindfors's "The Palm Oil with Which Achebe's Words Are Eaten" (1968). One article that provoked particular controversy is "The Offended Chi in Achebe's Novels" (1964), in which Shelton, positioning himself as an anthropologist and professional student of African culture, criticizes Achebe for implying that it is the arrival of the Christian missionaries that causes the Igbo society to fall apart and complains that Achebe blames the Europeans for the society's collapse when, in fact, it is Okonkwo himself who causes it. Shelton writes, "[Achebe's] own motives perhaps are linked with his patent desire to indicate that outsiders can never understand the works of Igbo-speaking writers (whose novels are in English)" (37). On the other hand, Margaret Laurence, in her 1968 study of Nigerian literature, Long Drums and Cannons, criticizes Shelton's response, arguing, "It is plain . . . that the tragedy of Okonkwo is due to pressures from within as well as from the outside" (96). Laurence examines Achebe's presentation of Igbo traditional society by considering the novel from within its cultural and historical contexts and also praises Achebe's literary skills, writing that his "careful and confident craftsmanship, his firm grasp of his material and his ability to create memorable and living characters place him among the best novelists now writing in any county in the English language" (89).
As more scholars took interest in the novel, criticism grew deeper and more nuanced. For example, David Carroll's Chinua Achebe (1970), a significant addition to Achebe studies, provides a detailed introduction to European colonialism, Igbo history, and Igbo culture and dedicates a chapter to a close analysis of Things Fall Apart. Carroll, using both anthropological and literary approaches, examines Achebe's writing in relation to Nigeria's history of colonialism, independence, and political conflict and argues that Achebe resists European exoticism and stereotypes to raise questions about African identity and representation. Emmanuel Obiechina, too, largely takes an anthropological approach to the novel, though from an African perspective, in Culture, Tradition, and Society in the West African Novel. Examining the traditional beliefs and practices represented in Things Fall Apart and other West African novels, he seeks to show how African society and culture "gave rise to the novel there, and in far-reaching and crucial ways conditioned the West African novel's content, themes, and texture" (3). Another important work from this period is Robert M. Wren's Achebe's World (1980), a valuable guide to Igbo history, politics, religion, and society.
The best of the anthropological articles give a strong portrait of Igbo culture in relation to the novel and examine the historical context of the writing; however, a drawback to anthropological readings is their neglect of the literary qualities of the novel. Although a few critical works of the 1960s and 1970s examined the structural and narrative aspects of Things Falls Apart--such as Eldred D. Jones's "Language and Theme in Things Fall Apart" (1964), Karl H. Bottcher's "The Narrative Technique in Achebe's Novels" (1972), and G. D. Killam's The Writings of Chinua Achebe (1969), a groundbreaking work for its time that focuses on craft while also examining how African writers represented their world in literature--formalist (including New Critical) approaches, which focused on the literary qualities of the work, were much more popular in the 1980s.
Such approaches analyze the formal qualities of a text--such as narrative, characterization, and structure--while bracketing off any historical, biographical, or sociological factors that may have influenced it. As this critical focus became more popular throughout the 1980s and 1990s, it undoubtedly brought more attention to Achebe's literary achievement in Things Fall Apart. Among the many standout pieces of formalist criticism are B. Eugene McCarthy's "Rhythm and Narrative Method in Achebe's Things Fall Apart" (1985), Angel Smith's "The Mouth with Which to Tell of Their Suffering: The Role of the Narrator and Reader in Achebe's Things Fall Apart" (1988), and Emmanuel Ngara's Stylistic Criticism and the African Novel (1982). The collection of essays Critical Perspectives on Chinua Achebe (1978), edited by C. L. Innes and Bernth Lindfors, presents diverse essays that both contextualize Achebe's work and assess his literary achievement. Two important books that also broke with anthropological criticism were Innes's Chinua Achebe (1990) and Simon Gikandi's Reading Chinua Achebe (1991).
As more and more critics began analyzing the text itself, a strain of criticism developed around the relations between Things Fall Apart and Aristotelian or Greek tragedy. While investigating the novel's structure, plot, and characters, critics began debating whether Okonkwo can be called a classical tragic hero. In Greek tragedy, the tragic hero is a noble character who tries to achieve some much-desired goal but encounters obstacles. He often possesses some kind of tragic flaw, and his downfall is usually brought about through some combination of hubris, fate, and the will of the gods. One of the earliest articles on this theme is Abiola Irele's "The Tragic Conflict in the Novels of Chinua Achebe" (1967), in which Irele asserts, "Things Fall Apart turns out to present the whole tragic drama of a society vividly and concretely enacted in the tragic destiny of a representative individual" (14). This idea grew popular during the 1970s and 1980s and has endured as a typical way of defining Okonkwo's character--even the back cover of the 1994 Anchor edition of the novel claims that it "is often compared to the great Greek tragedies." Some of the articles published during the 1980s on this theme include Ian Glenn's "Heroic Failure in the Novels of Achebe" (1985), Roger Landrum's "Chinua Achebe and the Aristotelian Concept of Tragedy" (1970), and Afam Ebeogu's "Igbo Sense of Tragedy: A Thematic Feature of the Achebe School" (1983). G. D. Killam also wrote about the tragic elements of the novel, asserting that Okonkwo's story "is presented in terms which resemble those of Aristotelian tragedy" and that Okonkwo's death is the result of "an insistent fatality . . . which transcends his ability to fully understand or resist a fore-ordained sequence of events" (17). David Cook, in African Literature: A Critical View, which contains an important early formalist study of Things Fall Apart, provides a close reading of Okonkwo, claiming, "If Things Fall Apart is to be regarded as epic, then Okonkwo is essentially heroic. Both propositions are tenable" (66). He closely examines Okonkwo's actions, and, although Cook believes Okonkwo is similar, he concludes: "Okonkwo is unlike the prototype epic heroes of Homer and Virgil in one very important respect which has to do with circumstances rather than character. He is not a founding figure in the fabled history of his people, but the very reverse" (67). Harold Bloom does not consider the novel a traditional Greek tragedy, but he does compare Okonkwo to Shakespeare's Coriolanus, concluding in his introduction to his Modern Critical Interpretations volume on Things Fall Apart, "If Coriolanus is a tragedy, then so is Things Fall Apart. Okonkwo, like the Roman hero, is essentially a solitary, and at heart a perpetual child. His tragedy stands apart from the condition of his people, even though it is generated by their pragmatic refusal of heroic death" (3).
This critical shift from anthropological readings to formalist ones helped solidify Achebe's literary reputation. However, like the anthropological approaches, formalist readings also present drawbacks. Booker explains:
Indeed, the formal strategies employed by Things Fall Apart are so complex and sophisticated that they do recall the works of Western modernism. As a result, however, Western critics are in danger of falling into old habits of formalist reading and thereby of failing to do justice to the important social and political content of Achebe's book. (African Novel 66)
Because Western critics have often looked to European literary standards as guidelines for critiquing Things Fall Apart, their criticism has, at times, been myopic. For instance, as Booker comments, Charles R. Larson, in The Emergence of the African Fiction, "tended to argue for the aesthetic value of African literature merely through the use of universalist arguments that claim that African literature is worth reading because it is often quite similar to European literature. Such arguments obviously fail to respect the differences of African cultural traditions" (African Novel 5). Still, as recently as 2002, Bloom commented that Things Fall Apart is a successful novel because "Okonkwo's apparent tragedy is universal, despite its Nigerian circumstancing" (2). He argues: "Okonkwo could be a North American, a Spaniard, a Sicilian, and Eskimo. The end would be the same" (2).
This universalist lens continues to be a popular method for reading Things Fall Apart, but, with the growing popularity of postcolonial theory, criticism has again shifted toward reexamining the novel's historical and cultural contexts, albeit in a different light. As Ato Quayson in Strategic Transformations in Nigerian Writing (1997) argues, "The traditional culture portrayed in a work such as Achebe's Things Fall Apart is never mistaken for a Japanese one. It is not just that the novel mimetically invokes Igbo forms of oral discourse, it also imitates a general cultural discursivity" (15). In addition, Booker maintains that literature cannot be separated from its context and history:
It is valuable for Western readers to study African literature because a sensitive reading of that literature makes it quite obvious that the different social and historical background of African literature leads to artistic criteria and conventions that differ from those of Europe or America. (African Novel 6)
African critics have voiced some of the strongest protests against universalist and New Critical readings. For instance, Chinweizu, Onwuchekwa Jemie, and Ihechukwu Madubuike's controversial book Toward the Decolonization of African Literature (1983) critiques and reviews work by Western critics such as Charles R. Larson "in order to reveal the assumption of Western cultural superiority that lies behind their work, even when they are ostensibly attempting to serve as advocates for the value of African literature" (Booker, African Novel 6). Achebe himself has argued against formalist and universalist readings, most notably in his essay "Colonialist Criticism." He bristles at Western critics who seem to think they know more about Africans than Africans. "To the colonialist mind it was always of the utmost importance to be able to say: I know my natives," he writes (Morning 6), arguing that this attitude often lingers in literary critics, and he finds universalist readings to be Eurocentric and often incomplete: "I should like to see the word universal banned altogether from discussions of African literature" (Morning 13).
Still, it is important to note that throughout the 1960s and into the 1980s, critics, theorists, and writers were trying to develop standards for analyzing the large amount of new African literature. Both African and non-African critics debated the standards of criticism and disagreed over universalist as well as African nationalist approaches. Toward the Decolonization of African Literature, which urged African writers to break away from their colonizers by reconnecting with their culture, emerged from this debate. Some critics and writers believed that this reconnection could be accomplished through rejection of the language of the colonizer. For example, in "The Dead End of African Literature" (1963), Obiajunwa Wali argued that writing in English would not do justice to African complexity and originality; he challenged writers and critics to turn away from European literature and critical methods: "The whole uncritical acceptance of English and French as the inevitable medium for educated African writing, is misdirected, and has no change of advancing African literature and culture" (14). This essay started an intense debate among African writers and critics. Internationally acclaimed Kenyon author Ngugi wa Thiong'o also argued in Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986) that African writers should renounce their ties with their colonizers; soon after, he began writing his own texts in Gikuyu and (to a lesser extent) Swahili.
That Achebe wrote and continues to write in English has caused some controversy. While both African and non-African critics agree that Achebe modeled Things Fall Apart on classic European literature, they disagree about whether his novel upholds a Western model or, in fact, subverts or confronts it. For instance, in Achebe and the Politics of Representation (2001), Ode Ogede questions whether Achebe can use the "colonizer's tongue" without "reproducing some of their stereotypes" (ix). Yet Achebe has continued to strongly defend his decision:
English is something you spend your lifetime acquiring, so it would be foolish not to use it. Also, in the logic of colonization and decolonization it is actually a very powerful weapon in the fight to regain what was yours. English was the language of colonization itself. It is not simply something you use because you have it anyway; it is something which you can actively claim to use as an effective weapon, as a counterargument to colonization. ("African" para. 30)
Rand Bishop, however, summarizes the opinions of the majority of critics when he writes that Achebe "seemed to find the happy middle ground that critics wanted, somewhere between the Victorian English of the British colonial forms and the `young English' of Tutuola. In fact, Achebe's use of English became widely accepted as a standard" (43). When Ben Obumselu reviewed Things Fall Apart in 1958, he praised the way Achebe handled the English language while also drawing on Nigerian oral tradition: "Such an experiment requires both imagination and originality. . . . His experiment is a very positive contribution to the writing of West African English literature, and I believe it will make the work of subsequent authors easier" (qtd. in Bishop 43). As Isidore Okpewho remarks: "Achebe transcended form and style for a more revisionist representation of the peculiar conditions and outlook of an African society in ways that the British authors could never have conceived" (8). As Booker explains, the "African novel is always a complex hybrid cultural phenomenon that combines Western and African cultural perspectives" (7), and a sizable number of African critics--such as Abiola Irele, Ernest N. Emenyonu, and Michael J. Echeruo--have closely examined Things Fall Apart as reflective both of a unique African cultural and historical context and of universal themes.
When Obumselu suggested in 1959 that Achebe's experiment with language would impact African literature, he was quite correct. The language of the novel continues to be a major focus for critical studies ranging from the anthropological to the postcolonial. Achebe's narrative voice incorporates spare, formal English prose and Igbo expressions, proverbs, and untranslated Igbo words. According to Ogede, the novel "replicates, evokes and simulates oral events in a raw form" (Reader's Guide 17), drawing on traditional Igbo oral culture. Many critics have examined Achebe's use of Igbo proverbs and the oral components of the text, but two are particularly helpful to students: Bernth Lindfors's "The Palm-Oil with Which Achebe's Words Are Eaten" (1968) argues that Achebe combines the modes of oral and written cultures, and Chinwe Christina Okechukwu's Achebe the Orator: The Art of Persuasion in Chinua Achebe's Novels (2001) examines how Achebe uses oratory and rhetorical devices to educate his readers about colonialism and its aftermath.
The language of the novel has not only intrigued critics but has also been a major factor in the emergence of the modern African novel. That Achebe wrote in English, portrayed Igbo life from the point of view of an African man, and used the language of his people in the text were innovations that greatly influenced the African writers who published soon after Achebe. Novelists such as Flora Nwapa, John Munonye, and Nkem Nwankwo, who broke into print in the late 1960s, all looked to Achebe as a guide, and even some more established or older Nigerian novelists were influenced by Achebe's use of the Igbo language. For example, Onuora Nzekwu, whose first novel was written in a stiff, formal English, wrote his third novel in an African vernacular style.
Today Achebe's fiction and criticism continue to inspire and influence African writers. African authors born in the late 1950s and in the 1960s and 1970s--including Helon Habila, Tsitsi Dangarembga, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie--have been particularly inspired or influenced by Achebe. Adichie, for instance, the author of the popular and critically acclaimed books Purple Hibiscus (2003) and Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), commented in a 2005 interview, "Chinua Achebe will always be important to me because his work influenced not so much my style as my writing philosophy: reading him emboldened me, gave me permission to write about the things I knew well" (para. 13).
Over the years, Things Fall Apart has been examined by a wide variety of critical schools. Although certain types of criticism have dominated discussions of the novel during different periods, they have also been interlaced with studies from a variety of other critical perspectives--such as Marxist, reader-response, psychoanalytic, historical, feminist, and cultural-studies approaches. Still, throughout the 1990s the dominant trend was postcolonialism, which at times also draws on Marxist and poststructuralist theories. Postcolonialist criticism focuses its critiques on the literature of countries that were once colonies of other countries. It arose during the 1980s, as many African countries were in political and economic crisis and theorists reexamined ideas about progress and development. As Simon Gikandi explains, "Instead of seeing colonialism as the imposition of cultural practices by the colonizer over the colonized, postcolonial theorists argued that the colonized had themselves been active agents in the making and remaking of the idea of culture itself" (Encyclopedia 125). In Post-colonial Literatures in English: History, Language, Theory (1998), Dennis Walder defines postcolonial literary criticism: "On the one hand, it carries with it the intention to promote, even celebrate the `new literatures' which have emerged over this century from the former colonial territories; and on the other, it asserts the need to analyze and resist continuing colonial attitudes" (6). He explains that Things Fall Apart is a postcolonial text, as it rejects the assumption that the colonized can only be the subjects of someone else's story; it seeks to "by telling the story of the colonized . . . retrieve their history. And more than that: by retrieving their history to regain an identity" (7). In Reading Chinua Achebe (1991), Gikandi argues that, although Things Fall Apart cannot be regarded as representative of a "real Igbo culture," it is an example of strategic resistance, as Achebe writes back or takes back his story and culture from colonial representations. Earlier debates about authenticity and representation--and the complications inherent to writing in a colonizer's language--were early jumping-off points for later postcolonial approaches.
Feminist criticism of Things Fall Apart did not begin appearing until the 1990s, but, when it arrived, it made a strong impact and opened the novel up to new interpretations. One of the more groundbreaking arguments is that of Canadian feminist critic Florence Stratton, who argues in Contemporary African Literature and the Politics of Gender (1994) that Achebe gives men cultural roles that were actually occupied by women in traditional Igbo culture. Biodun Jeyifo's "Okonkwo and His Mother" is an analysis of the gender politics of Things Fall Apart, and Rhonda Cobham, in "Problems of Gender and History in the Teaching of Things Fall Apart" (1990), argues that Things Fall Apart reinforces dominant male Christian views of traditional Igbo society.
For more than fifty years, Things Fall Apart has offered critics rich material for thought and reflection. Readers seeking in-depth overviews and samplings of criticism may wish to turn to several important essay collections about and guides to Achebe's work. Solomon O. Iyasere's Understanding "Things Fall Apart": Selected Essays and Criticism (1998) and Chinua Achebe: A Celebration (1990), edited by Kirsten Holst Petersen and Anna Rutherford, are both key collections. Isidore Okpewho's Chinua Achebe's "Things Fall Apart": A Casebook (2003) contains essays exploring the diverse issues raised by critics of the novel. Emerging Perspectives on Chinua Achebe (2004) is a two-volume set, edited by Ernest N. Emenyonu, that grew out of the twenty-fourth annual conference of the African Literature Association; it is quite comprehensive and covers all of Achebe's works to date, with essays by scholars from Africa, Europe, and Canada. The Chinua Achebe Encyclopedia (2003), edited by M. Keith Booker, is a comprehensive guide to Achebe's life and writings and includes descriptions of major characters, historical places, and critical responses to Achebe's work. David Whittaker and Mpalive-Hangson Msiska's Chinua Achebe's "Things Fall Apart" (2007) provides a detailed chapter on the history of criticism of the novel, as does Ode Ogede's Achebe's "Things Fall Apart": A Reader's Guide (2007). Booker's The African Novel in English (1998) provides substantial historical and contextual background on African literature and contains a chapter dedicated to Things Fall Apart. The most comprehensive biography on Achebe to date is Ezenwa-Ohaeto's Chinua Achebe: A Biography (1997).
Over the span of his long and productive career, Achebe helped create what is now known as the modern African novel and contributed to the development of African literary criticism. His influence on other African writers cannot be stressed enough. In addition to providing African writers with a new model, Achebe also helped promote African literature. In 1962 Achebe became the first series editor of the Heinemann African Writers Series, which has been one of the most important publishing venues for African literature. According to Achebe, the series' launch "was like the umpires' signal for which African writers had been waiting on the starting line" (Home and Exile 51).
When Things Fall Apart was published, Achebe gave Africans their own story in print. As he told Conjunctions in 1991:
The popularity of Things Fall Apart in my own society can be explained simply, because my people are seeing themselves virtually for the first time in the story. The story of our position in the world had been told by others. But somehow that story was not anything like the way it seemed to us from where we stood. So this was the first time we were seeing ourselves, as autonomous individuals, rather than half-people, or as Conrad would say, `rudimentary souls.' (para. 90)
Just as Things Fall Apart made a large impact on Africans, it has also proven to be popular among international audiences. It is one of those rare novels that can be read and reread from many different perspectives and continues to generate many diverse interpretations. It continues to endure as an international classic.
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Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Interview by Daria Tunca. The Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Website. 27 Jan. 2005. 3 Feb. 2010. http://www.l3.ulg.ac.be/adichie.
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