Takers vs. Makers in “Things Fall Apart”

things fall apart

I’ve been teaching Chinua Achebe’s Nigerian masterpiece Things Fall Apart (as a follow-up to Heart of Darkness in my 20th century English-Language Literature Survey) and am struck by how much America today can learn from the novel. That’s because we have our own version of one of its key conflicts, that between individual drive and the community’s collective tradition.

In our case, Republicans like Paul Ryan trumpet Ayn Randian individualism as they accuse Obama of collectivist socialism, and the president counters with Americans’ need to help each other. As he said in his inaugural,

The commitments we make to each other — through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security— these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.

Warrior Ibo culture in late 19th century society is far more collectivist than the United States, but even they have members who clearly fall into Ryan and Romney’s takers category. One of these is the protagonist’s father Unoka, who fits Romney’s 47 percent designation and legitimately deserves to be castigated:

In his day he was lazy and improvident and was quite incapable of thinking about tomorrow. If any money came his way, and it seldom did, he immediately bought gours of palm-wine, called round his neighbors and made merry. He always said that whenever he saw a dead man’s mouth he saw the folly of not eating what one had in one’s lifetime. Unoka was, of course, a debtor, and he owed every neighbor some money, from a few cowries to quite substantial amounts.

At one point Unoka goes to the village priestess to complain about his poverty, and she proceeds to chew his butt out for not working harder:

You, Unoka, are known in all the clan for the weakness of your matchet and your hoe. When your neighbors go out with their axe to cut down virgin forests, you sow your yams on exhausted farms that take no labor to clear. They cross seven rivers to make their farms; you stay at home and offer sacrifices to a reluctant soil. Go home and work like a man.

Okonkwo, impoverished and humiliated by his father, determines that he will be the opposite: he will make himself into a success:

He neither inherited a barn nor a title, nor even a young wife. But in spite of these disadvantages, he had begun even in his father’s lifetime to lay the foundations of a prosperous future. It was slow and painful. But he threw himself into it like one possessed. And indeed he was possessed by the fear of his father’s contemptible life and shameful death.

Against all odds, Okonkwo succeeds and goes on to become a respected man. In the words of the Romney campaign, he did build that. As a result, he is impatient with those who don’t work as hard as he does. In one meeting he humiliates a man by calling him a woman and is called upon to apologize. He does so, but he’s not really sorry:

 Everybody at the kindred meeting took sides with Osugo when Okonkwo called him a woman. The oldest man present said sternly that those whose palm-kernels were cracked for them by a benevolent spirit should not forget to be humble. Okonkwo said he was sorry for what he had said, and the meeting continued.

But it was really not true that Okonwo’s palm kernels had been cracked for him by a benevolent spirit. He had cracked them himself. Anyone who knew his grim struggle against poverty and misfortune could not say he had been lucky. If ever a man deserved his success, that man was Okonkwo. At an early age he had achieved fame as the greatest wrestler in all the land. That was not luck. At the most one could say that his chi or personal god was good. But the Ibo people have a proverb that when a man says yes his chi says yes also. Okonkwo said yes very strongly; so his chi agreed. And not only his chi but his clan too, because it judged a man by the work of his hands.

So far, Okonkwo sounds like an American success story. But here’s what we can learn from Things Fall Apart. There is something too reactionary about Okonkwo’s ambitions, and as a result he starts getting into trouble. While individual initiative should be celebrated, it must come from a clean space. Just as Republicans like Ryan often talk about success as a way of berating the 47% of Americans that they claim are moochers, so Okonkwo sees success mostly as a way of contrasting himself with his father:

[H]is whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness. It was deeper and more intimate than the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of the forest, and the forces of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and clas. Okonkwo’s fear was greater than these. It was not external but lay deep within himself. It was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father.

Because of this fear, there is something never quite right about Okonkwo. He can’t enter fully or joyously into festivals because he wants to be back at his farm working. He is a stern father who alienates his son. As a result, things begin to go wrong. His culture interprets this as his having a bad chi.

For instance, he forgets to observe the sacred week of peace and beats one of his wives, drawing stern reprimands from the village elders. Then his gun goes off accidentally at a funeral, killing a son of the dead man, and he is banished for seven years. His son rebels and becomes a Christian. Finally, at the end, Okonkwo erupts in anger at the white colonialists, kills one of their messengers, and chooses to hang himself rather than be taken off and executed. It is the book’s final irony that his body is thrown into the same “EvilForest” where his disgraced father ended up, the man he has spent his entire life distancing himself from.

Here’s Achebe’s lesson about individual success: When we throw our accomplishments in the face of those who are not successful, our chi is bad and our tribe suffers. On the other hand, when we acknowledge that our palm kernels have been cracked for us by a benevolent spirit, our chi smiles and all around us benefit.

So work hard, love life, and, when you are successful, be humble about it.

Can I hear an amen?

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  • sue

    Amen. Intersubjectivity is a word I like. Requires both a self and a community that are healthy.

  • Carl Rosin

    It has been several years since I have had the opportunity to teach Things Fall Apart but your commentary inspires me to try to get back to it — thank you for the insights!

    I also enjoyed (but struggled more with) teaching the novel Achebe considers his own greatest work, Arrow of God, but I found his essay “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” (in the excellent selected essays volume, Hopes and Impediments) invaluable in examining with my class the bridge between Conrad and Achebe. In this essay Achebe examines Conrad’s language, the establishment of antitheses and thus foils, and the two instances in which the Africans speak English, and he considers the parsing of Marlow from Conrad. Well-meaning in one way, unconsciously condescending in another, Conrad — argues Achebe — “saw and condemned the evil of imperial exploitation but was strangely unaware of the racism on which it sharpened its iron tooth.”

  • http://www.xokigbo.com Ikhide

    Interesting but rather unsophisticated take on Unoka, Okonkwo’s father. A bit disappointing actually, considering that Professor Bates has been teaching Things Fall Apart for quite a while. I believe it is time to re-assess the complex character that was Unoka. Unoka was a deeply sensitive artist who was quite an accomplished but unappreciated artist (musician – he played the flute). He did not fit the mode of a man in a patriarchy that had certain orthodox expectations of men. And he suffered greatly for it. By orthodox standards, he was a failure, but was he really? Or was it the society that failed to understand and appreciate his own gifts? He did not belong in a farm. That did not make him lazy.

  • Herbert Ogwal

    Well, I guess this is a quick reminder to all of us. Most times when we get succesful we begin to think like 2pac sang…Me Vs the World… We forget that our path was shaped by some members of the community no matter how small the contribution was. We need to remember that our God in this case Chi has been with us through it all.

    Herbert.

  • http://www.kwenu.com MOE

    Every Igbo child knows the saying: “Onye kwe, chi ya ekwe.” (Whoever believes, achieves.) Or, as Mark 9:23 has it: Everything is possible for one who believes. ‘Okonkwo said yes very strongly; so his chi agreed.’ Did Okonkwo’s chi REALLY agree that he should disrespect his father, trample on social norms, and be ‘a man’ by any means physically possible? I don’t think so! Okonkwo forgot the ‘part two’ of the popular Igbo adage, which Achebe himself forgot to reveal: “Ị bụrụ chi gị ụzọ, ị gbagbue onwe gị n’ọsọ” (If you outrun your chi, you will do the race of your life.) It is not given to any mere mortal to dictate the pace of life. Okonkwo outran his chi, and the finale was not pretty.

  • http://nil chinonye amii

    Ikhide, you are so wrong. The professor’s parallells to Unoka are in order and Unoka is neither a complex nor commendable character. The guy was bone lazy and very shameful. Fancy having him as your real life father and tell me you would not be ashamed of him. He was a perpetual borrower and debtor who had the effrontery to laugh at his creditors. Those of us who have lent money to Unoka types do our best to conceal our frustrations while they run around and make us run with them. He was a skilled musical artiste but even my intense love for music won’t blind me to his flaws and lack of self-respect.


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