A Little Context for Things Fall Apart

It's hard to believe that he was only 28 when Things Fall Apart was published.
It’s hard to believe that he was only 28 when Things Fall Apart was published.

Let’s explore some information that should give you a sense that the analysis you’re doing of this novel is relevant and that it makes sense. I’m going to tell you a few facts, and then use those facts to make an argument about the dialogical nature of this text, and possibly of literature in general. You’ll find these facts on the front and back covers of the book:

Fact #1: The title: Things Fall Apart

Achebe used an allusion for the title; a brief snippet of the poem to which he alludes follows the copyright page in your edition. The poem from which he took the title is “The Second Coming,” by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats. The “Second Coming” itself is a reference to the apocalypse, to the end of the world as prophesied in the Book of Revelation.

If we think about the end of the world, it doesn’t have to mean the blowing up of planet Earth. For Yeats, the end of the world might have been the failure of the Irish to gain independence from England in 1916, a hopelessness derived from a description of the revolutionaries who were leading the quest so dear to Yeats’s heart through lines of the poem not quoted in your novel – “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” For Achebe, writing from London in 1958, the end of the world for his clan, the Ibo people of Nigeria, had happened decades ago with European imperialism into Africa.

By selecting what was already an iconic English-language poem as the basis for his novel, Achebe was laying a claim to a literary heritage. Though born in Africa, Achebe was writing in English for English and American audiences. He was likely well aware that a heavy-handed attempt to write a story of the nobility of his people would likely land on cliches that Europeans and Americans would reject, and so, while his title is a bold choice, and apocalypse a bold characterization for the imperialistic impulse, Achebe had to be a craftsman to write a story that would gain traction in the West.

Fact #2: The sales pitch: “This is Chinua Achebe’s masterpiece and it is often compared to the great Greek tragedies…” on the back cover.

Let’s get practical for a moment – the back cover of the book doesn’t just happen; the publisher’s marketing people work with the author and the agent to package the book. So if Achebe had been averse to the characterization of his novel as a Greek tragedy, he would have said so. And in crafting his novel as a tragedy, Achebe makes a claim on behalf of his African ancestors to the humanistic tradition of Western Civilization, where much of that civilization has traditionally viewed Africans as Others.

Because the novel is written as a Greek tragedy, our discussion of Poetics can serve as a critical lens through which we can view some of Achebe’s decisions in plot and characterization. We know the tragic effect occurs when “unmerited misfortune” befalls a character who “is between the two extremes” of the eminently just man and the utter villain. In other words, the character needs to be complex, and Achebe makes some interesting (and perhaps risky, in light of  what he knows of Western values) choices in establishing the complexity of his main character, Okonkwo.

Achebe knows Aristotle’s principles of plot, and he twists them in key places to suit his form (the novel) and his purpose. And while we didn’t read Aristotle’s principles of Thought and Diction, you’ll see as we move forward that they are applied in many places throughout the novel, and like plot incidents, are “subject always to our rules of probability and necessity.”

Please make sure that your reading of the novel is guided by the purposes described on the Things Fall Apart forum.


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