Saturday, February 18, 2006

Here's a Paper I Wrote This Week

The Wicked Son in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart

In Afrocentricity and Multiculturalism, Ali Mazrui makes the claim on behalf of Africans that “we invented the family” (qtd. in Henry 207). Whatever the merits of this boast, it is true that the family unit is central in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Ultimately, it is the disintegration of the protagonist Okonkwo’s family that stands as an indicator, but perhaps also the actual cause of the cultural disintegration referenced in the title. And though the Africans may have invented the family, it is beneficial to look at another culture’s tradition of family to get a better sense of how this disintegration occurred. Specifically, the Jewish tradition of the “Wicked Son” is applicable to the relationship in Okonkwo’s family structure.
A Passover midrash at least one thousand years old tells the story of four sons. The “son who does not know how to ask” is unable to enquire about the celebration, and is therefore given direct instruction by his father. The simple son can at least recognize that something out of the ordinary is occurring and can ask what is happening. The wise son quotes Deuteronomy: “What mean the testimonies and the statues and the ordinances, which the Lord our God hath commanded you?” The wicked son quotes Exodus: “What mean you by this service?” (Gallagher and Greenblatt 243).
The difference between the questions of the wise and wicked sons are subtle but wide. By using the term “you” the Wicked Son distances himself from the tradition. According to Gallagher and Greenblatt, this is a fundamental rupture in the Jewish individual’s duty to the community and family: “The issue here and throughout the Seder is a Jew’s relation to historical memory. The Haggadah enjoins a continual renewal of the ancient experience. . . The wicked child refuses to incorporate the memory of enslavement and the Exodus from Egypt; he refuses to swallow the story as his own (qtd. in Lentriccia 244).
Ironically, Things Fall Apart represents a reversal of this Jewish tradition. The implicit message in the story of the Wicked Son is that by not re-enacting the previous generation’s escape from slavery, the current generation risks at the very least a symbolic cultural, if not physical, enslavement. In Achebe’s story, the inability of Wicked Sons to pay homage to the free generations of the past results in an enslavement, both physical and cultural. There is even a geographical reversal in the stories, as the Jews escape from African enslavement to a freedom outside of that continent, while the Umuofians regress into an enslavement that originates outside of Africa but arrives on their (heretofore unbloodied) doorsteps.
Significant to the Passover story is the event that leads to the Jews finally receiving permission to leave Egypt. After all the plagues visited on the Egyptians, it is the deaths of the firstborn that is the one that finally inspires the Pharaoh to briefly open the gates of freedom. The first born are significant because they will one day inherit from their fathers. Receiving an unearned inheritance mandates a show of gratitude, a responsibility to pay honor to one’s ancestors. By cutting off the future inheritors, the threat to the society is that the living will not receive their due honors after their life has passed by.
Again, we get an ironic reversal of this model in Things Fall Apart. Okonkwo receives no inheritance from his father, and therefore pays him no homage. In fact, he goes so far as to repress his father’s very existence, excising him from his thoughts whenever possible: “Whenever the thought of his father’s weakness and failure troubled him he expelled it by thinking about his own strength and success” (46). Later, in his one moment of sympathy with his father, when he fears the same symbolic patricide that he has inflicted upon his father will befall him, he simultaneously severs their link, while also severing the link slowly forming in his mind between his father and his son: “But Nwoye resembled his grandfather, Unoka, who was Oknokwo’s father. He pushed the thought out of his mind” (108).
Of course, repressing his feelings about his father does not mean they are not there. In fact, we know from our omniscient narrator that Okonkwo’s unconscious disposition toward his father is what drives his every decision: “…Okonkwo was ruled by one passion—to hate everything that his father Unoka had loved” (10). Significant here is that Okonkwo is ruled by a “passion.” Not only are his feelings buried in the realm of the unconscious, but they are safely buried there because there are not articulated in language. Oknokwo is a creature of passion throughout the novel, and his moments of clearest insight come about in visual images, whether it is of he and his father in the afterlife “crowding round their ancestral shrine,” (108) or of being in “sympathy [with a] smouldering log” (109). Not having the language with which to achieve true insight into his nature, he is an amalgamation of the Wicked Son (who does not respect his ancestor) and the “son who does not know how to ask.”
It is the latter distinction that leads him to his ruin. Although Okonkwo and his oldest son had never formed a bond, there was a time when Nwoye showed him veneration. Their relationship was irrevocably altered when Okonkwo killed Ikemefuna, an event that could have been altered had Okonkwo simply listened to the most respected elder in the village. However, when Ezeudu warns against Okonkwo taking part in Ikemufuna’s execution, Okonkwo says nothing in response. He does not argue, agree, or question. Unable to work through the decision in the verbal realm, he is forced to rely on his instinctive desire to separate himself from his father, and perhaps in doing so, he projects his Oedipal desires to kill his father unto his adopted son. Indeed we are told that in the crucial moment of Ikemufuna’s murder, Okonwko was “dazed with fear” (43). Again, his passion (in this case fear) gets the upper hand over a cognitive working through of his desires and motivations.
Okonkwo’s psyche’s repressive instinct is not limited to his relationship with his father. In the days after he killed Ikemufuna, Okonkwo spends three days struggling with his guilt, before finally being able to repress it. After three days “He began to wonder why he had felt uneasy at all. It was like a man wondering in broad daylight why a dream had appeared so terrible to him at night” (53). Of course, the psychoanalytic implications of this are obvious. The dream is the means by which the repressed returns, and in the daytime loses its power. Okonkwo’s guilt is now buried in the unconscious.
However, it has its return in the form of the “accidental” death of Ezeudu’s son, a convenient target given the father’s role as a gadfly on Okonkwo’s conscience. The effect of Okonkwo’s shooting of Ezeudu’s son is banishment and the loss of everything he had worked for, an appropriate self-punishment that Okonkwo’s unconscious administers to its subject. However, even this punishment pales to the agony that Okonkwo has yet to endure—the desertion of his eldest son.
It may be that all along Okonkwo’s unconscious was working toward a rupture between father and son, as evidenced by an early threat he made against Nwoye: “I will not have a son who cannot hold up his head in the gathering of the clan. I would sooner strangle him with my own hands” (24). Just as he rejected and symbolically killed his father by refusing to acknowledge his memory, he has a (perhaps unconscious) fear that his oldest son will do the same to him. This is even better articulated later: “He saw himself and his father crowding round the ancestral shrine waiting in vain for worship and sacrifice and finding nothing but ashes of bygone days, and his children the while praying to the white man’s god. If such a thing were ever to happen, he, Okonkwo, would wipe them off the face of the earth” (108).
The shift in intensity between the above two passages can be attributed to Okonkwo’s growth from a vague uneasiness about his progeny’s ability to fulfill their duty to him (in the first) to an outright realization (in the second) that his son is, in the Jewish sense, wicked. The seeds of Nowoye’s “wickedness” can be seen as far back as his duplicity toward his father’s storytelling: “And so he feigned that he no longer cared for women’s stories” (38). The death of Ikemufuna is the turning point in their relationship. Like his father, Nwoye lacks the language to describe his unease, but our narrator tells us that he felt “a snapping inside him” (43). Later, he still lacks a language to describe his dissatisfaction, but the Christian church provides him with an emotional dimension that his home life lacked: “It was not the mad logic of the Trinity that captivated him. He did not understand it. It was the poetry of the new religion, something felt in the marrow…He felt a relief within as the hymn poured into his parched soul” (104). This new sensation gives him the ability to say for the first time of Okonkwo “He is not my father” (101).
Nwoye’s external sign of his transformation is to change his name to Isaac. In this, he has committed the sin of the Wicked Son; through nomenclature he has chosen to end his identification with the line of his ancestors and enter into a new tradition, ironically the same tradition which gives us the concept of the Wicked Son. Perhaps room must be made for a fifth son at the Passover table—the adopted son. For though it is Christianity which makes its claim upon Nwoye, he chooses a name more common to Judaism—a faith that doesn’t have “the mad logic of the Trinity.” Also unlike Christianity, it is a faith that still calls for filial obligation. Notably, when Mr. Kiaga tells him “Blessed is he who forsakes his father and mother for my sake” (108), Nwoye “did not fully understand” (108). It is likely that the lack of understanding comes about because Nwoye/Isaac like Okonkwo, wants to reject his father, but also like Okonkwo, doesn’t want to reject the cultural standard of ancestral respect that is shared in both the African and Jewish traditions—an ancestral respect that gives rise to claims such as “we invented the family.”


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