Monday, April 24, 2006

Last Paper

In all likelihood, this is the last paper I'll have to write in some time, and perhaps my last English paper ever. This makes me a little sad because in the last couple years I have discovered a lot through writing papers, and the amount of insight I get into a particular subject through writing is often enough to make up for the work that goes into the writing. If I feel my brain atrophying, perhaps I'll have to force myself to whip up a little ten pager or something just to post on this blog.

In the mean time, feel free to enjoy this 19-pager about the seminal African novel "Things Fall Apart." In my reading of academic writing over the last couple years, I've noticed that it is pretty often to include a "twist," to surprise the reader with an unexpected interpretive move or two, only tangentially related to what appeared previously to be the thesis of the paper. In this paper I've got so many "twists" it makes me dizzy. In order to get to a page length requirment, rather than belabor points I'd already made, I spun off new ones. I'm actually pretty happy with how it turned out. Enjoy.

The Wicked Son and Non-Wicked Daughter 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). The correlation between a functional family unit and the functionality of a larger society is a central theme of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Ultimately, it is the disintegration of the protagonist Okonkwo’s family that stands as an indicator of the actual cultural disintegration referenced in the title. But was it inevitable that Okonkwo’s family had to fall apart? To begin to answer this question, though 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.”
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.

Okonkwo’s “Wickedness”
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). Harry Olufunwa points out that this mental action is indicative of Okonkwo’s inability to remember the past linearly:
…space in time in Okonkwo’s memories are distorted to a great degree….He appears to be able to remember only his father’s “contemptible life and shameful death”, a recollection which so dominates his perception of his father that it obscures whatever else occurred in his past (62)
Of course, repressing and compacting his feelings and memories 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). In this tableau, he an amalgamation of the Wicked Son (who does not respect his ancestor) and the “son who does not know how to ask” (since his inability to verbalize the images that pass through his mind preclude an ability to inquire into the causes of his distress).
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.

Passivity vs. Action
Just as the “Wicked Son” in the Jewish tradition distances himself from his duty to community and family, Okonkwo demonstrates wickedness by repeatedly invoking his own moral code and value system, which can be at odds with the community’s. This is most evident in his thirst for action and his restlessness. Since he operates in a community which values and inscribes restraint, the result in a slow build-up of tension which, for Okonkwo, can only result in a burst of ultimate wickedness.
Existing much of the time in a pre-verbal stage, Okonkwo “…had a slight stammer and whenever he was angry and could not get his words out quickly enough, he would use his fists” (3). This tragic flaw is reminiscent of Melville’s Billy Budd, who because of a stutter, ended up undermining his own innocence and killing a British officer. Because of his language deficiency, Okonkwo can not fully enter the communal order (though he strives to do so), and is left with frustration. The frustration feeds his restlessness and impatience, making him a man of action (often impulsive action), which in a vicious cycle, furthers his alienation from the community and leads to greater and greater frustration.
Since the character ultimately encounters frustration in so many aspects of his life, it is easy to lose track of the initial cause of his frustration—his father. We are told that “He had no patience with unsuccessful men. He had had no patience with his father” (3). The juxtaposition of these sentences is helpful in uncovering the sublimation involved in his psyche—all the unresolved frustration (presumably going back to unfulfilled Oedipal drives) of his relationship with his father continues to drive him to restless action in his dealings with his tribe. The effect of this sublimation is that his lack of filial deference is projected onto his social interactions. This is significant because it indicates that his frustration, impatience, and hastiness is not the cause of his alienation from his tribesmen, but rather the result of an already existing alienation.
Therefore, his act of violence against the British messenger can not be presumed to be the explosive result of a slow build-up of outrage against a passive and cowardly generation of tribesmen that has betrayed the ideals of their fathers. Okonkwo tries to rationalize the event before it even occurs. He predicts that the tribe will choose to avoid war, and laments that “Worthy men are no more” (141). He asserts to himself that “…if they chose to be cowards he would go out and avenge himself” (141). Notably, this train of logic takes place while he “…slept very little that night” (141). He does not want to enter the realm of dreams and allow his unconscious mind to dispute the rationalizations he forms. However, the truth does slip out to some degree. In his meandering thoughts he lights upon a scapegoat in Egonwanne, who he predicts will use his “sweet tongue” to “move out men to impotence” by arguing that “our fathers never fought a ‘war of blame’” (141). In acknowledging Egonwanne’s verbal skills, Okonkwo subconsciously admits the lack of his own grasp of language. However, the truth of the matter is that Okonkwo’s verbal shortcomings may be a subconscious way of avoiding truth—he is, after all, able to predict Egonwanne’s speech. Notably, he doesn’t offer any defense against Egonwanne’s presumed argument. Deep down, Okonkwo knows that Egonwanne is right. Their fathers never fought a “war of blame.” It is (Okonkwo’s) Egonwanne that invokes ancestry and filial obligation when discussing whether to go to war. Okonwko himself knows he will “leave them and plan my own revenge” (141 italics mine). What Okonwko doesn’t even realize about himself, though, is that the revenge isn’t against the British, it is against his own tribe, standing in for his unresolved hatred for his father.
In striking down the messenger, Okonkwo has the necessary pretext for suicide, which leads to the achievement of what Okonkwo has been unconsciously striving for his whole life—separation from his clan. He has taken an action which he knows will force them to reject him. Despite the irony of a type of reconciliation with his father (by suffering a mutual fate), the action is one of wickedness—in elevating himself over the tribe, he has severed himself from what his culture holds sacred.
It is also a fate foreshadowed in more ways than one in an exchange between Okonkwo and Obierika:
“I don’t know how to thank you” [said Okonkwo]
“I can tell you,” said Obierika, “Kill one of your sons for me”
“That will not be enough,” said Okonkwo.
“Then kill yourself,” said Obierika.
“Forgive me,” said Okonkwo, smiling. “I shall not talk about thanking you anymore.” (100).
Although both characters are speaking in jest, there is serious meaning. At for the request for filicide, Okonkwo’s response is telling. To kill one’s child wouldn’t be a great sacrifice for him. On one hand, he has already done it and managed to overcome the elements of conscience that haunted him. On the other hand, he is already expressed a willingness to kill his son, under the guise of protecting the interests of the clan “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 own father by refusing to acknowledge his memory, he has a (perhaps unconscious) fear that his oldest son will do the same to him
As for the second request, although Obierika is not asking Okonkwo for a literal suicide, his request can be read as a request for Okonkwo to put the tribe before himself, something he ironically rejects by following the literal request. The degree to which Okonkwo possesses an agency and an individual subjectivity is, though I believe settled once and for all with his final action, obfuscated throughout the bulk of the novel. His actions oscillate between pursuit of self-interest and deference to the cultural standards and values of others. Moments of rebelliousness are common: his beating and attempted murder of his wife on a holy day, his decision to accompany the group that planned to kill Ikemefuna, his decision to act alone in plotting rebellion against the British, and even his rejection of his father could be seen as moments when his will emerges supreme in the battle with the collective will. However, his participation in tribal ceremonies that mask his identity, his willingness to accept punishment which he personally believes to be unfair, the deference which he showed his maternal relatives, and his willingness to swallow his pride and admit that he has a weak “chi” all conspire to present a more complex portrait.
Neil ten Kortenaar explores this dynamic. He argues that Okonkwo’s split psyche is indicative of Achebe’s own psyche. He sees a parallel between Okonkwo’s role in the novel and Achebe’s struggle as an African novelist—the struggle to express one’s own subjectivity through art while at the same time feeling beholden to be a representative of the community. Ten Kortenaar sees the portrayal of Okonkwo as Achebe’s attempt to make sense of his own role, a role which creates a subjectivity at odds with itself—a self that feels “its division from the world and from its own essential self” (792). Yet, according to ten Kortenaar, this type of split subjectivity is not the province of artists alone, but of the African colonial condition in general. The result is that the artist’s struggles are representative of the community. However, he then maintains that “Representation is dangerous hubris” (792), as illustrated by Okonkwo’s drive for political status: “Okonkwo’s very desire to be the agent of the Oracle that directs Umuofia’s affairs is the mark of his distance from the community” (792).
As an artist, it makes sense for Achebe to strive to be representative. It is less clear what the motivation is for Okonkwo to seek representation. I think the answer can be found in untangling the ambivalences Okonkwo feels towards his culture. He personally wants to reject, forget, and metaphorically kill his father, but he knows the dangers of social disorder and cultural disintegration that would result if this were the norm. His dueling impulses play out in the divergent practices noted above, and the attempt at political power could be seen as an attempt at resolution. By not just attaining the law of the father, but by becoming the tribe’s spiritual father, he could attain silence his conscience. At that point, his patricide would be justified because he would be the law, there would be no memory of his a law before him (at least no conscious memory—following the logic of Freud’s Moses and Monotheism it would be likely that in this scenario Okonkwo would set up a totemic memorial for his father).
Unfortunately for Okonkwo’s ambitions, the arrival of the British as a colonial power preclude him from attaining the law of the father. He will never have phallic power as long as the tribe is subjugated. The only option left to him, the only way that he can finally resolve his tension, is through a final and clean break with the tribe, to finally allow his subjectivity to conquer the collective subjectivity. His own interests and the tribe’s interests are no longer reconcilable.

Individualism vs. Collectivity
Another aspect of the relationship between the individual’s duties to self versus the community is explored by Christopher Wise. He makes the case that one can not understand the dynamic at work within Things Fall Apart without jettisoning the Western reliance on Cartesian ideas of subjectivity. Wise cites Achebe’s own rejection of Cartesian thought, and highlights the short leap from “cogito ergo sum” to essentializing the Other, which leads to racism and oppression of the Other. Wise sees a Levinasian notion of service to the Other (including ancestral others) as the organizing principle of Igbo society.
Despite his claims that the novel privileges a collective subjectivity, Wise also explores the paradoxical emphasis in Igbo culture of individual achievement, most notably in Okonkwo’s achievements and aspirations: “[The Igbo] are…endowed with a strikingly logocentric and powerful individualism” (1063).
While Wise may posit it as a “paradox,” I’m less comfortable with the juxtaposition, and prefer the label “contradiction.” After repudiating a Western ontology, Wise seems to allow it back into play by raising logocentrism, a very Western tenet. Wise is conspicuously silent on the subject of Okonkwo’s suicide. Was he ultimately acting in his self-interest or in the service of the community? As I have argued, I believe he was acting in purely self-interest, and that the act of suicide, an act anathema to Igbo culture, indicates an ironic bond with the colonizer’s culture. Suicide requires a Cartesian worldview. However, the creep toward Westernism was evident in Okonkwo before the Western ontology arrived. His wickedness is his responsibility and not the result of cultural imperialism. In death, his hanging, symbolic of suspension, is ultimately indicative of his tenuous position in life between these two notions of subjectivity.

Nwoye’s “Wickedness”
As noted, Okonkwo’s unconscious was working toward a rupture between father and son, as evidenced by an early threat he made against Nwoye: “I would sooner strangle him with my own hands” (24). 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). Though he was clearly attempting to curry favor with his father in this instance, his actual disinterest in his fathers’ stories of warfare betoken a fundamental fissure between the two. Those seeds of wickedness and rebellion spring to life with the killing of Ikemufuna, the turning point in their relationship.
Some critics have attempted to minimize Okonkwo’s complicity in the boy’s death. Solomon O. Iyasere takes it upon himself to prosecute Okonkwo for the action. He responds to Damian Opata’s argument that since the action wasn’t pre-mediated, Okonkwo was the victim of fate, as well as David Carroll’s argument that since Okonkwo was acting on behalf of the will of the community, the community and not the individual was to blame. Iyasere points out that it was certainly pre-mediated for Okonkwo to accompany the group on their journey, and that though the community sanctioned the death of Ikemufuna, it certainly condemned the one the boy called father having any hand in his death, much less in delivering the actual death blow. In addition to taking away Okonkwo’s defenses, Iyasere goes on the offensive, accusing Okonkwo of “limited metacognitive powers” (310). He adds that “Lacking rhetorical skill, Okonkwo overcompensates for his deficiency in this area by being too quick to act” (311). Earlier in this paper, I have examined this tendency in Okonkwo, and have examined what I believe to be the psychological cause of his “deficiency.” I raise Iyasere’s accusations here because I think his explanation for Okonkwo’s “act first” mentality has interesting consequences. He ultimately sees Okonkwo as the ultimate conformist, always ready to act so that he will not be judged by others as “unmanly and effeminate” (311).
Although I’ve already made clear that I see Okonkwo as a nonconformist, I think with some slight tweaking, I can reconcile our divergent views of the character. Although wanting separation from the tribe, and wanting separation from his father, Okonkwo is subconsciously aware of his Oedipal drive to kill his father, and therefore must be fearful of suffering the same fate befalling him. His drive to action, therefore, need not be a pre-emptive strike against being judged, but a constant attempt to postpone judgment, not so much from the tribe, but from his own thoughts and those of his sons, including Ikemufuna, who in looking to him for justice, also demanded that Okonkwo make a judgment, something that must be avoided at all costs. Iyasere points out that “What Okonkwo does not recognize is that by attempting to obliterate his father’s reality, he symbolically destroys his own existence and his own place in Umuofia society…” (313). As I have argued, I think Okonkwo did recognize this, albeit subconsciously. He had the dueling impulse to embrace and avoid this drive.
The desire to avoid judgment can not always be avoided, and in his act of killing Ikemufuna, Okonkwo simultaneously made a judgment against justice for his adopted son, which inspired Nwoye to make the very judgment that Okonkwo had been hoping to avoid—the patricidal instinct blossomed within Nwoye’s consciousness.
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.”
The Non-Wicked Daughter
Though both the Jewish and African traditions venerate ancestral respect and the idea of a “family,” our vantage point today allows us to notice the conspicuous absence of the daughter as an agent of cultural, not just corporal, reproduction in the mythologies. Although we have four different sons present at the Passover midrash, we lack any daughters. Things Fall Apart presents two generations of wicked sons in a patriarchal. In a patriarchal society, the sons are the ones who must uphold and pass on cultural traditions. When sons are wicked, things fall apart. What makes this story a tragedy is that but for a tragic flaw, things wouldn’t fall apart, or come to a tragic conclusion. I’ve already discussed at length the character Okonkwo and his tragic flaw(s), but in a larger sense this narrative is also the tragedy of a culture, with patriarchy the culture’s tragic flaw.
In order for patriarchy to be considered an aspect of the culture’s downfall, the narrative must present an alternative to patriarchy and hint at the possibility that an adaptation of the alternative would have potentially resulted in a different fate. Achebe delivers the alternative in the person of Ezinma. While Okonkwo was engaged in an Oedipal struggle with his wicked son, all along he had a decidedly non-wicked daughter. In contrast to Nwoye’s rejection of his culture’s bedrock spiritual values, Ezinma as a young girl consented to the being a vessel for those values. The middle of the night journey to the shrine could have been an important moment of cultural transmission and reproduction, but the event seemingly had no significance for Ezinma or the tribe when she reached adulthood. Laura Nesbitt sees Ezinma as a central character of the novel, one who unlike Okonkwo who “represents the past,” instead “symbolizes rebirth and the future of the clan” (6). During Ezinma’s journey to the shrine, Nesbitt is impressed by the girl’s courage, which she interprets as indicative of the fact that “The future will be found in the union of native people sharing their struggle, courageous enough to create new religion, language, and educational systems” (7). I am in agreement with Nesbitt that this character and this specific event carry the potential to create a better future, but her actual power to achieve that potential was limited by how her culture viewed women and the family. She was not allowed a seat at the figurative Passover table, and her virtue was not able to pick up the slack for Nwoye’s wickedness, even though the often obtuse Okonkwo saw the potential in her for greatness: “He never stopped regretting that Ezinma was a girl” (122).
Not only did Ezinma have the potential to fulfill a new cultural function, but I think she also had the potential to fulfill a new familial role. The story is filled with father-son relationships in which there is a disharmony between the parties, which resulted in all manifestations of violence. However, Ezinma and her father had a deep connection: “Of all his children she alone understood his every mood. A bond of sympathy had grown between them as the years had passed” (122). Had this bond existed between any of the father-son relationships in the narrative (Unoka/Okonkwo, Okonkwo/Ikemefuna, Okonkwo/Nwoye) the story’s tragic elements would have been eliminated.
Despite the fact that Okonkwo comes from a patriarchal culture, he can not be excused for wishing that Ezinma was a boy. The counsel he received from his maternal uncle Uchendu could have been enough to enlighten him to the role Ezinma could have played:
“…can you tell me, Okonkwo, why it is that one of the commonest names we give our children is Nneka, or ‘Mother is Supreme?’ We all know that a man is the head of the family and his wives do his bidding…And yet we say Nneka— ‘Mother is Supreme.’ Why is that?”
There was silence…’I do not know the answer’ Okonkwo replied…
‘Listen to me and I shall tell you. But there is one more question I shall ask. Why is it that when a woman dies she is taken home to be buried with her own kinsmen?’
Okonkwo shook his head (94)
Although Uchendu is practicing a Socratic rhetoric in order to force Okonkwo into thinking about these questions, Okonkwo is resistant. After the first question, he only breaks his silence when forced to. The second question he gives no verbal response. He is a man of action and not contemplation, and therefore the answer that Uchendu provides to his own questions goes in one proverbial ear and out the other: “A man belongs to his fatherland when things are good and life is sweet. But when there is sorrow and bitterness he finds refuge in his motherland. Your mother is there to protect you” (95).
Although Uchendu provides an answer, the answer just raises more questions. Why is the fatherland equated with goodness and the motherland with bitterness? Why is the motherland a refuge? To address the second question first, I think the answers can be found in the Oedipal struggle. The fatherland is a site of vicious Oedipal conflict, with the son often acting out patricidal desires in a variety of alternative but perhaps equally anti-social guises. Ironically, though, the punishment for such anti-social behavior is actually a reward. The subject is banished to the motherland, which in part fulfills the Oedipal desire of mating with the mother.
However, this still doesn’t resolve why the motherland would be equated with bitterness. If the subject has actually attained, albeit in sublimated form, one of the goal’s of the Oedipal struggle, why doesn’t he rejoice? Perhaps the victory is hollow if the prize is not attained through patricide. To make one’s own name in the fatherland, to attain the political power that Okonkwo was seeking, is, as discussed earlier, to become one with the law of the father and to symbolically kill the father. The motherland may become a refuge in the event of failure to succeed in the fatherland, but it is a bitter refuge.
This is not to suggest that it had to stay a bitter refuge, though. Okonkwo, like any other subject, had the potential to undergo Oedipalization. It is rather frivolous to suggest that he would have benefited from a talking cure, but his resistance of verbalization of his emotions and beliefs precluded him from working through his unresolved conflict with his father. Had he successfully done so, an alternative to his tragic fate was open.
In “The Crisis of Cultural Memory in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart,” F. Abiola Irele comes to the ironic conclusion that the novel is utopian. Irele sees Achebe making a leap that his African contemporaries didn’t in refusing to romanticize the past and instead beginning the work of conceptualizing a future. According to Irele, Achebe’s work “represents an imaginative remapping of the African experience within the space of history, the literary mode deployed as a means of shaping consciousness for the confrontation of the new realities on the horizon of African being” (24). In this model “cultural memory” is not forgotten, but allows for the subject to become “resolutely oriented toward a future envisioned as pregnant with new possibilities” (24).
I am particularly interested in how Irele regards the nature of “cultural memory.” The “crisis” he speaks of in the title is the recognition by the people of Umuofia that the traditional modes of thought are no longer equipped to deal with the present problems presented by the colonial encounter. Irele sees the “crisis” as an evolutionary nudge in which cultural memory, perhaps even collective memory, is re-fashioned.
Irele finds a meaningful summary of the culture’s value system in this passage: “A man’s life from birth to death was a series of transition rites which brought him nearer and nearer to his ancestors” (86). The “crisis” is the shake-up in this order, first hinted at in the conflict between Okonkwo and his father, and then ruptured in the conflict between Okonkwo and Nwoye. But from the ashes of the old order comes the hint of a new order.
It was possible that after banishment, Okonkwo could have stayed in the motherland. He could have given proper veneration to Uchendu as a surrogate father, received honor and veneration from his virtuous daughter Ezinma, and found a functioning role as a member of his mother’s tribe. The center may have held together after all, had the culture that invented the family been a bit more open to revising its definition of the family and its expectations of familial roles, in which wicked sons can be redeemed with new fathers and non-wicked daughters are invited to the table. That this tantalizing possibility emerges from a close scrutiny of the novel speaks to the truth that Irele may be right—perhaps Things Fall Apart is a utopian text, after all.


Works Cited
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1958.
Gallagher, Catherine and Stephen Greenblatt. “The Mousetrap.” Close Reading: The Reader. Eds. Frank Lentricchia and Andrew Dubois. Durham, N.C.: Duke UP, 2003.
Henry, Annette. “Missing: Black Self-Representations in Canadian Educational Research.” Canadian Journal of Education 18.3 (1993): 206-222.
Irele, F. Abiola. “The Crisis of cultural Memory in chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.” African Studies Quarterly 4.3 (2000): 36 pgs. 26 March 2006. .
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4 Comments:

Blogger Heidi said...

i wrote a 2 1/2 page essay on napolean. i got a 89, or a A or whatever you get graded by. i like it. but, you should get Robin (sandwich) to tell you about the oil/dog essay. im too ashamed to talk about it here...

12:40 PM  
Blogger Enjoy_Every_Sandwich said...

LOL!!
You're ashamed, but I'm not.
We had to write an essay about the importance of oil in our society, and heidi for some reason started writing all this crap about how if there was no oil dogs would take over the earth and become the dominant species.
kind of like in planet of the apes.

10:37 PM  
Blogger kevin said...

wow, that sounds like something i want to read.

10:02 AM  
Blogger Azor said...

I think dogs really are our dominant species. They are just waiting for the oil to run out before asserting their power.

I think Napolean was actually a dog, too.

3:44 PM  

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