Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Achebe's Depiction of the Conflicting Cultures

The pervading tension that arises in the last half of the novel is that of two opposing cultures: the Igbo people and the Anglo-Saxon invaders. As we discussed in our last class, Achebe seems to both criticize and celebrate the various customs of the Igbo culture almost simultaneously, creating a sort of morally ambiguous representation of the culture. But as the conflict between the two cultures develops Achebe’s depiction of the Igbo cultures shifts.

When the missionaries arrive in the villages we see that Achebe describes both the positive and negative aspects of both cultures. He presents the reader with more of the questionable aspects of the Igbo culture like the ill treatment of the osu, religious outcasts who are excluded entirely from the social life of the village, or their veneration of the royal python “the most revered animal in Mbanta and all the surrounding clans”(157). But Achebe balances this by also providing the reader with an example of Igbo morality in the form of Uchendu, Okonkwo’s uncle who stresses the importance of women in the culture and saves Nwoye from the beating his father gives him for being seen with the Christians.

The Anglo-Saxon culture is initially depicted in much the same way. The reader is introduced to the positive aspects of the church when we learn that it welcomes the “abominations” (twins, osu) that the Igbo people reject. But “the white man had not only brought a religion but also a government” and Achebe clearly depicts the oppressive nature of the colonist’s institutions, especially their justice system which hangs Igbo violators of the new laws (155). This system stands in direct opposition to the Igbo justice system which is based on resolution instead of punishment.

Achebe continues to present both the positive and negative aspects of the two cultures as the conflict intensifies, but we begin to see hints of his assignment of “good” and “bad” labels to the cultures toward the end of the novel. After Okonkwo returns from exile we see the villagers struggling to deal with the division of their clan and attacks from converts who are former members of their community. It is the Igbo people's response to oppression that paints them in a positive light. Achebe’s description of the tolerance that the villagers have for the English invaders, with the obvious exception of Okonkwo, is astonishing. They use violence when necessary but only to the extent that it rights a wrong done to their people. Even during their search for Enoch after he unmasks a one of the egwugwu, the Igbo people spare Reverend Smith from harm and say, “‘You can stay with us if you like our ways. You can worship your own god. It is good that a man should worship the gods and spirits of his fathers’”(190). This contrasts sharply with the intolerance of the Christians, especially Mr. Smith who “believed in slaying the prophets of Baal”(184). Achebe also leaves the reader with a very negative portrayal of the English as he ends the novel with the callousness of the District Commissioner who intends to use Okonkwo’s story and suicide as a “reasonable paragraph” in the book he is writing.

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