Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Reconfiguration of the Igbo Social Homeland

Achebe spends the first half of Things Fall Apart skillfully acclimating his audience to the Igbo culture. He introduces the institutions and social roles that form the structure of village life, uniting people and maintaining order year after year. The latter half of this novel, by contrast, examines the unraveling of this social fabric that had long kept the Igbo people in balance. As Obierika explains to Okonkwo as he describes the influence of the white man, "Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together, and now we have fallen apart" (176). Achebe shows the gradual but invasive influence of Western Christian institutions, which overturn the structures that had been central to the Igbo social homeland.
The Igbo homeland, prior to European influence, defined itself by its animist religion and its practices. The spiritual beliefs of Achebe’s characters determine every aspect of their lives: the religious implications of their beliefs lead them to cast certain people out of society; the spirits they revere enforce their system of justice; and their emphasis on ancestral worship strengthens the bonds of kinship. These social moorings become distorted, however, when the white man’s religion infiltrates the village. Suddenly the ostracized become welcome among some members of the community, and a force of foreigners impose their penal system on villagers instead of letting the gods mediate their conflicts. Perhaps most importantly for Okonkwo, the kinship bond becomes a less important tie than religious affiliation. His son’s own rebellion epitomizes this shift in social strata. One elder member of the village reproaches, "…I fear for you young people because you do not understand how strong is the bond of kinship. You do not know what it is to speak as one voice" (167). Instead, two voices speak: that of the Christians, and that of the traditionalists. When these two come in conflict, the unthinkable occurs—kinsmen fight each other. This happens because the social order has become realigned, so Okika observes "If we fight the stranger we shall hit our brothers and perhaps shed the blood of a clansman. But we must do it. Our fathers never dreamed of such a thing, they never killed their brothers" (203). This new structure calls for new battle lines that do not correspond with kinship. The villagers must act in accordance with the new social configuration, even though their actions violate the values of their traditions. The resulting strife represents the upset social balance, long maintained by their religious institutions. Achebe describes this fate poignantly: "It seemed as if the very soul of the tribe wept for a great evil that was coming—its own death" (187).

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