Tuesday, January 20, 2009

While the first half of Things Fall Apart presents a character at odds with aspects of his culture, the second half of Achebe’s novel presents two cultures at odds. When the missionaries enter Umuofia, they bring with them an entirely new set of values and traditions. While the Christian and Igbo cultures do share some commonalities, they are for the most part very different. Both religions attempt to explain the unexplainable, but do so in very different ways. What I found to be quite interesting about the book was that Achebe was pretty fair to both sides. Throughout the novel there are times where, as western readers, we find ourselves disagreeing with or at least feeling like aspects of the Igbo culture are wrong. To us, the idea of burying twins when they are born or even mutilating dead babies seems horrifying. We remind ourselves, however, that this is a different culture, and it is unfair to call these practices wrong or uncivilized. In the same respect, we know in our gut that when missionaries come into Umuofia and surrounding villages with the intention of “saving” the people, that this also seems wrong and unfair: “We have been sent by this great God to ask you to leave your wicked ways and false gods and turn to Him so that you may be saved when you die” (Achebe 145). We as readers realize that the Christian missionaries are coming in and unjustly asserting superiority over the Umuofians and their “wicked ways” (145).

It is interesting that Achebe seems to turn the critical lens on both cultures. It is not a scathing critique, it is much more subtle, yet neither side escapes untouched. It leaves readers questioning their own set of values and beliefs. The missionaries attempt to bring change to Umuofia, where the traditional culture resists the change. There are questions raised about how much of our culture we should hold on to, and how much we should be willing to give up. I think that ultimately Achebe presents a rather bleak and depressing answer. Okonkwo’s suicide seems to suggest that there was no way for him to reconcile his old culture with the newer, invading one. Even more disturbing is the District Commissioner’s rather callous response to Okonkwo’s suicide: “The story of this man who had killed a messenger and hanged himself would make an interesting reading. One could almost write a whole chapter on him. Perhaps not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph, at any rate” (209). The irony of this quote is that Achebe just wrote an entire book on this one man’s life, and the Commissioner cannot even be bothered to spend a few moments on him. Their two opposing cultures completely clash, and Achebe leaves us searching for an answer.

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