Chinua Achebe is perhaps the most well known African author and for good reason, his well known and best-selling novel Things Fall Apart has published more than ten million copies and can be read in fifty languages. This novel is an incredible hallmark of African literature for several reasons. First of all, it poses the situations and problems which are associated with the colonization of Africa and its impact on African culture and society. The novel also illustrates various literary stereotypes and shows how even western stereotypes or archetypes can be found in African literature. Moreover, the novel presents to western readers a good sense of African language and its euphemisms while still being quite readable and enjoyable. Achebe’s mastery of the English language is quite remarkable since he makes the novel comprehendible for Western readers but at the same time gives the language an African cultural twist. More importantly, the novel presents a vivid illustration of African culture. African culture has only recently become more literate since it was primarily an oral culture. As Harold Scheub, author the article “A Review of African Oral Traditions and Literature,” states that “Vital to African literature is the relationship between the oral and written word (1).” Oral culture is a cultural component that “distills the essences of human experiences, shaping them into rememberable, readily retrievable images of broad applicability with an extraordinary potential for eliciting emotional response” (Scheub 1). Its epics, epigrams, poems, songs, and folk tales were all spoken and recited until more recent times when literacy became more prevalent and African culture was revitalized. African novels, especially Achebe’s, became the new proponents of African oral culture. As quoted in Solomon O. Iyasere’s article “Oral Tradition in the Criticism of African Literature:” “The modern African writer is to his indigenous oral tradition as a snail is to its shell. Even in a foreign habitat, a snail never leaves its shell behind” (107). This particular novel is full of Achebe’s native Igbo oral tradition and such is the topic of this essay.
The oral tradition is manifested in this novel in many facets. Achebe primarily uses proverbs, songs and folk tales in this novel to illustrate the Igbo tradition. Iyasere states that Achebe “uses proverbs both to infuse the English language with traditional African wisdom and perceptions, and – with Soyinka, Oladipo, and Christina Aidoo – to provide a ‘grammar of values’ of the world within the novel” (114). Proverbs are first mentioned in the novel in chapter one when the tradition of passing the kola nut for fellowship and alliance is addressed. “He who brings kola brings life” is the proverb used and would have been a popular oral saying in that culture since the kola nut was used for many things (Achebe 6). Achebe places the proverbs in well ordered places throughout the novel. For instance, the Ibo proverb “when the moon is shining the cripple becomes hungry for a walk” would be a rather odd and random statement in a novel but within its context is refers to someone doing something secretive and perhaps even shameful at night when no one can see you doing it (Achebe 10). This is prefaced by the statement “And perhaps those not so young would be playing pairs in less open places, and old men and women would remember their youth” (Achebe 10). Such proverbs always contain a context and an application. Many of the proverbs refer to animals in the bush to make a cultural point. Nwakibie is one of the characters in the story and a very wealthy man whose tradition at meal times would be to bless the food with this blessing: “We shall all live. We pray for life, children, a good harvest and happiness. You will have what is good for you and I will have what is good for me. Let the kite perch and let the eagle perch too. If one says no to the other, let his wing break” (Achebe 19). This proverb uses natural imagery to compliment the process of making (or breaking) covenants, in this case between Nwakibie and Okonkwo. Some of the proverbs use local myths or mythical characters to illustrate a point. Nwakibie uses a proverb to describe his wise and careful attitude toward those who would borrow from him. He says, “Eneke the bird says that since men have learned to shoot without missing, he has learned to fly without perching” (Achebe 22). Achebe also uses proverbs and sayings to describe his characters especially Okonkwo. He is described by an old man thus: “looking at a king’s mouth one would think he never sucked at his mother’s breast” (Achebe 26). Such a proverbial descriptor defines Okonkwo as being proud as a king but also very self supporting and having a quick rise to fame and fortune. The proverb makes his character so much more vivid and alive than any other literary device.
Achebe also includes traditional songs in his novel. These songs are scattered throughout and give the novel a much more traditional African feel. Achebe uses both translated and un-translated songs in the novel which is quite interesting considering that the entire novel was written originally in English. The first song is a children’s song: “The rain is falling, the sun is shining, / Alone Nnadi is cooking and eating” (Achebe 35). The song combines cultural themes and traditions with imagery that helps the reader picture the story. The context of the song is “Gradually the rains became lighter and less frequent, and earth and sky once again became separate. The rain fell in thin, slanting showers through sunshine and quiet breeze” (Achebe 35). There are other songs which are sung by people in the village and they have something to do with village traditions of wrestling, marriage, work, and even death. The song for wrestling is written thus in English:
Who will wrestle for our village?
Okafo will wrestle for our village.
Has he thrown a hundred men?
He has thrown four hundred men.
Has he thrown a hundred Cats?
He has thrown four hundred Cats
The send him the word to fight for us. (Achebe 51)
There are other songs that are sung in this same manner of parallelism and question and answer. However, whenever Okonkwo sings, which is only once, it is left un-translated:
Eze elina, elina!
Eze ilikwa ya
Ikwaba akwa oligholi
Ebe Danda nechi eze
Ebe Uzuzu nete egwu
Sala. (Achebe 60)
This very interesting traditional song is used to suggest the thoughts of the main character and describe his gait. In knowing the rest of the book and its outcome, there is a possible reason why Achebe translates the villagers’ songs into English but leaves Okonkwo’s song in its original language. Since a majority of the village later becomes Christian and colonized, their songs could be written in English to show the “shiftiness” of their hearts and their inevitable surrender to English occupation and rule. Okonkwo is never subdued by the English or Christianity so his mind and heart is unreservedly African. Perhaps that is why Achebe leaves his thoughts un-translated.
Lastly, Achebe uses many folk tales in his novel to illustrate the culture of the characters in the novel. There is one principal instance where folk tales are used to give depth to certain characters’ inner working and psyche. In chapter seven, Okonkwo is described as telling stories to his sons.
He told them stories of the land—masculine stories of violence and bloodshed. Nwoye knew that it was right to be masculine and to be violent, but somehow he still preferred the stories his mother used to tell, and which she no doubt still told to her younger children—stories of the tortoise and his wily ways, and of the bird eneke-nti-oba who challenged the whole world to a wrestling contest and was finally thrown by the cat. (Achebe 53)
This folk tale sets Nwoye and Okonkwo up for the rest of the story and even supports their differences that resurge later on in the novel. Achebe uses the traditional tales with their stupid large animals and small trickster animals to describe the cultural values of the village and how even the natural world they see around them is implanted with their own values and traditions. Such is seen with the image of the bird and cat wrestling. Wrestling was a huge part of their culture and so they put it in the animal world as well. Nwoye prefers stories like the Vulture and the Sky which are much more interesting and less violent. However these stories are dismissed as being for young children and are hated by Okonkwo (Achebe 53-54). Another folk story used in the novel is one that is a mother’s tale; the story of tortoise. The folk tale within the story of the novel shows the behavior of certain characters, especially their knowledge and interest in the story, but also how African people used the stories to explain certain natural phenomena like why the tortoise’ s shell is not smooth (Achebe 96-99). This is the general nature of folk tales. While Achebe’s novel is not replete with Western themes and ideas, the idea of having folk tales within a novel is somewhat like the Western notion of framed stories. In Western literature, there are many framed stories like the Canterbury Tales, the Decameron and others and this literary device is used to give texture and creativity to a work. Achebe’s use of framed stories in this novel is not as purposeful yet they do serve in coloring and texturing the novel as a vivid display of African oral culture.
Achebe is a master of the oral tradition and his knowledge of it is shown in the prolific amounts of various kinds of oral traditions found in the novel. While poems, songs, and folk tales make up the majority of the examples, Achebe also uses local myths and legends. Were all of these oral traditions to be explicated, they would make up a small book or at least a lengthy article. The oral traditions within the novel help illustrate its characters as well as describe the culture within the novel. Achebe masterfully describes a village culture to Western minds that is very tangible. In fact, it almost feels like you are right there in pre-colonized Africa with the vividness of the culture and the realness of the characters. Moreover, the novel helps us as western readers to understand the African mind and culture in a unique way. These are many reasons why Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart is the most well known African novel.
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor Books. 1994. Print.
Iyasere, Solomon O. “Oral Tradition in the Criticism of African Literature.” The Journal of Modern African Studies 13:1 (1975): 107-119. JSTOR. Web. 19 Sept 2011.
Scheub, Harold. “A Review of African Oral Traditions and Literature.” African Studies Review 28:2/3 (1985): 1-72. JSTOR . 19 Sept 2011.