In Survey of World Literature, 1992.
Principal Literary Achievement
As the first African writer to win broad critical acclaim in Europe and America and the most widely read African novelist, Chinua Achebe has shaped the world's understanding of Africa and its literature.
Chinua Achebe was born in Eastern Nigeria on November 16, 1930, to Isaiah and Janet Achebe, who christened their son Albert Chinualamogu. Isaiah Okafor Achebe was a catechist for the Church Missionary Society, and he and his wife traveled Eastern Nigeria as evangelists before settling in Ogidi, Isaiah's ancestral Igbo village, five years after Chinua Achebe's birth. Growing up in Ogidi, Achebe had contact with both Christian and Igbo religious beliefs and customs.
Achebe's first lessons were taught in Igbo at the church school in Ogidi. He began to learn English at the age of eight. An avid reader and an outstanding student, Achebe was selected at fourteen to attend Government College, a highly selective secondary school in Umuahia, where one of his classmates was the poet Christopher Okigbo. Upon graduation, Achebe accepted a scholarship to study medicine at University College in lbadan, but after one year decided to switch to the study of English literature, forfeiting his scholarship. With the financial assistance of his older brother John, he was able to continue his studies.
Achebe and the Yoruban playwright Wole Soyinka, who were to become Nigeria's best known authors, were undergraduates together at University College and published their first work in undergraduate publications. "Polar Undergraduate" (1950), a satire of student behavior that was later collected in Girls at War and Other Stories (1 972), was Achebe's first published fiction. In his third year, Achebe became editor of the University Herald. After his graduation in 1953, Achebe took a position as Talks Producer for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC).
In 1958 Achebe published Things Fall Apart which won him the Margaret Wrong Memorial Prize for the novel's contribution to African literature. In 1960, the year of Nigeria's independence, Achebe published No Longer at Ease and was awarded the Nigerian National Trophy for Literature. Achebe spent the remainder of 1960 and part of 1961 traveling through East Africa, interviewing other African writers. After his return to Nigeria he married Christie Chinwe Okoli, with whom he was to have four children, and was appointed Director of External Broadcasting for NBC.
In 1962, Achebe became the founding editor of Heinemann's African Writers Series, and in 1963, he traveled in the United States, Brazil, and Britain on a UNESCO fellowship. Achebe published Arrow of God in 1964 and was honored with the Jack Campbell New Statesman Award for his accomplishment. His publication of the prophetic A Man of the People (1966) was followed by successive military coups, massacres of Igbos, and the secession of Biafra in 1967. Achebe was forced to leave Lagos after the second coup, and during the Nigerian Civil War (1967-70) he became a spokesperson for the Biafran cause in Europe and North America. He also served as a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka which was renamed the University of Biafra during the war.
After three years of bitter struggle, Biafra surrendered, and Achebe, more dedicated than ever to the preservation of Igbo culture, began editing Okike: An African Journal of New Writing. He published his literary response to the war in Beware Soul Brother (1971) and Girls at War and Other Stories (1972), winning the Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1972 for Beware Soul Brother, which was published in the United States as Christmas in Biafra and Other Poems (1 973).
From 1972 to 1976, Achebe taught in the United States at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, where his wife earned a doctorate, and the University of Connecticut. After the 1976 assassination of Murtala Muhammed, for whom Achebe had great respect, the author returned to teach at the University of Nigeria at Nsukka. In 1979, Achebe was elected Chairman of the Association of Nigerian Authors and received the Nigerian National Merit Award and the Order of the Federal Republic. In 1982, he and Obiora Udechukwu edited Aka Weta, an anthology of "egwu" verse.
Disillusioned by President Shehu Shagari's failure to fight the corruption that was impoverishing Nigeria and saddened by the death of Mallam Aminu Kano, the leader of the People's Redemption Party, Achebe served as Deputy National President of the PRP in the election year of 1983. In The Trouble with Nigeria (1983), he presented his political prescription for improving Nigeria.
After Shagari's reelection and removal from office by a subsequent military coup, Achebe once again concentrated his energies on artistic and cultural projects, editing the bilingual Uwa ndi lgbo: a Journal of Igbo Life and Culture. In 1986, Achebe was appointed Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the State University of Anambra at Enugu. The following year, Achebe published his first novel in twenty years, Anthills of the Savannah (1987) and returned to teach in the United States at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, the City College of New York, and Bard College. In 1988, he published Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays, 1965-87
In his writings, Chinua Achebe affirms the educational function of literature and establishes a human context for understanding modern Nigerian history: the first contacts between European and African cultures at the turn of the century in Things Fall Apart (1958), the subsequent institutionalization of European religious and political structures in Arrow of God (1964), the uneasy years immediately preceding independence in No Longer at Ease (1960), the excitement and disappointment of Nigeria's First Republic in A Man of the People (1 966), the suffering of the Nigerian Civil War in Girls at War (1972) and in Beware Soul Brother (1973), and the corrupt authoritarianism that has characterized Nigeria's Second Republic in Anthills in the Savannah (1987). Indeed, the title of his 1983 commentary, The Trouble With Nigeria identifies a concern that has been central to all of his work.
As a corrective to European literature's stereotypical portraits of Africans as an unvarying, primitive force, Achebe strives to communicate the human complexity of Nigerian existence, to establish the independence of African literature, and to demonstrate the value of traditional Igbo culture. In "The Role of a Writer in a New Nation" (1964), Achebe states that his first priority is to inform the world that "African peoples did not hear of culture for the first time from Europeans; that their societies were not mindless . . . , that they had poetry and, above all, they had dignity." However, Achebe does not idealize the precolonial past, for he knows that it cannot survive unaltered in a modern world; instead, he encourages his readers to explore continuities with the past that can coexist with modern society.
Achebe's protagonists, who are in conflict between self realization and social responsibility, demonstrate the difficulty of reaching such a balance. Each character's movement toward communal acceptance is thwarted by the destructive pull of individual pride. In Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo overcomes personal humiliation to win the respect of his Igbo community, but his inflexible refusal to accommodate himself to the increasing influence of colonial government and Christianity alienates him from his clansmen and drives him to self-destructive violence. In Arrow of God, the priest Ezeulu earnestly wishes to be a good religious leader, but his proud refusal to adapt religious dictates to the necessities of circumstance leads to Christian dominance in his village and his own madness. In No Longer at Ease, the idealistic Obi self-righteously resists the corruption of government service, alienating himself from his fellow civil servants and the clansmen who funded his education, but when his proud need to maintain an expensive lifestyle leads him to accept a bribe, his amateurish attempt results in his arrest. In A Man of the People, the cynical Odili, who collaborates in Nanga's political manipulation of rural people, learns to see the corrective value of traditional beliefs. Achebe's most recent novel, Anthills in the Savannah, offers the most hopeful view, with Beatrice showing that traditional values can exist in altered but viable forms in the present.
In his fiction, Achebe opposes interpersonal, political, cultural, and linguistic forms of authoritarianism. He associates inflexible refusal to recognize the validity of multiple viewpoints, which is the central flaw of his protagonists, with the cultural arrogance of colonial powers and the cynical greed of Nigerian officials. Stylistically, Achebe refutes this myopic authoritarianism through the use of multiple perspectives and irony. In Anthills in the Savannah he repeats the Igbo proverb "Where something stands, there also something else will stand" to indicate his belief in the fluidity of perception, the duality of existence, and the adaptability of Igbo culture. To represent this fluidity in his fiction, Achebe mixes literary English, pidgin English, and a colloquial English that approximates the rhythms of Igbo speech; he mixes Igbo proverbs, songs, and rituals with allusions to European literature; he uses irony and unreliable narrators to emphasize his distrust of authoritarian voices. In his effort to create an open non-authoritarian view, Achebe uses one novel to balance another; thus, the naively idealistic Obi Okonkwo of No Longer at Ease is a tragicomic version of his grandfather, Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart. Achebe's decision to write in English, instead of his native Igbo, allowed him to reach a worldwide audience (3 million copies of Things Fall Apart have been sold), but opened him to the charge that he was assisting in the demise of Igbo culture. In recent years he has moved toward the use of native languages by editing the anthology Aka weta and the bilingual journal Uwa ndi Igbo.
Chinua Achebe has been an active and visible public figure in Nigeria since the 1950's, and it is not surprising that his writings parallel his personal experiences. His early sympathetic portrayals of traditional Igbo culture were, in part, gestures toward expiating his own guilt over the rare educational privileges which he enjoyed. His skillful satire of the abuse of power and language in books such as A Man of the People is written against his own involvement in the development of Nigeria's mass media. After the Nigerian Civil War, in which Achebe and many other Igbo writers took an active part, the author's writings became more directly utilitarian and political. After teaching in the United States and realizing that the most widely taught book concerning Africa was Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Achebe became more sympathetic to African authors who renounced the use of colonial languages, and he became more aware of the extent to which Americans and Europeans misunderstand and ignore Africa's problems.
First published: 1958
Type of Work: Novel
A violent opponent of colonialism's threat to traditional Igbo culture is destroyed by his failure to adapt to change.
Things Fall Apart tells the tragic story of Okonkwo, who, determined to overcome the example of his lazy and imprudent father, elevates himself to a position of respect in the lgbo community of Umuofia through acts of strength, courage, and endurance. Unfortunately, Okonkwo's obsessive fear of failure makes him a humorless and short-tempered man whose pride and violence undercut his reputation in the community. By erasing the effeminate from his character, Okonkwo makes himself into a man who is unable to fully enjoy his success, and by focusing for so long on his individual struggle to be successful, he distances himself from the communal life of Umuofia.
When Okonkwo accidentally kills a young boy, his clansmen destroy his compound and exile him to live with his mother's kinsmen for seven years. By the end of his exile, Okonkwo, who had earlier been known for his self-interest, has learned to appreciate the bonds of kinship and the comfort of speaking with one voice. Unfortunately, this awareness comes after the unity of Igbo culture has begun to break down. Christianity has divided the community, and Okonkwo senses that this change threatens his connection to his family, his culture, and his spiritual existence after death. His eldest son's conversion to Christianity separates Okonkwo from his lineage, and when another young convert to Christianity desecrates a traditional religious totem, Okonkwo leads the Umuofians who destroy the missionaries's church. Like Okonkwo, the Umuofians face separation from their past, and like him they face a future that will require difficult compromises; yet, Achebe carefully shows that the decentralization and nonhierarchical structure of Igbo society allows for change.
Okonkwo's greatest flaw is his inability to adapt to cultural change. He is humiliated that Umuofia does no rise in his support and go to war against the white man. In a final desperate act, he murders the District Commissioner's messenger and hangs himself. At the end of the novel, Okonkwo stands alone, a self-proclaimed defender of a rigid traditionalism that contradicts the true flexibility of his culture. He is an exceptional individual, but the heroism of his final act of defiance is undercut by his alienation from his clan. He does not understand that Umuofia is a living culture that has always adapted in order to meet new challenges. His effort to deny the reality of history condemns him while making a sad comment on the limitations of human endeavor. The novel dramatizes the situation of modern men and modern societies that are forced to adapt and compromise if they wish to survive. Its central theme, and the central theme of all of Achebe's novels, is the tragedy of the man or society that refuses or is unable to accommodate change.
In Things Fall Apart, Achebe effectively counters the persistent and self-serving European stereotypes of African culture, particularly the notion that traditional African cultures are authoritarian, amoral, and unsophisticated. In refutation of this stereotype, Achebe carefully describes the complexity and fluidity of Igbo culture, disclosing its essential pluralism. It is, however, a society that cannot survive unaltered in a modern world. Like Yeats's "Second Coming," from which the novel takes its title, Things Fall Apart presents an ironic and apocalyptic vision of the failure to maintain order and balance.
First published: 1960
Types of Work: Novel
An idealistic, young Nigerian bureaucrat, trapped between his traditional background and his European education, succumbs to the corrupting influences of government service.
No Longer at Ease opens and closes at the bribery trial of Obi Okonkwo, a young civil servant in the colonial Nigerian government and the grandson of the Okonkwo of Achebe's Things Fall Apart. The novel provides a retrospective look at Obi's progress from the remote village of Umuofia to an English university and then to a position with the Nigerian Civil Service in Lagos, where he finally succumbs to the prevalent practice of bribery and is caught. Like a diminished version of his grandfather, Obi is crushed by cultural forces beyond his control, but the pettiness and ineptitude of his crime make him a paradoxical tragicomic hero. His innocence makes him a criminal; his coveted education does not provide him with wisdom; the support of his clansmen increases his sense of loneliness.
Obi is the first from his village to receive a European education, and his expenses are paid by clansmen who hope to enhance the status of their village and to reap future economic dividends. Obi's life, however, is complicated by idealistic romance and his failure to manage his finances. He falls in love with a woman who is osu, marked by a traditional, hereditary taboo. Obi rejects the taboo as primitive superstition, but his naive determination to be thoroughly modern places him in direct conflict with his family and his clan. At first he eschews the customary practice of accepting bribes, self-righteously viewing it as an anachronistic behavior that the new generation of educated and idealistic civil servants will eradicate, but his obligation to repay the clan and his determination to maintain a lifestyle commensurate with his position as a civil servant eventually lead him to accept payments. When he does give in to custom, he handles the bribery so amateurishly that he is caught and convicted.
Obi has been shaped by the traditional lgbo culture of Umuofia, the Christianity of his father, the idealism of English literature, and the corrupt sophistication of Lagos, but he is at ease nowhere. As a child in Umuofia, he dreams of the sparkling lights of Lagos. In England, he writes pastoral visions of an idealized Nigeria. Disillusioned by the corruption of Lagos, he returns to his home village only to witness a lorry driver attempting to bribe a policeman and to be greeted by his parents's rejection of his proposed marriage. Obi naively tries to maintain the idea of his own integrity as a detribalized, rational, thoroughly modern man, but his reintegration into Nigeria is a failure because he is unable to assimilate successfully any of the competing cultures he passes through. He finds it impossible to mediate the conflicting duties that are thrust upon him, and his steady progress in the novel is toward despair and withdrawal.
No Longer at Ease is set on the verge of Nigeria's independence in Lagos, an urban jungle which combines the worst of European and African cultures. Centralization has led to inefficiency and corruption; traditional Igbo communalism has devolved to the narrow pursuit of advantage. Having learned the western desire for material goods without having sufficient income to satisfy them, the nation, like Obi, must choose between corruption and bankruptcy. It is therefore fitting that Achebe's title is drawn from Yeats"'Sailing to Byzantium," for like the wise men in Eliot's poem, Obi and the nation are trapped between two eras. As Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart stands for the vanishing traditional African, Obi in No Longer at Ease stands for the vanishing idealist in a world of compromise.
In many ways Chinua Achebe's early fiction defined modern African literature, and it is not possible to underestimate the importance of his example. More than any other African author writing in English, Achebe has Helped the world understand the value of African culture without ignoring the difficult problems that African nations face in the post-colonialist era.
Things Fall Apart will undoubtedly remain the book for which Achebe is best known, but the entire body of his fiction, poetry, and essays makes a consistent and central contribution to the world's literature.
Sources for Further Study
Carroll, David, Chinua Achebe, rev. ed., New York: Twayne, 1980.
Innes, C.L., Chinua Achebe, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Innes, C.L. and Bernth Lindfors, Critical Perspectives on Chinua Achebe, Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1978.
Killam, G.D., The Writings of Chinua Achebe, rev. ed., London: Heinemann, 1977.
Njoku, Benedict Chiak, The Four Novels of Chinua Achebe: A Critical Study, New York: Lang, 1984.
Ravenscroft, Arthur, Chinua Achebe, Harlow: Green, 1977.
Turkington, Kate, Chinua Achebe: Things Fall Apart, London: Edward Arnold, 1977.
Wren, Robert, Achebe's World.- The Historical and Cultural Context of the Novels of Chinua Achebe, Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1980.