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English Studies

Vol. 91, No. 1, February 2010, 4257

Half a Century of Reading Chinua

Achebes Things Fall Apart
Oyeniyi Okunoye

This essay appraises the reception of Chinua Achebes Things Fall Apart, the novel
reputed to have inaugurated the modern African novelistic tradition, in the first fifty
years of its publication. In surveying the major critical attitudes that the novel has
attracted, it underscores the fact that the factors that sustain its reputation include the
discourses in which it is implicated, the authors fictional agenda and the ascendancy of
post-colonial criticism. It finds, however, the mapping of the geography of its reception
problematic due to the complications that the global flow of knowledge creates for
locating distinct reading communities. The paper concludes on the note that the
influential location of the Western academy in generating dominant readings of the novel
reflects its dominance in the production of critical knowledge about African writing.

It should be no surprise that the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Achebes

first novel received remarkable global celebration.1 To be sure, it is not possible to
dissociate the publication of the novel from the emergence of modern African writing
in general and the African novel in particular. Thus, in celebrating half a century of
its publication, the existence of modern African writing was also being celebrated.
While Achebe is reluctant to make a claim to founding African writing,2 the strategic
location of his novel in the constitution of African writing, its consequent implication
in diverse discourses, as well as the global canonical status it enjoys as the most read
and most studied African novel in English, have earned his work an enviable space in
literary articulations of the African story.3 In stressing the significance of the novel
in The African Imagination, Abiola Irele says: If there is any single work that can be
considered central to the evolving canon of modern African literature, it is without

Oyeniyi Okunoye, a member of the Department of English at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria,
is currently an Alexander von Humboldt Research Fellow at Universitat Bayreuth, Germany.
Perhaps no other literary event in 2008 matched the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of
Things Fall Apart in scale, as events were organized in different parts of the world to commemorate it. Most of
these were held in various parts of Nigeria, Europe and the US. Special issues of some literary journals were also
devoted to reflecting on the work.
This is his argument in Literature as Restoration as Celebration which negates the position that Simon Gikandi
has consistently stated. See, for instance, Gikandi, Chinua Achebe and the Invention of African Culture.
The theme of the symposium organized by the Association of Nigerian Authors to commemorate the
anniversary in May 2008 was Telling the African Story.

ISSN 0013-838X (print)/ISSN 1744-4217 (online) 2010 Taylor & Francis

DOI: 10.1080/00138380903355189
Chinua Achebes Things Fall Apart 43

question, Chinua Achebes Things Fall Apart. The novel owes this to the innovative
significance it assumed when it was published.4 Two assumptions inform the
present endeavour. The first is that the novel has not only been read differently at
different times, it has also been read by many readers, all of whom, expectedly,
brought various insights and perspectivesideological, historical and culturalto
bear on their readings. In the process, it has had different values for its various
readers who are not just spatially and temporally separated but are also located within
diverse discursive spaces. The second assumption follows logically from the first: an
assessment of ways of reading the novel in its first fifty years may just be a good way
of commemorating this major milestone, thus marking a major phase in its existence.
This may create a basis for a comparative assessment of its reception in the next half a
It is improper to feign ignorance of earlier efforts at appraising the criticism of
Things Fall Apart, although many of these were conducted in the wider context of
Achebes oeuvre. Marjorie Winters in Morning Yet on Judgment Day: The Critics
of Chinua Achebe,5 surveys critical comments of about forty scholars and critics
of Achebe to reveal inconsistency, inaccuracy, and irrelevancy in the critical
assessment of his fiction. Ode Ogedes Three Decades of Achebe Criticism
(19701999), on the other hand, attempts a broad classification and appraisal of
critical efforts within the period under review.6 While confirming the diverse
approaches and orientations adopted in exploring Achebes work, it identifies
works which, in the opinion of the critic, are significant studies of Achebes
writing. However, Ogedes study does not create any sense of progression in the
reading of Achebes fiction. While its survey of the criticism of all of Achebes
work creates an opportunity for a holistic appraisal, it also naturally creates room
for easy generalizations and homogenizing works that actually differ in many
respects. More important is the fact that a lot has been done to reshape the
reading of Achebes fiction in general after the period covered by the study. What
this paper proposes, therefore, as alternative methodology to redress seeming
lapses in earlier studies, is to track development from one phase to another in the
reading of Things Fall Apart. This implies theorizing the reading of the novel by
seeing each trend as motivated, even though neat demarcations become difficult,
if not impossible, in some cases. The paper also departs from earlier studies with
similar intents by not considering introductory studies, which are mainly plot
summaries and synopses, as significant readings.
Even though the appraisal is not deeply immersed in the strategies of reader-
oriented theories of critical assessment, it owes some debt to their primary
assumptions, so long as they authorize a perspective that appreciates the primacy of
readersin this case, criticsin the formation of meaning. By implication, they

Irele, African Imagination, 115.
Winters, 159.
44 O. Okunoye
affirm that readers in reality make literature. They are also conscious of the fact that
an objective reading of texts becomes impossible so long as various readers are likely
to read the same texts differently on account of the variables that condition the
reading of texts over time and space. But it is in the construction of literary history
that reception theory becomes particularly relevant. It at once acknowledges that the
reading of literature is bound to change over time and that the best way to construct
literary history is to take the changing responses of readers to literary texts over a
period into account. In seeking to bracket off extraneous factors that either reinforce
or redirect literary engagements, it seeks to imagine a literary history which does not
take extraneous factors into consideration. This purist vision is unrealistic. The
reality is that the best of literary historiesespecially in the post-colonial world
cannot be written without an awareness of developments within the spheres of
politics, culture and society. Consequently, the study is indebted to the assumptions
of critical theories that privilege the reader only to the extent that they are consistent
with its own aspiration.
Conscious of the fact that Things Fall Apart is the most studied literary work
from Africa, this paper seeks to raise questions bordering on the sites for the
production of critical knowledge about it. Closely related to this is the desire to
determine the relative significance of major critical responses to the novel and, in
the process, clarify the inspiration for the major critical shifts. In specific terms, it
seeks to reduce the various trends in the criticism of the novel to categories based
on methodology and locate them, where possible, within particular temporal
frames. It will thus seek to map the geography of the reception of the novel in the
last fifty years with the intention of clarifying the shared assumptions and
disparities within each critical perspective. It becomes inevitable then to enquire
about the circumstances surrounding the sustenance and interrogation of
particular ways of reading. This leads to the question as to which major
developments, either in relation to the writer or within critical practice, have
impacted significantly on the reading of the novel. Akin to this is the question as
to whether there has really been any dichotomy between the orientations of
African and non-African critics of the novel.

The Making of a Classic

The critical consensus is that Things Fall Apart is not just a classic of African literature
but indeed of world literature. Its journey from manuscript to publication as told by
the author and those that played various roles in its publication reveals that the work
was just an attempt by an aspiring writer to experiment with a form. When as a
young graduate7 of the University College, Ibadan, Achebe sent the manuscript of
what was to be his first novel to Heinemann in London, the initial amazement that an
African could write a novel was soon to give way to pleasant surprise as the editors

Chinua Achebe was just twenty-eight when he wrote the novel.
Chinua Achebes Things Fall Apart 45

were later to discover that the manuscript needed no editing. Giving an insiders
account of how the novel got published, Alan Hill says:

Heinemanns normal fiction reader read it and did a long report, but the firm was
still hesitating whether to accept it. Would anyone possibly buy a novel by an
African? There were no precedents. . . . So they showed it to one of our educational
advisers, Professor Donald MacRae, who was just back from West Africa. He read it
in the office and ended the debate with an eleven-word report: This is the best first
novel I have read since the war. We took the book and printed 2,000 copies.8

What was to follow did not come as a surprise. Heinemann published the novel on 17
June 1958 and it became an instant success. Achebe was then invited in 1962, based
on his reputation and the value that the editors of Heinemann had for his judgement,
to serve as assessor for manuscripts solicited from other African writers for
publication in what was to become the African Writers Series, an assignment he
carried out for ten years. It is no surprise that the novel has maintained an enviable
lead as a bestseller. Charles Larson confirms the process leading to its immediate
integration into the curriculum in Africa in The Emergence of African Fiction:

[I]n 1960, when Nigeria became independent, the educational system began to
reflect a sense of growing national pride; and in 1964, when the traditionally
English-oriented School Certificate Examinations were beginning to be Africanized,
Things Fall Apart became the first novel by an African writer to be included in the
required syllabus for African secondary school students throughout the English-
speaking portions of the continent.9

Ernest Emenyonu reveals in the Introduction to Emerging Perspectives on Chinua

Achebe Volume 1 that the novel, in over 55 languages and more than 8 million
copies in sales, is the most widely read African novel, inside and outside the African
continent.10 But what really accounts for its reputation? Can we locate this in the
story itself, the manner of its rendering, the issues it engages or the import of the very
act of writing a story about Africa? It is safe to assume that the novel shares the
qualities of most classics in the sense that all of these and other factors account for its
status. It continues to excite readers of various orientations and readers are adding
new arguments and perspectives to existing ways of reading it.
Things Fall Apart is a straightforward narrative. It simply but eloquently renders
the circumstances surrounding the intrusion of the British into Umuofia, a
fictionalized Igbo community in what is now south-eastern Nigeria, from about
the end of the nineteenth century, presenting the picture of a hitherto organized and
culturally rich society that is destabilized in the wake of the intrusion. Told in a
narrative mode that strategically shifts from the narrative voice of the traditional

Peterson, 150.
Larson, 278.
Emenyonu, Introduction, xvii.
46 O. Okunoye
storyteller to that of the omniscient narrator, it captures the intricacies of the
situation and features characters and situations that depict issues and problems
which reveal the enduring consequences of colonialism and resistance to it. The story
is as much about Umuofia as it is about Okonkwo, the most conspicuous and active
member of the society, whose attempt at confronting and resisting the force of
change dramatizes the dynamics of anti-colonial resistance. There is something about
the simplicity of the novel that makes it accessible to various categories of readers,
ranging from the young and the undiscerning to the very insightful. It lends itself to a
variety of readings just because in the course of telling a seemingly simple story it
adopts strategies that implicate it in various discourses, including, for instance,
expounding the values and practices of the Igbo that provide the immediate cultural
context for the novel.11

Same Text, Many Readings and Readers

The first phase in the critical engagement with Things Fall Apart was probably the
first decade after it was published. As the work inaugurating an African tradition of
the novel, it received enthusiastic responses and provided both African and Western
critics, all equipped with critical assumptions developed in the Western tradition, an
opportunity to test their capacity to evaluate a work produced in an emergent literary
culture. For the Western critics, the novel represented a spectacle or a miracle as it
demonstrated the capacity of Africa to employ a genre that has Western roots to serve
its purpose. Consequently, their interest was limited to appraising the extent to which
it appropriates or departs from a tradition to which the author had had sustained
exposure. It is no surprise that the novel elicited the critical response of virtually all
the pioneering African literary scholars who, incidentally, were also Achebes
contemporaries. It thus tasked their capacity to adapt their original immersion in the
English critical tradition and, in the process, invent an African tradition of criticism.
Critics who had cut their critical teeth as contributors to such journals as The Black
Orpheus and Transition12 then had to respond to the challenge of explaining a text
produced within a culture that they could identify with. The list of the earliest
commentators on the novel in the African environment thus reads like a roll call of
first generation literary critics in Anglophone Africa: Ezekiel Mphalele, Kofi
Awoonor, Emmanuel Obiechina, Abiola Irele and Dan Izevbaye, to mention a few.
African critics at this stage naturally demonstrated more interest in the vision
rather than the form of the novel. The fact that the novel also engages the
consequences of the encounter between European and African valuesa problem
that they were profoundly acquainted withmade it convenient for them to offer
passionate and profound explorations of the work. The fact that they also
Dan Izevbayes argument is unique in the sense that it suggests that Achebes effort is not just to expound the
values of the Igbo, as most critics frequently imply, but that the Igbo emerge as exceptional colonial subjects in
the novel.
The two journals created a platform for debates on modern African writing as an emergent tradition.
Chinua Achebes Things Fall Apart 47

appropriated the fictionalized Igbo community in the novel as a metonymic

representation of colonized Africa contributed immensely to the novels popularity
beyond Nigeria. By subordinating the cultural specifics that define the Igbo
experience of colonialism in this initial critical responsewhich has remained
influential on the academic study of the novel in Africathey simply created a
category for the novel, one that accords its historical value considerable importance.
It is remarkable that some of these early responses incisively capture the counter-
discursive intents of the novel. It is striking that Obiechina in Culture, Tradition and
Society in the West African Novel, very much like Awoonor in The Breast of the Earth
and Irele in The Tragic Conflict in the Novels of Chinua Achebe link up Achebes
early novels on the basis of a shared concern with the consequences of the colonial
engagement.13 Ireles essay underlines the metonymic import of the novel by arguing
that it is concerned with the dislocation of the African society caused by the impact
with another way of life.14 It is also remarkable that most of the first major studies of
African literature done by these scholars prioritize culture. Perhaps the most
significant negation of the earlier critical consensus is Izevbayes The Igbo as
Exceptional Colonial Subjects: Fictionalizing an Abnormal Historical Situation. In
deconstructing the allegorical reading of the novel, Izevbaye argues for a more
context-specific reading, suggesting that Achebe provides a cultural history designed
to counter the myths and prejudices many readers have about Africans and the Igbo
in particular.15
But while the exposition of the consequences of culture contact and the resulting
conflict in the novel locate society at the centre of action, some of the earliest critics
operating within the Euro-American academyparticularly G. D. Killamwere
naturally inclined to locating an individual, perhaps on account of the European
convention of employing the novel as medium for exploring individualized
experiences, as the centre of the narrative, and their work was influential in the
second decade. Killam, for instance, situates Okonkwo [a]t the centre of the
community, seeing him as one in whom the values admired by Ibo people are
consolidated. He consequently describes him as both an individual and a type.16
It is no surprise that the German translation of the novel, published as early as 1959,
is also entitled Okonkwo, probably to satisfy the expectations of its readership.17
Another major trace indicating a tendency to estimate the debt of Achebe and, by
extension, the emergent African fictional tradition, to the English tradition, is in
seeing the ties the novel maintains to the latter as legitimate bases for reading it as
part of the old tradition. Thus, the intertextual scrutiny that the title of the novel and
Obiechina; Awoonor; Irele, Tragic Conflict.
Irele, Tragic Conflict, 10.
Izevbaye, 145.
Killam, 15.
Achebe, Okondwo oder das Alte sturzt. The novel in the conventional Euro-American understanding is
primarily concerned with the individual. It should not be surprising, therefore, that Okonkwo is given
prominence in this translation. This also reflects in many readings of the novel in the West as Okonkwos actions
rather than the predicament of his society are privileged.
48 O. Okunoye
its epigraph invite would serve as basis for A. G. Stocks effort in Yeats and Achebe.
The critic is startled to find the Yeatsian pattern traced most closely where Yeats
himself was least likely to look for it, in an imaginary but typical village of the lower
Niger, noting that:

Not that Things Fall Apart smells of discipleship; the two minds, their perspectives
and fields of vision are too different for that. For Yeats the pattern is an instrument
of prophecy. . . . Achebe is not interested in prophecy but in analyzing the way
things happen. Achebes title insists on the analogy.18

It is surprising that Larsons reading of the novel in The Emergence of African

Fiction, which appeared in 1972, has attracted negative criticism due to a supposed
tendency to apply universal standards in assessing the novel because he does not
hide the fact that his reading of Achebes novel and others is from the Western
perspective. He appreciates the need to apprehend an emergent African tradition of
written fiction which is bound to differ in a number of ways. One considers,
therefore, the sustained assault on Larsons outlook in Toward the Decolonization of
African Literature unjustified because it is natural for critics to engage texts from their
cultural locations.19 What vindicates Larsons reading is that it recognizes the
uniqueness of Things Fall Apart in spite of the fact that it naturally subjects it to
Western standards, which are supposedly universal. This comes out clearly in the
note on which he concludes his assessment:

Achebe has widened our perspective of the novel and illustrated how a typically
Western genre may be given a healthy injection of new blood once it is reshaped
and formed by the artist whose vision of life and art is different from our own.20

Readings of African fiction by African scholars recognize the unique imprint of

African cultural and social realities on it. This perhaps informs the argument
of David Ker in The African Novel and the Modernist Tradition that [t]he protagonist
of Things Fall Apart is not Okonkwo but Umuofia.21 Interestingly, many studies
informed by the Western understanding of the novel constantly acknowledge the
inadequacy of their tools and assumptions in reading it. And contrary to the
insistence on demonizing Larsons work in many quarters, it actually comes across as
a diligent and sympathetic appraisal of not just Achebes first novel but others with
which it inaugurated an African tradition of the novel.
While some scholars were content with seeing Achebes first novel as springing
from his acquaintance with the European tradition of the novel, Emenyonu made
one of the boldest attempts at challenging easy assumptions about the location of the
Stock, 106.
Chinweizu and Madubuike.
Larson, 165.
Ker, 125.
Chinua Achebes Things Fall Apart 49

work. His study is in a class of its own, as it does not only situate Things Fall Apart
within an Igbo tradition of the novel but also considers it a foundational text within
the tradition. Rather than submitting to the critical outlook favoured by most leading
African critics, who do not privilege the Igbo element in appraising the novel,
Emenyonu justifies the link between fictional works written in Igbo and those in
English, arguing that Chinua Achebes fiction is a descendant of the Igbo tradition
through Omenuko.22 Emenyonus effort is not any different from efforts at
establishing continuity among writers from the same cultural environment as
Soyinkas work can also be said to have a link with the narratives of Fagunwa and
Tutuola within a broad Yoruba fictional tradition. It is also possible to argue that the
act of eliminating barriers between fictional works by Igbo writers in Igbo and
English is a way of making up for the stagnation of fictional writing in Igbo.
Emenyonus work is the closest to another category of studies dating back to the
earliest phase of the critical study of the novel that privileges the dense ethnographic
discourse in Things Fall Apart and consequently explores it as crucial to its
meaningful experience. It is not difficult to justify this outlook because ethnographic
information probably constitutes about a third of the novel, while proverbial
expressions and untranslated Igbo lexical items also spice its narrative. One of the
earlier critics of Achebe, David Caroll, observes that Achebe in his novels of
traditional life combines the role of novelist and anthropologist, synthesizing them in
a new kind of fiction.23 The overall effect of all this is largely rhetorical but there has
generally been a tendency to explore the anthropological details along with other
elements of rhetoric. It is easy to descend into irrelevance in the process of providing
cultural information to facilitate informed reading. Efforts with this orientation often
prove useful in guiding those who would have been overwhelmed by culture-specific
events and norms in the novel in the absence of relevant cultural information. Bernth
Lindforss Folklore in Nigerian Literature explores relevant elements rooted in Igbo
rhetoric that have impacted on the prose writings of Achebe. Its unique feature is the
attempt it makes at a comparative study of Yoruba and Igbo prose narrative styles.
Robert Wren has devoted more attention to clarifying the cultural context of
Achebes work by embarking on an ambitious investigation of the world behind
Achebes work as a whole in Achebes World: The Historical and Cultural Context of
the Novels of Chinua Achebe.24 This has turned out to be one of the most
comprehensive guides to Achebes work. It is not surprising that while there has been
a general loss of interest in studies with an anthropological bent, scholars who
indulge in this line of enquirygenerally those who assert some proximity to Igbo
culture and valueshave turned the cultural perspective into an inexhaustible
perspective. One of the more significant efforts in this regard is Kalu Ogbaas Gods,
Oracles and Divination, which is a comprehensive enquiry into folkways in Achebes

Emenyonu, The Rise, 155.
Caroll, 191.
50 O. Okunoye
fiction in general.25 Very many of the essays in the two volumes of Emerging
Perspectives on Chinua Achebe edited by Emenyonu also have this orientation. While
some measure of cultural information may inspire profound reflection and guard
against fundamental errors of interpretation, it is obvious that many studies
purporting to expound the cultural subtext of the novel only end up empowering
other critics of Things Fall Apart to produce some of its more exciting readings. This
suggests that cultural information is only important if it inspires insightful and
remarkable readings as cultural information, generated by scholars and critics acting
on their familiarity with the culture that produced the work, often turn out to be raw
material from native informants which others frequently explore to advantage. The
more valuable of studies with cultural insight are those with philosophical interest, as
they tend to problematize the reading of the work and contribute significantly to
existing knowledge.
Testimony to the fact that what is needed to experience the profundity of Things
Fall Apart is more than acquaintance with the supposedly inexhaustible cultural
subtext that underlies it, is the fact that some of the more influential studies of the
novel do not necessarily make any claim to any exclusive cultural knowledge. On the
contrary, their strength derives from an ability to scrutinize the text and arrive at
reasonable conclusions about its ability to communicate on its own. It will appear
that approaches with this orientationspanning literary studies with a formal
orientation, sociological readings with a feminist or Marxist bias and linguistic
analyses of various formsare probably among the dominant. Naturally, the text-
based approach has dominated the formal study of the novel as this is the favourite
method of most introductory studies. But beyond the first encounter, studies with
either a feminist or Marxist interest, such as Ada Azodos Masculinity, Power and
Language in Chinua Achebes Things Fall Apart and Chidi Amutas Theory of African
Literature, predicate their assessment of the novel on close reading, which inevitably
reveals the politics of representation that underlies the work at the textual level.26 The
claims of linguists and stylisticians that are keen on establishing Achebes dexterity at
using English or inventing a variety with a local colour has also been based on this
mode of assessment.27 Florence Stratton and Biodun Jeyifo reveal that Achebes first
novel subscribes to a not-so-progressive location of women, although it is possible to
argue that Anthills of the Savannah, the last of Achebes novels, has redressed this.
Stratton textually validates her view about the systematic displacement of women in
the world of Things Fall Apart, saying: The status of women in Umuofia is very low:
He had a large barn full of yams and he had three wives (6). They are mere objects
circulated among their menfolk, willed, for example, by a father to a son as part of an
estate or traded for a bag of cowries.28 Jeyifo similarly poses a question bordering on

Azodo; Amuta.
See, for instance, Igboanusi; and Bamiro.
Stratton, 25.
Chinua Achebes Things Fall Apart 51

the absence of Okonkwos mother within the total narrative space of Things Fall
Apart29 to expose authorial complicity in defining gender relations in the novel.
It is not difficult to measure the impact of the theoretical essays of Achebe as well
as the development in the wider field of cultural studies in the English-speaking
world on the direction that the reading of his fiction in general and his classic in
particular was to take from the 1980s. In a sense Achebe was among those that
inaugurated what has come to be known as colonial discourse analysis as his critique
of the assumptions that inspired Joseph Conrads Heart of Darkness, has come to be
seen as a classic in this regard.30 This type of analysis has authorized enquiries about
his revisionist agenda, his capacity to invent a non-Western novelistic practice and
his vision of literature as motivated representation. Thus, he consistently represents
the Christian mission and the colonial educational system as allies in executing a
common mission. His essays that define his vision and articulate the informing
aspirations of his work, particularly An Image of Africa and The Novelist as
Teacher played a significant role in legitimizing a new approach to his work, making
Things Fall Apart an ideal text for articulating his revisionist project. It is no surprise
then that most significant studies of the novel in the past twenty years have
acknowledged, either directly or by implication, the shaping influence of the
colonialist project on the creation of the work.31 The substantial autobiographical
material on Achebes colonial education in such collections of essays as Morning yet
on Creation Day, Hopes and Impediments and Home and Exile has also necessitated
the inclusion of his theoretical essays in major anthologies on post-colonial studies,
while securing his novel a comfortable space on reading lists on post-colonial writing
the world over. In buttressing this, Salah D. Hassan argues that Things Fall Apart
rose to the top of the African canon in the 1970s and was hypercanonized in the
context of surging postcolonial literary studies in the 1980s.32 Testimony to the fact
that Achebes authorial philosophy has become a major factor in the critical
engagement with his work is that biographical studies of the writer have flourished in
recent times. Ezenwa-Ohaetos Chinua Achebe: A Biography stands out in this regard
as it reconciles biographical information with Achebes evolving creative vision,
thereby legitimizing the link between the writers outlook and creative imagination.33
Nevertheless, while the post-colonial critical temper has been dominant in the
criticism of the novel in the past two decades, the fact that it has appealed to various
variants of this critical orientation makes post-colonial readings of the novel an
assemblage of strange bedfellows. Abdul JanMohameds Manichean Aesthetics is one
of the major efforts acknowledging the primacy of oppositional discourse in the

Jeyifo, 847.
It is remarkable that all Achebes major theoretical essays were either originally presented as lectures in Europe
and America or published in journals located in Europe and America. For instance, The Novelist as Teacher
was originally presented at the University of Leeds in 1964.
Hassan, 299.
52 O. Okunoye
novel. And his reading naturally takes the fact that the work is a logical response to
such initial acts as the textual inscription of the fixed perception of the colonized in
the works of Joyce Cary and Conrad into consideration. JanMohameds work is
significant in the sense that it represents one of the first sustained attempts at
theorizing the production of literature in colonial Africa. By moving away from facile
summary of plots, it inaugurated a challenging reading that moves beyond the text to
account for the dynamics of its creation and its discursive import within the history
of colonialism. For instance, it appreciates the fact that the influence of English
literature on the African writer is initially negative because his primary reaction,
both chronologically and emotionally is to reject the colonial depiction of Africa.34
A less popular but significant reading of Things Fall Apart, on account of its rather
combative temper, is to be found in the controversial Toward the Decolonization of
African Literature.35 Issuing from an outright demonization of the colonial project
and every reminder of its legacy, this study passionately articulates idealized African
values and dismisses every semblance of neocolonial sentiment in the reading of the
novel. The appearance of the book in 1980 would have been a major event if it had
not adopted a dogmatic position. It is not concerned with proposing a new reading
but engages existing readings and critical views seen as implying that the African
novelrepresented in this case by Things Fall Apartbe assessed based on some
universal standards. It creates the impression that the preoccupations of the novel as
well as the African oral narrative strategies that it deploys are appropriate. It equally
envisions a situation in which traces of neocolonialism that disguise as universal
practices will be exorcised from the critical vocabulary of Africans in the spirit of a
much-desired cultural independence. It particularly views Larsons reading of African
fiction as suggesting that African novels be read as an extension of mainstream
Western fiction. As eloquent as this reading is, it presents an unproblematized
perception of African cultural production in the sense that it almost implies that we
can easily deny its debt to a received colonial heritage. It also assumes that a unitary
direction for African writing can be willed into existence and thereby fails to
appreciate the colonial investment in the making of Achebes creative vision. Even if
the claims of the critics are often insightful, the excessive prescription that they bring
to bear on their brand of post-colonial criticism has earned their work the nativist
The post-colonial engagement of Things Fall Apart is not limited to the often
contestable assumptions of the bolekaja critics.36 The efforts of C. L. Innes and
Simon Gikandi, two critics who have brought sustained reflection and an enduring
interest in a holistic assessment of Achebes work to bear on their reading, yield a
richer assessment. It is no surprise that the works of the two critics on Achebe have

JanMohamed, 153.
Chinweizu and Madubuike.
This label, meaning get-down-so-we-can-fight, has been used to identify the authors, Jemie Onwuechekwa
Chinweizu and Ihechukwu Madubuike, of Toward the Decolonization of African Literature, probably because of
their combative posture.
Chinua Achebes Things Fall Apart 53

taken a common path of growth from an initial formalist orientation to grounding in

post-colonial theory. Not content with merely affirming the pre-eminence of Achebe,
Gikandi sets out in Reading Chinua Achebe to place his work in relation to some
important literary precursors and within the nationalist tradition that produced
them. His goal is to understand why the kinds of narratives that Achebe
inaugurated have acquired so much ideological import, why he is indispensable to
understanding the colonial and postcolonial condition in Africa.37 With reference to
Things Fall Apart, Gikandis concern is with Achebes engagement with colonialist
discourse. While the two critics exhibit more than superficial knowledge of the
diverse realities that have shaped Achebes project in his first novel, Gikandis study,
while attempting to reconcile the informing ideologies with the strategies of Achebe
in the novel, occasionally sounds consciously theoretical. His reflection in Chinua
Achebe and the Invention of African Culture, however, complements his book-
length study as it underlines the canonical status of Things Fall Apart. Inness reading
has a grace and confidence about it that betrays a well thought out engagement. It
also executes a coherent and assured exploration of Achebes writing as a counter-
discursive practice. Her preoccupation, beyond the familiar issues of language and
historical change is with Achebes Africanization of the novel so as to discern
what elements he has used and what innovations he has made in his development as a
novelist.38 She accomplishes her set goals by enriching her reading with relevant
insights from others and properly situating the novel, pitching it against Carys work.
Critics and scholars operating within the Asian academy39 dominate those
adopting a comparative approach to the reading of the novel, although other
perspectives in the conventional comparative tradition have thrived alongside. Their
engagement, as evident, for instance, in South Asian Responses to Chinua Achebe,40
creates a dialogue among post-colonial literary traditions and therefore underscores
shared values arising from the common heritage of colonialism and the quest for
unique expressions in the context of post-colonial cultures. As a phenomenon that
became fashionable in the 1990s and is increasingly gaining prominence, this way of
reading the novel does not suffer from the constraints of the specificities of ethno-
cultural reference. The pattern set by The Empire Writes Back with regard to the
possibility of theorizing the post-colonial across geographical and temporal
boundaries serves as antecedent for this mode of perception. Soonsik Kims Colonial
and Postcolonial Discourse in the Novels of Yom Sang-Sop, Chinua Achebe and Salman
Rushdie represents this growing critical outlook. Anjali Gera and Annie Gagiano, on
the other hand, embark on comparative readings with other African novels, with
Gikandi, Reading, 2.
Innes, 2.
See Lindfors and Kothandaraman, Checklist.
Lindfors and Kothandaraman, eds., South Asian Responses. It is interesting that not many of the essays
collected in this book focus on Achebes first novel. The fact that it has been accorded due recognition, however,
emerges from the checklist of studies of Achebe by Indian critics. The fact that the works of H. H. Gowda, R. K.
Srinivasa Iyengar, C. D. Narasimhaiah and Viney Kirpal maintain this orientation confirms the dominance of
the comparative perspective in their reading of the novel.
54 O. Okunoye
various forms of post-colonial consciousness.41 While Geras Three Great African
Novelists privileges Achebes first novel in the comparative study with Soyinkas and
Tutuolas on the basis of a shared use of oral narrative strategies, Gagiano examines
the discourse of power and change in Africa in the fictional works of Achebe, Bessie
Head and Dambudzo Marechera. It is safe to predict that comparative and
intertextual approaches will dominate readings of the novel in the near future
because of their inexhaustible possibilities.

This assessment of readings of Things Fall Apart has identified various tendencies,
driven by a variety of impulses, in the reading of the novel. While the foregoing might
have created an impression of schisms in the reading of Things Fall Apart in the last
fifty years, it is pertinent to remark that the various approaches have co-existed in an
amazing manner. For instance, editors of the major collections of essays on Achebes
writing always bring studies from various perspectives together in each volume. The
growth of the critical engagement of the novel as well as other Achebe works has
benefitted from the devotion of scholars such as Bernth Lindfors, C. L. Innes, Edith
Ihekweazu and Ernest Emenyonu. They have, through individual critical interven-
tions and promoting reflections on Achebes work, provoked remarkable critical
responses to the novel.42 But while the discussion of the reading of Things Fall Apart
in this essay might have created the impression that it has existed alone, it is pertinent
to stress that the novel has in many cases been studied in the wider context of
Achebes fiction, even if it has elicited more critical responses than all the other novels
put together.
Reflecting on readings of Things Fall Apart in the last half a century reveals that
critics have indeed been active participants in not just sustaining its reputation but
also defining the sense in which it is relevant. The pattern of its reading to date reveals
that it has appealed to a variety of readers just as it has also lent itself to different
approaches. If the trends and studies identified here represent major categories and
tendencies in its reception, they do not in any way fully reflect the numerical weight
of studies that have accorded the novel due critical attention. Even though Things Fall
Apart might have started out as a strange invention of a young man whose vision of
written literature was shaped almost exclusively in the context of British colonial
education, it has come to be seen as a significant work both on account of the force
with which it undermines the very tradition that inspired its creation and the
paradigmatic status it now assumes in the African tradition of the novel. Although
the story it tells looks simple and can be read and understood by readers with varying
levels of perception, the discursive and historical import of its subject, the unique
Kim; Gagiano; Gera.
These scholars are editors of the major collections of essays on Achebes fiction. It is also important that many
other collections of essays grew out of presentations at conferences or symposia marking major milestones in the
life of the writer.
Chinua Achebes Things Fall Apart 55

outlook of its author as well the metonymic value of the personages and events that
occur in it, have combined to earn it the attention of scholars with such diverse
scholarly interests as history, rhetoric, religion, linguistics, anthropology and cultural
This critique of its reading to date reflects a critical trend marked by an initial
enthusiastic but incisive exegetical probing in the received tradition of close reading
by critics nurtured within the same tradition in Achebe, and a subsequent theoretical
invigoration, mainly in the traditions of post-colonial criticism. This development
cannot be seen just as a transition prompted by the epoch of theory but one that
Achebes major theoretical essays which emerged within the first decade of the
publication of the novel legitimized, for his passionate assault on colonialist criticism
and effort at clarifying the informing vision of his fictional engagement with African
history provided textual validation and interpretive key for most studies of the novel
in the post-colonial critical mode. There is a sense in which the trends in the criticism
of the novel reflect the pattern that the criticism of African writing in general has
taken. The initial obsession with formalist procedures is giving way to the
appropriation of theory in its various formulations. This is a trend dictated by the
increasing convergence of standards and the unrelenting zeal of metropolitan
scholarship43 to innovate.
The geography of the reading of the novel also shows that critics from Africa, Asia,
Europe and America have been prominent among its readers. However, it is advisable
to only correlate sites of production of critical knowledge in this regard with the
knowledge produced and not categorize scholars based on their nationalities or
cultural backgrounds. The reason for this is obvious: there is no significant difference
between the contemporary critical responses of African readers of the novel operating
within the Western academy and their non-African counterparts. We cannot say this
about the orientation of critical responses generated in most of African and Asian
institutions. This boils down to the fact that the influential position of the Western
academy, as evident in the ascendancy of post-colonial theory in recent decades, is
not in doubt. However, the global flow of knowledge has made it possible to access
knowledge produced in various parts of the world without any constraint, so that the
gulf which might have existed within various sites of reading the novel cannot be
glaring. All the same, more of the studies from Africa and India in particular have
tended to fall back on the tools of traditional literary criticism and underscore
culture-inclined issues. It is also obvious that the theoretical invigoration of the
reading of the novel has been exclusively executed in the Western academy, even
though all other regions are increasingly appropriating this within the global
economy of knowledge.

I am not in any way suggesting that there is a centre-periphery dichotomy that corresponds to the
conventional division between the West and the rest of the world in this case. The differentiation is more about
the power that the Western academy wields due to its capacity to pull and retain the most distinguished of
scholars from every region of the world.
56 O. Okunoye

This paper was completed while the author was an Alexander von Humboldt
Research Fellow at the University of Bayreuth, Germany. The author gratefully
acknowledges the support of the Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung for the award,
and appreciates the assistance of Anna Linesky in sourcing relevant literature for the

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