Table of contents
2. Defining Modernism
3. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Modernism
3.1 Okonkwo – a modern protagonist?
3.2 Igbo – a modern society?
5. Works Cited Page
Life as we know it has always been subject to a certain dynamic: relevant events, such as conflicts of a military or other kind, but also natural disasters, are able to sustainably influence people’s thinking and actions. Currently, we are experiencing such changes in various categories of our everyday life in the context of the corona pandemic. As a result, the new virus has established itself, for instance as catalyst of digitization in the school sector – at least in Germany – or an increase of employees who work at home. Without the virus, these aspects would probably have been neglected for much longer. As a result, many further concepts, for instance interaction are now understood differently than before the pandemic (Moore). Recently, the pandemic has been linked to neo-modernism (cf. Alekseenkova), which might be captured by contemporary writers in the future.
Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart, however, is a work that in a certain way depicts contemporary developments: Published in 1958, Achebe describes events in the period of the early transition phase of British colonization of Nigeria – roughly, around 1900 – referring to Okonkwo, the protagonist, and the Igbo, a native ethnic group. Both are subject to fundamental changes, but to what extent can these changes be expressed in literary terms? Are there certain markers that can be used to identify tendencies, for example modernism? This investigation will be the subject of the following essay.
Therefore, I will consider and examine both Okonkwo and the Igbo Society prior to the modernity question to show that both manifest certain modernist traits. But how can the term modernism be defined? This I will explain within the first part of the essay in terms of its origins, duration, and impacts. Then, I will – after a brief attempt of classification of Achebe and the novel – examine Okonkwo, and the Igbo community individually in the light of their modernist tendencies. Finally, the essay will be rounded off with a résumé.
2. Defining Modernism
In its original meaning modernism denoted “a practice, usage, or expression peculiar to modern times such (…) as ‘blog[s],’ ‘bromance,’ and ‘steampunk’”; Additionally, it is referred to as a “modern artistic or literary philosophy and practice [and,] especially [,] a self-conscious break with the past and a search for new forms of expression” (Simpson). According to Lorcher, said break “includes a strong reaction against established religious, political, and social views”. Furthermore, “Modernists believe the world is created in the act of perceiving it; that is, the world is what we say it is”, that they do not subscribe to absolute truth, and that, in fact, all things are relative. Moreover, modernists “feel no connection with history or institutions. Their experience is that of alienation, loss, and despair”, and finally, “they believe life [to be] unordered, champion the individual and celebrate inner strength”. Also, the modernism-related “concurrent search for new forms of expression fostered a period of experimentation in the arts from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century, particularly in the years following World War I” (Simpson). This resulted in the rejection of traditional continuity in favor of employing stream-of-consciousness narration instead (Kuiper). This coincides with Niall’s statement that “modernism is characterized by a general sense of the unfixity of things” (134). Modernism Art, in addition, is “experimental [thus, subject to avant-garde], formally complex, (…) contains elements of decreation as well as creation, and tends to associate notions of the artist’s freedom from realism, materialism, traditional genre and form, with notions of cultural apocalypse and disaster” (“Modernism”).
World War I moreover represents a historical event that can be described as a trigger for the modernist movement with certain aftereffects:
According to Lorcher, “[t]he horrors of World War I (…) became the catalyst for the Modernist Movement in literature and art. Modernist authors felt betrayed by the war,believing the institutions in which they were taught to believe had led the civilized world into a bloody conflict. They no longer considered these institutions as reliable means to access the meaning of life, and therefore, turned within themselves to discover the answers [and] if the killing fields of Europe were a product of pre-war traditions of social and political governance (…) it was these traditions that had to be overthrown and re-made anew”.
Whereas it can be regarded as a timeless concept – as Sterne, and others handle it (“Modernism”) – the exact duration of it is subject to controversy to the present day: Some claim that it “is still going strong today [so that postmodernism is just a phase within modernism or modernity itself,] while others argue that it ended somewhere around the late 1950s with the emergence of teenage popular culture” (Niall 131) or “sometime after World War II, between the 1950s and the 1960s” (Kuiper).
To sum up, modernism roughly describes an approximate period between the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, which climaxed within the events of World War I and resulted in a rejection of traditional continuities in favor of a stream-of-consciousness. Modernism Art is supposed to be something highly experimental, complex which, among other things, can be related to the literary form of a work. Modernists therefore show a cohesion to truth, champion the individual and, above all, celebrate inner strength. With this definition as a template, an analysis of Okonkwo and the Igbo with reference to their modernist ambitions can now be attempted.
3. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Modernism
Thus far, Achebe has been praised as “Africa’s greatest writer” (Dunton 196), as a foundational figure in favor of the invention of African literature” (Newell 85, and Gikandi, qtd. in Subketi et. al. 54), and “Africa’s most influential and most admired writer of the post-colonial epoch” (Schalkwyk). However, the global success of his novel Things Fall Apart proves him right: It reflects the “one African novel people have read even if they have read no other [and] has been translated into nearly seventy languages and counting”. Moreover, “Okonkwo’s tragedy is one that everyone in the world can relate to and can weep for” and therefore, addresses and affects many people (Dunton 197). Achebe’s fiction and nationalism form a certain synergy, the interplay of which turns the novel quasi into an international tinder to raise awareness of the conditions in Nigeria (Morrison, Achebe 56).
Things Fall Apart (hereafter referred to as ‘TFA’) does not only enjoy great popularity because it is a Janus-faced novel with sharp contrasts (Schalkwyk). Furthermore, it addresses large-scale “problems (…) of leadership in changing times” (Morrison, Tradition 14) from the perspective of an author who is proficient in both Nigerian issues – he was born in Ogidi, Namibia, and in the light of the novel is seen as “spokesman for the Igbo community (Innes 33) – and British issues – he received proficient academic education in English language and gained experience within the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission. Thus, he is well educated and experienced in both sectors (Morrison, Achebe 56). Moreover, it is conducive to the authenticity of his novel that he himself shares similar experiences with the TFA characters. Additionally, the novel’s title – which has its origin in a poem by W.B. Yeats called ‘The Second Coming’ and deals with destruction of civilization (cf. Innes 35) – is not only an indicator of suspense, but also identifies the novel as a derivation of Yeats’s poem depicting the strained and sensitive situation in Nigeria. Also, contrary to the tendencies of Yeats, TFA was supposed to be “an attempt to give a less ‘superficial’ picture [than the one depicted in Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson] (…) ‘not only of the country – but even of the Nigerian character’” (Innes 22).
Also, Subketi et. al. provide an answer to the question of why the story of Okonkwo and the Igbo was put in a novel instead of e.g., a historical documentary: “Through various experiences of the characters in literary texts, readers could be facilitated to better understand the effects of certain occurrences on the characters, resembling those on human beings in real life” (51). So, the literary novel form provides the opportunity and is necessary to illuminate the inner workings more strongly, and to contrast issues with one another. In addition to this, the insertion of Igbo words and sayings on the part of Achebe for instance has two consequences: First, it “gives the [story] flavour” and secondly, they characterize the speaker, his mood, and the values of the society he represents” (Innes 33).
Along with the question of the ‘why’ (i.e., why does Achebe use the literary novel form?), the question of the ‘what’ (i.e., the literary analysis) is also of particular importance. For reasons of space, however, I will keep this paragraph short and confine myself to the relevant bascis in brief: Importantly, the novel “contains a literary re-evaluation of the historical past of Chinua Achebe’s people and their ways of life” and thus, historical validity is “[o]ne of the major attractions” in TFA (Ogbaa 1). Additionally, the plot construction is unique insofar that it – apart from other formal indicators such as its language, tone, and voice, setting and the like – deviates from the British corpus and consequently, results in “a unique quality of ‘Africanness’” which not only won literary independence for Nigeria, but also inspired other African writers to borrow Achebe’s ‘African fiction’ style of writing (Ogbaa 3). Also, his use of figurative language is worth being mentioned: Proverbs, used by the elders of the clan, and folk songs, sung during rituals and ceremonies only make up a small part of what Achebe processes in this regard. His use of Igbo words, which are usually explained immediately after their first mention, is extremely interesting. They form an important component of Achebe’s narrative technique, according to Ogbaa: “[A]s the narrator recalls past events, he seductively elicits the sympathy of the listeners, who are (…) drawn to take sides in the black-white encounter”. Therefore, the use of Igbo words is a contribution to their authentic representation (7).
In conclusion, there are many formal issues such as the plot construction or use of figurative and Igbo language that give rise to the assumption that classifying TFA with fiction may be difficult: Within its “unique quality of ‘Africanness’ which makes [Achebe’s] fiction a hybrid genre [i.e., the combination of Western narratives with Igbo storytelling habits] to put his message across to readers” (Ogbaa 16), it seems like TFA does not obey the rules of a certain genre and as a result, shows traits of modernism itself.
3.1 Okonkwo – a modern protagonist?
The character of Okonkwo is intriguing to examine: As the most central character, he is an interesting tool for Achebe, whom he can use to consistently contrasting the Igbo.
Furthermore, in “developing the character of his hero Okonkwo Unoka, Achebe combined the techniques of literary modernism, the socio-literary philosophy of naturalism, and Igbo story- telling devices to recapitulate history and consequences of the late nineteenth-century African encounter with European colonialism” (Ogbaa xv).
According to Friesen, Okonkwo is an ill-fated character, “a tragic figure [, and] a victim of rather than an active participant in his own fate” (1, cf. Achebe 17). This is already an initial agreement with Lorcher that “Modernists feel no connection with history or institutions [and that] their experience is that of alienation, loss, and despair”. The extent to which Okonkwo sees himself powerless at the mercy of his own chi or fate will be addressed in this chapter, followed by Okonkwo’s affiliation with other characters. In addition, I will pay attention to the issue of masculinity on his part to link it to the modernism question.