Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart - Bridging Cultural Differences

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004
25 Pages, Grade: 1.7 (A-)


Table of contents

I. Introduction

II. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart

III. Discourse analysis: cohesion and coherence
3.1 Discourse as object vs discourse as process
3.2 Background Knowledge
3.2.1 Frames, Scripts, Scenarios, and Schemata
3.2.2 Mental Modelling
3.3 Top-Down-, Bottom-Up- Processing
3.4 Inferences

IV. Relevance Theory
4.1 The Principle of Relevance
4.2 Explicature
4.3 Implicature

V. Understanding Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart
5.1 The construction of cultural knowledge
5.1.1 Ikemefuna’s death
5.1.2 The arrival of the locusts
5.2 Analysis of some Ibo words

VI. Conclusion

I. Introduction

Things Fall Apart is Chinua Achebe`s first novel. It is about the land of the Ibo in the eastern region of present- day Nigeria, in the period between 1850- 1900. Things Fall Apart gives us a vision of the Ibo`s life in a part of Africa called Umuofia, its history and their cultural, religious and political traditions.Also it allows us an insight into the differences and problems between the established tradition, that is the Ibo tradition, and the emerging traditions of the white colonizers. Things Fall Apart is not only the drama of a whole society but it also reflects the tragedy of one man, Okonkwo, that is worked out of his personal conflicts as well as out of the contrariness of his destiny. This novel shows the changes which have taken place in Ibo as a result of the encounter between Europe and Africa during the imperial-colonial period.

In the book Achebe confronts us with a different culture which implies different habits, different concepts and a different philosophy of life and world view. Readers are drawn into the Ibo culture with which they are not familiar at all, hence readers who have no knowledge of the culture at all. Therfore the question arises, how it is possibile on the one hand to communicate a completely different culture and world-view and especially how are we able to understand the text and the culture behind the text, although we do not know anything about it?

Usually when we encounter such a book we try to solve those problems with the help of literary strategies and approaches like literary theory, reading about the author and the epoch, studying of interpretations of the work , deconstructing the text and looking at the effects of the text with regard to us readers. Besides these literary strategies, which lead to an interpretation of the text, a linguistic analysis of literary texts helps us either to get a full understanding of the text or to comprehend why we have problems understanding the text. However, the linguistic analysis of literature is not an interpretation; it is more an explanation of how it means and why it means what it does. Linguistics demonstrates why a text is interpreted in this or that way and makes clearer what the underlying problems in the interpretation are.

The main aim of this essay is to show and explain the linguistic strategies and mechanisms that enable us to bridge the cultural differences, to demonstrate how cultural knowledge is triggered off and to show how it is possible to learn something about the culture

The goal of this essay is to show that readers can understand the text although they have no knowledge of the culture at all.

In the first part of this work I will settle the question why it is difficult for us to understand the culture behind the text and give a brief account of the problems with which we are confronted in the process of learning about the culture in the book. In the second and third passage I will introduce and settle the theoretical basis of linguistic strategies that help us to understand the text and to reconcile the cultural contrasts. The following part will show the practical application of the linguistic strategies with examples of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.

II. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart

While reading Chinua Achebe’s work the reader is confronted with some stumbling blocks for non Ibo readers. The first thing one recognizes is that Achebe writes in English and in doing so builds a bridge to Western readers. However, he incorporaters words, idioms, proverbs and concepts that invoke the Ibo tradition and culture into his prose. Some Ibo words are left untranslated such as chi, obi, nna ayi,.(Achebe:1959, 18/19)[1] but are explained either in the text or in the glossary at the end of the book. Nevertheless these words create gaps and the reader has to start filling them in. Concepts, like second burial (p.18), share cropping (p.22), the Evil Forest (p.18), are translated into English but left unexplained. Proverbs such as, “The lizard that jumped from the high iroko tree to the ground said he would praise himself if no one else did .” (p.21), are translated but only partly explained. It is obvious why Achebe has buildt in the Ibo language. The Ibo language reflects the culture, as language always has a dual character: it is both a means of communication and a carrier of culture. Also Achebe wants to show with the Ibo vocabulary that the Africans did not hear of culture for the first time. Colonialist Europe tended to perceive Africa as a primordial land of silence. But the people of Umuofia speak a complex language full of proverbs and literary and rhetorical devices.The proverbs are part of a living tradition; they reflect the attitudes of the society and emphasize the society’s concern with physical survival and individual achievement, as well as its perception of man as at one with nature: “Among the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with wich words are eaten.”(p.7) Achebe's translation of the Igbo language into English retains the cadences, rhythms, and speech patterns of the language.

More difficult is the question to which effect Achebe uses/explaines/translates the Ibo language. Through the original Ibo words Achebe distances the reader via things which cannot be explained. On the other hand he translates or explaines some, because otherwise they cannot be understood by us. The conclusion would be that Achebe plays a kind of double game: the Ibo words show an alieness of culture, proverbs are contextualized into English. Therfore the culture of the Ibo is not dissolved, but contextualized, which means that a certain distance is maintained between the two cultures. If the reader wants to understand the Ibo language and hence the culture, he has to construct meaning to all the unfamiliarities with which he is confronted. The reader has to learn himself about the culture, that means to close the cultural and lexical gaps, and construct to a certain point his own view of the culture. If we fail to understand the Ibo language, we fail to understand the culture.

Achebe also confronts us with different religious and cultural concepts. Religious institutions and rituals like “the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves”(p.16), or the “Week of Peace”(p.29) are foreign and sometimes strange to us. Cultural habits like the breaking of the kola nut, the drinking rituals (p.19-21), that a man can have several wifes (p.20) or cultural institutions like “the clan” (p.14) are not existent in our culture. Especially in the first part of the book, Achebe describes the customs and traditions of the Ibo. There are joyful events such as the planting seasons (p.13) and the “New Yam Festival”(p.37), a marriage feast (p.111) or the engagement of the villagers in a community activity.(p.46) Also, we get an insight into the tribal laws and the gods, which often deny and violate human responses and wishes. It is made clear that this society has its good side,like the simplicity, the comunal way of life, the poetry of life, but it also has its cruel side. One example here is the killing of Okonkow`s son Ikemefuna. (p.57) It is very important to dig up the written and unwritten discourse to understand the novel as a form of cultural formation. And it is crucial to bridge the different cultural and religious concepts. But still the question remains how it is possibile for us to enrich our cultural understanding and how we are able to learn something new about the foreign Ibo culture. I will come back to the analysis of passages from Things Fall Apart in chapter V. after giving an account of the theoretical background of discourse analysis and relevance theory.

III. Discourse analysis: cohesion and coherence

3.1 Discourse as object vs. discourse as process

The main aim of discourse analysis is to give an answer to the question how it is possibile for us to make sense of what we read in texts, understand what a writer means, recognize a coherent discourse as opposed to a incoherent one. To arrive at an interpretation of a text we rely on our grammatical, formal and structural knowledge; but we do have a lot more knowledge than that. To determine wether a set of sentences do or do not constitute a text is dependent on the cohesive relation. We know that a text has a texture and this texture is created by the cohesive relations: “The concept of cohesion is a semantic one; it refers to relations of meaning that exist within the text and define it as a text.” (Halliday/Hasan:1976, 4) Following Halliday and Hasan, “Cohesion occurs where the INTERPRETATION of some element in the discourse is dependent on that of another. The one PRESUPPOSES the other, in the sense that it cannot be effectively decoded except by recourse to it.” (Halliday/Hasan:1976, 4)

In other words, whenever an interpretation of a piece of discourse needs reference to some other item in the discourse, there is cohesion. An example for a cohesive relationship is given in the following sentence (Halliday/Hasan:1976, 2):

(1) Wash and core six cooking apples. Put them into a fireproof dish.

Them in the second sentence refers to the six cooking apples. The linking of these two elements, gives cohesion to the two sentences, so that we interpret them as a whole and therefore as a text.

Although it is undisputed that cohesive links within a text give us an insight into how writers structure a text or help our judgement on wether a text is well-written or not, cohesion is not sufficient to enable us to make sense of what we read. Texture involves much more than the presence of semantic relations, the dipendence of one item on another item for its interpretation, the relationship of sentences in texts. The cohesive analysis is restricted solely on the product, on the words that one can find on a page. The cohesive analysis does not involve any consideration of how the product is produced or how it is received by the reader.The concept of cohesion is only concerned with the examination of linguistic resources which are available to a writer to mark cohesive relationship. Cohesion is not interested in answering the question of how texts are understood.

As Brown and Yule argue, “[…] formal cohesion will not guarantee identification as a text nor […] will it guarantee textual coherence.” (Brown/Yule:1983, 197) They say that, “[…] hearers and readers do not depend upon formal markers of cohesion in order to identify a text as a text.” ( Brown/Yule:1983, 198) Often we are confronted with pieces of texts, where no explicit marking of relationships between sentences exists, like in the following example (Brown/Yule:1983, 196):

(2) A: There’s the doorbell

B: I’m in the bath

Although there are no obvious semantic relations between these two sentences, we realize this piece of dicourse as constituting a text. It is clear that the connectedness which we experience in our interpretation of a text is not only based on connections between words.Therefore Brown and Yule came to the conclusion that “Texts are what hearers and readers treat as texts.” (Brown/Yule:1983, 199) There must be some other factor which leads us to distinguish connected texts from those which are not connected. And there have to be mental representations and processes in our mind which lead us to interpret texts and make sense of what we read:

“ […] in addition to our knowledge of sentential structure, we have also knowledge of other standard formats in which information is conveyed. We also rely on some principle that, although there are no formal linguistic links connecting contiguous linguistic strings, the fact of their contiguity leads us to interpret them as connected. We readily fill in any connections which are required.” (Brown/Yule:1983, 224)


[1] In the following quotes from the primary literature I will only indicate the page number of the book in brackets after each quote

Excerpt out of 25 pages


Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart - Bridging Cultural Differences
University of Tubingen  (New Philology)
1.7 (A-)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
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Chinua, Achebe, Things, Fall, Apart, Bridging, Cultural, Differences
Quote paper
Andrea Fischer (Author), 2004, Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart - Bridging Cultural Differences, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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