A Psychoanalytic Interpretation of the Novel “Anthills of the Savannah” by Chinua Achebe

Akademische Arbeit, 1999

18 Seiten


Table of contents







This essay examines the application of psychoanalytic critical approach to the interpretation of Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah. It begins with the explanation of the concept of psychoanalysis highlighting its relevance to literary interpretation and proceeds with an extensive evaluation of the novel using the theory. Findings of the study are provided toward the end of the essay.


Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah (1987), has attracted the attention of scholars and critics. Several critical theories have been applied to the novel to interpret its meaning. For instance, Abah, (1995:99) evaluates the novel using Feminism as a critical theory and asserts that “…the novel is an evocative empowerment of women.”

Another scholar, Okonta (1991:36) who relies on social realism to interpret the novel draws a conclusion that “Anthills of the Savannah is Chinua Achebe’s answer to the rash of dictatorships that presently bestride the African landscape like a crazy colossus”.

On his own part, Emenyonu,(1991) who concentrates on the socialist vision in Anthills of the Savannah believes that the novel is concerned with portraying the disastrous consequences of military rule which is aimed at stratifying the society into the upper rich and the downtrodden masses.

The list of scholars who have used several literary theories to examine the novel could be long. However, this paper adopts the psychoanalytic approach on assumption that if this critical method of interpretation is applied to Anthills of the Savannah, it may unearth the literary treasures that lie hidden in the work. Psychoanalytic critical method if properly put to use would provide us with not only the major preoccupation of the story but also the motivating factor for writing the book.


Bressler (1999:149) relates that “The theories and practice of Sigmund Freud provide the foundation for psychoanalytic criticism”. Freud was a Vienna Neurologist and psychologist who lived between 1856 and 1939. Psychoanalysis properly defined, is a medical term referring to the method of treating emotional and psychological disorders of the mind.

As a medical diagnostic tool, psychoanalysis involves the examination of the patient’s memory of past life and experiences, dreams and secret desires in order to establish the causes of the patient’s mental illness. If the same method is applied to a literary text, one is therefore engaged in psychoanalytic criticism.(Bressler 1999)

In the course of his study of the human psyche, Freud( 1900) theorized that the human mind is a dynamic storehouse of memories. As human beings nurse feelings, emotions and desires, some of the desires and aspirations may not find fulfillment due to social constraints. The repressed aspirations are therefore relegated to the background and they remain in latent forms. This process, where repressed desires are forced into the background is known in Freudian terms as condensation.

The latent contents of the mind however find release with time and they manifest in our dreams, art, literature and Freudian slips. Dreams, art and literature, to Freud, are therefore disguised wishes and one could interpret their contents by using the approaches Freud used in interpreting dreams. This paper would concentrate largely on the areas of Freudian thoughts that have direct bearing on literature and literary creativity.

To Freud (1916:374), the act of writing a literary piece is a means of emotional purge. That is why he says that the literary artist

… is oppressed by excessively powerful instinctual needs. He desires to win honour, power, wealth, fame and love of women; but he lacks the means for achieving these satisfactions. Consequently, like any other unsatisfied man, he turns away from reality and transfers all his interest and his libido too, to the wishful construction of his life of phantasy, whence the path might lead to neurosis.

This explains the concept that literature does not exist in a vacuum. People’s experiences give birth to their literature. The creative writer has a compelling need that requires satisfaction. His capacity to communicate through literary creativity provides that satisfaction. The act of writing a literary piece becomes a means of ventilating the artist’s pent-up feelings. The ability to inject in some aesthetics and embellishments into the story is what differentiates the literary artist from a historian. The basic premise is that the literary artist has some oppressive feelings he wants to purge himself of. But to produce his experience verbatim amounts to writing a historical record and the materials could betray their sources; it becomes necessary for the artist to work over his story.

Freud(1916:374) again says;

A man who is a true artist has more at his disposal. In the first place, he understands how to work over his day-dreams in such a way as to make them lose what is too personal about them and repels strangers, and to make it possible for others to share in the enjoyment of them. He understands too, how to tone them down so that they do not easily betray their origin from proscribed sources.

Freud called this process sublimation. In Stafford-Clark’s(1965:164-165) words,

Sublimation was Freud’s hope for the creative future of humanity. He saw it as an alternative to neurosis, indeed as the alternative which creative man had always found when the dammed-back libido sought other paths for expression.

Three broad approaches are outlined for critics using psychoanalytic criticism:

(a) Studying the author’s biography;
(C)Examination of mythological materials found in the literary work.

For one to interpret the meaning of a literary work using psychoanalytic approach, one begins by gathering biographical materials of the author through biographies, personal letters, lectures, Freudian slips and what other people say about him. Personal interview with the literary artist proves more useful. But where such interviews prove difficult, the afore mentioned approaches serve the same purpose.

Doing so would help the analyst to establish the personality and idiosyncrasies of the artist and his unresolved conflicts which may have found release in the act of literary creation. Thorough analyses of the fictional characters in literary work supplies vital clues to the meaning of the work; for they may not be far removed from existing persons or persons who have existed and were known to the literary artist.

Mythological materials come in the forms of symbols and symbolism in literary works. By carefully examining the mythological materials and relating them to the author’s cultural milieu, the critic would be able to interpret what they stand for in the text.


Subjecting Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah to psychoanalytic critical approach reveals that the story is a reflection of events in Nigeria from 1966 to possibly 1975. The major characters and situations bear close resemblances to Nigeria’s historical personalities and events. In January 1966, Nigeria witnessed the first military coup which culminated in the killing of several political leaders from the north and western parts of Nigeria. Five young army officers mostly of Igbo ethnic origin plotted and executed the coup and invited Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi to take over control of the government.

In July of the same year a counter coup saw to the end of Aguiyi-Ironsi and his regime. General Yakubu Gowon took over power and a bitter political disagreement between Gowon and the governor of Eastern region, Odumegwu Ojukwu led to a bloody civil war in 1967 after Ojukwu had declared the Eastern region a sovereign republic of Biafra. The war lasted for three years.

Through out the period of crises, Achebe was an active participant. Before the outbreak of hostilities, he was the director of external broadcasting with the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation in Lagos. With the outbreak of war, he moved to the east and was actively involved in canvassing for international support and provides recognition for Biafra. Anthills of the Savannah is certainly not Achebe’s personal memoir of those events but psychoanalytic investigation reveals that the events of that period of Nigeria’s history the substance of the story. Achebe appears to have used the story of Ironsi’s brief regime to highlight several social ills associated not only with Nigeria but also other developing nations all over the world having similar problems.

Since psychoanalytic criticism relies on both intrinsic and extrinsic materials for studying a literary work, Achebe’s published biographies, anecdotal works and comments made about him would be utilized in this study. Some of such non-fiction books include The Trouble with Nigeria (1983) and Morning Yet on Creation Day (1975).These books contain some vital clues to the understanding of Achebe’s political convictions and what he considers to be the problems with Nigeria. In The Trouble with Nigeria, Achebe is categorical that

The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership. There is nothing basically wrong with the Nigerian character. There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian land or climate or water or air or anything else. The Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example which are the hallmarks of true leadership. (p. 1).

This bad governance is what has brought about the Nigeria\ Biafra war. And this belief perhaps informs the character traits given to Sam His Excellency the Head of state in Anthills of the Savannah. Sam, the head of state comes to power through a coup deter. He has no plan on how to run the affairs of state for the good of its citizens. He therefore hides behind the façade of dictatorship to cover up the massive fraud and monumental looting he has come to represent.


Ende der Leseprobe aus 18 Seiten


A Psychoanalytic Interpretation of the Novel “Anthills of the Savannah” by Chinua Achebe
Modibbo Adama University of Technology, Yola
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ISBN (Buch)
psychoanalytic, interpretation, novel, anthills, savannah”, chinua, achebe
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Abdullahi Haruna (Autor:in), 1999, A Psychoanalytic Interpretation of the Novel “Anthills of the Savannah” by Chinua Achebe, München, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/470738


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