February 21, 2001
People Fall Apart
Karl Marx believed that all of history could be reduced to two tiny words: class struggle. In any period of time a dominant class exploits a weaker class. Marx defines a dominant class as one who owns or controls the means of production. The weaker class consists of those who don’t. In Marx’s day, the age of Almighty Industry, the means of production were factories. But as a literary theory Marxism needs no factories to act as means of production. All that are needed are words, specifically chosen to justify an Official View of a dominating class, in our case, in a society guided by capitalism. This Official View is sometimes disguised as what we might otherwise call culture. Marxist Theory can be applied to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in two ways, one from inside the story, and the other from outside. First let’s examine the story itself.
It would be inaccurate to claim that the Igbo society of Things Fall Apart is no different from a western society in its representation of capitalism. But that’s because the Igbo culture does not represent capitalism as we may think of it. There are no factories in turn-of-the-century Africa, but there are similarities between a capitalist society and the Igbo society. For example, they both emphasize the importance of strength and competition amongst individuals. In Igbo culture competition is presented more as a game than a business. The opening pages of the novel explain Okonkwo’s notoriety to his village. “As a young man of eighteen he had brought honor to his village by throwing Amalinze the Cat. Amalinze was the great wrestler who for seven years was unbeaten...” (3). On page eight, at the end of the first chapter, Achebe writes about Okonkwo’s tribe, “Age was respected among his people, but achievement was revered.” Not only did Okonkwo achieve greatness in wrestling, he also achieved greatness off the field. His life was almost like a ‘rags to riches’ tale. As Achebe explains on page 18,
“With a father like Unoka, Okonkwo did not have the start in life which many young men had. He neither inherited a barn nor a title, nor even a young wife. But in spite of these disadvantages, he had begun even in his father’s lifetime to lay the foundations of a prosperous future.” Hard work, determination, a sense of personal responsibility to his growing family, all these played a part in Okonkwo’s financial success, much like these same values would help an American in our capitalist society.
Marxism, as an economic theory, is also concerned with capital. In Igbo culture capital was not measured in dollars but in yams and cowries. Material possessions aside from land were scarce, but there were possessions of a different sort. And it was these possessions, such as wives, children, and most importantly titles, that gave men status in society. Those unable or unwilling to conform to society in gaining possessions were cast out, and seen as failures. One such man was Okonkwo’s father, Unoka, who “had taken no title at all and he was heavily in debt” up until he died (8). It was this sort of man who Okonkwo swore never to become. “Okonkwo was ruled by one passion -- to hate everything that his father Unoka had loved. One of those things was gentleness and another was idleness” (13).
Because it valued strength and violence, Igbo culture defined Okonkwo’s person. He was an accomplished warrior, winning distinction not only in wrestling but also on the battlefield. Like Odysseus, he personified all the virtues his culture admired. He “ruled his household with a heavy hand” and he had a fiery temper (13). On page 28 Achebe writes that “Okonkwo never showed any emotion openly, unless it be the emotion of anger. To show affection was a sign of weakness; the only thing worth demonstrating was strength.” This passage reveals much about Okonkwo and his culture, how its virtue of strength was set above and beyond all else. But however respectable strength was in Okonkwo’s character, carried to an extreme, the virtue became a flaw. At a crucial point in the story when the Oracle orders Ikemefuna, Okonkwo’s adopted son, to be killed, Okonkwo’s friend Obierika urges him not to take part in the killing. But because he is afraid of seeming weak to his fellow tribesmen, Okonkwo kills Ikemefuna and then is haunted by grief for days after it happened. He asks himself, “How can a man who has killed five men in battle fall to pieces because he has added a boy to their number?” (65) By presenting Okonkwo’s emotional side Achebe is reminding us that Okonkwo is only human, even if humanity isn’t a virtue of his culture. This is a contradiction in the culture that Marxist Theory warns us about. This theme appears again, near the end of the story when Okonkwo is the only man who defends his tribe from the colonizing British. While his culture valued strength, only he acted on it in resisting the British.
Karl Marx contends that a capitalist society controls the behavior of those who live in it by promoting those values that benefit it, that justify the exploitation of the working class. In a similar way, the Igbo society controls the behavior of its people, by use of the values and virtues of its culture, as a kind of subtle propaganda. This practice alienates the individuals from the societies they live in. An example of this can be seen when Okonkwo grieves over his involvement in Ikemefuna’s death. Okonkwo is betrayed by those values he seeks to uphold, and is torn between his humanity and his community. What has the Igbo society to gain from the control of its memebers? This is where Marxist theory must end. The Igbo have no exploited working class to keep in chains, at least none that Achebe mentions. In ruling the behavior of their people, the culture is protecting tradition. While capitalist societies are forever improving the instruments of production, tribal societies try to maintain a particular way of life that distinguishes them from other cultures. But in the case of the Igbo, the virtue of strength became a liability. Ikemefuna had been a strong role model for Okonkwo’s other son, Nwoye, and when he was killed, Nwoye broke further away from his father and his culture. Later in the story he would become one who converts to Christianity after the British arrive. Nwoye himself is not to be blamed for his conversion. Instead, it is his father’s determination to seem strong in the eyes of others that leads to Nwoye’s betrayal. Strength backfires and ironically makes them more vulnerable. This is not unlike Marx’s prediction that capitalism’s emphasis on competition will eventually lead to its own demise.
Now, to examine how Marxist Theory applies outside the story, it’s important to examine Anthony Appiah’s “Topologies of Nativism” and Edward Said’s “Orientalism.” By the concept of Nativism, Appiah means the idea that Africa needs literature of its own, which Appiah disagrees with (948). By Orientalism Said means the idea that what we think the Orient to be really is just a “western projection onto and will to govern over the Orient” (878). This idea is grounded in Marxist thought because it justifies the domination of the west over the east just as the bourgeoisie dominates the proletariat in capitalism. Things Fall Apart is written not in Achebe’s native African language, but in English. This decision is quite revealing since Achebe’s education was influenced by western ideas. The decision to write in English tells us two things. First, that with English, Achebe intends to have a larger audience, including non-Africans. And two, that his western style education may have influenced the story. With this in mind, it’s possible to conclude that Achebe’s western influence allows for the Igbo culture to remain “the Other.” That is, as readers we may feel as though we know the Igbo culture the same way Said said we think we know the Oriental culture. Or as Appiah put it, “few things are less native than nativism in its current form” (952). Truth be told, we cannot know the Igbo culture by simply having read a story about it.
While these two concepts are relevant to Things Fall Apart, the extent to which they apply is limited because we are inclined to sympathize with Okonkwo’s character. With Achebe’s words we’re inclined to appreciate the Igbo culture in spite of it being different from our own. Achebe’s intention is not to justify western dominance over Africa, but to present Africa in such a way that we can respect it for its strengths and despite its weaknesses.
Applied to Things Fall Apart, Marxist Theory offers us a new way of understanding the relationship between the individual and the society he lives in. In Okonkwo’s case, he represented all his society valued, both strength and weakness. And like his tribe, he came to a tragic end because of the flaw in his virtue of strength. The British invasion had little to do with the falling apart of Okonkwo’s village. The damage was done before the British even arrived. His society was complacent to change, content to surrender its traditions to a different culture. In killing the messenger at the end of the novel, Okonkwo was looking to save the culture that had fell apart long before that moment. And like his culture before him, he fell apart when no one else resisted. Whether or not he had hanged himself, under British rule, he would have still been dead.
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York, NY: Anchor Books: Doubleday. 1959.
Appiah, Anthony. “Topologies in Nativism.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishers Inc. 1998.
Said, Edward. “Orientalism.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishers Inc. 1998.