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  • Chinua Achebe

Things Fall Apart - critical review: conversion or criticism of Aristotelian conventions of tragedy?

Chinua Achebe's 1958 'Things fall apart' seems both a criticism and conversion to Aristotelian ideas of classical tragedy. Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart "to reassert African identity and as part of the growth of Nigerian nationalism". Through the novel, he counteracts the "European invention" of the colonial discourse of the "fabricated orient […] a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes". [Edward Said, Orientalism] Achebe took part in his own claim that "historians everywhere are re-writing the stories of the new nations - replacing short, garbled, despised history with a more sympathetic account". The novel is set in the 19th century when Colonization was starting to take place. After the 1885 Berlin Conference, which split up Africa, the British empire gained claim on Igboland. However, Achebe was writing a century later (1958), with the beginnings of the process of decolonization occurring, creating questions on the nature of the future. Just as Achebe deconstructs the fabricated context of the colonizer's narrative, I would argue Achebe deconstructs the narrative form of 'the tragedy' simultaneously. In part, Achebe conforms to many of the conventions of the Aristotelian tragedy. However, notably through the ending, Achebe comments on the fact the interpretation and the writing of the tragic discourse is in line with the need to recognise the point of standing that they have been writing from - implicating a shadowed viewpoint. As Achebe later said, 'if you want to see it well, you must not stand in one place'.

Much of Achebe's narrative fits into classical ideas of Tragedy and the tragic protagonist, put forward in Aristotle's Poetics. Much of Aristotle's definitions of the protagonist: great significance in society and culture along with being superior to most better most individuals but still imperfect are both in line with Achebe's tragic protagonist Okonkwo. The first qualification of a tragic hero as noble in their community, superior to most people but imperfect and influential is clear with Okonkwo. The quotation "Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievement" conveys this. The adjective "solid" in referencing his personal achievement is particularly clear of Okonkwo's stability and ambition. He is described to be 'the greatest wrestler and warrior alive.' The superlative 'greatest' follows the idea that tragic protagonists are superior to many in their community. The alliterative 'wrestler and warrior' conveys Michael Valdes Moses' view that Okonkwo represents a Homeric hero in an Achillean mould: "like Achilles, Okonkwo is a 'man of action, man of war'. Achebe's own definition of the tragic protagonist, as a "man who's larger than life, who exemplifies virtues that are admired by the community" conveys this connection with Okonkwo. The values of war, strength and fighting mean the attribute that "Okonkwo was not the man to stop beating somebody half-way through, not even for fear of a goddess" is impressive. Obierika, Okonkwo's friend, himself makes clear that Okonkwo fits with the tragic protagonist ideal as he states that "the man was one of the greatest men in Umofia". His commitment to his way of life and the culture of Igbo is arguably what leads him to his downfall, a further conform to tragic character elements of dedication to a certain way of life. Not only do many of his characteristics follow ideas of the tragic protagonist, but the plot itself is representative of it. His suicidal downfall is necessary of a tragic protagonist, an action that causes catharsis. Therefore, in this light of assessment, one could argue Okonkwo fits many of the conventions of a tragic protagonist, and in this way, 'Things fall apart' can be labelled to be in line with Aristotelian elements of tragedy.

However, when Achebe was marking his definition of the tragic protagonist, he carried on by stating that they are "also a man who for all that is still human. He can have flaws, you see; all that seems to be very elegantly underlined in Aristotle's works." This is coherent with Aristotle's idea that the tragic protagonist needs to be both superior but imperfect, in order to form catharsis. However, it is arguable that Achebe presents a much more "human" character than normative tragic protagonists. The multiplicity and depth to Okonkwo's character therefore not only becomes a rebuttal to the West's previous fabricated view of the colonized individual but simultaneously one against the limited representation of 'the human' in tragic discourse. The strict conventions that Aristotle puts forward in defining a tragedy, including a hamartia, create a bigger gap between fictional characters and real humans. The multiplicity of arguments on what Okonkwo's tragic flaw is points to the fact he is a character of more depth. Arguments from it go from his worry of 'being thought weak' [43], his carelessness ('crime was [..] inadvertent' [95]), or his inability to change in line with his shifting culture. One could argue that it is incorrect to place his hamartia in one of these definitions: all of them influence his downfall. None of them can be claimed to be his one 'fatal flaw' that leads him to destruction. Arguably this is a comment against the conventions and limits of a character of Tragedy if one conforms to the Aristotelian understanding. Achebe creates a character that makes the unbridgeable gap between the character and the human smaller. Moreover, Obierika's accusatory verb "you drove" in his statement to the district commissioner's that "you drove him to kill himself" displays an alternative explanation to his downfall, not necessarily to do with Okonkwo's flaw. This further promotes that a downfall cannot be merely due to one factor, or one 'flaw' (hamartia) in the case of tragedy. Therefore, although a character is necessarily unidentical to the human, arguably Achebe offers a more realistic, layered character that is closer to an individual in reality. Therefore, Achebe presents a complex individual to counter both the colonizer's and tragic definitions of the self.

Moreover, the novel's formation of beginning and end comments on the complexity of tragedy. The fact that it doesn't end with the tragic protagonists' downfall, but instead the consciousness of the district commissioner, conveys the subjectivity of the tragic narrative. This ending presents a further side to the novel which comments on the fact the interpretation on what counts as 'a tragedy' in terms of literary discourse is dependent on the contextual history of the interpreter. This can be seen from the quote regarding the Missionaries perspective that "every day brought him some new material. The story of this man who had killed a messenger and hanged himself would make interesting reading. One could almost write a whole chapter on him. Perhaps not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph, at any rate." Both limitations of a "whole chapter" and then an even further one of a "reasonable paragraph" is ironic in that the reader has seen he is worthy of a novel at the least. This awareness of the literary form, involving selectivity of what materials will be included, in light of what will be considered "interesting", is a comment on the misrepresentation of the colonized narrative. The nameless noun "this man" confirms that in the missionaries point of view, Okonkwo's story would not be a tragedy and he wouldn't represent a tragic protagonist. A quote from Things Fall Apart's Sequel, 'No longer at ease', in which Obi, Okonkwo's grandson, conveys that "real tragedy is never resolved. A real tragedy takes place in a corner [..] there is no purging of the emotions for us because we are not there" is relevant in this assessment. This quote is crucial in this comment of the subjectivity of what counts as a tragedy. The Missionaries lack of understanding of the reality behind Okonkwo's story, causing his representation of him as a 'reasonable paragraph', will dismiss the complexity of Okonkwo's tragedy, and the reader of the missionaries novel will not be 'there', will not see, his 'real tragedy'. With this idea as a whole, Achebe comments on not only the nature of tragedy but the nature of literature as a whole, commenting on the necessary fluidity of genres as they are dependent on the perspective of the writer. Achebe's deconstruction of the colonial narrative is based on the same character's death as the missionaries non-fiction discourse, the difference being that the missionary is only standing in 'one place'. Obviously, this particular missionaries book is fictional, but it is a comment on how the same event can be, and has been, represented so differently through literary discourse. In this light, the novel does end with catharsis, but not due to the Okonkwo's suicide, but due to the downfall of the true narrative. The missionaries statement that Okonkwo will take up 'a paragraph' is the real death of the tragic protagonist. It is the death of true and accurate representation and the complexity of both character and plot. Therefore, Achebe conveys that the identity of both the tragic protagonist and tragic plot is subjective, urging readers to recognise this and to always look for the other side of a piece of literature: not standing in 'one place' as the missionary does.

Overall, Achebe's novel is neither a conversion or criticism of the Aristotelian conventions of tragedy, but instead a comment on it. The complexity of Okonkwo's character conveys not only the breaking down the one-dimensional view that the West have of the Colonized but simultaneously a possible urge for literature to represent the real story surrounding realistic individuals. Aristotle's conventions of tragedy revolving around a tragic protagonists 'hamartia' leading to their downfall, is not representative of reality and its individuals. The depth and variation of causes that lead to our downfall are explored through the multiplicity of Okonkwo's character. With this urge to uncover the truth, the missionaries statement finalising the story shows how the complexity of both plot and character has been reduced to a metaphorical paragraph. This comment on what counts as tragedy being dependent on the interpreter's eye surrounds the entirety of the novel's urge: to see behind what will be "interesting reading". Achebe presents a novel that is not for entertainment but is closer to real-life than misrepresented forms of narrative created by the colonizer and tragic discourse. The novel's political influence as a form of uncovering a true account of history presents literature with a new purpose: to see closer to reality than realities appearance itself.

relevant articles:

BEGAM, RICHARD. “ACHEBE'S SENSE OF AN ENDING: HISTORY AND TRAGEDY IN ‘THINGS FALL APART.’” Studies in the Novel, vol. 29, no. 3, 1997, pp. 396–411. JSTOR, Accessed 28 Nov. 2020.

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