Analyzing Chinua Achebe's Literature Works
The main purpose of this paper is to analyze and appreciate the various literary works of Chinua Achebe and fully investigate the themes, writing styles and possible factors influencing his capability as an individual to write quality arts of literature. The research paper shall begin with a brief description of Chinua Achebe and highlight some of his works in the broad field of African and English literature.
Chinualumogu Albert Achebe is a renowned Nigerian-born African writer, usually regarded as the patriarch of Afro-English literature. He was born in 1930 in Ogidi, Nigeria and raised by Christian parents. Presently, Chinua Achebe is a practicing Christian who has distanced himself from the local traditions and culture of his people. Despite his Western education and career as a literature professor in the United States, Chinua Achebe still respects the Igbo culture and does not in any way despise it. This in itself is a sharp contradiction of most African scholars who adopt modern European culture at the expense of their traditions. Over the years, Chinua Achebe has worked as a novelist, poet, essayist, editor and producer (Nigeria Broadcasting Corporation), literature professor (in the United States and Nigeria), political activist and author of many literary works. His writings are widely popular across the globe and have been used in teaching literature in institutions of higher learning and secondary schools inmost parts of the world (Lyons, 1998).
Some of his major literary works include novels (Things fall Apart, No longer at Ease, and Man of the People. The first of these books was written in 1958). He also a renowned writer of short stories, starting in 1962 with the famous collection titled The Sacrificial Egg and other stories, followed by Girls at War and other stories, compiled in 1972. Chinua Achebe is also known for his best selling poetry works (Beware, Soul Brother and other poems - 1971), essays (the Trouble with Nigeria- 1983, Morning yet on Creation Day- 1975, etc). In as much as the target audience of the above listed works comprise of scholars and adults, Chinua Achebe is also among the pioneer authors' of children literature. Common examples of his juvenilia works include Chike and the River - 1966, The Drum - 1977 and The Flute - 1979 (Lyons, 1998).
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The Major Themes of Chinua's literarily works
The story lines in most of his novels revolve around Nigeria's colonial period and political unrests in the post-independence country. In most occasions, Chinua Achebe uses his ingenuity to clearly bring out the intended meaning of his writings, by illustrating the impacts of European culture and imperialism on African traditions. This approach is the defining characteristic of his debut novel, Things Fall Apart. However, Achebe's novels touch on a wide range of themes for instance the description and illustration of the Nigerian Igbo culture, effects of colonization on African traditions, the relationships between femininity and masculinity, etc.
The Theme of Culture and Tradition
In most of his literary works, Chinua Achebe makes several attempts to illustrate the interactions of African culture, in this case the Nigerian Igbo and modernity as an effect of British colonization of Nigeria.
In his first novel, Things Fall Apart, the introduction of Christian culture in Umuofia village as a result of the arrival of European missionaries is met by sharp resistance and opposition by the locals who strive to defend their local heritage at all costs (Emenyonu, 1991). In Things Fall Apart, the newly created roles of the District Commissioner and magistrate courts are interpreted by the locals as a way of locking them out in major decision making processes of issues directly affecting the community. This in effect acts as a springboard for their opposition to European invasion (Emenyonu, 1991). The interference of local traditions by European culture is further depicted in the novel, Anthills of the Savannah by the character, Sam Okoli, a typical example of a Western educated individual who despises his native traditions. This makes it difficult for him to effectively play the role assigned to him by the author, i.e. the president of Kangan (Gera, 2001).
The Theme of Gender (Femininity and Masculinity)
The manner in which Chinua Achebe assigns roles to characters in his novels and other writings puts into consideration the individual roles of both men and women, in regard to the norms and expectations of the society. Tracing his origins back to the patriarchal Igbo community where important family decisions are made by the paterfamilias, Chinua tries to incorporate these societal elements in his writings. Looking at it from the traditional angle, Igbo men were polygamous in nature and were allowed to beat up their wives in case of any domestic misunderstanding (Mezu, 2006). This is probably why he depicts Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart as a man with three wives, and with a chauvinistic attitude that his masculinity allegedly overshadows anything feminine around him (Achebe, 1994).
On the other hand, he portrays women in his writings as cowards and submissive wives, not allowed to take part in either traditional or modern leadership roles. To minimize the chances of being branded as a sexist chauvinistic author, Chinua Achebe at one point tries to appreciate the role played by women in the society. This is seen in Chapter fourteen of Things Fall Apart in the characterization of Ani and subsequent discussions of Nneka, translated to mean, the supreme mother. In addition, arguments may be put across that the problems and tribulations faced by Okonkwo may be attributed to his attitude toward women through regular mistreatment and offenses made against the feminine gender (Thomson, 2008).
In the novel titled, Anthills of the Savannah, Chinua Achebe treats women with respect as seen when he portrays Beatrice as an independent city woman fighting for her identity and position in the society. She is presented as a principled iron lady with both feminine and masculine character traits and does not rely on men for survival and security in marriage (Bicknell, 1996).
In carrying out this research, various works carried out by critics of Chinua Achebe's literary works were explored. These include peer review journals and other scholarly sources. In order to ensure accuracy and consistency, some of his novels such as The Arrow of God, No Longer at Ease and Things Fall Apart, have been studied closely and used at various levels during the analysis. It should however be noted that the methodology followed in developing this research paper exempted some of his works, especially those touching on children stories and associated juvenilia.
Achebe's writing Style
In his novels and short stories, Chinua Achebe incorporates various elements of oral literature at different levels so as to make his works interesting and appealing to the readers. Being a Nigerian Igbo by birth, he intertwines the oral traditions, folk tales and related narratives of his ethnic community into most of his books. A case example is the inclusion of the folk tale- the Sky and the Earth in his 1958 novel Things Fall Apart. Other than making the story line appealing, oral traditions in this case help in making it easier for his target audience to understand and/or interpret various themes of his novels/books (Ode, 1996). By way of example, the narrative on the Sky and the Earth is used by the author to emphasize on the theme relating various aspects of masculinity and femininity. This is seen when Nwoye, one of the characters in Things Fall Apart brands such tales as women stories to avoid being associated with femininity. This is despite the fact that he does like the narratives but only fears the wrath of his father (Ezenwa, 1997).
Other than folk tales and oral narratives, Chinua Achebe widely uses proverbs, idioms and similes derived from the Igbo ethnic community so as to enable his audience and readers to make sound judgment of the community. This is portrayed in his books, especially the Arrow of God and Things Fall Apart, where Nwaka and Obierika are respectively regarded as great orators of their time (Egejuru, 1996).
In addition, use of folk songs and traditional dancing is a common characteristic of his writing style. In the novel, No Longer at Ease - 1960, women are at one point heard singing the Igbo's Song of the Heart for Obi. In Things Fall Apart, a comparison of songs sung by the Igbo and Christian missionaries reveals a sharp contrast between the two (Achebe, 1994). In summary, extensive use of oral traditions in his works is intended for emphasizing on the morals and relevance of cultural traditions to the modern society.
Chinua Achebe's other main writing style is depicted by his mastery and extensive use of English literature. His choice to use the English language in his works is in itself ironic based on the fact that he was an opponent of the colonization process and any elements of neo-colonization. In order to reach most people across the multi- ethnic Nigeria and other parts of the world, he had to use English, which by then was regarded as the post-independence Nigeria's national language. His mastery of the English language made it easier for Chinua Achebe to alter the English syntax, idiom and usage, giving it a completely new African approach to help him in translating and accommodating African ideas with no English equivalents (Ogbaa, 1999).
Factors influencing Chinua Achebe's writings
Just like any other author, Chinua Achebe's quality of writing has been positively influenced by several factors. To start with, he in most cases quotes, paraphrases and/or translates Igbo proverbs, idiomatic expressions, and associated folklore to describe Christian dogmas and European political ideologies. This creativity and innovativeness on his part makes it easy for his target audience (especially that derived from contemporary Africa) to identify with, and understand the context of his work. In addition, Chinua's understanding of African traditions, history, politics and the society at large makes it possible for him to compare European and African cultures before presenting insightful and well thought out novels on the same (Podis and Saaka, 2002).
The Igbo widely believe that at any given time, no single man or single idea can be regarded as the gospel truth. They believe in accepting corrections and learning from past mistakes and experiences of one another. This attitude of the Igbo is partly responsible for his nature of writing in that he neither portrays fatalistic inevitability nor moral absolutes. This perception is illustrated in the novel Anthills of the Savannah, when Ikem, one of its characters accepts the fact that everyone has to accommodate opinions of other people in order to live in harmony (Mezu, 2006).
Arguments may also be put across that the kind of education received by Chinua Achebe from early childhood to graduation is partly responsible for sharpening his writing skills (enotes.com, 2010). At a tender age, Chinua the Church Mission Society School before joining Umuahia's government college for further studies. He then joined the Ibadan University College, a constituent college of the University of London where he majored in English literature. This educational background makes it possible for Chinua Achebe to contribute in arguments touching directly on Christian doctrines, local politics and European affairs. His understanding of both African and European cultural traditions makes him better placed to critically analyze a broad spectrum of issues revolving around race, religion, colonialism, academics and traditions. This has the general effect of minimizing biasness, prejudice and fixed mindsets in most of his writings. His works of literature therefore discusses various issues using diverse cultural approaches, making them acceptable to various audiences across the globe.
In one way or another, Chinua Achebe's attitude towards the universality of human nature and active involvement in Nigerian politics (at one time served as the vice president of People's Redemption Party in the early 1980's) also influenced his writings, making them to extend beyond the Nigerian borders and also beyond the political, sociological and anthropological concerns of the post-independence Africa. He also attempts to invert the existing stereotypes and mindsets held by most westerners. Previously, most European literature work and narratives e.g. those composed by Doris Lessing and Alan Paton presented Africa as continent faced by droughts, famine and constant turmoil. It is from this domain that Chinua's work unearths the myths and misrepresentations of Africa (Lyons, 1998).
Chinua Achebe's writings and storylines in most of his novels and essays were greatly influenced by the late 1960s civil war in the then Biafran Republic. His family and most of his close friends and colleagues were greatly affected by the aftermath of the civil war. At one time, his home was bombarded by the rebels behind the civil strife. This attack occurred in his absence, causing him to develop fears concerning the safety and security of his family and his career. The influence of the war on his writing is evidenced in one of his poems, Dirge for Okigbo, which he composed in 1971 to mourn the death of Okigbo Christopher, one of his close associates and confidant killed in the war (Ezenwa, 1997).
At the climax of the war, Chinua Achebe could only concentrate in writing short essays and composing poems, whose themes revolved around consequences of the civil unrest, the rebellious struggle by his people, and extreme human suffering and massacre surrounding him at that time. The poem titled Refugee Mother & Child, composed in 1969 is a clear illustration of the suffering faced by his people, the people of Biafra in their struggle for liberation (Ezenwa, 1997).
In most of his writings, Chinua Achebe uses various literature tools such as symbolism, imagery, metaphors, language mastery and traditions of the Igbo people to illustrate real life situations of the typical Africans, and possible factors responsible for the erosion of African heritage. The quality of his writings and presentation of well thought out ideas has made it difficult for most people to criticize his novels, short stories and poetry. This may also be attributed to the fact that most critics drawn from outside Africa do not have a clear understanding of the African culture, making their criticism limited to the themes and writing styles of Chinua Achebe's literary works.
For any individual interested in pursuing his/her studies or career in the line of African or English literature, close studies and analysis of Chinua Achebe's wide range of literary works may be used in laying a strong foundation in one's understanding of literature tools such as symbolism, imagery, oral narratives, poetry, essay writing, etc. If his works are properly utilized, it may be used in expanding one's horizon both professionally and academically, extending beyond the curriculums taught in schools and institutions of higher learning. It is also from this domain that most of Chinua Achebe's literally works have been incorporated into university literature curriculums in most parts of the world.