Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Its hour come round at last

Current book: Things Fall Apart
Pages read: 126-209 (end)

And we're done! The difference in lengths between some of these books is funny to me. I mean, we've got Atlas Shrugged, coming in at 1070 pages, and then we've got this one at 209. It's also funny how the long ones are usually fairly excruciating. Well, that's not fair, actually. Atlas was excruciating, but An American Tragedy wasn't that bad, and I think it's the second longest one I've read. So, never mind. This one was short; that was the idea I was getting across there.

But to move on to something vaguely related to the point of this post, it turns out the exile thing just isn't that bad. Well, Okonkwo thinks it's pretty bad, because he's so invested in his manly position in society. In reality, though, it's pretty cushy exile: all they have to do is go to Okonkwo's mother's village, where they're immediately accepted, taken in by family members, and given land, houses, and seed yams to plant a crop. Okonkwo mopes around for a long time, but eventually steels himself to live out the seven years in this other village and then return to his own in a blaze of glory. In the meantime, the white man makes his way to the area, bringing, by turns, Christianity and the British government. (And things go well and everybody lives in harmony and there's no fighting and that's the end. Yeah, not really. It would have been refreshing, though, wouldn't it?) One of Okonkwo's sons, whom he has always disapproved of because of his tendency to be sensitive, thoughtful, and therefore womanlike, is converted by the missionaries. Okonkwo is displeased, as you might imagine. He disowns his son and embarks on a campaign to oust the white intruders through violence. Nobody's really behind it, though, due to the fact that the white intruders have got both guns and a tendency to kill people. Okonkwo and his family finally head back to their village, the seven years of exile being up, but when they return, they find that the Christians are causing trouble there, as well. Okonkwo is disappointed to discover that the men of his village are just as afraid to be aggressive towards the whites as everyone else, and in the end, he kills a white man out of rage and frustration and then hangs himself.

Well, cheery conclusion, as you can see. I felt like the end was rather sudden, but perhaps that was intentional on Achebe's part. The fact that Okonkwo, the individual most bound by tradition and the strictures of his society, is the one who ends up being destroyed by the invasion of the white men is pretty central to the theme of the novel. The other people in his society, especially his son, prove themselves more adaptable, and therefore survive. The tricky part about interpreting this is thinking about whether holding onto tradition, as Okonkwo does, is supposed to be a positive thing or a negative thing. Is Okonkwo admirable and martyrific (yes, I just made that up), or is he stubborn and hidebound? And his son, who converts and survives - is he forward-thinking, or a treacherous coward? The answer is neither. The book is a presentation of the things that happen in it, and seems to refrain from judgment of any kind. It's much more, "the white man came, and these things occurred," than, "and those who were bad were punished and those who were good were not," or anything of the sort. Things, in fact, fell apart, but in the same way that they did in the poem that the title references. The center of a society cannot hold when circumstances demand that that society must change drastically, and those who are the most invested in tradition will be the ones who are unable to survive in a new order, whether it is good or bad. (Am I too literal and referential with my echoes of Yeats's poetic diction? You'll live.)

It was a pretty good novel, and certainly an important one. I think it qualifies as listworthy, if only for the fact that I had to think damn hard about what the message was, and I'm still not sure. But I'm still interested.


  1. Claire! You made up a word!!! I'm so proud of you, grasshopper.

  2. Random House syas "martyrish" or "martyrly".

    I like martyrific better.



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