In which John Green concludes teaching you about Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. You’ll learn about the historical contexts of Things Fall Apart, including 19th century colonization and 20th century decolonization. We’re going to learn a little bit about Achebe’s childhood between two cultures, cover Okonkwo’s sad, sad end, and even learn a little about The Babysitters Club.
Transcript Provided by YouTube:
Hi I’m John Green, this is Crash Course Literature, and today we continue our discussion
of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Mr. Green, Mr. Green! I can’t even believe
we’re spending two weeks on this book. Like, it’s about as long as a Babysitter’s Club book.
Okay, couple things, Me From the Past. First off, the length of a book is not directly proportional to its quality.
Secondly, I could do, like, five Crash Course Literatures on Babysitter’s Club 26, Claudia and the Sad Goodbye.
Trying to pretend that you didn’t like The Babysitter’s Club so you’ll seem cool – I see through you, Me From the Past!
So, Things Fall apart is interesting on a lot of levels, and part of that is due to
the historical contexts of the story. And I did say contexts, plural.
Because it’s a historical novel about the colonization of Africa in the late 19th century,
but it was written in the late 1950s, just as European colonial powers were giving up their colonies.
And like the novel, Chinua Achebe lived between these two worlds. So let’s start there.
So Chinua Achebe was born Albert Chinuamaluga Achebe in 1930, about eighty years after the
first missionaries arrived in Igboland. His father had converted to Christianity,
hence the Albert, through one of the missionary schools in Nigeria and became an evangelist for the church.
But the rest of Achebe’s family adhered to the traditional Igbo culture and religious traditions,
which meant Achebe spent his childhood at “the crossroads of culture,” as he once put it.
By the age of eight, he could read in Igbo and in English. He read Shakespeare and missionary
texts one day and sat in Igbo storytelling circles the next.
And he wrote Things Fall Apart to “retell the story of my encounter with Europe in a
way acceptable to me,” and to counter the traditional European view of Africa and Africans
with a human picture that matched the complexity of actual humans.
And with Okonkwo’s story, Achebe grounds the reader really deeply in the ancient Igbo
life and culture before there’s even any mention of missionaries. So we get a clear
look at the structures and beliefs and traditions that held the community together before Europeans arrived.
Except, of course, it’s also not a clear look because one, we’re reading fiction. More importantly,
we’re reading fiction written a hundred years after European contact. Anyway, early on in Things Fall Apart,
we hear that in Igboland, “The land of the living was not far removed from the domain
of the ancestors. There was coming and going between them, especially at festivals and
also when an old man died, because an old man was very close to the ancestors. A man’s
life from birth to death was a series of transition rites which brought him nearer and nearer
to his ancestors.” So Achebe shows us a functioning society with
institutions like the tribal council that settle disputes and bring order to Igboland.
Now these institutions may not be recognizable to the Westerners who showed up for the palm
oil, but they had functioned for thousands of years.
And then, when British missionaries and colonial governors arrive on the scene, they fail to
understand these institutions and they try to replace them with their own forms of religion
and government. But one of the fascinating things about this
novel is that it doesn’t unambiguously condemn or praise either worldview, right? Like, there
are clearly problems with both systems of justice.
And that really runs counter to the European essentializing of pre-colonial African lives,
which usually imagines them either as uncivilized savages or else as these innocents living
in an Edenic utopia. So Okonkwo is in exile when the Europeans
first show up in the story, but when he returns to his transformed community, he urges resistance.
But his friend Obierka responds sadly, “It is already too late. Our own men and our sons
have joined the ranks of the stranger. They have joined his religion and they help to
uphold his government.” This is of course particularly interesting
considering that it was written in the context of a decolonizing late 1950s Africa.
So how did the British Empire end up coming to power in Igboland? Well, let’s go to
the Thought Bubble. So in the 19th century, when the events of
this story took place, all the great European powers were busily setting up colonial empires
across the world. These overseas colonies were a real win/win
for Europe, as they not only furnished raw materials to feed the manufacturing economies
back home, they also acted as new markets in which to sell industrial goods. So colonies
were popular. They were so popular, in fact, that the German
Chancellor organized a conference to divide up Africa among the Europeans, in order to
avoid any wars over the continent. They would also have the happy side effect
of spreading the so-called Three C’s: commerce, Christianity, and civilization.
So, at the Berlin conference of 1885, Africa’s fate was decided. Oh, also no one from Africa
was invited to the conference, naturally. In West Africa, much of the colonial trade
had been in slaves prior to 1807, and most of that horrifying business was done on the
coast. There wasn’t much colonial settling in the interior until after the slave trade
was banned in the British Empire. With the slave trade no longer an option,
the British turned to palm trees. Palm oil made for a great lubricant for industrial
machinery, and after colonization, more than 16 million pounds worth, that’s currency
not weight, by the way, were exported per year.
The British Empire laid claim to Igboland, which was rich in palm trees and also non-Christians,
a perfect opportunity to put the three C’s into practice.
Thanks, Thought Bubble. So, that helps us to understand the historical context for the
setting of the book. The OTHER historical context is the time in which it was written.
By 1958, Africa was beginning the process of decolonization, as European powers gave
up their colonies. And that meant that throughout Africa, people
were having conversations about what the future should look like. Should we embrace European-style
nation states? Should we have some kind of pan-African cooperation?
Marxism, capitalism – who would make a better ally, the Soviet Union or the United States?
And so in that context, Achebe gives us a story about the pre-colonial Igbo world,
which has a stability, and a kind of strength to it, but is certainly not without its problems,
while also giving us a look at colonial Igboland. But it’s interesting to note that because
he is obsessed with strength and acts out of fear, Okonkwo doesn’t fare particularly
well under either structure. But anyway, back to the text. So the British
incursion into Igboland is the focus of the final part of the book. Missionaries are the
first to arrive in the interior villages, and at first, there doesn’t seem to be much
cause for alarm. The first missionary Okonkwo encounters is
a guy named Mr. Kiaga and he is characterized as a man of great faith but is thought of
as “harmless.” Then there’s Mr. Brown, the missionary based
in Umofia, who gained respect through a “policy of compromise and accommodation.” Mr Brown
is willing to listen to the villagers talk about their beliefs, and tries to incorporate
some of their traditions into the practices of his Christianity.
But then Mr. Brown’s successor in Umofia, the Reverend James Smith, “saw things as
black and white. And black was evil. He saw the world as a battlefield in which the children
of light were locked in mortal conflict with the sons of darkness.”
And Smith’s uncompromising stance inevitably leads to conflict with the people of Umofia,
and ultimately to the destruction of the mission church. We’re told “the red-earth church
which Mr. Brown had built was a pile of earth and ashes. And for the moment the spirit of
the clan was pacified.” So in three quick steps with three missionaries,
we go from a harmless one to one whose rigid belief system leads the community to violence.
The town then keeps itself armed and ready for a reprisal, and “Okonkwo was almost
happy again,” we’re told. But instead, Okonkwo and several other village leaders
are arrested, beaten by their jailers, and the village is forced to pay a fine.
Okonkwo calls a town meeting to organize a forceful resistance and when the authorities
arrive to break it up, he beheads one of the messengers. And then the gathered villagers
do not rally to his side, and he knows that his cause is lost. “He knew that Umuofia
would not go to war. He knew because they had let the other messengers escape.”
And then when the British District Commissioner arrives to arrest Okonkwo, he finds that Okonkwo
has hanged himself. Achebe closes the novel by revealing the District
Commissioner’s thoughts about all he had learned “in the many years in which he had
toiled to bring civilization to different parts of Africa.”
The Commissioner wants to write a book about his experiences, which he plans to call “The
Pacification of the Primitives of the Lower Niger.” And he decides that Okonkwo, the
textured character we’ve come to know through the course of this novel, would warrant, “Perhaps
not a chapter, but a reasonable paragraph.” In those final moments of the novel, we see
the loss of humanity that’s inherent to colonization, and indeed that’s inherent
to the privileged gazing upon the other. The European system of colonization so profoundly
failed to see human beings as human beings that it wrought destruction in Africa and
across the world. But of course, Okonkwo and his village are
not just a paragraph to us. They are not a footnote. Things Fall Apart, and great books
like it, help us to wipe away some of the spots on the lenses of our perception. They
let us see more clearly, and ask us to imagine the world and the people in it with more complexity
and they ask us the big questions, the kinds that may not easy answers, but are still worth
pursuing. As Achebe said later in his life, “Igbo people say, If you want to see it
well, you must not stand in one place.” Thanks for watching. I’ll see you next week.
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about To Kill a Mockingbird and I promise I will not sound like a bullfrog then. As
we say in my hometown, don’t forget to be awesome.
This post was previously published on YouTube.