‘If One Finger Brought Oil’ – A Book Report on Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart
by George Coleby
4 May 2016
George Coleby is a second year on NTU’s BA International Relations and is a student intern at the Postcolonial Studies Centre in Spring 2016.
Possibly the most iconic work of Postcolonial literature, Things Fall Apart by Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe is a story of one man’s experience with a changing world. Published in 1958 during a tumultuous period of decolonisation in the continent, the parallels between the protagonist’s experiences and Achebe’s own, are evident throughout the novel. Set in the late 19th century on the cusp of the ‘Scramble for Africa’, the small tribe of Umuofia in Igboland (what is now Nigeria), live by the ancient traditions and cultural customs that have developed and been passed down through generations for centuries. The novel is centred around the life of Okonkwo, a violent and fiercely proud man who is known across Igboland for his feats of strength and physical prowess after throwing legendary wrestler ‘The Cat’ in a historic bout. Throughout the novel Okonkwo fervently clings to the belief that a man is the direct measure of his successes and it is his duty to overcome the weaknesses of placidity and idleness.
Achebe introduces the story with an account of Okonkwo’s fabled victory over undefeated wrestler, The Cat, in which 10,000 spectators celebrate the triumph, likening it to the mythological origin of their town in which the founder ‘engaged a spirit of the wild for seven days and seven nights’ – forever binding Okonkwo to the traditional identity of the Igbo people. The fight was also memorialised for Okonkwo as the struggle that freed him from a life of poverty and transformed into a titled man of land and reverence. This concept of struggle and competition in Igbo society as the only vehicle for great achievement and success becomes the first defining aspect of Okonkwo’s character, and a catalyst for his ultimate fate later in the novel. This understanding of the relationship between suffering and reward in Igbo society, echoes the sentiment in colonial Nigeria during Achebe’s initial creative years, in that only through the struggle of decolonisation can Nigeria, and Africa as a whole, achieve true, tangible success in the global village.
Much of Okonkwo’s character is a result of his relationship with his father, Unoka who, contrary to his son was a gentle, peace loving man who embraced a life of hedonism and personal satisfaction. Throughout his life, Unoka had accrued large debts as a result of his love for palm wine and music and a general disdain for toil and hard work. Okonkwo loathed his father’s inactivity and the memory of his death as a penniless and disreputable man haunted him. This fear is another central instigator of Okonkwo’s ruthlessly driven nature, as Achebe writes ‘His whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and weakness’. For Okonkwo this fear was ‘deeper and more intimate than the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of the forest, and of the forces of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw’. A particularly pertinent line in the novel is the phrase ‘red in tooth and claw’ taken from the Alfred, Lord Tennyson poem ‘In Memoriam A.H.H’ – showing Achebe’s awareness of both African and European literary styles and acknowledging the intervention colonial-era Europe has had on modern African identity.
Okonkwo’s aggressive and obstinate nature eventually leads to his exile as he commits three transgressions against Igbo traditions. Firstly, he savagely beats his wife during the Week of Peace, in which all violence is prohibited, and even tries to shoot her, shattering the principles of the cultural festival. Secondly, Okonkwo is directed by the village elders to sacrifice the young boy who had been placed in his care after a peace accord with a neighbouring village, a boy who had grown to call him father. Despite being advised not to take part in the ritual, Okonkwo ultimately does the killing himself because ‘he was afraid of being thought weak’. In an act of cruel irony, it is the accidental murder of a man at a funeral when Okonkwo’s gun explodes, that leads to his eventual exile from the village. It is during his exile that Okonkwo’s last friend questions the morals behind so harsh a punishment for an accidental transgression to which Achebe writes ‘If one finger brought oil, it soiled the others’, a proverb that summarises the communal nature of Igbo tradition and its attitudes towards those who break it. Okonkwo had infringed upon tradition and so he must be exiled or else the entire tribe would suffer for his indiscretion. It is this desire or perhaps fear to keep the community strong and untainted at any cost, that eventually lead the people of Umuofia to reject Okonkwo and with him, the essence of their ancient traditions.
Achebe then introduces the key driver of the novel’s theme of change, as Christian missionaries from the British Empire arrive in Igboland and begin rapidly reshaping its society. Okonkwo’s first encounter with the missionaries occurs whilst he is still in exile in which his first born son, Nwoye, who never subscribed to his father’s rigid view of masculinity, becomes influenced by the western teachings, to which his father responds typically with violence, thereby inadvertently driving Nwoye to convert to Christianity under the name of Isaac. Once Okonkwo returns from exile to find that a missionary church has been constructed in Umuofia and many of the tribespeople had been converted as well, he once again urges violence and resistance against these new changes. As events continue, a boiling point is eventually reached when Okonkwo beheads a western messenger to galvanize the community and repel the foreign invaders, but he is denied by his townsfolk and he realises his cause is lost. When British authorities arrive the next day to arrest him they find that he has hung himself, a potent taboo in Igbo culture that renders the body evil and means that it cannot be touched or buried with his clansmen. In the end, it is the British men who bury Okonkwo, the man who so embodied yet also denigrated the identity of the Igbo people.
Achebe finally closes the book by revealing the British Commissioner’s thoughts on what he has witnessed, including the man who had killed a messenger and then hung himself, to which he concludes that the story would warrant ‘perhaps not a chapter but a reasonable paragraph’. A damning and insignificant culmination for the textured character that the reader follows throughout the novel. In these final moments of the book Achebe displays the intrinsic dehumanisation that shadowed colonisation into Africa and indeed the rest of the world and the flawed perception that occurs when the privileged view ‘the other’. As a novel, Things Fall Apart has rightly been embraced for its retelling of the disastrous colonisation of the African continent and its failure to see human beings as human beings. But of course for the reader, Okonkwo and his story is not just a paragraph but a lesson to help us see the other with more compassion and complexity, it helps us to view each other without distorted perspective and to question those traditional institutions and cultural norms that can define a society. As Achebe writes in one of his later novels ‘Igbo people say, if you want to see it well, you must not stand in one place’.