The Tragedy of Colonization

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In Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, it becomes very apparent that the manifestations of colonialism has on indigenous people, the female demographic in particular, are oppression motivated by race and gender.There is also a strong emotional component that is apparent throughout the novel. There is empathy for an oppressed and colonized people, but there is also a strong feeling of compassion for the female characters. The female characters face the same kinds of oppression as those in last week’s reading, Woman at Point Zero. These two readings represent the various manifestations of both patriarchal and colonial control. In addition to this manifestations of oppression, the element of race is also very apparent in the second half of the novel. The colonization of white Anglo- settlers prove to be extremely detrimental for both male and female Africans because of oppression motivated by both race and an allegedly more advanced civilization:  “Race is particularly pertinent to the rise of colonialism, because the division of human society in this way is inextricable from the need of colonialist powers to establish a dominance over subject  peoples and hence justify the imperial enterprise. Race thinking and colonialism are imbued with the same impetus to draw a binary distinction between ‘civilized’ and ‘primitive’ and the same necessity  for the hierarchization of human types” (Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin 180-181).

The European colonization of Africa gave rise to the delineation of the different cultures which resulted in bigotry motivated by ethnocentrism. Because African culture was markedly different from the Anglo-white colonizer culture, they were considered to be primitive and “savage” despite the fact that these so-called “primitive” cultures have been autonomous and self- sustaining for many years prior to their European colonization. These colonizers were quick to denigrate these agrarian civilizations:  “Native quickly became associated with such pejorative concepts as savage, uncivilized, or child-like…”  (Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin 142). The colonizer used religion as a means to control the colonized people; however, there are ulterior, and insidious, motivations for their missionary work. Through this type of work, they began to infiltrate, and then control, African society through the guise of religion:“But stories were already gaining ground that the white man had not only brought a religion but also a government. It was said they had built a place of judgment… to protect the followers of their religion. It was even said that they had hanged one man who killed a missionary” (Achebe 89).

The primary character, Okonkwo, plays a conflicting role as both the oppressor and one who is oppressed. Okonkwo can sometimes be seen as a kind of tragic hero in the sense that he clings so desperately to the past and traditions from his people in an attempt to preserve national pride and cultural identity. His willingness to preserve the cultural history of his people is admirable; however, his attempts to preserve this history are often at the expensive of others, specifically his own family:“Okonkwo ruled his household with a heavy hand. His wives, especially the youngest, lived in perpetual fear of his fiery temper, and so did his little children. Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness”  (Achebe 9-10). However, whatever his motivations or noble intentions may be, they are quickly negated by his primary personality traits. One of Okonkwo’s major character flaws is his misogyny. This is an important character flaw to note because when he engages in misogynistic tendencies, he is engaging into a form of oppression, just like the colonizer. The most common way in which he oppresses his wives is through violence, which is also reflective of colonial actions.

This is also representative of a patriarchal power structure in place prior to colonization. Okonkwo is inclined to use physical violence to show his displeasure and would often beat his wives with little provocation and over insignificant issues: “Okonkwo was provoked to justifiable anger by his youngest wife, who went to plait her hair at her friend’s house and did not return early enough to cook the afternoon meal…And when she returned he beat her. In his anger he had forgotten it was the Week of Peace…It was unheard of to beat somebody during the sacred week” (Achebe 19). This particular incident also indicates how much  Okonkwo’s actions  disrupt the accepted practices of the village. His impulsive actions not only created a fearful and hostile environment for his family, but they also resulted in his exile. Interestingly, he is sent back to his matriarchal colony. While he is in exile, his misogyny, impulsiveness, and violent tendencies are questioned by his elders. They attempt to encourage Okonkwo to engage in self-reflection in order to improve his character flaws, mainly his misogyny:“We all know that a man is the head of the family and his wives do his bidding. A child belongs to its father and his family and not to its mother and her family. A man belongs to his fatherland and not to his motherland. And yet we say Nneka- “Mother is Supreme.” Why is that?…’I do not know the answer,’ Okonkwo replied”  (Achebe 77).

As the novel progresses, and the influence of the colonial control becomes more apparent on African society, Okonkwo refuses to recognize his character flaws and despite the advice given to him by his friends and elders, he continues to engage in impulsive and violent behaviors. He also disregards the opinions of some of his kinsman, who believed that colonization also brought  some benefits:“There were many men and women…who did not feel as strongly as Okonkwo about the new dispensation. The white man had indeed brought a lunatic religion, but he had also built a trading store, and for the first time palm-oil and kernel became things of great price, and much money flowed into Umuofia. And even in the matter of religion there was a growing feeling that there might be something in it after all, something vaguely akin to method in the overwhelming madness” (Achebe 101). However, not all members believed that the colonizer had exclusively benevolent intentions. They wanted to engage in a more diplomatic approach while Okonkwo refused to deviate from his belief that violence is the solution and war should be waged instead of negotiations. The situation reaches a climax when, in his usual style of impulsiveness, he kills a messenger of the missionary without the consent or support of his kinsmen: “In a flash Okonkwo drew his machete. The messenger crouched to avoid the blow. It was useless. Okonkwo’s machete  descended twice and the man’s head lay beside his uniformed body. He knew that Umuofia would not go to war…because they had let the other messengers escape. They had broken into tumult instead of action. He discerned fright in that tumult.  He heard voices asking ‘why did he do it?’ (Achebe 117)

For the second time, Okonkwo’s propensity for impulsive violence  isolates him from other members of his community. Instead of acknowledging his error and attempting to atone for his  lapse in judgement that results in a second death, he chooses to commit suicide: …Then then came to the tree from which  Okonkwo’s body was dangling, and they stopped dead….”(Achebe 117). The changes that occurred with  the European colonization of Africa were more than he could bear. Okonkwo’s cultural heritage, as well as his masculinity, were threatened by the colonizer. Instead of accepting the social changes that occurred with the colonization of his native culture, he chose to end his life instead. While he was admired for his unwavering bravery, he will be remembered for his misogynistic tendencies, violence, and impulsiveness. The ultimate insult occurred after his suicide. Because of the nature of his demise, he was unable to be cared for by his kinsman after his death:”It is an abomination for a man to take his own life. It is an offence against the Earth, and a man who commits it will not be buried by his clansmen. His body is evil, and only strangers may touch it. That is why we asked your people to bring him down, because you are strangers”  (Achebe 117). Things Fall Apart is tragic, and the ending of the novel, where the very people whom Okonkwo despises are responsible for the care of his deceased body, is the most tragic element.



2 thoughts on “The Tragedy of Colonization

  1. This is a really smart reading of Okonkwo’s character. I like that you chose to analyze his character and how he is affected by oppression, even though, prior to the colonization part of the novel, he himself is an oppressor of women and others that he deems lower than himself. Each time I read this novel, I have a different perception of Okonkwo. I remember hating him the first time I read Things Fall Apart; he was flat out mean and a damn misogynist…what’s there to like? However, reading Things Fall Apart again, I feel bad for Okonkwo, I really do. As you mentioned, he is kind of like a tragic hero. It’s almost like you can’t help feeling bad for him when you read that he is hanging from a tree because we know that the effects of the colonization were just far too much for him, and this is something so unimaginable in my privileged world. I like how you mention how colonization not only damaged and destroyed his cultural heritage, but his masculinity as well. His power is also stripped over and over in this novel, first when he is banned from Ufuomia and then again when the white men take him and arrest him. Things Fall Apart is such a powerful story, and I feel like I gain new perspective every time I read it, especially in conjunction with the texts provided by Dr. Clemens. Awesome post!

    Liked by 1 person

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