The Tragedy of Colonization

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In Achebe’s discussion of “Chi in Igbo Cosmology” the dual nature of the belief system of the Igbo is revealed. This duality is manifested in the human, terrestrial form and also in the spiritual, supernatural form: “There are two clearly distinct meanings of the word chi in Igbo. The first is often translated as god, guardian angel, personal spirit, soul, spirit- double, etc. The second meaning is day or daylight but is most commonly used for those transitional periods between day and night or night and day…In a general way we must visualize a person’s chi as his other identity in spiritland” (Achebe 159). This Igbo belief system suggests that both halves of a person’s character are what make a person unique among all other humans and also acknowledges spiritual aspects and influences on Igbo culture. Related to this belief system is the influence that chi has on personality, choices they make in life, and can also have a slight influence on their moral compass:“The Igbo believe that a man receives his gifts or talents, his character, before he comes into the world. It seems there is an element of choice available to him at that point; and that his chi presides over the bargaining…the Igbo believe that when a man says yes his chi will also agree; but not always. Sometimes a man may struggle with all his power and say yes most emphatically and yet nothing he attempts will succeed…the Igbo say of such a man…his chi does not agree… Chi is…more concerned with success of failure than with righteousness and wickedness…but there is a hint of moral attribution to chi in the way the Igbo sometimes explain differences in human character”(Achebe 163). The belief in chi is representative of  Igbo spiritual beliefs and suggests that while this cosmology is not necessarily related to Christian theism or other religions, as it does not place strong emphasis on morality, is does acknowledge that there are other realms of existence beyond the physical plane and there is still a suggestion of ethics. The belief in chi does not suggest a propensity toward wickedness, even if does not explicitly suggest staunch practices of scrupulous behavior :”The world in which we live has its double and counterpart in the realm of spirits…Indeed the human being is only one half of a person. There is a complementary spirit being, chi” (Achebe 160).

In “Africa’s Tarnished Image” Achebe discusses European imperialism in Africa, none of which had positive influences or results on the continent but did provide the foundation for the African literature canon. The European influences on African manifested  in extreme forms of oppression. This includes slavery and colonization.  Europeans were not satisfied with merely taking Africans away from their homes and families in order to sentence them to a life of involuntary servitude rife with denigration, prejudice, and abuse in all forms; Europeans were also compelled to invade the continent from which they took their slaves:”It was in general a deliberate invention devised to facilitate two gigantic, historical events: the Atlantic slave trade and the colonization of Africa by Europe”  (Achebe 209). Through poetry and prose, the  Africans suffering under colonial oppression were able to create a means for cathartic release. Additionally, this literature began to represent aspects of African culture and society. Achebe suggests that “The vast arsenal of derogatory images of Africa amassed to defend the slave trade and, later, colonization, gave the world not only a literary tradition…but  also a particular way of looking (or rather not looking)  at Africa and Africans (Achebe 210).

In the essay “Character and Society in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart” Eustace Palmer analyzes the relationship of social practices to the character of Okonkwo. Palmer suggests that although  Okonkwo demonstrated many negative and misogynistic characteristics, upon closer inspection, his behavior was  primarily in accordance with the expectations of the society in which he lived. This is not to say that his actions were acceptable, as they did result in grave consequences for both Okonkwo personally and the entire village.However, it would not be accurate to place  all the blame on Okonkwo’s character flaws. Indeed, because of this, he can be seen as a kind of tragic hero:“…Okonkwo as the embodiment of his society transforms him from champion to victim, and he goes on to suggest further that far from being an embodiment of the values of his society Okonkwo has only a very limited understanding of those values…where his society is noted for its discreet blending of the masculine and feminine principles Okonkwo is openly contemptuous of all things feminine…the truly tragic hero with a blend of attractive and unattractive qualities…It is these which lead to his downfall..The tragic hero is never completely villain nor completely victim and his tragedy is always brought about by a combination of his own personal inadequacies and external circumstances  Okonkwo is precisely such a tragic hero” (Palmer 411). It is very apparent that Okonkwo is deeply misogynistic, physically abusive, and demeaning toward women; however, the society to which he belongs is patriarchally dominated. This is clearly demonstrated in the scene in Things Fall Apart  where Okonkwo beats his wife because she does have lunch prepared on time. He is criticized by the village, not because he beat his wife, but because he has violated the “Week of Peace.” Domestic violence itself is not regarded as much of a violation of social code as when the act of violence itself occurred. Another symbol  of the patriarchy is illustrated by the villages’ regard for yams, and their association with this particular crop to masculinity: “Okonkwo’s regard for manliness is no more and no less than his society’s regard for it. This is particularly demonstrated in the symbolic importance of the yam. ‘Yam the king of crops was a man’s crop.’ And  Achebe’s rhetorical guidance suggests that this is the view, not just of Okonkwo’s but of his entire society. This is even more obvious in ‘Yam stood for manliness, and he who could feed his family on yams from one harvest to another was a very great man indeed” (Palmer 414).  The role of the man in the family was that of the caretaker. He was responsible for the subsistence of his family, and if he was able to provide and sustain his family with the venerated yam, he was held in a high social regard. This suggests that there were specific expectations associated with each sex, and there were responsibilities for each gender assigned by society:“No other issue illustrates Okonkwo’s oneness with his society more than his regard for the concept of manliness” (Palmer 413).

Neil Ten Kortenaar’s essay “Chinua Achebe and the Question of Modern African Tragedy” discusses the influences of the tragedy literary canon on African literature. There is great debate on this issue as some scholars vary on their opinions on the nature of this influence. Some feel that classic Greek tragedy elements  influence  African literature, as illustrated by Aristotelian tragic hero elements  embodied in Okonkwo:“Achebe argues that many cultures are familiar with ‘the man who’s larger than life, who exemplifies virtues that are admired by the community, but also a man who for all that is still human. He can have flaws…all that seems to me to be very elegantly underlined in Aristotle’s work. (Kortenaar 323). However, there are others that disagree for various reasons. Some feel that this African literature is its own entity and does not parallel other forms of tragedy, while others  believe classic  tragic  influences on African literature has exclusively negative results: “Others find that classical influences on African literature are not only improper but pernicious. Timothy Reiss has forcefully argued that tragedy as a literary mode and the theoretical discourse about tragedy together constitute ‘a principal category of thought enabling the colonization of others…Defeated peoples are described as ‘tragic’ by their conquerors because ‘ they are understood as tragic by their conquerors  because ‘they are understood  as tragically disjointed from the necessary progress and ‘legitimate’ direction of human history” (Kortenaar 324). This suggests that African tragedies are another form of Western imperialism. The colonized society, Africa in this specific instance, is assigned the label of ‘tragic’ by their colonizer. This labeling is motivated by ethnocentrism. Because the colonized society is different from that of colonized, it is automatically classified as inferior. The colonized are seen as savages who lack the knowledge for modern advancements in technology and other social aspects. According to the viewpoint of the colonized, this hinders global social progress and advancement. For these reasons, the colonized are viewed as ‘tragic’ by their oppressors. However there are other interpretations of the theme of tragedy in African literature: “According to Moses, the crux of tragedy as a genre is the transition from tradition to modernity” (Kortenaar 330). This suggests that Africa’s unwilling yet inevitable shift toward the modern under the rule of the colonizer is another manifestation of tragedy.

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One thought on “The Tragedy of Colonization

  1. I did not read the essay by Eustace Palmer, so it was interesting and informative to read your abstract of the essay. Based on your abstract, I want to go back and read this essay because I am interested in how Palmer reveals that Oknokwo’s actions and behavior were in accordance with his society. I think this is an interesting, and perhaps frequently argued, point of view. The following quotation that you included really stuck with me:

    “…Okonkwo as the embodiment of his society transforms him from champion to victim, and he goes on to suggest further that far from being an embodiment of the values of his society Okonkwo has only a very limited understanding of those values…where his society is noted for its discreet blending of the masculine and feminine principles Okonkwo is openly contemptuous of all things feminine…the truly tragic hero with a blend of attractive and unattractive qualities…It is these which lead to his downfall..The tragic hero is never completely villain nor completely victim and his tragedy is always brought about by a combination of his own personal inadequacies and external circumstances Okonkwo is precisely such a tragic hero” (Palmer 411).

    I like the idea of Okonkwo as a tragic hero, so this was a good abstract to read–and I’m sure it will be a great essay to read when I finally have time to approach it later in the weekend.

    Liked by 1 person

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