Lesson 2: Africa, Igbo Culture, and Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart
This lesson provides an opportunity for you to read literature from around Africa, ultimately focusing on a novel by Chinua Achebe. The purpose of this lesson is to enable you to get a sense of how literature can both reflect on a specific set of cultural values and also be universally understood and enjoyed. This lesson also serves as an introduction to Lesson 3.
After completing this lesson, you should be able to accomplish the following:
- Discuss Okonkwo as a tragic hero.
- Explain the components of Igbo culture and compare and contrast it with western culture.
- Discuss the assimilation of Umuofia and the Igbo into the British system.
The HarperCollins World Reader: The Modern World:
- Khoi People—"Song for the Sun That Disappeared Behind the Rainclouds," page 1745
- Vai People of Liberia—"The Wax Doll," pages 1745–1746
- Gabriel Okara—"You Laughed and Laughed and Laughed," pages 1757–1758
- Agostinho Neto—"Western Civilisation," pages 1761–1762
- Ngugi Wa Thiong'O—"National Identity and Imperialist Domination," pages 1815–1818
- Ingrid de Kok—"Small Passing," pages 1913–1915
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (entire novel)
The following questions are designed to help you understand the material presented in this lesson. Do not submit your answers for grading. Try to answer as many of the questions as possible without referring to the book or commentary.
How does Gabriel Okara's "You Laughed and Laughed and Laughed" portray the conflict between native Africans and Westerners?
The conflict is presented from a Nigerian perspective, in which a native Nigerian attempts to explain things to an ignorant Westerner. The speaker, while he certainly does not appreciate the Westerner's laughter and dismissive attitude, is not hateful, but instead takes the time to reveal secrets that leave the Westerner embarrassed and quiet, and asking questions. The conflict never resorts to violence, but leads from ignorance to knowledge.
What is Okonkwo's tragic flaw? Provide at least three examples of this flaw from Things Fall Apart.
Okonkwo's tragic flaw is his fear of appearing weak. He is very invested in being a powerful male figure in his clan, unlike his lazy father Unoka. Examples of his flaw include, but are not limited to: neglecting to show tenderness toward his daughter Ezinma; neglecting to show tenderness toward his son Nwoye; striking down Ikemefuna; beating his wife during the Week of Peace; slaying the court messenger.
Describe at least three aspects of Igbo society that demonstrate that it is not a barbaric or uncivilized society.
A wide variety of social attributes and aspects show the Igbo as civilized. For instance, they have a system of oral knowledge; a calendar consisting of four-day weeks that each begin with a market day; a complex system of religion, including a major deity (Chukwu), numerous secondary gods, and an oracle; the codes of justice and trial system over which the egwugwu preside; the title system and the opportunity for every man to gain rank; a complex system of social and family rituals; and marriage ceremonies. These and others reveal how complex and civilized Igbo society is.
When you can accomplish the learning objectives for this lesson, you should begin work on the two essay questions described below. You may use any assigned readings, your notes, and other course-related materials to complete this assignment. See the Grades and Assessments page for help writing good essays.
2 essay questions, 20 points each, 40 points total
- Choose any two of the shorter pieces of African literature that you read from The HarperCollins World Reader: The Modern World. In about 500 words, compare and contrast these works. Discuss what each work reveals about African culture and—where relevant—what each says about Western influence.
- In about 500 words, discuss how Okonkwo is a tragic hero and how his fall parallels the fall of Igbo society under British imperialism in Things Fall Apart.
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