Things Fall Apart, pt 2: The “Ethnographic Novel” Fallacy

I’m already falling way behind on my plan to blog my class prep. But here’s a quick bit that I try to impress on my students early.

Most readers, I suspect, read Things Fall Apart as an illustration of what pre-colonial Nigeria was like; this is what causes it to be assigned in history classes as often as it is. And it does do this kind of work; the “anthropological” aspect of the novel, its attention to ethnographic detail and attempt at reconstruction of the lived reality of pre-colonial Igbo life is a really important part of what Achebe was doing in the late fifties. As he put it, “I would be quite satisfied if my novels (especially the ones I set in the past) did no more than teach my readers that their past – with all its imperfections – was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God’s behalf delivered them.” And his book does do this. Okonkwo, for all his imperfections, is not a savage but a human being whose faults and imperfections compose his humanity.

At the same time, the thing that makes Things Fall Apart so much more interesting than that is that Achebe also producing a pointed critique of his own people, using Okonkwo as the figure for it: his insularity, his misogyny, and his quickness to resort to violence are the kinds of things that Achebe sees in his own time and place, and the tragedy of Okonkwo (the manner in which his world falls apart) is therefore as much a product of his own failings as it is something imposed on Africans from without. European colonialists are far from blameless, of course, but Achebe is careful to also think about what choices and attributes on the part of the Igbo people made it possible for those colonists to do the damage that they did.

Which is to say, Achebe’s book manages to walk a very fine line, being critical without being dismissive and redeeming Okonkwo without glorifying him. It’s something a bit like Obama’s “racist uncle” trope: Achebe might not like Okonkwo, but he doesn’t disown him because Okonkwo is part of what modern Nigeria was or is. Which is what makes him worth writing a book about. But this makes the work of reading Things Fall Apart something very different than the project of characterizing Okonkwo as the image of the ideal Igbo, something more like the problem of figuring out how and where to distinguish Okonkwo from his society, how to detach him from the very “representative man” status which the “ethnographic novel” reading wants to plot him into.