EESE 5/2007

     A Question of Honour:
     De/constructing Male Identities in Chinua Achebe's Tetralogy


     Herbert G. Klein (FU Berlin)

 

Introduction

In the years 1958 to 1966 Chinua Achebe published four novels in which he traced the history of Nigeria from pre-colonial to post-colonial times, mainly centred on the fate of the Ibo people: Things Fall Apart (1958), No Longer at Ease (1960), Arrow of God (1964), and A Man of the People (1966). Especially the first one won him international acclaim, but all of them are still widely read and discussed. Things Fall Apart has become a set text in English speaking countries all over Africa as it portrays an archetypal situation: the breaking apart of the old tribal society through the coming of the colonists. Unavoidably, certain aspects of these novels have also met with disapproval from readers and critics: some have criticised Achebe's portrayal of Africans and Europeans, his description of modern Nigerian attitudes, his choosing the European form of the novel and writing in English, and increasingly the (male) protagonists' or the implied narrator's alleged attitude towards women has become the target of criticism. Tsitsi Dangarembga thus felt provoked to paint a different picture of the role of women in pre-colonial African societies in Nervous Conditions (1988) in order to counter what she thought constituted a repression of the voices of African women.[1] Florence Stratton (27) fears that Achebe's representations of women might legitimate their exclusion from public affairs, and Rhonda Cobham (178) has recently compared the situation of female African writers with regard to Achebe with that of the colonials and the District Commissioner as similarly stifling. These are strong accusations and they are mainly based on readings of Things Fall Apart and the "reactionary masculinity" (Hogan 125) of its protagonist. It seems somewhat naïve, however, to equate Achebe's narrator's not taking an explicit critical stance against chauvinist attitudes with tacit approval. Although it is certainly true that Achebe mainly shows us male protagonists in a male-dominated society, this does not necessarily mean that he approves of this situation. Arguably, the critics' concern with women has made them overlook that Achebe's portrayals of men are far from one-dimensional and are interlocked in a rather more complex way with the situation of women than is commonly assumed. I would therefore like to redress the balance and demonstrate that Achebe is actually trying to reveal the tangle of constituent factors that go into the making of his protagonists' masculinity and that this also implies a critical evaluation of its impact on society. If Achebe falls short of feminist demands, it should be noted that all four novels were written well before the feminist movement got really started (of course there were forerunners like Simone de Beauvoir) - and incidentally also before Masculinity Studies were thought of. It is the more remarkable that Achebe draws his male protagonists and their societies in ways that prefigure concerns which have become central to Masculinity Studies.

Less controversial than Achebe's stance on gender issues are his political views. It has always been accepted that his writings do not only represent an important post-colonial position but also a scathing critique of Nigerian society and politics. Little has changed since the publication of his novels, though: Nigeria has not come to rest and is still marked by inter-tribal rivalry, a deteriorating economy and a high degree of corruption. As I will attempt to show, Achebe's work uncovers some of the reasons for this state of affairs and relates them closely with traditional ideas of masculinity. I shall therefore first analyse the different constructions of masculinity in these novels and then try to demonstrate how they show up a deep-seated malaise not only in Ibo or Nigerian society, but in postcolonial African societies in general. In order to make the historical development more apparent, I deviate somewhat from the order of appearance of these novels by following their inner chronology, i.e. by discussing them according to the time in which they are set.

Things Fall Apart (1958)

The beginning of Things Fall Apart is set in precolonial days and tells the story of Ogbuefi Okonkwo who wants to become one of the pre-eminent men in the village of Umuofia. Through reasons for which he is largely responsible himself, he fails spectacularly and finally kills himself. At the centre of both his ambition and its failure lies Okonkwo's continual attempt to prove himself a man. His reputation rests on "solid personal achievements", i.e. it is something that Okonkwo has built up through personal effort and can therefore also lose again (TFA 3). One of the things he prides himself on is his bodily strength and agility which he has proved in a famous wrestling match against Amalinze the Cat.[2] Although Okonkwo looks rather impressive and even somewhat dangerous, he feels insecure. A "slight stammer" betrays this insecurity which often vents itself in bodily aggression (TFA 39).[3] The reason for this insecurity lies in the difficult relationship with his father Unoka who at the time the narrative sets in has been dead for ten years. This antecedent history is told immediately after Okonkwo and his strength have been introduced.

Unoka was almost the exact opposite of Okonkwo: in economic terms he was a loser, because during his lifetime he amassed a great number of debts, but in social terms he was quite a success. In stark contrast to his son he tried to take life easy and to enjoy every good turn together with his friends and neighbours. He was a musician who abhorred violence and the sight of blood. It is in reaction to this that Okonkwo becomes a great warrior and eminent among his people. The only thing he is afraid of is to be thought weak like his father:

But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness. It was deeper and more intimate than the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of the forest, and the forces of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw. Okonkwo's fear was greater than these. It was not external but lay deep within himself. It was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father. (TFA 9-10)

Unoka symbolises the old times when men could still feel secure in their manhood, even if they possessed feminine traits, whereas Okonkwo already shows the difficulties of maintaining a stable masculine identity. It is not only the fear of being thought weak as a man, it is even more the fear of being thought womanish. As a child Okonkwo had learned that the term agbala did not only mean "woman", but also designated a man like his father who had taken no title. All his subsequent actions may be traced to this childhood trauma (cf. Chodorow 181). He is not only on the constant lookout for effeminacy in himself, but also in others. His eldest son, Nwoye, appears to him to exhibit signs of weakness, and he therefore makes life difficult for him, in the belief that this will make him strong. Okonkwo rejects Nwoye, because he believes that "there is too much of his mother in him" (TFA 46). In fact, he fears that he is too much like his grandfather Unoka.

The fear of being thought effeminate governs Okonkwo's life: believing that betraying any emotions except anger is unmanly, he suppresses all signs of attachment. His pent up aggression breaks out time and again: not only is he a renowned warrior, but he also unmercifully beats his youngest wife during the Week of Peace. This is an unheard of offence against the earth goddess who might therefore spoil the crop. Okonkwo's rejection of everything female could thus endanger the whole village whose cultural foundation is the balancing of the male and female principle (Ojinmah 16). Okonkwo does not see that his success as a man is based on female fertility and that the whole social fabric of his society is referred to this deity.

Okonkwo's fear of betraying any "womanish" weakness shows itself most strongly when in spite of warning he takes part in the killing of Ikemefuna, a young hostage from another village, whom he has come to like almost like a son and who calls him father. Despite himself, Okonkwo feels deeply about the death of Ikemefuna. Significantly, this is again seen by him as a sign of effeminacy, saying to himself: "Okonkwo, you have become a woman indeed" (TFA 45).

The narrator clearly decries these instances of violence. This becomes apparent by the elaborate way in which the reader is made to feel for Ikemefuna and to detest Okonkwo's action. Indeed, the novel repeatedly stresses the fact that the general feeling of this society runs contrary to Okonkwo's attitude. Okonkwo's separateness is further emphasised by his accidentally killing the young son of the man who had warned him not to have a hand in Ikemefuna's death. All of Okonkwo's aspirations are now destroyed: he has committed a crime against the earth goddess and is therefore banned from the clan. Ironically, what he has done is considered a "female" crime and therefore he may return after seven years. He will spend this exile in his motherland, the village that his mother came from. Ironically, his act of (involuntary) violence brings him thus even closer to the female side of things which he had so long rejected.

The second part of the novel starts with Okonkwo beginning life anew in his motherland. At first he is fully dependent on his (dead) mother's relatives' help which is willingly given. Okonkwo, however, feels that his life has been destroyed: his ambition to become one of the lords of the clan has been thwarted. Uchendu, his dead mother's youngest brother and now the oldest of the family, tries to teach Okonkwo to accept what has happened and to make him see the value of the female side: the mother, and therefore also the motherland, give shelter and consolation in hard times. But Uchendu also regrets the old days when things were different and there was more contact between the clans. That these times are definitely over is made clear by the reports of the coming of white men and of the atrocities they have committed. Two years later, white missionaries have actually reached Umuofia and started proselytising. The converts come from the lower ranks of society, not one man with a title amongst them, and this not only means that they are agbala, but they are also called efulefu, which means "worthless, empty men" (TFA 101). Among the missionaries there is also Okonkwo's son Nwoye, who has become a convert to the new faith, because it seems to respond to his disquietude about the old violence and because it is a way of hurting his father. For Okonkwo this is another sign of his personal misfortune and he envisages the time after his death when there might be nobody to worship at the ancestral shrine. The new religion gains more adherents and Okonkwo despises his mother's clan for being womanly, because they do not take more decisive action against them. The new religion indeed destroys the old customs and thereby the fabric of society.

Okonkwo has learnt nothing in his exile, though: he has lost his position in the clan, but he is determined to reclaim it and to go even further. He disowns Nwoye and cautions his other sons against becoming a "woman" like him (TFA 122).[4] He can only understand the changes in Umuofia in terms of effeminacy. So when the conflict with the white men comes to a head, he sees no other option but war and slays the governor's messenger. He knows that he will not get any support from his clan and therefore kills himself: the violence that has determined his whole life is turned against himself, and he perpetrates another crime against the earth goddess by committing suicide.

The story of Okonkwo's life shows that there are several types of masculinity in pre-colonial Ibo society and that Okonkwo's is not the only possible one, but it is the kind that will become dominant after the basis for a more balanced one has been destroyed by colonialism (Griffiths 121). How this is done, is demonstrated by the fate of Ezeulu in Arrow of God.

Arrow of God (1964)

Achebe's third novel is set in the early days of colonisation, when the white man's rule is still not firmly established. Ezeulu, the priest of Ulu, the highest godhead in the village, believes himself to be of utmost importance, because he is responsible for announcing the right time for the planting of yam, which is the principal food. In the eyes of many villagers, however, he has betrayed them by letting their side down in a conflict with another village which provoked the intervention of the colonial power. Although this gained him the respect of Captain T.K. Winterbottom, the local governor, it considerably lowered his standing in the village. His consequent feeling of slighted importance brings him into conflict with the white man, makes him delay the announcement of the time for the planting of yam and eventually destroys the traditional culture of the village and himself.

The whole society that Ezeulu lives in is male-oriented: the greatest and never to be doubted - oath is "My father told me" (AG 93). It is this link between father and son that more than anything is the backbone of this society, but Ezeulu treats his grown sons as if they were children. He wishes his eldest son Edogo, an artist, were more aggressive, like himself. Another son, Obika, is given to drinking too much palm wine, but otherwise tries to uphold the ideal of manliness. Although he is ill, he does not dare to refuse a demand to act as the voice of a spirit on the occasion on somebody's death, thereby bringing on his own. As Simon Gikandi points out: "In his affirmation of penile power, Obika will almost bring disaster to his family and community; in his zeal to affirm his masculinity, he will destroy himself" (55).

Like Okonkwo, Ezeulu is proud of his bodily strength. He is an aggressive person who quarrels with his neighbours and expects everyone to think and act the same as himself. Ezeulu is also a very conscientious man, but feels thwarted in his ambition, which is bound up with his idea of manliness: he wants to prove himself to be better than any other man in the village (AG 3). Nevertheless, he has trouble controlling his womenfolk: there is a lot of rivalry between his wives, which he is unable to check. Akueke, his daughter by his late first wife, has separated from her husband which is attributed to her not submitting to his authority. Interestingly, though, Ezeulu's position as priest seems to imply some forms of female behaviour: he sits by the household shrine "with his legs stretched in front of him to one side of the shrine, like a woman" (AG 7).

Significantly, the conflict between the villages, which had originally been about land, escalates with a conflict about manliness. Akukalia, one of the men sent to negotiate with the other village, is impotent and therefore extremely touchy when his masculinity is put in question. He is a firebrand, but he also has sentimental feelings for his mother's land. Possibly it is because he feels ashamed of this that he wants to go to war with the maternal village. When the delegation arrives and feels slighted by their negligent reception, a fight ensues in which Akukalia destroys Ebo's ikenga, and therefore his strength, even his life. The ikenga symbolises masculine power and authority, its destruction takes away everything from Ebo and leaves him no other choice but to kill Akukalia. In the ensuing conflict six men are killed before the colonial government steps in. Ezeulu antagonises everyone but the governor by telling the truth instead of lying in the interest of his own side. This act will get him remembered when the colonial power decides to establish local chiefs and he is called to appear before Captain Winterbottom. Things come to a head when Ezeulu calls the village assembly together in order to ask their advice, but is refused the support he is looking for. So after he has gone to Okperi, his mother's village and the seat of the governor, and has been detained there for several days, he wants to be revenged on everybody by showing them that he is the most important man and Ulu the most important deity in the village: he will unswervingly go through every step of the new moon ceremony, thereby delaying the time for the planting of yam for two moons which will mean disaster. Ezeulu's self-respect has been deeply challenged by his treatment at the hands of the white governor: he feels emasculated and therefore has to prove his manliness towards the other men in his village. His desire to assert his masculinity and to bend the whole village to his will finally brings not only himself down, but destroys the culture he stands for: Mr Goodcountry, the local catechist, takes advantage of the locked situation and invites everybody to participate in the church's thanksgiving feast. The power of Ulu has been broken and the Christian creed will do the rest. Ezeulu's pride and stubbornness, which he mistakes for manliness and fulfilment of duty, have backfired on himself and he loses his mind while the world around him is irrevocably changing. With what result is shown in the two novels set in late-colonial and post-colonial times respectively.

No Longer at Ease (1960)

The conflict between the individual and a changing society is also the topic of Achebe's second novel which is set in 1956, shortly before Nigerian independence. The old Ibo society does not exist any more, but there are still powerful remnants, even where one might least expect them. The link with the first novel is provided by Nwoye, Okonkwo's son, who is the father of this novel's protagonist, Obi. Obi Okonkwo had been sent to England with money collected by the Umuofia Progressive Union to take a law degree, but decided to study English literature instead. After his studies he returns to Nigeria where a government post awaits him. He is full of idealistic hopes for the building of the new Nigeria, which soon get him into trouble, however, when he is confronted with the realities of daily life (Innes 48-49). He soon finds out that his income, although inordinately high by Nigerian standards, will not suffice to maintain him in the style that is expected of him in addition to meeting his various other obligations. The common practice of taking bribes to supplement his income is not acceptable to Obi who has high ideals as regards the behaviour of those about to build the new Nigeria. He fails to see, however, that he himself cannot live up to these ideals, and so he eventually accepts bribes, gets caught and is taken to court. The sentence will presumably destroy his whole life.

The main reason for Obi's downfall is his behaviour toward Clara who had been trained as a nurse in England. He had started a relationship with her on their way back to Nigeria, not realising that she was an osu. The term osu denotes someone whose life is dedicated to a god and who therefore cannot take part in the regular rites of Ibo society in effect an outcast. Despite his progressive views, Obi is still in the thrall of tradition when Clara declares herself an osu: he fails to stand by her when his parents and his friends set themselves against their marriage plans. Even his father, despite his deeply held Christian belief, is not prepared to support them. Significantly, the Christian religion is said to have emasculated the people, and it is Obi's mother - a dyed in the wool Christian - who is the dominant partner in the relationship with Obi's father, and who puts up the strongest opposition. Nwoye is a weak father, but Obi is an even weaker son; he is not able to fulfil any of his own ideals.

Through his father, Obi is also linked with his grandfather: the conflict between father and son makes Obi's father tell the story of his leaving Okonkwo. Although Nwoye has broken with his father, he still upholds some of the latter's values such as preferring sons to daughters. The importance of a son is stressed by Obi's full name: Obiajulu, which means "the mind at last is at rest", expressing his father's relief that after four daughters he had a son at last (NLE 6). In fact, Obi is explicitly likened to his grandfather Ogbuefi Okonkwo and his prowess and manliness (NLE 48-9). But the similarity goes even further than this: in the relationship between Nwoye and Obi the pattern of the weak father against whom the son reacts is repeated. Like his grandfather, Obi tries to prove his manhood by dominating women, but whereas the former is a man of action, Obi is only a man of many words (Rogers 53). Theoretically he is quite aware that Clara can make the same kind of demands on him that he makes on her, but this does not cause him to treat her as an equal. On the contrary, maintaining a stance of male superiority is seen as the "African way" of doing things (NLE 100). Obi does not share his feelings and his deliberations with Clara, but rather confronts her with the results of his decisions. He is unable to accept help from her when he is in need, and he fails to accept responsibility when he learns that she is pregnant. This is why Clara finally breaks off the engagement. As a matter of fact, she is much more representative of what a modern Nigerian could be like than is Obi: she is a strong and emancipated woman who can free herself of the fetters of tradition and would need an equally strong partner - someone Obi decidedly is not (Mezu 1995).

By the end of the novel, Obi has thrown all his principles overboard: he does not stand by Clara, he breaks the law by asking for an abortion and he gives and takes bribes. His concern for Clara comes too late. He assesses his life and sees that it has been ruled by arrogance and false pride, which are basically the result of his masculine self-centeredness (NLE 141-2). The type of masculinity represented by Okonkwo and Ezeulu had already proved to be a cul-de-sac in the early colonial days, but they had at least tried to live up to their ideals. Obi, however, only retains their insensitivity and egoism, but fails entirely in constructing his own kind of masculinity. In his case, the result is not manliness, but emasculation. It is only the last protagonist of the tetralogy who develops in a different direction and thereby shows an alternative way.

A Man of the People (1966)

Like Obi, Odili Samalu is a gifted young man with high ideals that are likely to be destroyed by reality. He works as a teacher in a provincial school when he meets Chief Nanga who had taught him in primary school but is now a successful and popular politician. With him is a beautiful girl, Edna, his incumbent second wife. Chief Nanga needs a "parlour wife", because his first wife is too rustic for his exalted position. Following Nanga's invitation, Odili goes to stay with him in the capital city, while the former's family is away in the country. When Odili brings a girl-friend home, Chief Nanga manages to seduce her with Odili sitting helplessly by. He decides to get even with Nanga by running against him in the elections and seducing in turn his wife-to-be. His campaign fails miserably, even tragically, but he gains Edna in the end.

On the surface, this is a story of male rivalry: Nanga takes Odili's girl-friend, so Odili takes his wife-to-be. But the story is complicated by the relationship between the male protagonists: Nanga seems to have once been a substitute father for Odili and offers to take up the role again. Indeed, Odili and his father Hezekiah have been and are in constant conflict, possibly because Odili's mother died at his birth. Both Nanga and Hezekiah are representatives of the old type of manliness which defines itself through sexual achievement: Hezekiah has five wives, and Nanga constantly has affairs in addition to being about to marry a second wife. Sexual prowess is important for Odili, too: women are basically sexual objects for him as well as for Nanga. But his complacency is badly shattered when his lover Elsie sleeps with Chief Nanga. It is this which finally propels him into action after he had assumed a passive, even escapist role before. It is a matter of his manhood being called in question by another man, who is also a kind of surrogate father, so he has to prove to himself that he is indeed a man. Significantly, he wants to take his revenge by getting back at Nanga through his intended second wife. He is quite obviously not questioning his attitude towards women, neither is any of the other men. When Odili shows politeness to Edna, he blames himself for his "unafrican" behaviour (MP 90). He quite clearly only intends to use her as a tool for his revenge. Nevertheless, he advises Edna against marrying Chief Nanga, giving as his reason that he is "an ancient polygamist" (MP 98). He also tries to impress her by his courage when he comes to see her father despite the latter's having warned him off and actually threatening him with a matchet. It is only now that Odili realises he wants Edna for herself, not for his revenge. This is indeed the turning point and a sign of his finally growing up - something the other protagonists spectacularly fail to do. Odili also realises that his political activity is mixed up with his feelings for Edna. It is more because of his wish to see her again than anything else that he goes to Nanga's election party and gets beaten up. This foolish act proves his sincerity and courage and therefore finally gets him Edna. It also turns him into a man in his own eyes and those of his relatives.

Odili is thus the only male protagonist in the tetralogy who may be said to have developed in a positive way. It is after he has rejected the role models provided by his father and by Nanga that he discovers a new concept of masculinity for himself. As C.L. Innes points out:

The reaction to his father, to Nanga, to Odo, have all led Odili away from self-interested detachment and aloof 'autonomy' towards involvement - both personal and political. It is this involvement which brings him into contact with the feminine ethic, this time demanding genuine concern and feeling.... (95-96)

Since Odili is also cast as a political character, this change is the expression of a hope for a new turn not only in Nigerian society and in the relationship between men and women but also in politics, where concern for others should replace the selfish struggle for power and money.

Conclusion

In all four of Achebe's novels different types of masculinity are exemplified mainly through the relationship between fathers and sons. Significantly, the two novels set in earlier times have strong protagonists, whereas those in the later ones appear weak, thereby reflecting the weakness of their society, although Odili finally turns out to achieve more than any of them.

The traditional Ibo society is a patriarchal one where women are only important as contributing to a man's greatness: they rank between barns and titles.[5] As Things Fall Apart makes clear, however, women and the female aspect of life are a constituent part of this culture. It is when this is forgotten that things get out of control: the male and the female principle need to balance each other. In the younger generation, neither Obi nor Odili (at least for the most part of the novel) are willing to accord women even the place that their grandfathers did. This is especially conspicuous in NLE where the fact of Clara's not being accepted as a woman on equal terms is underlined by her being an ozu. Nevertheless, she is the one who could occasion a change in Obi, if he were prepared and strong enough to follow her.

All protagonists suffer from an "essentialist" idea of masculinity an idea which they try to live up to, but which ruins their lives. This idea of masculinity is certainly one which they have imbued through their society, but society is not responsible for what they do. As Lahoucine Ouzgane points out: "Like men in other settings and from other continents, African men make themselves, actively constructing their masculinities within social and historical contexts" (243). Achebe's protagonists are afraid of not conforming to what they conceive of as manliness - their ideas are based on a static view which does not take in its fluent and constructed nature. What they most significantly fail to do is to accept their female side. All the male protagonists suppress their emotions and this makes them vulnerable: they are not able to adapt to changing conditions. They cannot do this because they have to fight constantly against the fear that any deviation from their rigid self-conception might put their manliness in doubt.

All protagonists also stand to some degree in opposition to their societies and develop their personalities through this opposition. They do not conceive of themselves as part of a community, but they rather believe that they are above this community, that they are better men than the rest. They are unwilling to conform to the demands of their societies and they fail to see the need for compromise. Thus in a competitive society Okonkwo, Ezeulu and Obi are ambitious: they want to be recognised as achievers and to set their mark on their societies.[6] But whereas Okonkwo and Ezeulu are strong men who may be said to overshoot the mark by trying to be even more manly than their societies demand, Obi is weak and Odili only grows stronger at the end of the novel. It seems that behind this wish to achieve there is the old fear of being considered agbala not quite a man. The protagonists therefore strive towards an ideal of manliness that denies their feminine side. Strength and weakness are measured by a standard which is based on the suppression of emotions and a contemptuous attitude towards women. Male status is proved by wealth and sexual prowess: the richer a man the more women he can have.[7] Both Nwoye and Odili deviate from this ideal of manliness and therefore reject their fathers' materialism and their patriarchal attitude (Innes 95). But whereas Nwoye is still caught in his father's ethics, Odili begins to overcome them by acknowledging that being a man may include the acceptance of women as partners and of his own suppressed feelings. Although Odili is as arrogant in the beginning as the other protagonists, he seems to gain new insights towards the end. But he has to learn the hard way: only after he has been spurned by Edna, does he acknowledge the feelings he has been trying to suppress and learns to respect her and care for her. And this paradoxically, turns him into a man in his own eyes and those of others.

The problems of colonial or postcolonial masculinities are, however, more complex and cannot simply be solved by a call to men "to discover their feminine side" or to accept women as equals. As postcolonial theory has demonstrated, from a European perspective the colonial Other is feminised and this introduces a new element into the situation.[8] Achebe shows how the arrival of the Europeans destroys the intricate balance between male and female. It begins with the emasculation of the Ibo male by the act of conquest symbolised by the destruction of the guns of Umuaro. Other instances of this emasculation are Okonkwo's helpless attempts at resistance, Ezeulu's being called before Winterbottom, Obi's being told off and patronised by Mr Greene, or - even after independence - Chief Nanga's subservience in front of white men. A telling instance of the feminisation of the African male with regard to the coloniser is the fact that being a cook is alright for a man as long as he is cooking European food, but African food has to be prepared by a woman. In both Arrow of God and A Man of the People there are passages in which the role of men as cooks is discussed: although normally cooking would be considered degrading for a man, since it is women's' business, cooking European food is acceptable because it does not change the relationship between the African man and the African woman who is still responsible for cooking African food (MP 46).[9] All this has, of course, deep-going consequences for colonial masculinity: colonised men have to insist on their manliness in relation to colonised women and therefore tend to adopt extreme forms of masculine behaviour.

Christianity, the coloniser's religion, is also responsible for the feminisation of this society: in the beginning, as is told in Things Fall Apart, it is mainly women that join the new creed, but also men who have not taken a title and who are therefore agbala. Nwoye, who is regarded as effeminate by his father, is one of the foremost to change sides, because he correctly sees it as a means to destroy his father's world. It is surly significant in this context that in his marriage Nwoye's wife, who is a Christian only in name, is the dominant partner. Their son, Obi, although he does not regard himself as a Christian anymore, grows up without any viable male role model and tries to compensate this with what he believes to be manly behaviour. Similarly Odili, whose father had been a lackey of the district-governor, thinks that domineering comportment towards women makes the man.[10]

It has to be stressed that Achebe is not a historian, but a novelist. This means that he does not necessarily paint a realistic picture, but rather one that is coloured by his own times and preoccupations. So, although for example Okonkwo's conflict may be plausible in terms of his society, it certainly tells us more about the specific problems of the time the novel was written. It may thus be seen as Achebe's attempt to explain what lies behind the failure of Nigeria to find a united nationhood and to develop a sense of civil responsibility. As Achebe tells the story, the old society not only respected women, but also - in the guise of the earth goddess - saw them as the ultimate authority. Men could therefore safely accept that they also had a feminine side. It is when they deny this that dire consequences ensue. The view that emerges from Achebe's tetralogy then is that the increasing suppression of the female in this culture is at least in part the reason for the present malaise of Nigerian society. The re-establishment of a more balanced relationship between the sexes would therefore be bound up with overcoming the inhibiting (post-)colonial situation, but Achebe does not really show how this could be achieved. Although all four novels deal with the impact of colonialism on an African society, this is not seen as the sole reason for the problems besetting masculinity, rather their origins are shown to lie deep in Nigerian history. Achebe exemplifies this through the lives of his characters who personify the issues which have led to the present predicament and which may also indicate a way out. With the last novel of the tetralogy, Achebe shows the reader a glimmer of hope - but no more.

I hope to have shown through my discussion that Achebe does not, as has been alleged, purvey a one-dimensional model of African masculinity and certainly not an uncritically affirmative one - but that he rather points out the historical fissures and ruptures in its construction and shows that it is not a feasible working model for a modern society. He is especially critical of the way in which women are not allowed to play a part in this society, as opposed to the pre-colonial one which was very much aware of the necessity of balancing the strength of the sexes. This is not to say that Achebe glorifies those days, either. Rather, he shows that pre-colonial societies already contained unresolved tensions between the sexes that ultimately contributed not only to their own downfall but also in no small measure to the difficulties of post-colonial times. Even though Achebe does not offer ready-made solutions in his novels, the diagnosis as such is already of great value.

 

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. A Man of the People. Heinemann African Writers Series, 31 (London: Heinemann, 1966).

---. Arrow of God. Heinemann African Writers Series, 16 (2nd. ed., London: Heinemann, 1974).

---. No Longer at Ease. Heinemann African Writers Series, 3 (London: Heinemann, 1963).

---. Things Fall Apart. Heinemann African Writers Series, 1 (London, Ibadan, Nairobi, Lusaka: Heinemann, 1976).

---. "The role of the writer in a new nation." In African Writers on African Writing, edited by G.D. Killam (London: Heinemann, 1978).

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Notes

[1] An extended discussion of recent feminist criticism of Achebe can be found in Alexandra Lewis's inspiring essay "Postcolonial literatures and the ongoing process of 'Writing Back'" (2006) to which I am indebted for some of the following points.

[2] The word "cat" has certain feminine connotations.

[3] This stammer marks him as deviant in his culture that puts a high premium on eloquence. Cf. Simon Gikandi, Reading Chinua Achebe. Language & Ideology in Fiction (London, Portsmouth NH, Nairobi, 1991: Currey / Heinemann), 39.

[4] Ironically, he has a daughter, Ezinma, who resembles him in many ways. He wishes she were a boy and fails to see that she is actually a female version of himself.

[5] There are exceptions to this rule as the example of Ogbuefi Ndulue and his wife Ozoemena makes clear who live closely interdependent lives. Cf. TFA 47-48.

[6] Achebe believes that the materialism which always played an important part in Ibo culture has been reinforced by colonialism. Cf. Chinua Achebe, "The Role of the Writer in a New Nation" in African Writers on African Writing, ed. G.D. Killam (London: Heinemann, 1978), 11.

[7] Even the amount of bribe money can be used to measure a man's valour: cf. MP 128.

[8] This has not yet been sufficiently recognised by literary critics whose perspective remains largely eurocentric. One of the exceptions is Suzanne Kehde's article, which demonstrates the unquestioned view of the colonised Other as female: "Engendering the Imperial Subject: The (De)construction of (Western) Masculinity in David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly and Graham Greene's The Quiet American", in Fictions of Masculinity. Crossing Cultures, Crossing Sexualities, ed. Peter F. Murphy (New York and London, 1994: New York University Press), 241-54.

[9] For the gendered role of cooking in African nation-building cf. Igor Cusack, "Pots, pens and 'eating out the body': cuisine and the gendering of African nations", Nations and Nationalism 9 (2003), 277-96. For the related topic of the importance of eating for achieving a proper masculinity in Ibo society cf. Obododimma Oha, "Eating raw nothing, committing suicide: the politics and semiotics of food culture", Mots Pluriels 15 (2000): www.arts.uwa.edu.au/MotsPluriels/MP1500oo.html.

[10] Interestingly, Odili's father proves himself to be a man after all when he resists party pressure and stands by his son.