The lens of literary theory in which readers assess literature will have a significant effect on the underlying understanding of themes. Each one of them will lead a reader in new and exciting directions that often change the dynamics of a story or its characters. When reading Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, such dynamics as social structure and family dysfunction offer compelling arguments in how such broken relationships create the perfect environment for colonialism. This essay will discuss psychopathology using the theory of Franz Fanon to define the mentality and behaviors of Achebe’s characters. Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin write, “Fanon’s approach stressed the common political, social, and psychological terrain through which all the colonized peoples had to pass. It recognized the potency of such racial characteristics as ‘Blackness’ at the heart of the oppression and denigration endemic to the colonial enterprise” (123). Analyzing Achebe’s Things Fall Apart using Fanon’s theory of psychopathological analysis will enable a reader to break down the complexities of familial and social dysfunction that created the environment for foreign missionaries to “civilize” indigenous locals.
Familial and Social Dysfunction
Achebe creates a dysfunctional family dynamic between Unoka, Okonkwo, and Nwoye as examples of psychopathology in Things Fall Apart. Achebe first uses a flashback to develop a characterization of the father when he writes, “Unoka loved it all… He would remember his own childhood, how he had often wandered around looking for a kite sailing leisurely against the blue sky” (3). Readers then learn how his life experiences changed between adolescence and adulthood as the story quickly evolves to his current failure as a husband, father, and member of the community which is a critical moment. The quick transformation makes it easier to understand how and why a paradigm shift of behaviors altered their relationship. The father was an alcoholic who squandered money which created a hardship on the family. Achebe writes, “With a father like Unoka, Okonkwo did not have the start in life which many young men had” (9). It is a story all too comment with dysfunction. Okonkwo, as a teenager, takes on the role of the father which causes him to turn away from his beliefs to focus solely on financial stability. Ashcroft and et al. writes, “…it is ‘the bitter memory’ (6) of the old which supplies the energy in the new” (63). He soon begins to project his bitterness onto others including his family and members of society. Achebe writes, “Okonkwo knew how to kill a man’s spirit” (12). Okonkwo’s familial dysfunction, childhood poverty, and lack of moral guidance made him feel inferior, so he subjugated others to feel superior.
Achebe sets a standard for Unoka, Okonkwo, and Nwoye’s roles with lines like, “To show affection was a sign of weakness-the only thing worth demonstrating was strength” (13). Because of the effects of his psychological and biological environment, it is through his physical strength that readers recognize his psychological weakness. He beat his wives regularly, and his son, Nwoye, grows up in an environment where his escape from the dysfunction was through Ikemefuna’s stories. It is the death of his friend at his father’s hands that leads to Nwoye’s mental breakdown which Achebe relates to a previous trauma regarding the killing of the twins the previous year. Achebe writes, “Nwoye knew that Ikemefuna had been killed, and something seemed to give way inside him, like the snapping of a tightened bow” (27). Nwoye now feared his him just as his father had hated Unoka.
It is this void that the missionaries all-to-readily filled since he had an affinity for stories of people and places far beyond the parameters of his world. Achebe writes, “The hymn about brothers who sat in darkness and in fear seemed to answer a vague and persistent question that haunted his young soul–the question of the twins crying in the bush and the question of Ikemefuna who was killed” (69). When Nwoye’s father learns of his conversion, he turns to violence again which forces him to leave his ancestral home as the others did to embrace colonialism.
The most significant examples of psychopathology exist within the relationship between Unoka, Okonkwo, and Nwoye over the span of many years. Ashcroft and et al. write of Fanon’s teaching of psychopathology, “His theory brought together the concept of alienation and of psychological marginalization from phenomenological and existential theory” (136). Nwoye was a product of his environment as was characters like Nneka. The church became a place of sanctuary for them because of the abuse they found in their village. For Nneka, it meant giving birth to her children without the fear of their deaths because of parental rights. Colonialism would not have been possible without the local’s enabling the missionaries. For Achebe, it was essential for readers to understand the mental and physical dynamics of the familial relationships in the African community that led to colonialization as well as the African villagers who were all too happy to reacclimate to a new culture, language, and religion and deny their African existence.
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. Anchor Press. 1959.
Ashcroft, Bill, Griffiths, Gareth, Tiffin, Helen. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures. Routledge N.Y 2nd Edition. 2002.