Book Review: Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe… and a discussion of white privilege

I missed out, somehow, on many of the classics, both classic classics (there has to be a better way to say that – literary classics?) and more modern classics, in my high school and college experiences.  I love books, and the act of reading; the experiences we can have through literature are endless, and I appreciate a good novel for the truth it holds, the escape it provides, the questions it stirs, the emotion it imparts, and the reckoning it brings. for the reckoning it brings.  I consider myself well-read, but I realized a few months ago that my classic and modern literature repertoire is significantly limited.  So I embarked on a journey to expand my classic library.  In the last few months I’ve read Dickens, Steinbeck, Wells, and Atwood.  And while I’ve never been an avid book reviewer, I’m thinking that no harm will be done in trying to piece together my thoughts as I work my way through the literature.  This is as good a place as any to do it.

Recently I finished Chinua Achebe’s bestselling novel Things Fall Apart, widely considered to be the cornerstone of modern African literature.  It begins the story of Okonkwo, a powerful warrior within his village, and his fall from grace, culminating in the effects of Christian missionaries and European colonization in Nigeria.  I worked through the book quickly, though as I read I noticed opportunities for exploration and study, such as the labeling one of Okonkwo’s daughters as an ogbanje, or an evil spirit that would be born a child, die young, and enter its mother’s womb to be born again, maintaining a constant cycle of death and rebirth.  Achebe builds traditional and cultural beliefs and values into his story, giving the reader explanation necessary to understand, but leaving enough to encourage further learning.

Achebe writes simply, and I felt that words often came off as blunt: brief, to the point, steadfast.  This style, though it may not be for everyone, suits the story he tells, and suits the main character, Okonkwo, as he works through his own internal and external struggles with tradition, duty, and change.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, for me, Things Fall Apart provided me with the opportunity to consider my privilege.  It is not a new experience for me; I have made a point to study and acknowledge the privilege I have because I am white, middle-class, Christian, and heterosexual.  The concluding paragraphs of Things Fall Apart, however, made me again consider my advantage and force me to recognize the reality of, in this case, white privilege.  Let me explain, without giving too much away.  Upon immediately completing the book, I found myself annoyed, because I thought that that the final sentences unfairly generalized and hyperbolized the thoughts and actions of white, Christian missionaries in Africa.  I was disappointed with what I thought was a “cheap” ending to an otherwise outstanding novel.  I understood the irony Achebe was going for, but, for lack of a better phrase, I was offended by it.

It took a few hours before I realized that, once again, my privilege was showing.  Here I was, unhappy with the ending of a book because I thought it made white Christians look small, petty, and ignorant, when in fact Achebe was using his story to demonstrate what white Christians did to an entire race of people: made them out to be small, ignorant, and uncivilized.  And those actions continue to dictate our world order today, to the point that someone like me has to grapple with a few sentences in a book while millions of others grapple with achieving equality in all facets of life.

I know this post went a bit sideways, but this encounter with white privilege ultimately ended up as my largest take-away from the book.  I enjoyed the story of Okonkwo; I was fascinated by the mythological and cultural traditions illustrated; and I appreciated the subtle pacing and flow of the story with history and emotion.  But in the end, my most lasting impression is of the vital importance of considering ourselves in the scheme of history and our understanding and recognition of both our privilege and oppression.