Achebe's Sense of an Ending: History and Tragedy in 'Things Fall Apart.' (Nigerian Author Chinua Achebe)(Postcolonialism, History, and the Novel)

By Begam, Richard | Studies in the Novel, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

Achebe's Sense of an Ending: History and Tragedy in 'Things Fall Apart.' (Nigerian Author Chinua Achebe)(Postcolonialism, History, and the Novel)


Begam, Richard, Studies in the Novel


One of the more notable consequences of cultural globalization has been the exchange that has occurred over the last decade or so between what we have come to call postmodernism and postcolonialism.(1) This meeting of First World and Third World has inspired more controversy than consensus, but on one point there seems to have been wide agreement: if we want to understand colonialism, then we must understand how it is represented. As Hayden White has argued, speaking of historiography in general, the "form" is the "content," and this means that the language, vocabulary, and conceptual framework in which the experience of colonialism is produced inevitably determine what can and cannot be said about it.(2) To borrow Homi K. Bhabha's formulation, "nation" and "narration" are not easily separated--the one implies the other.(3)

The present paper explores the intersection between narrative construction and colonial representation by focusing on an aspect of literary form that has received little attention in postcolonial studies--namely, the question of closure or ending. It is puzzling that this subject, which has generated so much commentary in modern and postmodern studies, has gone virtually unexamined in the area of postcolonial literature. Yet it is certainly reasonable to assume that a literature that identifies itself aspostcolonial and defines itself in terms of the aftermath of colonialism, will have a passing interest in the way endings are narratively achieved, in what they mean and how they are fashioned. Of particular interest in this regard is the highly problematic relation that postcolonial literature has to its own past and, more specifically, to the writing of its own history.(4)

We may begin to appreciate some of the difficulties entailed in this relation by considering a number of connected questions. First, where do postcolonial writers locate their past? Is it to be found in the colonial, precolonial, or postcolonial period? Second, can we neatly separate the different historical strands that traverse and intersect these various epochs? Can we confidently assign to them decisive beginnings and conclusive endings? Third, what historical stance should postcolonial writers assume toward their own history, especially if they wish to forge a sense of national identity after colonization? To what extent does "critical history," of the sort described by Nietzsche, become a luxury that the postcolonial writer cannot afford?(5)

In examining these questions, I want to take up the case of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart because, as an exercise in historical recuperation, it is necessarily concerned with issues of formal shaping and narrative closure. Of course, at first glance, the novel appears to have a perfectly transparent narrative line: it tells the tragic story of Okonkwo's rise and fall among the Igbo people, concluding with that least ambiguous of all endings, the death of the hero. With only a few exceptions, critics have understood the novel in precisely these terms, seeing its closing pages as entirely unproblematic.(6) Yet any straightforward reading of Achebe's ending must reconcile itself with the fact that the novel describes a situation of profound cultural entropy, a society in which the norms of conduct and institutions of governance are in the process of "falling apart." What is more, while Achebe's novel movingly elegizes the passing away of traditional Igbo culture, the long view it adopts--looking ahead to the future establishment of Nigeria--suggests that Achebe's own position on the modernization of Africa is, at the very least, complicated. Given the subject of Achebe's novel and his own divided response to it. we would expect a fairly open-ended conclusion, one that acknowledges its own closure as tentative, even contingent.

In what follows, I will argue that Things Fall Apart resists the idea of a single or simple resolution by providing three distinct endings, three different ways of reading the events that conclude the novel. …

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