Garry Gillard > writing > African Fiction > 4

Formal Aspects of Fictive Narrative in Africa

Chapter 4: Handling of Action


"Action" may be defined as the sum of all the events, mental and physical, human and non-human, which are referred to in the narrative. The term "action" is used rather than "plot", which, although its use has been redefined and broadened in various directions, still tends to refer to a reduction of the narrative, either to its outline as conceived by the author, or to its summary as schematised by a reader. [1] In the present sense, however, the action is seen as a totality, although various schemata are utilised in order to permit analysis of important aspects.

Inasmuch as the action's forward reading dimension is extended in time, in its progressive concretisation by the reader, it is possible to see it as divisible into phases, which may or may not correspond to explicit divisions such as parts of chapters. [2] Phases are marked by a sense of tension which is felt to be integrated with a period in the narration, so that a sense of relief is experienced at its completion. These phenomena may be called "arcs of tension". Chapters are often arranged so that a sense of completion is felt at the end of each, obtained partly from the ending as such, but arcs of tension are often discernible which are resolvable within chapters, while others may transcend them.

Smaller arcs may be resolved within larger, and they may all be bounded by the large-scale pattern or design which appears to be the shape of the work as a whole. Examples of such large-scale designs include: a question-and-answer pattern where the action unfolds the answer to a question posed at the inception of a text, riddle structure, where the action is the solution to the riddle, and the pattern of the quest. Alternatively, the pattern may be merely a design in two or three parts which give balance and aesthetic form to the narrative.

The action may be organised in such a way that there is one line or "strand", which is the sole object of the narrative's attention. [3] More commonly, however, a given narrative will be found to have several strands of action which may lead off at any point or be drawn together. In many works, all the strands will come together at the final resolution of the action.

Finally, the action will permit analysis of its principle of connexion, or "narrative nexus". The phases of the action may be accumulated in a simple "additive" manner. Alternatively, if contingency appears to be an important element, the nexus may be called "causal". In this case, a chain of causation may run through the work from beginning to end. Where the action obtains its principle of coherence from a tight network of spatial features, linguistic patterning, use of symbolism, or a multitude of these, it may be said to exhibit a "correlative" narrative nexus.

Finally, in the case of a work having no obvious nexus at all, its structure may be called "broken". In a significant number of works studied, African narratives proved to be relatively free from experiment with the handling of action. Such works proceed by utilising one main strand dealing with an important part - or the whole - of the life of the protagonist, with few or no subordinate strands of action, with arcs of tension corresponding to internal divisions, and with a narrative nexus which is partly causal and partly additive. Examples of narratives which are structurally simple, in this sense, are: Child of Two Worlds, The African Child, The African, and Climbié. These are all either actual or fictional autobiographies. However, some works display a more complex or self-conscious strategy. Close attention to such works may reveal that analysis of the structuring of the action may lead to a better understanding of the narrative strategy and therefore of the work as a whole.

Things Fall Apart

The action of Things Fall Apart spans the period from the middle of the life of the protagonist, Okonkwo, to its end. The chronology and the development of the action are linear and show the fall of Okonkwo from fame to ignominious death partly through the faults of his own character, and partly through external influences, in particular those brought to Iboland by Europeans. The formal complexity of the work allows it to be compared with that of Classical tragedy, in that both are characterised by the decline and fall of the hero, through the exposure of his hubris. Within this total framework, three phases may be perceived.

The first of these shows Umuofia and Okonkwo before contact: society is controlled by traditional wisdom and custom, and the strong man is able to rise through the exercise of his natural ability. In the second phase the white man comes, bringing an alien religion, government, and commerce. It ends with the ambivalent accident which results in Okonkwo's banishment. The concluding phase presents the return of Okonkwo, and his suicide, the result of his personal attempt to resist the force of change.

The nexus of the narrative is causal. The reader is shown clearly the interaction of the personal and social causes which bring about the downfall of the protagonist.

No Longer at Ease

A similar pattern of causation exists in Achebe's next novel. Again we see an able and fortunate man fall into disgrace, but in this case the end is foreshadowed in the beginning: the large-scale pattern of the work conforms to a question-and-answer design.

As the novel begins, Obi Okonkwo is on trial. After a few pages the action moves back in time five years, and then moves forward again, particularly through the year leading up to the trial, to show the causes, again interrelated, social and personal, or Obi's downfall. The ending is closely related, verbally, to the beginning. The last paragraph reminds us that "The learned judge, as we have seen, could not comprehend how an educated young man and so on and so forth." This indirectly reproduces the speech of the judge on the second page of the work: "I cannot comprehend how a young man of your education and brilliant promise could have done this." However, for the reader, in the meantime, the question has been answered.

This Earth, My Brother

The action of This Earth, My Brother is relatively complex. The work's time span is that of the life of its protagonist from the day after his birth to the day after his death, and plots the process by which he becomes insane. This material, however, is not presented chronologically, but is fragmented, interspersed and juxtaposed. Added to this - mainly authorial narrative, there is also, in intervening chapters each marked 'a' (Chapter 1a, etc.), a first-person direct interior monologue. There are indications that this monologue is the expression of the protagonist's mind in the state of madness: he may have been supposed to have written down these thoughts in a black notebook found among his effects after his death.

The five phases in the authorial narrative comprise: the birth of Amamu (Chapter 1); a group of youthful experiences (Chapters 3, 5, 8 and 11); his first career (Chapter 7); and two phases in his mature life, the 'present' of the novel. The first three 'phases' are so called because they deal with different periods in Amamu's life. The action of the second phase is not continuous, but each of the chapters deals with 'past' events at undifferentiated times in Amamu's youth. In the last two phases, the chapters in each are linked by spatio-temporal indications of continuity. One of the phases (Chapters 2, 4, 6 and 9) deals mainly with Amamu's relationship with his mistress Adisa, although it shows also the effect of this relationship on that with his wife, Alice.

The last phase (Chapters 10, 12, 13, 14 and 15) begins with the return of Alice to the city (which may be identified with a representation of Accra), and a party given to celebrate her return. It is at the end of the party that Amamu first shows signs of psychic disturbance. After the death of his servant's brother at the hands of authority, lawyer Amamu leaves on a pilgrimage to the scene of an important boyhood experience where he experiences a vision, and is found in a completely withdrawn state. He later dies after an unspecified period of time in an institution.

Assuming that the intervening or 'a' chapters are the expression of an insane mind, they might be seen as being properly a subject for psychiatric rather than literary analysis. However, set over against the function of the dyslogic of the associations in these sections are several clusters of thought, some of which are correlated with themes in the principal (i.e. not 'a') chapters.

There are scattered reminiscences of childhood, some of which are clearly intended to recall incidents which are authorially related in the principal chapters. A good example is the stoning of the lunatic priest in Chapter 8. After this incident, the "little boy", who is not named, "was still standing on the corner, the stone he had picked up which he could not cast still in his hand." The narrator of Chapter 8a tells us: "...we... chased the lunatic priest,.."; and then: "I cast down my stone." Here, we may infer the identity of the "little boy" and the first-person narrator of the intervening chapter.

In a similar relationship stand the attempt of the first-person voice of Chapter 1a to recreate imaginatively the experience of his own conception and birth, and the authorial account of the announcement of the birth of Amamu - who is named on this occasion - except that the relationship is suggested in this case by the juxtaposition of the two passages alone.

Another recurrent theme in both parts of the books is the reference to various aspects, particularly to images of corruption, in the Ghana of the book's present. The outstanding example, because of its frequency, is the mention of human excrement, both as a metaphor ("This dunghill") and in description ("Midnight soil removal vans").

Christ is mentioned often in the intervening chapters, in contexts of suffering, martyrdom, betrayal. But by far the most important reference is to an ambivalent female figure.

It is this figure which forms the significant narrative nexus for both parts of the book. In an important passage on pages 57-60, she is developed out of Amamu's cousin Dede, who died when a girl, through a succession of women, culminating in an idealised female figure who possesses some of the attributes of the real Adisa, specifically, black nipples and a certain tooth extracted by a dentist who tried to squeeze her breast. It is a vision of this ideal figure which Amamu makes a pilgrimage to see in his insanity, in the last phase of the book. And it is to the idea of this figure that the voice of the 'a' chapters returns again and again.

This Earth, My Brother is an interesting experiment in which two different narrative situations dealing with similar material are interspersed and juxtaposed; and in which chronological order is interrupted and disorganised. This serves well a work which presents a disturbed mind as the product of a disordered society.

The River Between

Ngugi wa Thiong'o's The River Between is a novel in which clear structuring of the action is an important aspect - the title itself even beginning to suggest this. The story is archetypal: a community is divided in one generation along patriarchal, clan, family, and religious lines into two feuding groups. Members of the younger generation establish communication against this division, and are forced into the conflict of divided loyalties, and finally to ostracism. Spatial features of the novel support this division-communication theme. The two clans live on ridges called Makuyu and Kameno, which are on opposite sides of the river Honia. The river between the ridges, therefore, at the same time divides and joins them.

The action falls into two large phases. The first extends from just before the "second birth" of the protagonist, Waiyaki, to the deaths of Muthoni and of Chege, Waiyaki's father. Although this occupies twelve of the twenty-six chapters, the material is largely expository, at least with regard to the main character. If the curve of the book is seen as being concerned with the rise and fall of Waiyaki, the one major developmental incident in this phase must be seen as influencing, rather than involving him. This is the rebellion, traditional circumcision, and consequent death of Muthoni, the daughter of the Christian patriarch Joshua. The second phase is then set apart by an interval of three or more years, during which Waiyaki has become an admired teacher. The action then concerns his rise to the height of his power, as seen in his hugely successful reception at the tradition-vs-progress meeting in Chapter Eighteen, and then follows his decline through envy and divided loyalty to his eventual expulsion.

The ubiquitous theme of cultural and familial division is worked out through two main strands of action, divided between the two locations mentioned above, the ridges Makuyu and Kameno. In the first large phase of the novel, the stranded pattern is clear. After one chapter introducing the setting, there are four chapters of expository material concerning the Makuyu location and characters, followed by a similar three set in Kameno. The scene returns to the Makuyu setting for one chapter, and then the strands may be seen as being united for the remaining three chapters of the phase. These are the chapters concerned with the rebellion of Muthoni, when she crosses the division from one culture to the other. After her death, we are given the reactions of both sides.

In each strand there is a patriarchal figure. In the Makuyu location it is Chege, who is descended from a line of prophets, and therefore, for the novel, represents traditional values and beliefs. As he is unhonoured by his own peoples, however, his hopes rest in his son Waiyaki. In the Kameno location the elder figure is Joshua, who is a convert and the chief proselytiser of Christianity in the region, and therefore represents alien influences in the value system of the presented world. However, the first phase ends with the death of Chege, thus leaving the stage clear for a conflict between Waiyaki and Joshua, so that a clash between generations is added to the other causes of dissension.

The second large phase describes the rise and fall of Waiyaki, and his relationship with Nyambura, the remaining daughter of Joshua. So the action is divided between the situation of Waiyaki, the continuing efforts of Joshua and the thoughts of Nyambura. As well as these principal strands of action, there are also the machinations of the Kiama, an organisation formed to promote the unity and purity of the tribe and to resist alien influences, and of Kamau, Waiyaki's rival.

All the strands of action are brought together in the last two scenes. Waiyaki goes to warn Joshua of some danger, but is repulsed by him. However his presence in the Kameno camp leads to a charge being brought against him of having broken his oath to the Kiama. He is torn between three loyalties, each of which arises out of one strand of the action: loyalty to the tribe, as represented by the Kiama; to society at large, which it is his dream to unify; and to Nyambura, whom he loves, but who represents, for the people of the Kiama, the enemy. He hesitates and is lost.

Les Bouts de bois de Dieu

In Les Bouts de bois de Dieu, the action spanned is the course and effects of a strike along the length of the Dakar-Niger railway in 1947-1948. The particular locations are three major towns at significant points on the line: Dakar and Bamako at either end, and Thiès near Dakar. This means that the action involves points eight hundred miles apart in space, and five months apart in time. However, it is organised in three major strands, one for each of the centres. Each of these strands is made up of many smaller strands, concerning one character or a group of characters.

Probably not much is to be gained by too detailed an analysis of the stranding of the action of God's Bits of Wood. The novel belongs to the genre of the historical novel of the type of Germinal, say, which also shows the causes and means of a large-scale historical movement at the level of the particular. What is interesting is to see the ways in which the author links one sphere of action to another and the ways in which the whole action is integrated. Clearly it is a major problem in a work as large as this to create a sense of unity from a multitude of strands of action.

A narrative nexus is achieved by several means. Firstly, and obviously, all the events are part of the same action , in the sense that all the actors are involved in the same enterprise: the railway strike and its effects. This quasi-historical unity, however, does not necessarily produce artistic unity: the contrary is likely to be the case, due to the multitude of small actions which make up the greater one.

The emergence of Bakayoko as protagonist is clearly a unifying device. As principal executive of the strike, he travels to each of the centres, and is the main negotiator in each of the major confrontations with management. Also, he has a family in Bamako and a girl who loves him in Dakar. The action presents the consciousness of Bakayoko, allowing the reader to perceive the conflict between the man as an individual and as a leader in the struggle. His importance is further enhanced by his late appearance as an actor after a long period of preparation by the foreshadowing of his entrance by the other personae. In this way greater significance is added to his status by the effect of this suspense.

A different means of integration is found in certain linking devices and sections. It is interesting to discover that the first three sections are apparently not simultaneous. The first BAMAKO - introduces the Bamako characters in the context of a meeting at which the decision is taken to begin the strike. It ends with a paragraph depicting the collective unease which is felt as strike is anticipated. When the next part - THIES - begins, the first conversation reported reveals that it is the morning after the strike meeting there. The action of Part II is then continuous until its last section (pp. 52 - 54), a linking passage which again focuses on the collective, giving a broader perspective of the strike as it continues. In this section, general trends are summarised, rather than particular scenes presented.

Whereas in Part II the events narrated - a battle between strikers and soldiers - are consistent with the opening phase of a strike, those of the Part III - DAKAR - reveal rather the extremity of people who have been living through very difficult circumstances for some time. The main happening is the desperate, irrational killing of a pet ram, which is then eaten. This results in a clash with the police. Part III then ends with a general view; but whereas that at the end of the second part showed the ways in which people continued to find food, in the present case it is more a question of moral survival. The narrator attempts to portray the draining emotional effect of having no work and no means.

One third of the book is now complete and so is the expository material. Linking devices, where they exist, now indicate that the scenes in each of the three strands may be thought of as occurring at about the same time: the events are characteristic of a continuing, determined strike: the trial of a strike-breaker, for example, unofficially, by his fellow-workers, in Part IV BAMAKO. Also in this fourth part a leading character, Fa Keita is arrested. This action is taken up in Part IX, the next in Bamako, when we see this character arrive at an internment camp.

The action of the fifth part returns to the confrontation between strikers and police in Dakar. This develops into a full-scale battle, and results in a big fire. This completes the part of the action which relates uniquely to the Dakar scene. Part V ends with Alioune saying: "We must wait for the results of the meeting at Thiès ...". This leads naturally to a part set in Thiès, although not directly to the meeting for which we must wait until the end of Part VI. This suggests that the events which lead up to the meeting are more or less simultaneous with those of the preceding part. In the course of the later one are several adverbial phrases which suggest a slower pace: "The long days of the strike passed slowly ..."; "... a few days after this conversation..." In the middle of Part VI we are told: "The strike had lasted now for more than forty days, and the management had not even consented to talk with them, so there could be no hope of an early return to work." So that all the events of Part VI, except the meeting in the last section (pp. 236 - 252), must precede the events of the end of Part V, in the chronological sense. It is for this meeting that Bakoyoko returns and thus enters the action.

Part VII is one which links two main centres, as it deals with the March of the Women from Thiès to Dakar. The last section of this Part describes the arrival of the women in the city.

When the scene changes to the location of the Dakar characters in Part VIII, the chronological point of this strand as the scene begins is anterior to the arrival of the women; the conversation of the characters anticipates it. When the arrival is depicted again, it is seen from point of view of the Dakar characters.

The climax may be seen as occurring - appropriately - after this joining of forces, at the meeting in Dakar at which Bakoyoko's oratory carries the day, bringing about a general strike. There is also a certain amount of winding-up of the action with regard to certain individuals who are not seen again. For example, Bakoyoko resolves his relationship with N'Deye Touti, his girl in Dakar, before he begins his journey back to Bamako. There is also a link to the next Part. Bakoyoko is told that Konate has been arrested; and we see him in the following chapter arrive at the detention camp.

After much closely related material, the scene of torture and humiliation at the Camp in Part IX seems to be a dislocation of the action. However, the arrest of Fa Keita has been presented, and the arrest of Konate reported. Furthermore, when the main action returns, it is linked with: "At almost the same moment ...", which heralds the end of the strike. The next section presents the return of the prisoners to their homes, and the tying-up of the Bamako strands. The Epilogue draws together some of the Thiès strands, particularly that which is concerned with the Europeans there.

Les Bouts de bois de Dieu responds to the challenge of its large material field by effectively handling an action which is many-faceted and complex. Apart from the central personae and single main concern, it constructs its narrative nexus by the utilisation of a technique of stranding which displays a high degree of integration.


1. Aristotle, The Poetics. E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel (London: Edward Arnold, 1927). R. S. Crane, "The Concept of Plot and the Plot of Tom Jones", from Critics and Criticism: Ancient and Modern, ed. Crane (Chicago: U. Chicago Press, 1952). Norman Friedman, "Forms of the Plot", Journal of General Education, VIII, 1955. Robert Scholes and Robert Kellogg, "Plot in Narrative", in The Nature of Narrative (London: OUP, 1966).

2. J. Hillis Miller: "The fundamental dimension of literature is time." "Three Problems of Fictional Form: First-Person Narration in David Copperfield and Huckleberry Finn", in English Institute, Experience in the Novel (N. Y.: Columbia Univ. Press, 1968). Roman Ingarden, The Cognition of the Literary Work of Art, trans. R. A. Crowley and K. R. Olson (Evanston: Northwestern U.P., 1973), pp. 94-145. Philip Stevick, "The Theory of Fictional Chapters", Western Humanities Review, XX (1966).

3. Eberhard Lämmert, Bauformen des Erzählens (Stüttgart: Metzlersche, 1972), pp. 33f., 39, 43-45.

4. Mugo Gatheru, Child of Two Worlds (London: Routledge, 1964). Camara Laye, L'Enfant noir (Paris: Plon, 1953). William Conton, The African (London: Heinemann, 1960). Bernard Dadié, Climbié (Paris: Séghers, 1956).

New: 5 August 1996 | Now: 20 December, 2018