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Centre and periphery in Achebe's novels

The Literary Half-Yearly, vol. XXI no. 1, January, 1980

G. M. Gillard

Each of Chinua Achebe's novels may usefully be seen as being organised around an opposition of centrality and periphery.1 This principle conveniently unites several different aspects of the works, including the space of the action, the relationship between the protagonist and other characters, the values represented, and even the narrative situation itself. In each case there is a movement from a situation in which the main character is presented figuratively and sympathetically as being at centre of the world of the novel to one in which he is in some way driven out.

Ibo society underwent great changes in the period from the time of the author's grandfather to the coup of 1966 – about 100 years – and it is this period which is the temporal setting for Achebe's four novels. Although he did not write them in historical order, as it were, it is possible to place them in a chronological order in relation to the time of the worlds that they present. In each narrative there is a simple character who is submitted to the test of the pressure is brought to bear by his particular moment of history. In each case the protagonist falls a victim to these pressures.  Okonkwo kills himself, Ezeulu goes mad, Obi Okonkwo presumably goes to prison, and Obili fails to remain uncorrupted and to get elected, and is also badly beaten. In each of these exemplary lives, a particular view is being presented of the relationship between an individual and society.

In Things Fall Apart the protagonist is the warrior-hero, the leader of a society organised by small village groups. In its constant vigilance and preparedness for war and other such incursions, the families and tribes of such a society will look to its strong men who are capable of making a quick decision and standing by it. But this hero becomes redundant when the society develops more complex relationships between families, villages, and tribes, and then between the ideologies of people from different racial groups. As the need grows for administrators and bureaucrats trained to understand and respond to complex situations, the warrior-hero's decisive and potentially aggressive mode of action is no longer appropriate. He is now a liability rather than an asset to the social group, which will no longer encourage nor support him, thus causing his kind to tend to disappear. This is the scenario of the novel.

In the world of Things Fall Apart, village life is circumscribed and localised. Many events in the first part of the action centre on the obi of Okonkwo, while the nearby ilo is the locus of the wrestling matches and egwugwu ceremonies. Iguedo is in turn united with the villages of the clan, which one may imagine clustering around it. At the actual physical centre of Umuofia, we are told, is the shrine of the war-medicine agadi-nwayi, in a position which symbolises the importance of the power of the clan in relation to others, and of the belief system which helps to maintain that power. Thus, the action of the first part takes place in relation to a firm 'centre' which 'will hold'.

After the killing, Okonkwo is exiled to a village of his mother's clan, so that the tight relationship at the centre of the narrative lessons; the action extends to a wider field. The adequacy of the narrative in continuing to deal with both spheres of the action is decreased. The narrative point of observation rests with Okonkwo in exile for the most part, and with him the reader has an imperfect sense of what is occurring at home. In this way, narrative function is congruent with the ideology which may easily be abstracted from the work: that the centralising control of the traditional way of life of breaking down. When hero returns home in the third phase of the novel, it is not to the home that he knew. European culture and Christianity specifically have created another polarity towards which the villages are turning. This is shown by the change in the spiritual relationship of the church to the village. When the missionaries first come to Mbaino, they are given a piece of land in the Evil Forest, not in the village, and in a place where it is expected that they will soon be killed by evil spirits. However, neither time that they have established themselves and have not died, the Evil Forest has begun to change its status and become part of the human world. By the time Okonkwo returns to his clan, there is a courthouse and prison in Umuofia, and life in the villages is tending to revolve around these new centres. Even the destruction of the church by the egwugwu does not change the situation; it is clear by the end that European domination will be maintained.

Apart from these broad spatial relationships, there are some details of particular importance. Okonkwo's reception-hut and the village arena achieve significance through the narrative as such: many events are shown as taking place in these locations. Other places set apart by a combination of narrative situation, tone, and atmosphere are, for example, the silk-cotton tree, the egwugwu house, and the caves.  These are important loci in the lives of the characters, and the linguistic means by which they are rendered makes this clear. When the egwugwu appear to judge the case of the wife-beater, they are presented for the most part from the point of view of the spectators, from within the context of the belief system, and in an atmosphere of awe and respect. When the spirits withdraw, for example, they do not merely re-enter the spirit house, but return to their 'underground home'.

Although the egwugwu house itself is described authorially, the narrative situation slides over into the figural: 'The ancestral spirits of the clan were abroad. The metal gong beat continuously now, and the flute, shrill and powerful, floated on the chaos.' (p. 80) The position of the house, facing away from the arena is important:

The spirits of the ancestors, just emerged from the earth, greeted themselves in their esoteric language. The egwugwu house into which they emerged faced the forest, away from the crowd, who saw only its many-coloured patterns and drawings done by specially chosen women at regular intervals. These women never saw the inside of the hut. (p. 80)

The mystery of the spirits is maintained by the positioning of the heart, both for the villages and therefore also for the reader. This mysteriousness, which applies equally the other features mentioned, is necessary to support on the one hand the belief system of the personae, and on the other the reader's imaginative involvement in it. The arrangement of the hut connotes a society with an established set of rules, rituals and services which demands participation of all its members, and around which village life revolves.

The initial tension in each of the novels between centre and periphery is manifested in the successful maintenance of a balance between certain elements. In Things Fall Apart Achebe also presents a view of a society which shows both some of its strengths and some of its weaknesses. On the positive side there is the strong, fruitful continuance of traditions, seen in such attributes as the use of proverbs, which seems to give a strong sense of shared experience to the members of the group. There is also a traditional kind of restraint which helps to balance the rashness of the warrior. This is combined with the hierarchy of titles and elders which balances out wealth and allows maturity and wisdom to guide the life of the tribe.2 On the other hand, it is this very conservatism which is one of the causes of the village's 'falling-apart'. The society of the novel is unable to adapt to the encroachment of Western culture, and it begins to decay.

Firstly its traditional leaders are alienated. When Okonkwo kills the court messenger the villagers turn their backs. It is because of his isolation, of his sense that his values are no longer shared by other elders, that he submits himself to the shame of suicide. Secondly, the structure of the family begins to break down under the pressures of the new religion. When Okonkwo's son Nwoye joins the Christian group, he is ostracised by his father. Thirdly, the disorientation of values in the village is displayed emblematically by the reorientation of space. The centre of village life is no longer the ilo, not the shrines of the gods, but the new church, the courthouse, and the road to the capital.

The negative aspects of society which contribute to its fragmentation are perhaps best seen as being embodied by Okonkwo himself. It is possible to see the society presented in Things Fall Apart as being balanced between masculine and feminine virtues and between communalism and individualism.3 If the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves stands for decisive, masculine action, then the Earth Goddess may be seen as standing for compromise, and deliberated and sensitive lines of action. Whereas it is the Oracle which deals with the difficult problem of the presence of Ikemefuna in the village by issuing a demand that he be summarily killed, the Goddess is identified with the honorary kingship between him and Ngoye and therefore Okonkwo, which should have dissuaded the letter from taking part in the killing.

The taking of titles may be seen as a masculine virtue, as it is associated with power and the acquisition of property; but it is men of title, Ezeulu and Obierika, who advise Okonkwo not to help in the execution, on the grounds that the boy calls him father, and it would therefore be an offence against the Goddess. They may be seen as embodying the principle of balance or restraint in the society, which is not also shared by the protagonist of the narrative due to his particular personal characteristics and history.

Another case of balance is demonstrated in the special organisation of the book which in turn exemplifies one aspect of the society. The fact that Ibo society is exogamous means that an individual will have two family groups from which he may derive support. Whereas Okonkwo receives positive reinforcement from his own clan, Umuofia, for his ability in the realms of war and personal achievement, it is to his mother's clan, Mbanta, that he turns for mercy and love in his time of greatest trouble. But he then returns unchanged from his exile, expecting to find the same system of values as before, and succumbs to the unexpected new reality.

Again in Arrow of God one finds a main actor who represents at the same time a strength of the society in which he lives and a weakness. Ezeulu is the embodiment of Ibo society's respect for tradition, ritual and tested forms of administration and decision-making. But it is also clearly showing that it is precisely its rigid adherence to conventional forms which causes a critical difficulty for himself and for the people to whom he is responsible, and results finally in his downfall.

And again the organisation of space plays an important role in the creation of the work's meaning. In Things Fall Apart Okonkwo's exile was involved with two significant dramatic concerns: with the emblematic demonstration of the feminine alternative in the social structure and with the necessity for the removal of the warrior from the transitional society. In Arrow of God there are again two worlds: the world of traditional African power and that of the colonisers. The reader is invited to enter each of these worlds and to become familiar not only with the rituals and conflicts within each but also with the way in which each views the other. The removal of the protagonist from his own sphere and his detention in the other can then be seen as the turning-point of the action. Ezeulu's inability, because of his imprisonment, to eat the sacrificial yams and therefore mark the beginning of the new year at what is really the appropriate time, is the narrative nexus which conjoins the two worlds and brings about the denouement of the action.

The meaning of Ezeulu's decision to take this line of action is presented on two levels, which are also two aspects of his personality and function: the psychological and the divine.  As Okonkwo was motivated partly by psychopathology and partly by fate represented by his personal chi, so is Ezeulu characterised partly by a sense of his role as high priest of the god Ulu, and partly as an ambitious, self-seeking man. Like the warrior Okonkwo, the priest Ezeulu has an important function to play in traditional society but each of them obsessively acts his role past the point of its optimal functioning for the good of that society. Furthermore, in both cases social values are in a state of flux, caused by internal pressures as well as external influence. This influence is much the same in each narrative, except that in Arrow of God the power of the Europeans is more negatively on display, whereas in Things Fall Apart it is distant and disguised by the church. Internal conflicts also have more to do with power in the later work, where it is a question of who will rule and how much executive power he will have, while in the earlier the differences of opinion are about particular points of policy, such as the question of the alienation of twins and the identity of the executioner of the gods' orders.

In No Longer at Ease the protagonist does not so much move between the two worlds of the narrative as live in both of them. He is a 'been-to': from village origins and maintaining his close ties with it through the Umofia Progressive Union, but educated in England, and consequently working out his life at least partly through an English value system. This synthesis should produce a rich experience but it produces only confusion.

The members of the Umofia Progressive Union have financed Obi Okonkwo's education in the hope that he will make use of his knowledge of the white man's ways to defend more effectively his African heritage. In this he is like the son Ezeulu sends among the Christians so as better to know how to resist them. In this case, of course, Obi takes on not only the knowledge of the white man but also his values. In particular, he comes to accept the new rate of exchange, the substitution of money values for personal relationships. Whereas under the traditional system bribery is sanctioned and non-harmful because it is controlled by the limited nature of the means of exchange itself, under the capitalist influence the controls are removed, and the acquisition of property becomes an end in itself.

However, Obi's taking bribes is in fact a symptom rather than the disease itself. It is an act performed for no clear motive in a confused state of mind, the confusion produced in Obi of the different and conflicting pressures which he experiences. His connection with traditional social structures is iconically display in the tithe that he pays monthly to the Umofia Progressive Union. This not only symbolises the tie which links him to his personal and social past and is an acknowledgement of his acceptance of the power of the members of the union to continue to influence his destiny, but also, in the practical sphere, deprives him of money of which she has a desperate need. His wish to marry Clara on the other hand, displays his freedom from the imperatives of institutional taboos. Between these two extremes stands the figure of his father, who embodies aspects of both traditional mores and of the Christian ethic.

Confused and torn between the two value systems and between conflicting demands on his resources, Obi is not able to provide Clara with the emotional support which needs, nor is he able readily to provide the money for her abortion. In his confusion he begins to take bribes, as if unaware of what he is doing. The book ends with the restatement of the opening motif: the ability of the other characters to understand Obi's motivation. This apparently crude structuring does at least have the effect of focusing on the most important element in the book: the confusion in Obi's mind. Unable to make the transition from traditional to European values, he is literally caught out and is about to become the white man's version of the osu: a man with a criminal record.

In the first three of his novels Achebe presents situations which are placed in the recent past of Nigeria. In each of these works, the implicit claim is being made that the man and the moment are capable of being completely understood, that all the important aspects of this predicament have been delineated and the reasons for his ultimate downfall have been shown. In each case the structure of the action is closed by this fall. In his latest novel, A Man of the People, Achebe sets the action in the present, and is perhaps for this reason that the narrative is open-ended. The main actor is still alive and could be capable of further development, and the society presented is at the end of one era and therefore at the beginning of another. Nevertheless, the same tone prevails as is found at the end of the earlier works. Despite this general sense of openness, one feels in the last pages of the book that a point of stasis has been reached. And as a result of his misadventures the protagonist appears to have lost his desire to change either the world or himself, and his now cynical view is likely to be maintained. Perhaps in this last novel one could say that it is not so much the case that the main actor's values are not central to the society as that is no longer clear where such a centre might be.

It has been shown that in all his longer narrative works Achebe places his protagonist in a conflict of some kind produced partly by a collision of value systems and partly by a disparity between the individual's needs and those of society. Without oversimplification, Achebe delineates the factors that have formed and reformed the patterns of his fictive Ibo society, and the effect of these reformations, particularly as shown in cases of representative figures. As he writes himself: 'The success of Ibo culture was the balance between material and spiritual.'4 His novels examine creatively the results of this balance being upset. In each case the centrifugal force of change throws the main character out of a position central to the society and its more conservative values and into one where, in the terms of those values, he is an outcast.


1. Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (London: Heinemann, 1958); No Longer at Ease (London: Heinemann, 1960); Arrow of God (London: Heinemann, 1964, 2nd ed. 1974); A Man of the People (London: Heinemann, 1966).

2. Achebe deals with the tendency of title-taking to distribute wealth, in a discussion which has been published in Karen L. Morell, In Person: Achebe, Awoonor, and Soyinka (Seattle: U. Washington Press, 1975), p. 42.

3. J. Z. Kronenfeld, 'The "Communalistic" African and the "Individualistic" Westerner: Some comments on misleading generalizations in Western criticism of Soyinka and Achebe,' Research in African Literatures, 6, 2 (Fall 1975), pp. 199-225.

4. Chinua Achebe, 'The role of the writer in a new nation,' repr. in G. D. Killam, African Writers on African Writing (London: Heinemann, 1973), p. 11.

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