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Michaud 1 Myranda Michaud ENG 259 March 31, 2013 Dr.

Hodgkins The Issues of a Masculine Perspective in Chinua Achebes Things Fall Apart When writing Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe did not intend to draw negative attention to the gender hierarchies within the story. The mission of his novel, on the other hand, was to draw awareness to the detrimental effects of European invasion on an already functioning society. As Rhonda Cobham points out in Problems of Gender and History in the Teaching of Things Fall Apart, Westernparticularly femalereaders have trouble reading the novel without recognizing the state of women in Igbo culture. We live in an age where violence and the demand for womens rights are constant features of our public rhetoric (Cobham 511). Consequently, even if the reader is tolerant of distinct cultural differences, it is difficult for readers with a Western bias to fully accept the female condition presented within the novel because the female voice is never heard. This presents a major problem for Achebes intended goal. Achebe depicts a society that suffered and, therefore, deteriorated as a consequence of colonization. However, the Western readers bias may be a distraction from this larger picture. To understand Achebes goal, readers must acknowledge the error in Western bias when reading African literature. Furthermore, readers must differentiate between the Igbo clans values and Okonkwos, considering whether Okonkwos beliefs represent the entire society. Ultimately, in defending pre-colonial Africa, Chinua Achebe gives readers a narrow view of the realities of Igbo culture; he writes strictly from a male perspective, therefore, disregarding the female condition and their oppressed state within the gender hierarchy of the Igbo society. Before examining the state of Igbo females as portrayed by Achebe, it is important to understand how femininity is perceived within the novel. The reader is repeatedly reminded that femininity correlates with failure, imperfection, and weakness. Okonkwo, the protagonist, is preoccupied with the idea of being masculine, dominating his inferiors to assert his masculine authority. Cobham quotes from the text when she states, [Okonkwos] most immediate point of male reference, his father, is described by the society as agbala, a word that couldmean a man who had taken no title, but which also meant woman (514). Okonkwos father, because he

Michaud 2 was indolent and had no desire to become a leader, was considered feminine, and, therefore, Okonkwo strived to be his complete opposite. Sensitivity, a characteristic of Okonkwos father, was seen as a feminine flaw. Okonkwo displayed contradictory characteristics; he was violent and dominating. He built a charactersome may say that it was even a guiseto disassociate himself from the negative qualities of femininity. As Okonkwos circumstancespredominantly regarding his fatherdiffered from that of others, it is a misinterpretation of the novel to state that Okonkwo is a model representation of all traditional Igbo men. It is true that Okonkwo was considered the greatest wrestler and warrior alive (Achebe 118) and, therefore, was held in high esteem within the society, but, on the other hand, Okonkwos situation was subjective. His fathers idleness caused him to become obsessed with masculinity. In the rhetoric of our age we would say that both Okonkwo and his creator are concerned with the construction of a personal, in this case masculine, identity through which to mediate their connections to past, present and future communities (Cobham 513). Readers must recognize that Okonkwos construction of personal identity is not entirely representative of the Igbo culture as a whole. While male dominance was a part of Igbo culture, Okonkwos obsessive nature, fervently hating all things feminine, was not: Okonkwo sees tenderness as incompatible with masculinity, viewing marriage as yet another social situation in which mans worth is measured by his ability to control others through superior physical strength. Yet the reader is made aware of the ways in which such notions of male prerogative are qualified by the community. Okonkwos response to the almost simultaneous deaths of Ndulue and his wife Ozoemena dramatizes the gap between his personal code and that of the clan as a whole. (Cobham 514) Although Okonkwo rejects the equality demonstrated in Ndulue and Ozoemenas marriage, clearly, this mutual relationship was accepted in Igbo society. Therefore, it can be determined that Okonkwos ideas regarding femininity and masculinity were, to an extent, his own. Male authority persisted within the culture; however, OkonkwosAchebesdepiction of male authority was an extreme example. Achebes masculine perspective of the female condition within Igbo society potentially detracts from his overall intentions for writing the novel, especially for Western, female readers. It is difficult to fully grasp the hierarchies and functions of the culture without knowing both male and female perspectives. While it is not uncommon for authors to narrate from an

Michaud 3 individual viewpoint, in the case of Things Fall Apart, understanding the full female condition would help Achebe in achieving his goal. One sees the consequence of this selective process in one situation in the novel which in my opinion would have been richer had Achebe paid closer attention to womens political structures within Igbo society (Cobham 519). Furthermore, as Cobham points out, we only get to know one of Okonkwos wives, even though he has three (517). Within the context of the novel, the wives do not interact with one another; they do not share thoughts or feelings. One might hesitantly stand up for another to Okonkwo, but even that is a rare occurrence. In First Things First: Problems of a Feminist Approach to African Literature, Kirsten Holst Petersen describes Achebes negative depiction of women: Achebes much praised objectivity with regard to the merits and flaws of traditional Ibo society becomes less than praiseworthy seen in this light: his traditional women are happy, harmonious members of the community, even when they are repeatedly beaten and barred from any say in the communal decision making process and constantly reviled in sayings and proverbs. It would appear that in traditional wisdom behaving like a woman is to behave like an inferior being. (253) It is difficult to determine whether or not women accepted their roles as inferiors. There is only one incident where a woman resists her husbands authorityand even then, the story is told by men. During the communal ceremonies, the case of Mgbafo is told. Mgbafo, along with her brothers help, ran away from her abusive husband. My sister [Mgbafo] lived with [her husband] for nine years. During those years no single day passed in the sky without his beating the woman (Achebe 91). Clearly, this woman was suffering under the oppression of her husband who had nearly killed her several times. The verdict of the case, however, was that she had to return to him. While Mgbafo had no say in the outcome of her casethe communal ceremonies were only for men (87)this proves that there were tensions within society regarding the condition of women before colonization. Achebes negative portrayal of femininity correlates with the way women are physically treated within the novel. Okonkwo ruled his household with a heavy hand. His wives, especially the youngest, lived in perpetual fear of his fiery temper, and so did the children (13). Okonkwo continuously asserted his masculine power over his wives, sometimes just as an outlet for his own frustrations. Without further argument Okonkwo gave her a sound beating and left her and her only daughter weeping. Neither of the other wives dared to interfere beyond an occasional

Michaud 4 and tentative, It is enough, Okonkwo, pleaded from a reasonable distance (38). The other wives did not dare to interfere during Okonkwos beatings because they had no power over the situation. They feared that they would also be beaten if they were overly involved. Clearly, physical abuse within marriages was a part of Igbo culture; Achebe depicts several different occurrences where the husband beats his wives. As readers are continually reminded of the negativity associated with being feminine, it becomes evident that the women were living in an oppressed state. They had no rightsnot even to their own childrenand if they did not submit to their husbands demands, they were justifiably beaten into submission. When Okonkwo states the he has heard of tribes where a mans children belong to his wife, another Igbo man replies, That cannot beYou might as well say that the woman lies on top of the man when they are making the children (74). Undoubtedly, there was a distinct hierarchy of the genders within Igbo culture; the men dominated the women. While it is important for readers to try to empathize and understand the cultural differences, it cannot be assumed that Igbo women naturally accepted their positions within society because we never hear their voice. Although Achebe provides several examples of female oppression, it must be stated that there were instances within the novel where female characters were acknowledged. The relationship between Ekwefi and Ezinma, for example, is a portrayal of the bonds between mother and daughter. Ezinma was an only child and the center of her mothers world (76). Even Okonkwo shows favoritism towards these two female characters. Also, the marriage of Ndulue and Ozoemena, as mentioned before, is evidence that equality between the sexes could, in fact, exist to some extent. It was always said that Ndulue and Ozoemena had one mind, said Obeirika. I remember when I was a young boy there was a song about them. He could not do anything without telling her (68). While these rare occurrences give insight to a different aspect of Igbo society, the womens voice remains unheard. Overall, especially from the Okonkwos viewpoint, the female characters within Achebes novel remain oppressed at the hands of their husbands. In the end, the state of the female characters is secondary to the state of the Igbo culture after colonization. After the colonists arrive, the Igbo culture begins to change; the men lose the masculine instinct to go to war. According to Okonkwo, his people become feminized: The greatest obstacle in Umuofia, Okonkwo thought bitterly, is that coward, Egonwanne. His sweet tongue can change fire into cold ash. When he speaks, he moves

Michaud 5 our men to impotence. If they if they had ignored his womanish wisdom five years ago, we would not have come to this. (200) Again, femininity is seen as a negative characteristic. It is insinuated that if the men of Umuofia held on to their masculine instincts of violence and bloodshed, they would have prevailed, defeating the colonists and preserving Igbo culture. The men change after colonization, however; they become feminized because they refuse to go to war. Not only is femininity perceived as negative, it is to blame for the destruction of traditional Igbo culture. Overall, Achebes depiction is based solely from a masculine perspective, but, in order to fully understand the purpose and meaning of Achebes novel, we must have access to both sidesthe male and the femaleof the story. As Petersen stated, it is only just that women should have the last say in the discussion about their own situation, as, undoubtedly, we shall (254). While Achebe argues that the Igbo culture was, in fact, civilized before colonization, it is evident that, according to Achebe, women within the culture were suffering under the oppression of their masculine superiors. This becomes a problem for many Western readers. As the novel may be intended to draw awareness to the detrimental effects of colonization, Western, female readers may see it as a call for help from the oppressed women if the Igbo culture. Conversely, readers must also consider that female oppression is, or was, existing in many cultureseven in Western societies. Although womens rights and feminine equality are not Achebes goals in writing Things Fall Apart, this does not mean that women in Igbo culture would not eventually take a stance to achieve equality. Their time would come. Achebe is obviously opting for fighting cultural imperialism, and in the course of what the womens issue was not only ignored a fate which would have allowed it to surface when the time was ripe it was conscripted in the service of dignifying the past and restoring African self-confidence (Petersen 253). Therefore, it is in error that Western readers regard the female state within the novel as a larger problem than the precarious state of the Igbo society as a result from colonization.

Michaud 6 Works Cited Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. 1959. New York: Anchor Books, 1994. Print. Cobham, Rhonda. Problems of Gender and History in the Teaching of Things Fall Apart. Kunapipi 6.3 (1984): 251-254. Petersen, Kirsten Holst. First Things First: Problems of a Feminist Approach to African Literature. Lindfors, Bernth, ed. Approaches to Teaching Achebe's Things Fall Apart. New York: Modern Language Association, 1991.