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The Tragic Necessity of Assimilation

by Jacob Kelly

Historians and scientists alike have agreed that the ability to adapt to one’s surroundings is an essential skill in the survival of any organism, singular or in a group. This adaptation can be rather simple if the change occurring is gradual and comes with warning, but it becomes significantly more difficult when the change is sudden and against the natural order. In the case of colonized peoples, though their individual experiences vary, they generally find themselves cornered by a foreign body and left with little to no agency. When a more powerful group of people invades a region that is unable to adequately defend itself, the people of this region have merely two options: assimilate or die. Perhaps this is a false dichotomy to draw, or an oversimplification of the matter, but at its core, this is the case. Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe understood this reality intimately through his family’s experiences and believed that while the preservation of culture and tradition was invaluable and important, assimilation was and still remains a necessity for many people, colonized or otherwise oppressed. In Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart, through the theoretical frameworks of new historicism and post-colonial criticism, Achebe explores the dynamics between the colonized and the colonizers in the specific case of the Igbo tribe in order to demonstrate the ability to adapt as a necessary skill for survival.

Achebe lays down a strong foundation for the reader to understand Igbo culture throughout the text in order to properly convey the drastic changes that occur amongst the people’s lives post-colonization, establishing a clear sense of before and after. In describing the religious beliefs of the Igbo, he writes “‘It is not our custom to fight for our gods,' said one of them. 'Let us not presume to do so now. If a man kills the sacred python in the secrecy of his hut, the matter lies between him and the god. We did not see it’” (Achebe 113). It is evident through the actions and words of nearly every character in the text that religion plays a significant role in the lives of the Igbo. In the community of Umuofia, where the protagonist Okonkwo initially holds a position of power, there is no separation between religion and government. All aspects of life are controlled by these strong, religious beliefs and values. For this reason, when the Europeans come and spread Christianity throughout the region, so much is affected. Researcher of African literature Clayton Mackenzie elaborates on these changes, commenting:

At one time an integral weave in the fabric of clan life, the indigenous religious order has abruptly become remote and distant. It is now located in a schemata of parallel activities in which the divinities of an ordered universe and the mortals of an ordered world function independently, avoiding interference in each other's affairs and linked only by a respectful cordiality of verbal oblation on the part of the traditional worshipper. (5)
Mackenzie clearly agrees that Things Fall Apart is a work of post-colonial criticism, in that with this passage, he highlights the dissonance between how the Igbo were and what they have become after the colonizers appeared. As a means of survival, the people of Umuofia have had to sacrifice much of their religion and culture, which in turn meant sacrificing their systems of conflict resolution, education, and other institutions. However, Ode Ogede points out that not all Igbo people were able to assimilate so easily. One of Umuofia’s leaders and the novel’s protagonist, Okonkwo, was so stubborn in his beliefs that assimilation could not be a reality for him. Ogede explains, “The Igbos have a complex rather than a one-dimensional view of the world. But hero Okonkwo doesn’t see life in its intrinsic constitutive dualities, in its binary oppositions that require a delicate balancing act of negotiation” (15). Ogede understands that most of the Igbo valued their culture dearly, however, they were still able to adapt. As a leader, as well as a man who has felt the need to prove himself since birth, Okonkwo cannot give in with such ease. Okonkwo at times even goes against his own cultural and religious norms in order to prove his own personal ideology, showing how his likeliness to adapt is even lower because he wouldn’t even adapt for his own people, children, family, let alone a foreign group. He was too rigid and stubborn in his beliefs for even his own people. He could never submit to new beliefs, as submission meant weakness to him and he could not be weak before his people, which inevitably lead to his tragic downfall. Both Okonkwo’s inability to adapt as well as his people’s submission to change prove assimilation to be a necessity for colonized people.

In addition to establishing the cultural shifts and sacrifices made by the Igbo, Achebe also demonstrates shifts in power structures in Umuofia to further prove the significant effects of colonization and how its victims are forced into assimilation. One instance in which power shifts in the village is the Oracle’s loss of significance after the arrival of the Europeans. Before colonization, the Oracle’s words were highly valued in the community, particularly in the case of war. Achebe writes, “[There] were indeed occasions when the Oracle had forbidden Umuofia to wage a war. If the clan had disobeyed the Oracle they would surely have been beaten, because their dreaded agadi-nwayi would never fight what the Ibo call a fight of blame” (9). It is evident that in the Igbo’s pre-colonized way of life, the Oracle held great power and influence over the community and played a critical role in the decision-making process. Mackenzie elaborates on the significance of the Oracle within the text, writing “After this, the notion of the traditional ‘Oracle,’ so strong hitherto, disappears without a trace from the novel. It is never again mentioned, or even intimated. There are many opportunities when it could have been” (Mackenzie 5). The sudden disappearance of the Oracle in the text can be interpreted as symbolic of what often happens to colonized people, in that large aspects of their lives can be taken away in an instant and fade into being only a distant memory, called upon only in moments of painful nostalgia. Ogede analyzes the significance of the Oracle in the text from a different perspective, instead focusing on Okonkwo’s disobedience of the Oracle’s words versus those of the colonizers. He comments, “It is the view of some critics that Okonkwo acts in the same spirit when he obeys an order from the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves and participates in the execution of Ikemefuna in defiance of advice from his loyal friend Obierika and then more insistently from the community elder Ezeudu” (Ogede 35). When Okonkwo ignores the Oracle’s warnings and participates in the execution of Ikemefuna, there is no direct consequence. The Igbo are a people of respect and conflict resolution, not justice and legal punishment. Though Okonkwo is shamed for taking part in the killing, he is not truly punished. However, when he later raises a weapon to the Europeans, he is imprisoned and tortured for his actions. Ogede understands that the shift in relevance of the Oracle represents a much greater shift in the sources of power for the Igbo in Umuofia and a new justice system altogether. This analysis can provide for further evidence of the claim that Things Fall Apart is a new historic, post-colonial critical work of literature that emphasizes the forced necessity of assimilation for colonized people and the tragedy they face is they do not assimilate.

Achebe, as a post-colonial critic, depicts the process of colonization in an honest, brutal way that reveals the colonizers to be cold, unsympathetic people who do not view the Igbo as valued human lives. In order to properly set this up though, the culture and lifestyle of the Igbo must be clearly established in order to fully demonstrate the extent of the changes that take place. In doing this, Achebe writes:

The evil you have done can ruin the whole clan. The earth goddess whom you have insulted may refuse to give us her increase, and we shall all perish.” His tone now changed from anger to command. “You will bring to the shrine of Ani tomorrow one she-goat, one hen, a length of cloth and a hundred cowries. (22)
As I previously discussed, though the Igbo lacked an established justice system, they did have a system of conflict resolution. This differs from a justice system in that the goal was not necessarily to punish the accused, but to cleanse their soul and allow them to receive forgiveness in the eyes of the gods. The course of action someone living in Umuofia takes when they have done something wrong is not random; it is deeply considered and well though out. Despite their complex culture, the Igbo were still savages in the eyes of the Europeans as a result of racist, imperialist attitudes. Upon their intervention in the region, they stripped the Igbo of many of their customary practices in order to make them easier to control. Ogede specifically addresses the harm done by the colonizing powers, writing “It’s the vibrancy of the Igbo culture on display that makes the conflict that threatens to break it down not only all the more dramatic but also disconcerting” (30). There is so much life to the Igbo’s culture, as Ogede points out, that to erase that culture is tantamount to taking the life of the Igbo themselves. In the case of Okonkwo, after realizing the extent of how much his culture has changed and how different his people are than they used to be, he simply cannot live with himself. He demands change, and is met with confusion and silence, a reaction that proves for Okonkwo, who soon after takes his own life. Even upon his death, the colonizers do not understand what they have done to these people. Ogede goes on with analysis, explaining, “Far from being the vision of disorder and darkness painted by Europe, this is a society running smoothly on its own system of law and justice, morality and religion; its own method of burying its dead, and of self-regeneration” (31). The Eurocentric views of the colonizers, Ogede argues here, are completely dismissive of the strong, rich Igbo culture. At best, these views are disrespectful. At worst, they are life threatening. The disregard of a people’s culture leads to a disregard of everything those people stand for. When people have no value, why even bother to treat them with any amount of dignity? This is the logic of the colonizers, and it is this logic that makes their abuse of the Igbo so effortless and without remorse. Mackenzie further dissects this European view and its affects, explaining that the Igbo’s culture was in no way inferior to that of the Europeans but merely different. However, he elaborates, “That difference became a source of vulnerability. The religious codes and practices of Umuofia, unchallenged for centuries and perhaps millennia, had not evolved strategies for adaptation or confrontation” (Mackenzie 8). The Igbo culture, as Mackenzie explains, is not one of weakness. Okonkwo, as a leader, values strength above all else, and much of the respect others have for him comes from his strength. However, the Igbo never had any need to develop a system of cultural defense, so upon the arrival of the Europeans, they were left with their hands tied. The events that occur after the arrival of the colonizers in Umuofia represent the struggles of all colonized peoples and their forced assimilation.

In Things Fall Apart, Achebe makes a compelling case in favor of colonized peoples and their struggles, particularly in their need to assimilate as a means of survival. The Igbo culture that Achebe portrays in the text is rich and complex, and upon the colonization of their region, so much of that rich culture is destroyed. It is Okonkwo’s suicide that punctuates Achebe’s main points in the text, disturbingly depicting the effects of colonization on the human spirit and body and what comes to fruition when one is unable to adapt. The new historicist and post-colonial critical lenses through which the text can be seen are essential in that they allow for Achebe’s truth to best understood. The ability of many colonized people to assimilate to the culture of their oppressors is difficult for countless reasons, but it is undeniably a necessity in ensuring their survival, as Achebe makes clear in his text.

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor, 1994. Print.
Mackenzie, Clayton G. "The Metamorphosis of Piety in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart." Research in African Literatures 27.2 (Summer 1996): 128-138. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Jeffrey W. Hunter. Vol. 127. Gale, 2000. Literature Resource Center. Web. 26 Mar. 2016.
Ogede, Ode. "Reading Things Fall Apart: The Communal World, the Embattled Zones of Conquest, and the Decline of Tradition." Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. London: Continuum, 2007. 39-82. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Lawrence J. Trudeau. Vol. 370. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale, 2015. Literature Resource Center. Web. 26 Mar. 2016.