Delicious descriptions: Chinua Achebe’s people and places

Chinua Achebe, Things fall apart

First edition, from Heinemann (via Wikipedia)

In my recent post on Chinua Achebe’s classic, Things fall apart, I focused mostly on its themes and ideas, which drove the quotes I chose to share. Here I want to show more of his writing, including his wit and use of imagery.

I’ll start with this early description of the protagonist, Okonkwo, who is determined not to be like his failure of a father:

When he walked, his heels hardly touched the ground and he seemed to walk on springs, as if he was going to pounce on somebody. And he did pounce on people quite often. He had a slight stammer and whenever he was angry and could not get his words out quickly enough, he would use his fists. He had no patience with unsuccessful men. He had had no patience with his father.

At first the phrases “heels hardly touched the ground” and “walk on springs” conjured for me (anyhow) Jesus Christ walking on water, but they’re immediately followed by the very un-Christlike idea of pouncing on people, confirming that the reference is instead to powerful, predatory cats. The “slight stammer” could garner some sympathy from us. We can understand the frustration of not being able to speak fluently, but resolving it with his fists again undercuts the possibility of our sympathy. And the last two sentences! Love them. The economy – and wit – with which he makes the point. And to not respect his father? Unfortunately, for all his determination to not be like his father, to be an admirable man respected by all, he ends up with a son who doesn’t respect him. This is the sort of writing I love, writing that gives with one hand and takes away with another, that requires me to fully engage my brain as I read.

Oh, and the rhythm of this paragraph is lovely too – long sentence, short sentence, then long, followed by short, short. It just reads well.

There’s a lot of lovely imagery – mostly earth and nature related which you’d expect given the book’s setting – but I’ll just share one. It describes Okonkwo’s son Nwoye being tempted by the new (that is, Christian) religion:

But there was a young lad who had been captivated. His name was Nwoye, Okonkwo’s first son. It was not the mad logic of the Trinity that captivated him. He did not understand it. It was the poetry of the new religion, something felt in the marrow. The hymn about brothers who sat in darkness and in fear seemed to answer a vague and persistent question that haunted his young soul – the question of the twins crying in the bush and the question of Ikemefuna who was killed. He felt a relief within as the hymn poured into his parched soul. The words of the hymn were like the drops of frozen rain melting on the dry plate of the panting earth. Nwoye’s callow mind was greatly puzzled.

For an agricultural society, the image of rain on a “panting earth” provides a perfect description of Nwoye’s desperation for comfort.

Other imagery relates to aggression, violence, strength – wrestling, fire, knives – which is reflects the novel’s themes and the character of its protagonist. Again, I’ll just choose one example. It’s short and comes from Part 3 after Okonkwo has returned to his village to find the white man’s arrival has caused a breakdown in village relationships. Obierika says of the white man that:

He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.

And with that, Achebe unites the novel’s title, its narrative arc, and the epigraph:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
(from “The second coming”, WB Yeats)

Such a beautifully conceived novel.

6 thoughts on “Delicious descriptions: Chinua Achebe’s people and places

  1. I really love all of the focus you are giving to Achebe and Things Fall Apart. I don’t see a lot of literature from anywhere on the continent gaining a ton of exposure out West. Of course, of the attention they do get, a lot goes to this classic but I still appreciate it.

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