Things Fall Apart: Multi-modal Essay


As the course of human history has led the civilizations of the world ever closer together, the inevitable contact of vastly different cultures and sets of tradition and beliefs have stirred constant tides of cultural fusion. These instances of cultural exchange are centered around what is arbitrarily defined as "acceptable" between cultures, leading to a restructuring and reformation of a culture into one that adopts necessary aspects of others in order to effectively coexist in a shrinking world. However, while in perfect practice this cultural exchange would revolve around mutual agreement on societal values, in reality, cultures are often radically altered, consumed, or even killed off as they collapse in the face of dramatic change - whether by the advances of some dominant colonizer or simply the hand of time.

Perhaps the most striking literary example of this trend in modern history appears in Chinua Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart, in which the life of the main character, Okonkwo, can be interpreted as a symbol of Ibo culture. For much of the story, Okonkwo is deeply rooted in tradition, finding pride and power in following the culture of his ancestors; however, with the arrival of the British colonizers, an amalgamation of bad luck and challenge upon his traditional beliefs turn doubt into rage and depression (Achebe). This ultimately leads to his own suicide, which is symbolic of how the Ibo culture could no longer exist under British rule. In this sense, when Obierika addresses the District Commissioner at the conclusion of the novel by despairingly mentioning that "That man [Okonkwo] was one of the greatest men in Umuofia. You drove him to kill himself and now he will be buried like a dog", the narrator seems to shift his perspective by taking a neutral character and giving him a powerful statement to make about colonization (Achebe 128). This suggests that Achebe is conveying the message that the once celebrated and revered Ibo culture had been destroyed, not only by means of British invasion of the land, but by the destruction of native faith, as indicated by the metaphorical culture being "buried like a dog".

Because much of the European priority in the age of African colonization was merely the securing of large supplies of natural resources, the majority of colonizers did not seek to convert or "civilize" the cultures they came in contact with. Rather, such efforts largely stemmed from comparatively small religious and society groups that were backed by a powerful sense of racial superiority. In regards to Things Fall Apart, Francine Dempsy suggests that the lack of a dedicated attempt at cultural understanding by the both sides of the conflict inevitably led to violence between the groups - the few examples of true cross-cultural understanding are short lived (Dempsy). This makes sense within a global framework, as the imperialistic nature of more powerful nations during cultural contact often diluted any efforts at societal fusion. Rather, the implications of this perspective are evident in the subjugation of small nations and cultures throughout history.


With this mentioned, though the "rubber" serpent in the comic above is a direct reference to King Leopold, the message of the cartoon can also be interpreted as the strangling of African culture in the face of European superiority. In effect, the native cultures in the interior of the continent faced a two-pronged threat - first from the immediate danger of military force and coercion, second from the strangling and self-destruction of their traditional values within.

One of the most powerful statements of Things Fall Apart is the jarring reminder that the events depicted in Umuofia ultimately did occur to most of all African civilizations. The "falling apart" of African culture was ultimately a result of it's own ability to support itself in the face of a radically different world.

Nevertheless, through literature, many of history's silenced voices are able to echo cultures that no longer exist, reminding the world of forgotten societies. In Virgil's Aeneid, the wanderings of Aeneas and his Trojan companions is told as they flee the ruins of Troy and set sail for Italy. A major theme is the sufferings of wanderers, who have lost the stability of identity, both personal and cultural. They are the mercy of higher forces, the gods, and powerless to control their own destiny (Aeneid).

In fact, this theme is not limited to a time period or medium - the expression of cultures that have faded is omnipresent throughout history. As a more modern example, "American Pie" by Don MacLean presents "an abstract story of McLean’s life from the mid-1950s until the end of the 1960s, and at the same time it represents the evolution of popular music and politics over these years, from the lightness of the 1950s to the darkness of the late 1960s" (Howard 184). When placing the lyrics in context with the happenings of the time period, such as understanding the relation between "The day the music died" (MacLean) and the death of Buddy Holly, the scope of "American Pie" can be interpreted to address overtones of the 1950's and 1960's.

The encompassing melancholy brought about by the lyrics and tonality of the song serve to show MacLean's longing for a culture that has since died off, in this case due to the passage of time. This is evident in the final verse of the song, where retracing his steps at a time implied to be the late 60's, the song's narrator mentions: "I met a girl who sang the blues; And I asked her for some happy news; But she just smiled and turned away" (MacLean). This line sets the tone for much of the last verse, as MacLean goes on to describe the loss of the 50's culture and music. As Howard continues in his analysis of "American Pie", "in the opinion of the song’s producer, Ed Freeman, [American Pie] was the funeral oration for an era" (Howard 185). And yet, even with MacLean's recognition of times since past, the image of the American culture of the fifties and sixties is still represented in his song.

Achebe makes a powerful statement in Things Fall Apart, as he finishes the novel with a final word from a British officer indifferent to the life and culture of the native Ibo (Achebe 128). In a sense, the idea that only the victor's story gets told in history is something that is reflected not only in the European conquest of Africa, but the assimilation, destruction, or succession of every lost culture in history. However, wiping the remains of these forgotten worlds does not destroy everything - through literature such as Things Fall Apart or other alternative "texts", it is always possible for the story of the people forgotten by the "victor" to be told through echoes of the past.

Works Cited:

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. Columbus, OH: Glencoe/McGraw-Hill, 1959. Print.

Dempsey, Francine. "Things Fall Apart." Masterplots, Revised Second Edition (1996): Literary Reference Center Plus. EBSCO. Web. 10 Dec. 2010.

Howard, Alan. The Don McLean story: Killing us Softly With His Songs. New York: Starry Night Music Inc., 2009. Print.

MacLean, Don. "American Pie." American Pie. United Artists Records, 1971. MP3.

Virgil. The Aeneid. Vintage, 1983. Print.