[29 June 2009]
Most so-called feminist critiques of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart reduce men to husbands, and women to wives. Even progressive movements like the struggles converging on marriage for same-sex couples, centralize this biblical relationship, and in a biblical way, there’s nothing progressive about that. If we sincerely count gender and gender relations, we should count correctly. It may be a Christian fixation that prioritizes the heteropatriarchal marriage over all other relationships as individuals and with kin and Klan. In addition, in the Things Fall Apart society, these other relations were contributors to individuals’ identities. Certainly, this is riddled with conflict, the same as any relationship faces conflict, and perhaps confrontation. One might even argue that the misogyny in the pre-colonial society was, too, an unresolved conflict—a narrative within a narrative of conflict resolution.
Over four books, Achebe demonstrates a spiral of conflict and resolution, layering these stories, and having them mirror one another. This means that the internal conflicts mirror the ones the characters face in the world, and brilliantly, Achebe breathes life and depth to his characters by demonstrating how their internal dialogue informs their views of themselves as well as their actions. So, fate is a clear matter of cause and effect in the Things Fall Apart cosmological world.
This sort of cause and effect relationship towards fate—distinct from what many view as tragic in Greek tragedies in skirting this issue—implies a culture of dialogue, not suppression, or repression. It acknowledges conflict as inevitable to humanity, and conflict provides instances to apply community-centered dialogue and create widespread growth and change. It therefore implies that an individual has not only the right but also responsibility to express their authentic selves.
Suppressing feminine traits is the axis upon which the main protagonist spins throughout Achebe’ tetralogy. In Things Fall Apart, Achebe laid out the intergenerational crisis in gender identification. The main protagonist rejected his own father’s feminine traits and artistic inclinations, and as a result rejected his own effeminacy. He expressed this rejection outwardly, projecting this hatred of the feminine onto anyone or thing which he can label as feminine. He collects and beats women, abuses and murders children, and is dismissive of local custom and beliefs. The crises in Things Fall Apart lay as heavily on this crisis of masculinity, which Achebe mirrors with the cross-cultural crisis and the presence of Christian proselytizers.
Naturally, this power has the potential to get abused, and there is still social hierarchy, i.e. oppression. But the genius of this book and of the African culture that Achebe describes, provides an outlet for those inevitable conflicts: Dialogue. It’s when dominance enters the game and closes the possibility of difference that things really began to fall apart. Certainly, Achebe has clear views about this crisis, but he in no means romanticizes heteropatriarchy. Indeed, his is mainly a treatise on masculinity, as much as gender is necessarily deconstructed in the creative, artistic, and empirical world. Achebe wrote some bomb-ass novels!
If we sincerely count gender and gender relations, we should count correctly. Reducing gender to binaries and fixing them in their normative heteropatriarchal role—husband and wife—divests from the potentialities fulfilled in other roles as parents, children, grand-parents-grandchildren, nieces, nephews, caregivers, friends.
Imbedded in this feminist analysis is an idolization and idealization of heterosexuality so much so that it convinces us that this one relationship should trump all others, with little deviation. Forgiveness, in that constellation, is divine and often only comes with divine intervention.
In a culture of dialogue, however, and one responsible and responsive towards humanity, forgiveness is a daily expression of gratitude for life. It views love as cyclic, an idea built on care and reinforced through ritual. Certainly, oppression emerges, yet in his capacity, Achebe made a critique of the causes and mal-effects of misogyny—that character ultimately killed himself, so much did he hate an aspect of femininity in him. Hence, the suicide of Achebe’s main character is one important critique of heteropatriarchy and heteronormativity—as if Achebe encouraged, as traditional Ibo society does, a balance between masculine and feminine energy in everyone.
Suppressing either, and certainly hating one, would lead to an identity crisis. Any feminist critique which centers upon the Mary/Joseph (heteronormativity by any means necessary) relationship ignores human agency and avenues to both express and experience care while hoisting the mantle of women’s liberation. Liberating humans from their sense of humanity is alienating and as crisis forming as the myriad of effects of the gender-identification crisis one faces anywhere—albeit along specific and culturally informed axes.
Yet, any critique, which only regards the heterosexual relationship, abandons other areas of care and support. This abandonment is repeated as a self-fulfilling prophecy—abandoning care leads to abandoning care. Hence the love and abandon that dominates our pop music should come to no surprise: Heterosexual romantic love will conquer all. And when that love goes bad—kick him to he curb, cut off his balls, or burn her house down. When conflict arises, they easily abandon one another. All goes as expected.