She Has the Right Spirit: Eating Eggs in the Bedroom

This week, I realized I’ve been a bit spoiled reading the narratives of women so far in this course.  I found that Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was not quite as enjoyable a reading experience compared with our other course texts, but I’m not sure what this means or if it even matters.  I’ve found that when the names of characters are foreign (and hence, difficult or impossible to pronounce with our Western tongues), and there are many of them within one plot line, my comprehension can become a bit muddled.

Most of what I highlighted relates to women and gender roles within Okonkwo’s community as well as the religious implications of the missionaries’ presence in the natives’ land.  The white man “told them about this new God, the Creator of all the world and all the men and women.  He told them they worshipped false gods, gods of wood and stone” (84).  What’s funny is that these ideas are still applicable today, and in America.  Atheists, Agnostics, and followers of earth-based religions (like Okonkwo and his people) are still chided by those who believe they know better.  Such thinking goes something like this:  I know we believe in or worship different ideas/gods, but what I believe is better.  In fact, Okonkwo’s gods ARE wood and stone, as his people worship the earth goddess, in addition to a pantheon of other nature-related deities.  The white man tells Okonkwo and the others, “‘Your gods are not alive and cannot do you any harm” (84); however, the earth IS alive and CAN do us much harm (we’re all preparing for Hurricane Sandy right now!).

I do believe my favorite moment (despite the rather comical dialogue regarding buttocks) is when Okonkwo “shrugged his shoulders and went away to tap his afternoon palm-wine” (85) after the missionaries have sung about Christ in a rather foolish-looking (yet successful) attempt to convert the natives.  Okonkwo’s reaction translated as something like:  Okay, super.  I’m gonna go about living my life now.  Palm-wine, goatskin mat, yams; yeah, I’m all set.  Inevitably, Nwoye is taken with the white man’s religion because it is the “poetry” rather than the “logic” which speaks to him (85).  Is this not also the story or the process we find today not limited to religion but to areas such as romance or other other quite heavy life decisions?  The “savage” is not immune to the potentially disastrous effects of manipulating the heart–incorporate the most melodious words, the right lighting, and BAM!  Poetry trumps logic any day.  We can all fully comprehend this concept as we’re all human.

Despite all of the trauma and death encountered throughout this text, this is the point at which I felt the most for the families in Achebe’s novel, even before we’re given a reaction to the presence of the white man.  As a reader, I approached this situation with sympathy, and I left it with frustration.  The missionaries tell the Africans that “good men who worshipped the true God lived for ever in his Happy kingdom” (84).  This statement implies that Okonkwo and his people are not GOOD (damn WordPress won’t translate my emphases, so I’ll just capitalize!).

Despite what we see of Okonkwo’s treatment toward his wives and children, I’m not sure it’s as simple as labeling the man “cruel” or “bad.”  Surely, he takes care of his family, but he is not the kindest, most patient man.  If we pay close attention to the ways in which girls and women are viewed within Things Fall Apart, I think we may deduce that Okonkwo is simply a product of his culture and his community:  chauvinistic and adamant of its own ways (with the exception of those who convert, certainly), but not BAD.  Let me just also say that those who we find converting to the white man’s “lunatic” religion are inevitably deserters of their entire people, not just their faith.  I would agree with anyone who chose to argue that Okonkwo’s wives and children deserve better treatment than they receive, however, the community indeed seems to favor not just masculinity and its work, but its mere existence as well.

In fact, on pages 39-40, Okonkwo very explicitly expresses his regret that his daughter was born a girl:  “She should have been a boy.”  I know we all probably cringed as we read this, not simply because it’s tragic, but because some of us may feel we can relate.  I get the feeling, however, that the implications in the world Achebe has so expertly drawn for us are much darker, more severe, and correspond to a child’s intrinsic nature or soul, and how this is received or utilized by their community.  This doesn’t mean that Okonkwo doesn’t love all of his children, including his daughters.  After all, Okonkwo makes very clear that he enjoys a very special connection with Ezinma because she naturally understands her father’s moods and what he needs and desires at all times.

The commentary I found beside the text in my book also disrupted my reading of it.  Someone who owned this copy prior to me repeatedly wrote genius things such as “Their customs don’t make any sense,” or “He’s so mean,” in reference to Okonkwo.  Needless to say, this is another reason I sort of struggled through this novel.  I did, however, enjoy the footnotes, as they served as a sort of informal education on West African food, customs, and language (the meaning behind names).

If wrestling is the sport of the “Roaring Flame” (88) that is Okonkwo, conversion to the one true God is “degenerate and effeminate” (88), most likely synonymous terms in this context.  Note that whenever we find that a man is lacking in strength or courage, he is demoted to a mere woman.  On pages 39-40, Okonkwo called himself a woman and a “shivering old woman” simply because he FEELS something after killing a young boy at the advisement of the oracle.  The glaring irony regarding this cultural stance on women is the fact that these people worship the earth goddess, the thriving, feminine energy permeating throughout all of the natural world, and thus, all of them, men obviously included; Okonkwo himself, then, is a living embodiment of the goddess who prefers the company of other men and values males over their female counterparts.  Fun!

In contrast to the male gaze with which I find myself so preoccupied, we encounter here “the profane gaze of women and children” (105).  Some of these African customs, beliefs, and practices raise more questions than they answer.  I attempted to locate some research explaining what this practice is and means, but I came up with nothing.  Dr. C.?  Anyone?  Why, in this section of the book, was it considered so unorthodox/taboo for the women and children to observe the men?

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11 Comments Add yours

  1. clutzclemens says:

    I think you hit on something important about Okonkwo. At the beginning of the novel, we don’t like him. By the end, we feel empathy for him. But both emotions allow for the reader to see this “African” character as a human, which I imagine was a main goal of the text. When you read Achebe’s criticism, you will see why I make that claim, but safe to say, I think, that Okonkwo’s human-ness is working against the notion of the “savage” from novels such as Heart of Darkness. Of course my book is sitting on my desk at KU, so I can’t look up that part, but is it during a particularly male or homosocial moment? Are decisions being made? For all of the discussion of the tribe being matrilineal, it does seem to me that the most important decisions come under the purview of men. Sorry I can’t be more of a help at the moment.

  2. clutzclemens says:

    When I looked at this on my phone last night, I thought there was a video. Maybe I am not remembering correctly, but there’s nothing coming up now.

  3. lotusgurl says:

    No video!

    On page 105: “The annual worship of the earth goddess fell on a Sunday, and the masked spirits were abroad. The Christian women who had been to church could not therefore go home. Some of their men had gone out to beg the egwugwu to retire for a short while for the women to pass.” The footnote then tells us: “To avoid the profanation of being seen by women.”

    I feel like there were a few instances where I was confused by what was happening, and the footnotes failed to offer any clarity. This was one of them.

  4. lotusgurl says:

    And oh yes, Cait’s blog reminded me of the “Africa list.” Here’s my list of words/terms I associate with Africa.

    Africa

    jungle
    scary
    black
    spears
    lions and tigers
    savage
    hiv
    aids
    zebra
    painted faces
    hot and sticky
    country
    poor
    impoverished
    oppressed
    goat’s blood
    illiterate
    uneducated
    primal
    stinky
    un-evolved
    violence
    apartheid
    prehistoric
    exotic

    1. clutzclemens says:

      Thanks for sharing the list.

  5. laurentocci says:

    “This doesn’t mean that Okonkwo doesn’t love all of his children, including his daughters. After all, Okonkwo makes very clear that he enjoys a very special connection with Ezinma because she naturally understands her father’s moods and what he needs and desires at all times.”

    I am really glad you wrote this! When I read his interactions with Ezinma, given the cultural implications I believed it to be a compliment (albeit back handed) on his part. Yes cringeworthy, but as I read Okonkwo I believe him to be a good man. All of his actions seemed to be functions of a culture that valued men for the ability to work. Obviously his abuse against his wives is appalling, but maybe because we are given so much of his internal personal struggles is what makes it easy to understand his position as a man. When he says he wishes her a boy, I think he is acknowledging that a woman can be more than the roles they are placed in, and more complex than their gender identity.

  6. Cait says:

    There are a few ways to take Achebe’s treatment of gender if TFA. One of them is to claim that gender oppression is universal and transcends both race and class, this, I think Mohanty and Spivak would take umbrage with. Another is to claim that Okonkwo’s tribal customs are savage and barbaric and just as derogatory toward women as the colonist’s imperial directives are toward Africans, which Achebe would rightfully scorn. A third approach is to, as you do, understand that Okonkwo is a character created by an African novelist who is attempting to construct an objective tone toward his homeland in a colonized country (part of an entire colonized continent) in a hybrid tongue. As such a charcter, Okonkwo exists both as a prototype of the average (and now culturally extinct) Igbo man; “a product of his culture and his community”, as you say.

  7. Sean says:

    I don’t think Okonkow was never supposed to be bad. More like flawed, and as such he is more human. Humans are flawed, we have pride and we have anger. As such I think Okonkow serves a greater purpose. Read my analysis of Okonkwo. I hope it makes sense and that I’m not reaching for something that isn’t there!

  8. Sean says:

    Forgive my grammar, I should learn not to respond from phone. It should be Okonkwo* and I meant to say I think Okonkwo was not necessarily supposed to be viewed as bad*. Sorry!!!

  9. Hey Jenny,

    The culture of Umuofia certainly is generally paternal, but with some outliers that I haven’t been able to reconcile with this idea of general paternalism. Particularly, Agbala (I think is her name) is a powerful force in the village whose authority is mostly unchallenged throughout the novel. It’s interesting, though, that she sort of disappears from the story once the society is infiltrated by the colonist. Still, the patriarchy is certainly amplified in this book’s perspective since Okonkwo is so dependent on masculine ideals. I wonder what a story written from a Igbo woman’s perspective would be like.

  10. lotusgurl says:

    Yeah, honestly, I’m not even sure who you’re talking about! Like I said, it seemed like a lot of characters we were introduced to…some rather hastily, and I found the names very confusing.

    That’s an awesome question you pose. I suppose I’d like to read about an Igbo woman tending to some yams…yeah…manning it up!

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