Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Chinua Achebe’s "Things Fall Apart": Oral and Literary Strategies

Created October 13, 2010

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The Lesson

Introduction

Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart: Oral and Literary Strategies

Maternity Figure (Ntekpe) Igbo, Nigeria Terracotta; 32.4 x 13.3 x 12.7 cm (12 3/4 x 5 1/4 x 5 in.) 19th-20th century The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Drs. Herbert F. and Teruko S. Neuwalder, 1982 1982.395.2

Credit: www.metmuseum.org

I believe in the complexity of the human story, and that there’s no way you can tell that story in one way and say, ‘this is it.’ Always there will be someone who can tell it differently depending on where they are standing … this is the way I think the world’s stories should be told: from many different perspectives.”

(“Chinua Achebe: The Art of Fiction CXXXVIV,” interviewed by Jerome Brooks in The Paris Review, Issue #133 (Winter 1994-5)

Chinua Achebe is one of the most well-known contemporary writers from Africa. His first novel, Things Fall Apart, deals with the clash of cultures and the violent transitions in life and values brought about by the onset of British colonialism in Nigeria at the end of the nineteenth century. Published in 1958, just before Nigerian independence, the novel recounts the life of the village hero Okonkwo and describes the arrival of white missionaries in Nigeria and its impact on traditional Igbo society during the late 1800s.

Things Fall Apart interposes Western linguistic forms and literary traditions with Igbo words and phrases, proverbs, fables, tales, and other elements of African oral and communal storytelling traditions in order to record and preserve African oral traditions as well as to subvert the colonialist language and culture. After situating the novel in its historical and literary context, students will identify the text’s linguistic and literary techniques and analyze the relationship of oral elements to the meanings and messages of the novel.

This lesson introduces students to Achebe’s first novel and to strategies of close reading and textual analysis. It can be used alone or in conjunction with the related lesson Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart: Teaching Through the Novel.

Guiding Questions

What linguistic strategies does Achebe use to convey the Igbo and British missionary cultures presented in the novel? How does the text combine European linguistic and literary forms with African oral traditions? How does Achebe’s incorporation of oral elements into Things Fall Apart contribute to the projects of telling one’s own story and creating a new view of the world?

Learning Objectives

  • Describe some elements of European and African literary traditions
  • Explain aspects of Nigerian culture and history
  • Understand how historical events are represented in fiction
  • Identify literary devices and orality in literature
  • Understand narrative and audience perspective as culturally-positioned
  • Recognize strategies that authors use to invoke and speak to specific audiences

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Historical Context: Pre-Colonial Igbo Society and Nigeria Under British Rule

One of the main themes running through Things Fall Apart and all of Achebe’s work is that all knowledge is specific and culturally situated. To give students an idea of the way in which each of our perspectives shapes how we see the world, assign the class the following mapping activity. Have students draw a world map with all of the continents. Within this map, ask students to fill in the map of Africa. Use the “What Do We Know About Africa Video Curriculum Guide” activity, “Mental Maps of Africa,” available from the EDSITEment-reviewed Web site African Studies WWW, to have students complete the following task:

"Have students draw a map of Africa from their own without referring to any sources. They should add to it any political (cities and countries), physical (mountains, deserts, rivers, oceans, vegetation types etc.), economic (resources, crops...) and historic (religions, events, wars, people, current events, leaders...) details that they know of."

Next, present students with copies of the world map from the Atlas on the EDSITEment-reviewed resource National Geographic Society Xpeditions.

After each student has finished creating his or her individual map, the class can describe the relative position and size of the African continent and countries within the student world maps, as well as discussing the differences between students’ perceptions and the actual size, location, and relation of Africa to other continents.

To give students an overview of Nigerian history and cultural geography, locate Nigeria on a map of Africa from the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Art and Life in Africa Online: Countries’ Resources. Then present a map of Nigeria itself on the Nigeria Information page , and point out the Igbo area. This page provides a map and general information about Nigeria, including descriptions of its four main ethnic groups: Yoruba, Igbo, Fulani, and Hausa, and the Igbo Information page from the People’s Resources section of the site offers information about the ethnic group described in Things Fall Apart.

Activity 2. Literary Context: Taking Back the Narrative of the So-Called "Dark Continent"

In an interview in the 1994-95 issue of The Paris Review, Chinua Achebe states that he became a writer in order to tell his story and the story of his people from his own viewpoint. He explains the danger of not having one's own stories through the following proverb: "until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter." Critics and Achebe's own essays have portrayed Things Fall Apart as a response to the ideologies and discursive strategies of colonial texts such as Joyce Cary's Mister Johnson and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

While reading Things Fall Apart, students should ask themselves in what ways Achebe's novel subverts this discourse and constitutes a different story or counter-narrative to the European texts and what narrative and linguistic strategies in the text help create a new perspective and new story of Nigerian and African history?

Two interviews in which Achebe discusses the origins and purposes of his writing are "Chinua Achebe: The Art of Fiction CXXXVIV," interviewed by Jerome Brooks in The Paris Review, Issue #133 (Winter 1994-5) and "An African Voice" Interview in The Atlantic Online (August 2, 2000). You may wish to assign students the interviews or excerpts to read online or in printed copies.

If your students have not had exposure to colonial literature, you may want to have them read a short story or poem that shows a typical colonial view of "native population," in order to help them understand the implications of colonial rule. Two examples are Rudyard Kipling's poems "Gunga Din", in which the narrator describes an Indian water carrier for a British Indian regiment, and "The White Man's Burden", both available through the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Academy of American Poets. To view these poems online, go to the Poems by Rudyard Kipling web site and click on the letter of the desired poem. For background on Kipling's belief in the superiority of the British Empire, see the short essay, "Kipling's Imperialism" on the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Victorian Web.

As an example of the ways in which Achebe has taken up European literary works and reframed the issues they raise, have the class examine William Butler Yeats' poem, "The Second Coming," available through the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Academy of American Poets. The title of Achebe's novel is a literary allusion to Yeats' poem.

Read aloud with the class William Butler Yeats' poem "The Second Coming," the origin of the title of Achebe's novel, published in 1921 and available in annotated version online at Paul Brians' Chinua Achebe: Things Fall Apart Study Guide, through the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Learner.Org:

William Butler Yeats: "The Second Coming" (1921)
Turning and turning in the widening gyre (1)
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming (2) is at hand;
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi (3)
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries (4)
of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Notes:
(1) Spiral, making the figure of a cone.
(2) Second Coming refers to the promised return of Christ on Doomsday, the end of the world; but in Revelation 13 Doomsday is also marked by the appearance of a monstrous beast.
(3) Spirit of the World.
(4) 2,000 years; the creature has been held back since the birth of Christ. Yeats imagines that the great heritage of Western European civilization is collapsing, and that the world will be swept by a tide of savagery from the "uncivilized" portions of the globe. As you read this novel, try to understand how Achebe's work is in part an answer to this poem. (from Chinua Achebe: Things Fall Apart Study Guide, by Paul Brians, Department of English, Washington State University, Pullman 99164-5020.)

Ask students the following questions:

  • What is the meaning of the phrase "Things Fall Apart" within Yeats' poem?
  • What does the Second Coming refer to in general?
  • What does the Second Coming refer to in Yeats' poem?
  • As you read Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, note how the novel both takes up and changes Yeats' version of the Second Coming. Who or what in the novel represents a "rough beast" that "slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?"

One important theme in Things Fall Apart is the irreconcilable difference between Christianity's focus on individual salvation and the tribal vision of the group's salvation being dependent on the actions of individuals that Achebe portrays within his novel. You might point out this cultural and religious difference as you discuss the "The Second Coming," and its allusion to the Bible and Christian thought, in relation to way that Achebe applies the poem's line "things fall apart" within the novel. In the class' subsequent analysis of the text, you can ask students to pursue the grave implications of these incompatible views for Igbo society as Umuofia's citizens confront the British missionaries and their accompanying colonial government.

Activity 3. Linguistic and Literary Strategies in Things Fall Apart

From the title through to the end of the novel, Achebe integrates and appropriates a mixture of traditional African and modern Western cultural and literary elements. Achebe writes in English, the language of the colonizer, but incorporates idioms, proverbs, and imagery that invoke the Igbo tradition and culture into his prose in order to convey the experience of African society under colonization and to force the reader to accept the story he tells on his own terms. Achebe writes in a 1974 essay, "Chi in Igbo Cosmology": "Since Igbo people did not construct a rigid and closely argued system of thought to explain the universe and the place of man in it, preferring the metaphor of myth and poetry, anyone seeking an insight into their world must seek it along their own way. Some of these ways are folk tales, proverbs, proper names, rituals, and festivals" ("Chi in Igbo Cosmology" 161). How does this passage relate to Achebe's choice of form and narrative structures within the novel? In preparation for this lesson, have students perform a close reading of the novel. Have them pay particular attention to the verbal cues Achebe includes in the text, which explain unfamiliar vocabulary in context and clarify the novel's themes.

(A) Provide each student with a copy of the Igbo Vocabulary and Concept Log (provided in .pdf format), to be kept while reading the novel. Ask students record Igbo vocabulary words, cultural concepts and traditions within the narrative. Have students use the textual clues to provide definitions for the vocabulary words and explanations of the concepts and ceremonies. In the last column, have them suggest a purpose of the vocabulary word or concept as it functions within the novel.

Examples of Igbo Vocabulary:

Agbala - woman, or man without title
Bride-price - converse of dowry; the bridegroom's family pays cash or goods to the bride's family
Chi - personal spirit
Egwugwu - a masquerader who represents the ancestral spirits of the village at trials and ceremonies. The egwugwu ceremony of the Ibo (chapter 10)
Ekwe - wooden drum Foo-foo - pounded yam, traditional staple food of Igbo Harmattan - dry, dusty wind that blows along the northwest coast of Africa
Ilo - village playground
Jigida - waist beads
Kola nut - seed pod of evergreen trees common in Western Africa, which contains caffeine and is offered as a gesture of friendship and hospitality. Matchet - large knife (Spanish machete).
Obi - male living quarters Ogene - a type of gong Osu - outcasts Ozo - a rank or title Palm oil - oil pressed from the fruit of palm trees that is used for fuel and cooking Uli- dye for skin painting Udu- a drum made from pottery

Examples of Igbo Cultural Concepts and Traditions:

Bride price
Dry Season
Egwugwu ceremony
Engagement ceremony
Funeral ceremony
Evil Forest Feast of the New Year
Kola-nut ceremony
Palm-wine tapping
Polygamy
Rainy Season
Titles
Week of Peace

Point out to students that a glossary of Ibo words and phrases is printed at the end of the book, which they can consult for the definitions of Igbo words and phrases. Achebe also explains many of the words, expressions, and cultural events in terms of their context within the novel.

Ask students to identify the passages in the novel that discuss Igbo rituals, performance, and festivals. Have students create a list of Igbo words and phrases and of African ceremonies and events they encounter throughout the book. See how many they can define or explain by using the text itself.

Igbo Vocabulary and Concept Log (provided in .pdf format)

Every time you read, log on this sheet any vocabulary, concepts, and traditions you come across in the novel.

Try to collect at least one example every time you read.

After students have completed their logs, discuss the author's decision to retain many Igbo words and phrases. Ask them the following questions:

  • What kinds of words are given in the Igbo language?
  • Which African words and concepts does he translate into English, and which are left for the reader to understand through their use and context in the text?
  • Why do you think Achebe chose to keep these words in their original language?
  • What is the effect on the reader of having these words in their original language as opposed to giving them in English translation?
  • What are the effects on you as a reader (a student of a certain race and a particular linguistic, ethnic, and national background, attending a high school in the United States of America at the beginning of the 21st century) of the cultural contrasts in the Part One of Things Fall Apart?
  • How does the inclusion of untranslated foreign words and unexplained cultural concepts affect your reading of the novel and your understanding of and relationship to the Igbo culture being presented?


(B) In conjunction with Igbo words and expressions, Achebe includes African oral traditions such as the genres of proverb, riddle, myth, clan and family histories, and epic within the narrative. Provide students with an Oral Elements Log (provided in .pdf format), and ask them to find as many oral elements as possible in the text, for example: myths, folktales, poetry, proverbs, and songs. Have them identify the type of element and describe its relation to the novel's story and message.

Every time you read, log on this sheet any oral elements - myths, legends, tales, proverbs, songs, poems, riddles, etc., -- mentioned in the novel. Try to collect at least one example every time you read.

The following are some questions to aid students in filling out the Oral Elements Log and in discerning the relation to the narrative and message of the novel:

  • What narrative techniques does Achebe use to present pre-colonial Igbo life and traditions in a manner in which present-day readers from Nigeria and other parts of the world can identify?
  • What tone does the Achebe introduce in the opening scenes of the novel?
  • How does the introductory paragraph set up the relation between past and present, reality and myth?
  • At the beginning of the novel, the narrator notes that, "proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten." What does this mean?
  • Why do you think Achebe does not translate the song that Ikemefuna remembers as he walks along (chapter 7)?
  • What is the moral of the fable of the tortoise and the birds (chapter 11)? What values does it reflect?

(C) In his essay "The African Writer and the English Language," Achebe contrasts a paragraph from one of his later novels, Arrow of God, with a second version to illustrate his approach to the use of the English language. In this paragraph from the book, the Chief Priest in the novel tells one of his sons why he must go to the Christian church:

"I want one of my sons to join these people and be my eyes there. If there is nothing in it you will come back. But if there is something there you will bring home my share. The world is like a mask, dancing. If you want to see it well you do not stand in one place. My spirit tells me that those who do not befriend the white man today will be saying had we known tomorrow" (101). Achebe then offers the following alternate version:

"I am sending you as my representative among these people - just to be on the safe side in case the new religion develops. One has to move with the times or else one is left behind. I have a hunch that those who fail to come to terms with the white man may well regret their lack of foresight" (102).

Have students compare the two versions and note the differences in tone, style, and literary devices. You may wish to choose perform a similar task with Things Fall Apart: have students, as a class or in small groups, choose a paragraph from the text and draft a second version by removing the oral and literary elements.

(D) The final chapter of the book, which reveals Okonkwo's suicide and indicates the accomplishment of European colonization of Umuofia, at the same time undermines the missionaries' supposed victory in the eyes of the reader. First Obierika entrenches the traditional Igbo customs of his people by requesting that the Commissioner take responsibility of disposing of Okonkwo's body and insisting that the villagers will "make sacrafices to cleanse the desecrated land."

In the novel's last paragraph, Achebe gives an ironic portrayal of the District Commissioner's derogatory view of Africa and African people. Ask the students to re-read the last paragraph and to identify words and ideas that are used ironically in light of the rest of the novel. How does the District Commissioner see his own role and that of Europeans in Africa? Why does he decide not participate in taking Okonkwo down from the tree in which he has hanged himself? What does he see as "new material" and "interesting reading" for his planned book? What are the "details" he intends to omit from the book? Finally, discuss the title of the book the District Commissioner intends to write: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger with the class. Ask students how they define the term "primitive" and why Achebe chooses this word for the Commissioner's book title.

(E) As a final assignment, have students use their class notes and the two logs to write a short essay on one of the following topics, on topic generated by the teacher, or on a topic of their choice (with teacher approval).

  • The relationship between Achebe's title of Things Fall Apart and William Butler Yeats' poem "The Second Coming"
  • What purposes are served by Achebe's weaving of oral art forms such as African proverbs and folktales into the narrative
  • Achebe's decision to use English as the language of the novel and to integrate Ibo words and concepts into the text without translation (Note: for one view on Africans writing in English, see Brandon Brown's essay, "Subversion versus Rejection: Can Postcolonial Writers Subvert the Codified Using the Language of the Empire?"
  • How Achebe uses specific linguistic devices and literary strategies to complement the content and message of the novel

Extending The Lesson

  • Discuss Achebe's statement that "the novel form seems to go with the English language. Poetry and drama seem to go with the Igbo language" (The Paris Review) in light of the writing in Things Fall Apart.
  • Compare with Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. How is Achebe's novel a response to Conrad's story? Note that the complete text of Heart of Darkness, published in 1902, is available online through the Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library, located on the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Center for the Liberal Arts.
  • Discuss the political and literary situation of Nigeria during the time of publication in the 1950s and today.
  • Debate the aims and efficacy/outcomes of writing in original African languages versus the colonizing country's language for purposes of revising the colonizer's perspective on history.
  • How does the novel function as a proverb to clarify and explain the historical events of European colonization of Africa at the end of the 19th century?
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Print Resources used in this Lesson Plan

Achebe, Chinua, "The African Writer and the English Language." In Achebe, Chinua,

Morning Yet on Creation Day: Essays. New York: Doubleday, 1975. 91-103.

-----, "Chi in Igbo Cosmology." In Achebe, Chinua, Morning Yet on Creation Day: Essays. New York: Doubleday, 1975. 159-175.
-----, Things Fall Apart. New York: Ballantine Books, 1959

The Basics

Grade Level

9-12

Time Required

4 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > Place > Africa
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Common Core
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre
  • History and Social Studies
  • Foreign Language > Ancient > Other
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Folklore
  • History and Social Studies > World
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Fables, Fairy tales and Folklore
  • History and Social Studies > Place
  • Literature and Language Arts
  • Art and Culture
  • Foreign Language
Skills
  • Analysis
  • Compare and contrast
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Essay writing
  • Expository writing
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Research
  • Writing
Authors
  • Lisa Bernstein, NEH (Washington, DC)

Resources

Activity Worksheets
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