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Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart documents the disintegration of a traditional Ibo village upon its invasion by European laws, religion, and culture. The novel’s protagonist Okonkwo is driven to suicide, in the pattern of a tragic (if not fully Aristotelian) hero. As a prelude to this dramatic fall, the author undertakes to reconstruct an accurate setting, depicting what life was like before the first, jarring interaction with a strange and invasive culture. As Rose Ure Mezu has it, Achebe’s style is “expository rather than prescriptive”, so that it “mirrors the sociocultural organization existing in Africa of the era he describes”. And in that time and place women were by all counts subordinate to men. In the novel, they are
virtually inconsequential…The world in Things Fall Apart is one in which patriarchy intrudes oppressively into every sphere of existence. It is an androcentric world where the man is everything and the woman nothing…Achebe’s sexist attitude is unabashed and without apology. (Mezu)

However, voiceless and powerless as she might have been, an Ibo woman historically had “important roles” (Chun). Women constituted the “core of the rural workforce” (Mezu). In fact, their extensive and strenuous labor makes possible the agrarian society Achebe portrays. And, as Uchendu tells Okonkwo, a woman has a life-giving power that is to be revered on some level; this is why “Mother is Supreme” (Achebe 94-95). And this mysterious power is also why a woman, Chielo, can be priestess- “women know the secret of life since they are the source of life” (Okafor 9-10). In fact, it has even been surmised that had the women in Umuofia not been so marginalized, they would not have been so attracted to the foreign, welcoming Christianity, and the Ibo religion and society would not have been so crippled (Mezu).

The novel also strongly contrasts women with the hyper-masculine Okonkwo, who warns himself not to "become like a shivering old woman" (Achebe 72) and relates negatively to his effeminate father Unoka (20) and oldest son Nwoye (143). Okonkwo is constantly evaluating his own masculinity, as judged by his ability to grow a sufficient quantity of yams to feed his family, a task which can only be accomplished by “a great man indeed” (35), due to that crop’s exacting nature. He is also obsessed with status, an area in which title-less men are derisively thought of as women (28).

In this way, women, in their very maligned femininity, are crucial to the development of Achebe’s setting, plot, and character. As the tribal structure is lost, men become fearful women in the face of the intruding Europeans, and women become bold men, leaving their homes and husbands. Okonkwo looks back to the “days when men were men” (Achebe 184), and gender roles were immutable. In his view, the European way of living imposed on the Ibo has led to a terrible leveling.

But women under a European system of that time period were in fact not liberated at all. The same way Things Fall Apart saw them coddled and accepted by the warm and fuzzy missionary Christianity, upper-class women in Joseph Conrad’s England were elevated on a fabled pedestal of weakness and fragility. Men determined to protect them from the real world denied them the opportunity to be real people. And in fact, throughout much of the novel, as Marlow (the author’s alter ego) travels through that real world, women, real living human beings to be interacted with, are nowhere in evidence. As Megan Vitek points out,
Marlow is a seaman…He has been picking up and travelling the world by way of a boat for most of his adult life. The simple fact that he is able to do this without regret is a hint into Marlow’s personal life. He cannot be a family man, because it would be too hard to be away from family members for such great lengths of time. He may have a mother or a sister somewhere, but it is obvious that, for Marlow, there is no strong bond with any female family member.

That psychologically acute point of view takes into account the fact that Heart of Darkness was written by a man, for men to read. It does not focus on sexuality and gender roles, as does Things Fall Apart, rather it only pauses long enough in its self-important narrative of deep, dark, primordial evil to dismiss womankind, as evidenced by Marlow’s foolish Aunt, ironically called a “dear enthusiastic soul” (Conrad). This attitude is summed up by Marlow’s statement, “Women…we must help them to stay in that beautiful world of their own, lest ours gets worst” (Conrad).

So, women in Things Fall Apart are insulted and oppressed, but their contribution to farm and family is at least in places acknowledged. Women in Heart of Darkness, on the other hand, are isolated and protected; “their role is limited to living in their own world because they might be too weak to face all the obstacles and temptations in the real one” (Czyowska). White women, that is. Black women in Heart of Darkness are depicted as more like Acehbe’s Ibo women of Things Fall Apart than like their European counterparts. Kurtz’s Black mistress is “the passionate reality” (Czyowska), and her savageness, while animal (a depiction to be expected by a White author in England at that time), is at least real.

  • Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. Anchor Books, Doubleday: New York, 1994.
  • Chun, June. “The Role of Women in Things Fall Apart”. http://landow.stg.brown.edu/post/nigeria/women.html
  • Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. http://www.mtroyal.ab.ca/gaslight/darkmenu.htm
  • Czyowska, Sabina. “Women in the ‘Heart of Darkness’”. http://www.anglistyka.uw.edu.pl/womenintheheart.html
  • Mezu, Rose Ure. “Women in Achebe’s World”. http://www.uga.edu/%7Ewomanist/1995/mezu.html
  • Chinyere Grace Okafor|Okafor, Chinyere Grace]. “From the Heart of Masculinity: Ogbodo-Uke Women’s Masking.” Research in African Literature, 25, 3 (1994), 7-17
  • Vitek, Megan. “Women in Heart of Darkness”. http://webcampus3.stthomas.edu/maclermont/englush%20111/student%20pap%2031/megan_vitek.htm

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