The Crisis of Cultural Memory in Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart”

by F. Abiola Irele


If there is any single work that can be considered central to the evolving canon of modern African literature, it is, without question, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. The novel owes this distinction to the innovative significance it assumed as soon as it was published, a significance that was manifested in at least two respects. In the first place, the novel provided an image of an African society, reconstituted as a living entity and in its historic circumstance: an image of a coherent social structure forming the institutional fabric of a universe of meanings and values. Because this image of Africa was quite unprecedented in literature, it also carried considerable ideological weight in the specific context of the novel’s writing and reception. For it cannot be doubted that the comprehensive scope of Achebe’s depiction of a particularized African community engaged in its own social processes, carried out entirely on its own terms, with all the internal tensions this entailed, challenged the simplified representation that the West offered itself of Africa as a formless area of life, as “an area of darkness” devoid of human significance (1). Thus, beyond what might be considered its ethnographic interest, which gave the work an immediate and ambiguous appeal–a point to which we shall return–Achebe’s novel articulated a new vision of the African world and gave expression to a new sense of the African experience that was more penetrating than what had been available before its appearance.

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Professor F. Abiola Irele, formerly Professor of French and Head of the Department of Modern Languages at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, is currently Professor of African, French and Comparative Literature at the Ohio State University. Professor Irele’s publications include an edition of selected poems by the Senegalese writer and statesman, Léopold Sédar Senghor, a collection of critical essays, The African Experience in Literature and Ideology, and an edition of Aimé Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal. He is the author of numerous articles on African literature in English and French, and has also written extensively on francophone African philosophy, on which he has contributed an entry in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. A new collection of his essays entitled The African Imagination: Literature in Africa and the Black Diaspora was published by Oxford University Press in 2001.