does not describe me fully
it is where to start

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Chinua Achebe and Ron Rash - Themes in Common

As a followup to last week's A Hero's Journey post on Chinua Achebe, I am providing a redacted version of the very first post published in this blog. It compares the themes of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart with those of American writer Ron Rash’s One Foot in Eden.


By some measures, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe and One Foot in Eden by Ron Rash could not be more different. Achebe’s novel takes place in pre- and post-colonial Nigeria in the 1890s. Rash’s novel is located in the Appalachian region of South Carolina beginning in the early 1950s. Despite these fundamental differences, the two novels share the following elements.

They portray the tragic outcome of a clash of cultures. In Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, the arrival of the British colonialists pits existing, functional Ibo customs against the conquerors’ incompatible legal, social, and religious customs. Compromise or assimilation with the British without destruction of the traditional culture is virtually impossible. The same is true in Rash’s One Foot in Eden. The utility company takeover of family-owned farmland, to be flooded in order to build a dam, obliterates a long-standing way of life.

As a consequence of the clash in cultures, the contributions and value of the elder generation are compromised. Traditional social structures are vanquished or modified beyond recognition. In Things Fall Apart, the ancestors’ guidance in daily life is lost. A functional tribal leadership and justice system is replaced by an external, foreign governing structure. The oracles for the Ibo Gods lose their power in favor of a Christian clergy advocating for Jesus Christ. The traditional stratification of society into desirables and undesirables is upended in favor of the undesirables when the latter become ready and welcomed disciples of the foreign Christian religion. In One Foot in Eden, an agricultural way of life is replaced by one not tied to the land. Instead of a farm, whether sharecropped or owned, the textile mills become the employers. In the process, the older generation is gelded.

Suicide figures as the only acceptable choice for those who cannot imagine themselves integrating into the new way of life. In Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo, the lead character, cannot accommodate himself to the powerlessness he foresees for himself living under British rule and hangs himself. In One Foot in Eden, the Widow Winchester sets herself on fire rather than move out of her home so the utility company can flood her land. Billy and Amy in effect commit suicide when they plunge into a swiftly moving river from which they have no hope of emerging.

The integration of religion into daily life is seamless. In Things Fall Apart, the Gods and their oracles weigh in on every decision from planting to marriage to the survival of infants. In One Foot in Eden, the Christian church is not only the social glue of the community, but it influences attitudes such as the inability to flee punishment for ill deeds. In addition, Ron Rash utilizes extensively Biblical imagery, such as the flood and the crucifixion.

Exile plays a role. In Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo is temporarily exiled to his motherland after he accidentally kills someone. In One Foot in Eden, an entire society of land-based owners and workers is exiled from its traditional way of life.

More than one language is in play. Chinua Achebe has referred to his work as a conversation between two languages: the traditional Ibo and the new English. In One Foot in Eden, the traditional Appalachian rural expressions begin to be supplanted by urban language.

The cultural clash does not have uplifting consequences. In each novel, a sense of inevitability drives the tragic outcome. Despite this, both present a glimmer of hope in the end. In Things Fall Apart, it is in the form of the clan’s refusal to take down Okonkwo’s body, signifying that, despite all, they can still cleave to their traditions. In One Foot in Eden, the Sheriff’s likely parenting of Isaac and Isaac’s entry into Clemson open possibilities for a functional future life.


Judy Croome said...

Excellent reflection on two novels with simiar themes. I've read Achebe, but haven't heard of Ron Rash before. Am adding this book into my buy list. And after this week's post and last week's post, I'm definitely going to dig out my old copy and read Things Fall Apart again!
Judy, South Africa

A Cuban In London said...

Cracking analysis of two novels I have yet to read. But even though I haven't digested either yet, the clash of cultures interests me as an element on which to base a work of fiction. I've always thought that fiction sometimes is more capable of conveying the ugly truth of cultural clashes than real-life accounts can.

Excellent post.

Greetings from London.

Judith Mercado said...

Judy and Cuban, it alwys makes me a bit nervous when someone decides to go out and purchase/read a book I've mentioned liking. In this case, parricularly for TFA, I am buoyed by the fact that many have weighed in over the last 50 years. In Rash's case, he does not have nearly the following that Achebe has but I think he is an excellent writer. It is interesting that they are both represented by the same literary agent, something I discovered after writing my original post over a year ago. Now that would be a dream come true, for that agent to be mine as well. Alas, my queries to her have not produced that outcome.