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Jack Connolly

Professor Munro

Modern African Literature & Film

12 September 2016

Oral Tradition in Things Fall Apart


Oral traditions play an important role in Chinua Achebe’s novel ThingsFall Apart. Oral

tradition is cultural information, customs or stories that are passed down from generation to

generation. ThingsFall Apart is set in pre­colonial Nigeria, where the villagers cannot read or

write, so oral tradition is the primary method of teaching and spreading information. Achebe’s

use of oral tradition both enhances the meaning of the novel and helps create a realistic cultural

backdrop. There are several examples of oral tradition throughout the novel, such as the

folktales that the women tell, proverbs, songs, and war stories that the men told. The women’s

folktales generally involve animals and serve to explain the origin of strange features, such as

why vultures feed on carcasses. These stories often carry deeper meanings and an overall

moral, akin to Aesop’s fables. These stories contrast greatly with the “masculine stories of

violence and blood” told by Okonkwo and the men of the tribe (33). Achebe utilizes the

difference in these forms of oral tradition to paint emotional depth into his characters.

One of the women’s folktales involves a vulture who was sent to appease the Sky with a

song of mercy after seven years without rain. The Sky gave the vulture rain wrapped in coco

leaves, which the vulture accidentally tore through with his talons on his way home, causing rain

to fall excessively across the land. The vulture kept flying until he reached a different, far away

land, where a man had sacrificed himself through fire. The vulture then ate the remains of the

man. This story serves as an explanation to both why vultures have an appetite for dead beings,

and how a seven year drought was stopped. Nwoye was told this story by his mother as a child,


and reminisces upon it later in life when listening to Okonkwo’s violent stories: “Nwoye knew

that it was right to be masculine and to be violent, but somehow he still preferred the stories that

his mother used to tel” (33). The following passage describes the inner turmoil Nwoye is faced

with when reminiscing “That was the kind of story that Nwoye loved. But he now knew that they

were for foolish women and children, and he knew that his father wanted him to be a man. And

so he feigned that he no longer cared for women's stories.” (33). Nwoye is taught to suppress

his emotions, as they are not considered “masculine”, but in doing so, he is forced to abandon

his love for stories like this. These stories are considered childish, and while growing up Igbo,

the oral tradition you are supposed to practice advances with age. Achebe uses the contrast of

oral traditions here through Nwoye to depict the conflicting emotions that arise with adolescence

and growing up in general.

Okonkwo later recalls a different folktale involving a mosquito and an ear. A mosquito

had asked the ear to marry him, at which point the ear fell on the ground in incessant laughter.

The ear says that the mosquito is already a skeleton and will not live much longer. The

mosquito was humiliated, and in the future he would go up to the ear and inform her that he was

still alive each time he passed her. This tale serves to explain why mosquitos constantly go

towards people’s ears; Okonkwo recalls the story when he himself is plagued with a mosquito in

his ears late at night. As he reminisces, he thinks to himself: “When he was a child his mother

had told him a story about it. But it was as silly as all women's stories.” (46). As with many other

instances in the novel, Okonkwo is suppressing his emotions (in this case, enjoyment of the

story) in order to live up to his idea of “masculinity”.Though subtle, Achebe uses Okonkwo’s

train of thought on old oral traditions to strengthen the ongoing inner battle he faces between his

true self and ideal masculinity.


Later in the story, Okonkwo’s wife Ekwefi tells her daughter Enzima another folktale, this

time about a tortoise. In this story, there is a grand feast in the sky prepared for all the birds.

The tortoise is very cunning, and convinces each of the birds to give him a feather so he may

create his own wings and join them in the feast in the sky. However, on the way to the feast, he

tricks the birds into unknowingly allowing him to eat the feast first, leaving them with only scraps.

The birds were all very angry, and as they left, they each took back their feather they had given

to the tortoise. The tortoise pleads for the birds to take a message for his wife, and eventually

convinces the parrot. “Tell my wife to bring out all the soft things in my house and cover the

compound with them so that I can jump down from the sky without very great danger” he plead

to the parrot (59). But the parrot, still angry with the tortoise for his deception, instead tells his

wife to bring out all the hardest things in his house. When the tortoise lands, his shell cracks into

many pieces, having ot put back together by the local medicine man. This tale serves as an

explanation as to why tortoises’ shells are not smooth, but also holds deeper meaning. It serves

as a cautionary tale to not be deceitful, and highlights the principles of honesty and ingenuity.

“There is no song in the story," as Enzima notices (60). Not every folktale can be completely

lighthearted and positive, but each serves a purpose. Ekwefi uses this story to teach the young

and impressionable Enzima about the value of honesty. Through this passage, Achebe

represents how the Igbo community uses stories like these to establish the basic moral pillars of

a community.

Achebe uses oral tradition throughout the novel for many different purposes. With each


these folktales, Achebe is painting a window into the Igbo culture and their ideas for the

audience, giving the reader a greater sense of immersion. He portrays the importance of oral

tradition in the Igbo culture, and how many of their beliefs and moral standards are derived from


such stories. However, he also uses the tales to portray the complexities of his characters

through their thoughts on the stories. The interactions his characters have with the various

forms of oral tradition help to develop and add depth to their character, whether it be through

Okonkwo or Nwoye dealing with introspection, Enzima developing her values, or countless

other instances he uses throughout the books. Oral tradition is the backbone of Things Fall

Apart, and Achebe uses its many different forms and their symbolic nature to bring the novel to

new heights.

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart . New York: Anchor, 1994. Print.