Notion of Balance in Things Fall Apart
The notion of balance in Achebe’s novel is an important theme throughout the book. Beginning with the excerpt from Yeats’s poem, “The Second Coming,” the concept of balance is stressed as important, for without balance, order is lost. In the novel, there are many systems of balance which the Ibo culture seems to depend upon. It is when these systems are upset that “things fall apart.” Okonkwo, the Ibo religion, and ultimately, the Ibos’ autonomy were brought to their demise by an extreme imbalance between their male and female aspects. These male and female aspects can be generally be described as the external, physical strength of the male; and the internal, passive, and nurturing strength of the female. Achebe uses a disbalance toward the male side to destroy the people and their culture.
Okonkwo, the main character of the book, was born the son of Unoka, who was a loafer. Unoka was too lazy to go out and plant crops on new, fertile land, and preferred to stay at home playing his flute, drinking palm wine, and making merry with the neighbors. Because of this, his father never had enough money, and his family went hungry. He borrowed much money in order to maintain this lifestyle. Okonkwo perceived this as an imbalance toward the female side in his father’s character: staying at home and not using one’s strength to provide for the family is what the women do. In reaction, Okonkwo completely rejected his father, and therefore the feminine side of himself. He became a star wrestler and warrior in his tribe and began providing for his family at a very young age, while at the same time starting new farms and beginning to amass wealth. He is very successful, and soon becomes one of the leaders of his tribe and has many wives and children. His big ambition is to become one of the powerful elders of the tribe, for what could be more manly than that?
Unfortunately, everything is not perfect. His son, Nwoye, seems not to be showing the characteristics of a real man. He prefers to stay with his mother, listening to women’s stories, than to listen to his father’s tales of battle and victory. Later, when missionaries come to the tribe, Nwoye is attracted to their Christian religion because of its unqualified acceptance of everyone, much like a mother’s unqualified love. Of this, Okonkwo reflects that “fire begets ashes,” where fire is the powerful, destructive, male force, and ashes the inert, weak, female force.
Okonkwo is eventually defeated when he finds that his physical strength is not powerful enough to overcome the white men, and, unable to accept this, he hangs himself.
The Ibo Religion’s Demise
The Ibo religion falls in much the same way. This religion is centered about the worship of male gods and ancestors. The female god among these may be the Earth goddess, but Okonkwo offends this goddess twice in the story to save his masculine image: once when he beats his wife during the week of peace; the other when he strikes down his adopted son. The gods’ functions are mainly to help in war, and to aid the yearly yam crop, which is considered a man’s crop. The highest members in the religious organization are the most respected men in the society; during ceremonies, they don costumes and play the role of the deceased ancestors. The primary influence women have in this religion is in the role of the oracle, who is a woman, although she embodies a male god. It is the women, also, who practice witchcraft, which is greatly feared in the tribes, but it should be noted that even this is a passive force with only intangible connections to any physical effects.
When the Christian religion is introduced, preaching universal acceptance, many members of the clan who are dissatisfied with the Ibo religion are drawn toward it. Some of the title-less men described as ‘women’ in the tribe are immediately drawn to it. Nwoye, who dislikes the practice of exposing supposedly evil twin babies in the woods, and who felt that killing Ikemefuna, Okonkwo’s adopted son, on the advice of the oracle was wrong, was drawn to the new religion because it preached that killing the innocent was wrong. This acceptance of all embodies what a leader of the people of Okonkwo’s mother said about the nature of the mother: that she is where one goes when he is in trouble and needs comfort, and that she can always be depended upon to give her unconditional acceptance. These ideas filled a gap for many tribesmen that the Ibo religion couldn’t
fill, since it was so unbalanced toward the male. The Ibo religion thereafter grew less powerful, and the tribesmen’s attempts to reverse this by killing and burning only made things worse.
The Ibo Tribes’ Demise
Some of the wise elders said that Umuofia was getting weaker because the tribes were ceasing to intermix the way they once had, and instead were in competition with each other. Few of the tribal people understood the importance of the saying ‘mother is supreme’, and would therefore lose connection with their motherland. Okonkwo encouraged his son to lose his connection with his own mother in favor of the connection with his father and thus his masculine side. When Okonkwo’s daughter came of the age to marry, Okonkwo thought it best not to have her marry one of the many suitors from his motherland, but rather marry someone in his fatherland, in order to gain a better position there. Even within Umuofia, the tribes were so unfamiliar with each other as to think
that each others’ customs were quite strange and foreign. All these things served to drive the tribes of Umuofia apart and set them against each other, so that if a foreign influence were introduced, they would not be able to help each other. When the first missionary came to Umuofia, he was killed because of the male ideas to deal with unknown, foreign evils. When the white man’s government found out, they sent soldiers and guns, and the tribe that killed him was annhilated. This was an indication of how male power could fail. Soon, more missionaries came, but these were allowed to exist because of what had happened before. The missionaries requested land to build a church upon, and the tribe allowed them to build in the evil forest, thinking that the evil forces in the forest would bring them down. However, they didn’t.
It might be argued that the night belongs to the female, and the day belongs to the male. In the book, it is during the day that the males do their deeds. In the night, they come home to the comfort of their wives cooking and beds. It is also at night that the Oracle was most active, as was the witch. The men feared the night and all of the unknown things that dwelt there, but in the night the Oracle and the witch fearlessly walked the woods and practiced their professions. It might also be argued that the woods were also part of the night, for that was where the unknown evils lurked, passive evils which might put intangible hexes upon any intruders. Twin babies, committers of evil deeds, and the evil ogbanja spirits which haunted mothers were all thrown into the evil woods.
Maybe it was this feminine side of the evil woods which allowed the church to stand unaffected by the other evils surrounding it, and allow it, even, to flourish. The white man also introduced a government. The author seems to view this as an evil, too, since the government imposed its own laws and ways upon the people without knowing anything about their own. This government had the power to enforce these laws with sheer physical power. Perhaps this disbalance of the masculine and feminine is also being criticized by the author, but, in any case, the tribes’ own physical power proves ineffectual against it, and in the end, they are forced to submit to these foreign influences, becoming subjects of the British Empire instead.
The author definitely suggests that there is a balance to all systems, and that when that balance is lost, the system is reduced to chaos. In this paper, I have traced this imbalance to an imbalance between masculine and feminine forces, but this could quite likely be traced down to something different. However, I think it must be something analogous, something on a similar didactic scale, and something to do with order versus entropy. In the quotation of Yeats’s poem, this comes into play with the falconer losing control of the falcon as it spirals up into the skies. It is difficult to say what the outcome might have been if these forces had been more in harmony: whether Okonkwo might not have offended the earth goddess and risen to the top of the clan, or whether his ambition might not in the first place have pushed him in this perilous direction; whether the Ibo religion could satisfy its constituents enough so that foreign influence was not a threat; or whether as a united whole the Ibo could have stood up against the external influence and military power of the Europeans. The author does seem to suggest, however, that things would definitely have been different, and that the Ibo could have been more receptive to the ideas introduced by the foreigners. He also suggests the converse. Achebe laments the death of this culture in spite of its weaknesses, and hopes for more compassion and less destruction in the dealings of the Europeans with other cultures.