• Unit 3: Literary techniques in novels

    Unit 3: Literary techniques in novels

    Introduction

    Activity 1

    In groups of four, discuss how you can make a story interesting.

    As we noted in Unit 1, the novel is one the major genres of prose fiction. The goal of a novelist is to communicate a given message and to express this in a beautiful way. To achieve beauty, novelists use language in a unique manner to make their works artistically rich. This unique use of language is referred to as style in literature. Style is the quality that gives a work of literature its individual personality. It entails the use of various literary techniques, which include figurative language, symbolism, irony, contrast and dialogue.

    Activity 2

    In groups of four, discuss the following statements. Individually, write down what kind of devices each one of them is. Why do we use such statements in a story?

    a. Amalinze the Cat

    b. The flutes sang

    c. As slippery as a fish

    d. Like a bush-fire

    e. When he slept, his wives and children in their houses could hear him breathe

    f. He seemed to walk on springs

    g. He who brings kola brings life

    h. His own flute weaving in and out of them, decorating them with a colourful and plaintive tune

    i. Proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten

    j. His voice rang out clear as the ogene.

    k. Tears stood in his eyes

    l. The sun will shine on those who stand before it shines on those who kneel under them

    m. If a child washed his hands he could eat with kings

    Below is Chapter One from Chinua Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart. Read it carefully − pay attention to the words in bold. We shall refer to this as we discuss literary techniques. 

                                                                 CHAPTER ONE

    Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievements. As a young man of eighteen he had brought honour to his village by throwing Amalinze the Cat.

     Amalinze was the great wrestler who for seven years was unbeaten, from Umuofia to Mbaino. He was called the Cat because his back would never touch the earth. It was this man that Okonkwo threw in a fight which the old men agreed was one of the fiercest since the founder of their town engaged a spirit of the wild for seven days and seven nights.

      The drums beat and the flutes sang and the spectators held their breath. Amalinze was a wily craftsman, but Okonkwo was as slippery as a fish in water. Every nerve and every muscle stood out on their arms, on their backs and their thighs, and one almost heard them stretching to breaking point. In the end Okonkwo threw the Cat.

      That was many years ago, twenty years or more, and during this time Okonkwo’s fame had grown like a bush-fire in the harmattan. He was tall and huge, and his bushy eyebrows and wide nose gave him a very severe look. He breathed heavily, and it was said that, when he slept, his wives and children in their houses could hear him breathe. When he walked, his heels hardly touched the ground and he seemed to walk on springs, as if he was going to pounce on somebody. And he did pounce on people quite often. He had a slight stammer and whenever he was angry and could not get his words out quickly enough, he would use his fists. He had no patience with unsuccessful men. He had had no patience with his father.

       Unoka, for that was his father’s name, had died ten years ago. In his day he was lazy and improvident and was quite incapable of thinking about tomorrow. If any money came his way, and it seldom did, he immediately bought gourds of palm-wine, called round his neighbours and made merry. He always said that whenever he saw a dead man’s mouth he saw the folly of not eating what one had in one’s lifetime. Unoka was, of course, a debtor, and he owed every neighbour some money, from a few cowries to quite substantial amounts.

       He was tall but very thin and had a slight stoop. He wore a haggard and mournful look except when he was drinking or playing on his flute. He was very good on his flute, and his happiest moments were the two or three moons after the harvest when the village musicians brought down their instruments, hung above the fireplace. Unoka would play with them, his face beaming with blessedness and peace. Sometimes another village would ask Unoka’s band and their dancing egwugwu to come and stay with them and teach them their tunes. They would go to such hosts for as long as three or four markets, making music and feasting. Unoka loved the good hire and the good fellowship, and he loved this season of the year, when the rains had stopped and the sun rose every morning with dazzling beauty. And it was not too hot either, because the cold and dry harmattan wind was blowing down from the north. Some years the harmattan was very severe and a dense haze hung on the atmosphere. Old men and children would then sit round log fires, warming their bodies. Unoka loved it all, and he loved the first kites that returned with the dry season, and the children who sang songs of welcome to them. He would remember his own childhood, how he had often wandered around looking for a kite sailing leisurely against the blue sky. As soon as he found one he would sing with his whole being, welcoming it back from its long, long journey, and asking it if it had brought home any lengths of cloth.

       That was years ago, when he was young. Unoka, the grown-up, was a failure. He was poor and his wife and children had barely enough to eat. People laughed at him because he was a loafer, and they swore never to lend him any more money because he never paid back. But Unoka was such a man that he always succeeded in borrowing more, and piling up his debts.

       One day a neighbour called Okoye came in to see him. He was reclining on a mud bed in his hut playing on the flute. He immediately rose and shook hands with Okoye, who then unrolled the goatskin which he carried under his arm, and sat down. Unoka went into an inner room and soon returned with a small wooden disc containing a kola nut, some alligator pepper and a lump of white chalk.

       “I have kola,” he announced when he sat down, and passed the disc over to his guest.

      “Thank you. He who brings kola brings life. But I think you ought to break it,” replied Okoye, passing back the disc.

      “No, it is for you, I think,” and they argued like this for a few moments before Unoka accepted the honour of breaking the kola. Okoye, meanwhile, took the lump of chalk, drew some lines on the floor, and then painted his big toe.

       As he broke the kola, Unoka prayed to their ancestors for life and health, and for protection against their enemies. When they had eaten they talked about many things: about the heavy rains which were drowning the yams, about the next ancestral feast and about the impending war with the village of Mbaino. Unoka was never happy when it came to wars. He was in fact a coward and could not bear the sight of blood. And so he changed the subject and talked about music, and his face beamed. He could hear in his mind’s ear the blood-stirring and intricate rhythms of the ekwe and the udu and the ogene, and he could hear his own flute weaving in and out of them, decorating them with a colourful and plaintive tune. The total effect was gay and brisk, but if one picked out the flute as it went up and down and then broke up into short snatches, one saw that there was sorrow and grief there.

       Okoye was also a musician. He played on the ogene. But he was not a failure like Unoka. He had a large barn full of yams and he had three wives. And now he was going to take the Idemili title, the third highest in the land. It was a very expensive ceremony and he was gathering all his resources together. That was in fact the reason why he had come to see Unoka. He cleared his throat and began: “Thank you for the kola. You may have heard of the title I intend to take shortly.”

       Having spoken plainly so far, Okoye said the next half a dozen sentences in proverbs. Among the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten. Okoye was a great talker and he spoke for a long time, skirting round the subject and then hitting it finally. In short, he was asking Unoka to return the two hundred cowries he had borrowed from him more than two years before. As soon as Unoka understood what his friend was driving at, he burst out laughing. He laughed loud and long and his voice rang out clear as the ogene, and tears stood in his eyes. His visitor was amazed, and sat speechless. At the end, Unoka was able to give an answer between fresh outbursts of mirth.

       “Look at that wall,” he said, pointing at the far wall of his hut, which was rubbed with red earth so that it shone. “Look at those lines of chalk,” and Okoye saw groups of short perpendicular lines drawn in chalk. There were five groups, and the smallest group had ten lines. Unoka had a sense of the dramatic and so he allowed a pause, in which he took a pinch of snuff and sneezed noisily, and then he continued: “Each group there represents a debt to someone, and each stroke is one hundred cowries. You see, I owe that man a thousand cowries. But he has not come to wake me up in the morning for it. I shall pay you, but not today. Our elders say that the sun will shine on those who stand before it shines on those who kneel under them. I shall pay my big debts first.” And he took another pinch of snuff, as if that was paying the big debts first. Okoye rolled his goatskin and departed.

       When Unoka died he had taken no title at all and he was heavily in debt. Any wonder then that his son Okonkwo was ashamed of him? Fortunately, among these people a man was judged according to his worth and not according to the worth of his father. Okonkwo was clearly cut out for great things. He was still young but he had won fame as the greatest wrestler in the nine villages. He was a wealthy farmer and had two barns full of yams, and had just married his third wife. To crown it all he had taken two titles and had shown incredible prowess in two inter-tribal wars. And so although Okonkwo was still young, he was already one of the greatest men of his time. Age was respected among his people, but achievement was revered. As the elders said, if a child washed his hands he could eat with kings. Okonkwo had clearly washed his hands and so he ate with kings and elders. And that was how he came to look after the doomed lad who was sacrificed to the village of Umuofia by their neighbours to avoid war and bloodshed. The illfated lad was called Ikemefuna.

    Group discussion

    a. In your small groups, discuss all the words in bold type.

    b. How do these words help make the story more colourful?

    c. What are these expressions called?

    Literary techniques

    Literary techniques are also known as narrative techniques or literary devices. These are the methods a writer uses to convey his or her message properly. Literary techniques help the reader visualise what the author is saying. This is what we call style. For instance, Achebe uses imagery in the chapter that we just read.  Umofians refer to Amalinze as “Amalinze the Cat” because his back never touched the ground.  We know that even if you throw a cat, it never falls on its back. This image therefore, helps us to visualise how Amalinze wrestled. It also helps us to understand why Okonkwo was so famous.

    Activity 3

    a. Discuss with your desk mate what a simile is.

    b. Pick a simile from the story and individually, construct a sentence using it.

    In this Unit, we shall look at: tone, irony, satire, symbolism and other aspects of prose like, plot, character and purpose. 

       Tone: This is the writer’s attitude towards a subject – how the author approaches what he or she is talking about. Tone is conveyed through the author’s choice of words. An author can be formal, informal, comical or sad. He or she can also be positive or negative. For instance, Unoka makes light of his situation when he says: “Our elders say that the sun will shine on those who stand before it shines on those who kneel under them.” Though you may sympathise with Okoye who had come to ask Unoka to pay him, you would also laugh because of Unoka’s wit. Generally, Chapter One of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart has an informal tone.

    Activity 4

    Read the paragraph below with your desk mate, and explain its tone. One of you should listen as the other reads.

    Unoka, for that was his father’s name, had died ten years ago. In his day he was lazy and improvident and was quite incapable of thinking about tomorrow. If  any money came his way, and it seldom did, he immediately bought gourds of palm-wine, called round his neighbours and made merry. He always said that whenever he saw a dead man’s mouth he saw the folly of not eating what one had in one’s lifetime. Unoka was, of course, a debtor, and he owed every neighbour some money, from a few cowries to quite substantial amounts.

        Irony: The word irony comes from a Greek character, Eiron who was weaker and used his wit to overcome a stronger character. This word therefore means “hypocrisy”, “deception”, or “feigned ignorance”. It is a literary device in which there is a difference between what one says or does and what one means. For example: A man is found by a woman, urinating in public and the woman says, “You are such an intelligent man.” You notice that there is a disagreement between what is done and how the individual is described. You cannot be described as intelligent if you urinate in public!

    Activity 5

    In pairs, discuss and come up with an ironical statement describing Unoka. Refer to the passage in Activity 3.

    We detect irony when we notice a difference between what someone would reasonably expect to happen and what actually does happen.

    For instance, Unoka knows very well he owes Okoye. He therefore did not have to wait for Okoye to explain himself to know why he had paid him a visit. Yet the narrator says: “As soon as Unoka understood what his friend was driving at, he burst out laughing.” This is the opposite of what we would expect. Surely, Unoka was well aware of the fact that he owed Okoye 200 cowries.

    There are three types of irony: verbal irony, dramatic irony and situational irony.

    Verbal irony refers to a situation where an author says one thing and means something else.

    In other words, verbal irony is saying something different from what you mean. Sometimes we detect irony through the tone of the voice, which could show that you mean the opposite.

    Dramatic irony mainly occurs in dramatic texts in which the writer allows a reader to know more about a situation than a character does. This creates a discrepancy between what the character says and thinks and what the reader knows is true. The reader is able to perceive something that a character in the literature does not know.

    Situational irony is detected where there is contradiction between the expected result and actual results, or what appears and what is true.

    Activity 6

    In groups of four, discuss this dialogue

    Man: Who said smoking kills? I am forty and have been smoking for five years.

    Woman: How wise! You are forty yet you look like a ninety-year-old. Besides, your cough is music to my ears.

        Satire: This is criticising something wrong using humour or exaggeration. It is expected that as the reader or audience laughs, they can learn something and correct the wrong. For instance, the narrator in Things Fall Apart says: “He always said that whenever he saw a dead man’s mouth he saw the folly of not eating what one had in one’s lifetime.” This is a rebuke to the lazy. We laugh as we read because we know Unoka was a debtor, therefore he and his family never had enough to eat. This is clearly stated in Chapter One, thus: “He was poor and his wife and children had barely enough to eat.”  Achebe is basically saying that you if you want the good life you must work hard and earn it.

    Activity 7

    a. What do the following symbols represent: a cross, a crown. Discuss this with your desk mate.

    b. What do you think Amalinze represents in our lives? Discuss this in groups of four.

        Symbolism: A symbol is a sign, a shape or object that is used to signify something else. For instance, green colour signifies life while blue signifies water. Symbolism therefore is the use of symbols in stories to represent ideas. For instance In Chapter One of Things Fall Apart, we are told that when Unoka died, he had taken no title. A title in this case is a symbol of achievement.

    If an image is repeatedly used, it begins to carry several meanings. It may be significant enough to be called a symbol. You will notice that various characters are symbolic in the sense that they stand for certain ideals.

    Authors may also use the following literary devices:

    Imagery

    Activity 8

    a. In pairs discuss the meaning of this statement: My mother is a rock.

    b. In groups of four, name animal characters from oral narratives, who speak.

    c. In groups of four, discuss the meaning of exaggeration. Imagery entails the use of words and phrases that create mental pictures in the reader’s mind. Imagery enables us to see, hear, smell, taste and touch what the author says – in our minds. This is done using similes, metaphors, personification, allusion and hyperbole.

    Metaphors are comparisons that show how two things, that are not alike, in most ways, are similar in one important way; for instance, “Amalinze the Cat”. Here Amalinze’s ability or technique is compared to that of a cat. Here is another example: She is an angel.

    The use of metaphors makes the writing vivid. We are made to see what is being described as if it is a picture.  Metaphors reveal aspects of people, objects and situations. Generally, a metaphor describes one subject as being equal to a second object.

    The metaphor consists of two parts: the tenor and vehicle. The tenor is the subject to which attributes are ascribed. The vehicle is the subject from which the attributes are borrowed. For example: in “Amalinze the Cat” Amalinze is the tenor on which qualities of a cat are attributed. As you can see from this example, to understand a metaphor, you have to deviate from the dictionary definition.

    A simile is closely related to a metaphor. It is a figure of speech that compares two unlike things. Similes are usually introduced by the words ‘like’ or ‘as’. For example, “... Okonkwo was as slippery as a fish ...” Here is another example As green as grass.

    Activity 9

    Write one simile from Chapter One of Things Fall Apart that uses the word ‘like’.

    Both similes and metaphors are forms of comparison. The difference between a simile and metaphor is that similes allow the two ideas to remain distinct in spite of the similarity. But metaphors equate two ideas despite their difference.

    Personification is giving non-human things human qualities. For example, “... the flutes sang ...”. A flute never sings, yet here it is given the human ability of singing.

    “... asking it if it had brought home any lengths of cloth ...”. Here the kite, which is an animal, is looked at as if it is a merchant who had gone to faraway places and is expected to bring back lengths of cloth. “... he could hear his own flute weaving in and out of them, decorating them ...” Here, the flute is given human abilities – to be able to weave and decorate.

    “... tears stood in his eyes.” All of us know that human beings can stand, but can tears stand? Certainly not.

    Hyperbole is exaggeration; making subjective claims that are exaggerated. For instance, it is said that when Okonkwo slept, “his wives and children in their houses could hear him breathe.”

    Plot

    Activity 10

    Tell the members of your group what happened since you left your home until you got to school.

    By now you know that plot refers to the unfolding of events in a piece of prose. As you read the next two chapters of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, you will see what causes Okonkwo to become who he is. However, in Chapter One, we can see that Okonkwo became famous because he defeated Amalinze in a wrestling match. On the other hand Unoka died poor without a title because he was lazy. Plot has to do with cause and effect; one thing causes the other. The result of the cause and effect is what creates conflict and as the main character tries to solve the conflict, the story moves forward.

    The plot in Things Fall Apart is made up of episodes, which are single, related events. For example, Chapter One opens with the wrestling action, which introduces Okonkwo to the reader and explains why he, Okonkwo, was famous. This flows into the next episode, which introduces Unoka and gives reasons Okonkwo was impatient with him.

       The episodes in this novel are parallel. Parallel episodes are events that have something in common. For example, we are introduced to Okonkwo the famous man in the first episode. Thereafter, we are introduced to Unoka – the father to Okonkwo – who is a lazy man.

    Activity 11

    The common thing in the two episodes between Okonkwo and Unoka is enterprise. Give evidence from Chapter One of Things Fall Apart to justify this statement.

    Character: Character refers to traits or manners and at the same time to the fictional human being, animal or thing in a story. For instance, Okonkwo is a character in Things Fall Apart. At the same time, Okonkwo exhibits a certain character – he behaves in a particular way.

    Remember: Character traits can be presented:

    Directly:  Where the author or other characters talk about a particular character. For example, the character of Unoka: “In his day he was lazy and improvident and was quite incapable of thinking about tomorrow.”

    Indirectly: When we get hints that make us think about a character and make conclusions about his or her character. For instance, “Having spoken plainly so far, Okoye said the next half a dozen sentences in proverbs.” This makes the reader think of Okoye as being persuasive.  In order to identify character traits we look at: 

       1. The physical description of the character in terms of size, colour and general appearance.

       2. What the character says about himself or herself and about other issues affecting society.

       3. The actions of the character in his or her interaction with other characters.

       4. What other characters say about the character.

       5. The character’s thoughts, desires, dreams and wishes.

    Characters are usually described by single adjectives such as loving, cruel, intelligent, naïve, hardworking, lazy, humorous and so on. Consequently, one does not say character A cares about people but rather, character A is caring. One should also avoid ambiguous words when describing a character. For example, rather than say character B is not disciplined, one should be more specific and say he or she is rude or dishonest. Characters can have both positive and negative traits.

    Activity 12

    Now that you have read the first chapter of Things Fall Apart, in groups of four, describe:

    i) Okonkwo

    ii) Unoka

    Purpose is the reason for writing a novel. What do you think is the purpose of writing Things Fall Apart?

    Practice Exercise 1

    Homework

    The following are chapters two and three of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Read them and then answer the questions that follow.

                                                         CHAPTER TWO

    Okonkwo had just blown out the palm-oil lamp and stretched himself on his bamboo bed when he heard the ogene of the town crier piercing the still night air. Gome, gome, gome, gome, boomed the hollow metal.

       Then the crier gave his message, and at the end of it beat his instrument again. And this was the message. Every man of Umuofia was asked to gather at the market place tomorrow morning. Okonkwo wondered what was amiss, for he knew certainly that something was amiss. He had discerned a clear overtone of tragedy in the crier’s voice, and even now he could still hear it as it grew dimmer and dimmer in the distance.

        The night was very quiet. It was always quiet except on moonlight nights. Darkness held a vague terror for these people, even the bravest among them. Children were warned not to whistle at night for fear of evil spirits. Dangerous animals became even more sinister and uncanny in the dark. A

    snake was never called by its name at night, because it would hear. It was called a string. And so on this particular night as the crier’s voice was gradually swallowed up in the distance, silence returned to the world, a vibrant silence made more intense by the universal trill of a million million forest insects.

        On a moonlight night it would be different. The happy voices of children playing in open fields would then be heard. And perhaps those not so young would be playing in pairs in less open places, and old men and women would remember their youth. As the Ibo say: “When the moon is shining the cripple becomes hungry for a walk.”

       But this particular night was dark and silent. And in all the nine villages of Umuofia a town crier with his ogene asked every man to be present tomorrow morning. Okonkwo on his bamboo bed tried to figure out the nature of the emergency — war with a neighbouring clan? That seemed the most likely reason, and he was not afraid of war. He was a man of action, a man of war. Unlike his father he could stand the look of blood. In Umuofia’s latest war he was the first to bring home a human head. That was his fifth head and he was not an old man yet. On great occasions such as the funeral of a village celebrity he drank his palm-wine from his first human head.

       In the morning the market place was full. There must have been about ten thousand men there, all talking in low voices. At last Ogbuefi Ezeugo stood up in the midst of them and bellowed four times, “Umuofia kwenu,” and on each occasion he faced a different direction and seemed to push the air with a clenched fist. And ten thousand men answered “Yaa!” each time. Then there was perfect silence. Ogbuefi Ezeugo was a powerful orator and was always chosen to speak on such occasions. He moved his hand over his white head and stroked his white beard. He then adjusted his cloth, which was passed under his right arm-pit and tied above his left shoulder.

       “Umuofia kwenu,” he bellowed a fifth time, and the crowd yelled in answer. And then suddenly like one possessed he shot out his left hand and pointed in the direction of Mbaino, and said through gleaming white teeth firmly clenched: “Those sons of wild animals have dared to murder a daughter of Umuofia.” He threw his head down and gnashed his teeth, and allowed a murmur of suppressed anger to sweep the crowd. When he began again, the anger on his face was gone, and in its place a sort of smile hovered, more terrible and more sinister than the anger. And in a clear unemotional voice he told Umuofia how their daughter had gone to market at Mbaino and had been killed. That woman, said Ezeugo, was the wife of Ogbuefi Udo, and he pointed to a man who sat near him with a bowed head. The crowd then shouted with anger and thirst for blood.

      Many others spoke, and at the end it was decided to follow the normal course of action. An ultimatum was immediately dispatched to Mbaino asking them to choose between war on the one hand, and on the other the offer of a young man and a virgin as compensation.

     Umuofia was feared by all its neighbours. It was powerful in war and in magic, and its priests and medicine men were feared in all the surrounding country. Its most potent war-medicine was as old as the clan itself. Nobody knew how old. But on one point there was general agreement − the active principle in that medicine had been an old woman with one leg. In fact, the medicine itself was called agadi-nwayi, or old woman. It had its shrine in the centre of Umuofia, in a cleared spot. And if anybody was so foolhardy as to pass by the shrine after dusk he was sure to see the old woman hopping about.

       And so the neighbouring clans who naturally knew of these things feared Umuofia, and would not go to war against it without first trying a peaceful settlement. And in fairness to Umuofia it should be recorded that it never went to war unless its case was clear and just and was accepted as such by its Oracle − the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves. And there were indeed occasions when the Oracle had forbidden Umuofia to wage a war. If the clan had disobeyed the Oracle they would surely have been beaten, because their dreaded agadi-nwayi would never fight what the Ibo call a fight of blame.

      But the war that now threatened was a just war. Even the enemy clan knew that. And so when Okonkwo of Umuofia arrived at Mbaino as the proud and imperious emissary of war, he was treated with great honour and respect, and two days later he returned home with a lad of fifteen and a young virgin.

    The lad’s name was Ikemefuna, whose sad story is still told in Umuofia unto this day.

       The elders, or ndichie, met to hear a report of Okonkwo’s mission. At the end they decided, as everybody knew they would, that the girl should go to Ogbuefi Udo to replace his murdered wife. As for the boy, he belonged to the clan as a whole, and there was no hurry to decide his fate. Okonkwo was, therefore, asked on behalf of the clan to look after him in the interim. And so for three years Ikemefuna lived in Okonkwo’s household.

       Okonkwo ruled his household with a heavy hand. His wives, especially the youngest, lived in perpetual fear of his fiery temper, and so did his little children. Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness. It was deeper and more intimate than the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of the forest, and of the forces of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw. Okonkwo’s fear was greater than these. It was not external but lay deep within himself. It was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father. Even as a little boy he had resented his father’s failure and weakness, and even now he still remembered how he had suffered when a playmate had told him that his father was agbala. That was how Okonkwo first came to know that agbala was not only another name for a woman, it could also mean a man who had taken no title. And so Okonkwo was ruled by one passion − to hate everything that his father Unoka had loved. One of those things was gentleness and another was idleness.

       During the planting season Okonkwo worked daily on his farms from cockcrow until the chickens went to roost. He was a very strong man and rarely felt fatigue. But his wives and young children were not as strong, and so they suffered. But they dared not complain openly. Okonkwo’s first son, Nwoye, was then twelve years old but was already causing his father great anxiety for his incipient laziness. At any rate, that was how it looked to his father, and he sought to correct him by constant nagging and beating. And so Nwoye was developing into a sad-faced youth.

       Okonkwo’s prosperity was visible in his household. He had a large compound enclosed by a thick wall of red earth. His own hut, or obi, stood immediately behind the only gate in the red walls. Each of his three wives had her own hut, which together formed a half moon behind the obi. The barn was built against one end of the red walls, and long stacks of yam stood out prosperously in it. At the opposite end of the compound was a shed for the goats, and each wife built a small attachment to her hut for the hens. Near the barn was a small house, the “medicine house” or shrine where Okonkwo kept the wooden symbols of his personal god and of his ancestral spirits. He worshipped them with sacrifices of kola nut, food and palm-wine, and offered prayers to them on behalf of himself, his three wives and eight children.

        So when the daughter of Umuofia was killed in Mbaino, Ikemefuna came into Okonkwo’s household. When Okonkwo brought him home that day he called his most senior wife and handed him over to her.

       “He belongs to the clan,” he told her. “So look after him.”

       “Is he staying long with us?” she asked.

       “Do what you are told, woman,” Okonkwo thundered, and stammered.

    “When did you become one of the ndichie of Umuofia?” And so Nwoye’s mother took Ikemefuna to her hut and asked no more questions.

       As for the boy himself, he was terribly afraid. He could not understand what was happening to him or what he had done. How could he know that his father had taken a hand in killing a daughter of Umuofia? All he knew was that a few men had arrived at their house, conversing with his father in low tones, and at the end he had been taken out and handed over to a stranger. His mother had wept bitterly, but he had been too surprised to weep. And so the stranger had brought him, and a girl, a long, long way from home, through lonely forest paths. He did not know who the girl was, and he never saw her again.

                                                       CHAPTER THREE

    Okonkwo did not have the start in life which many young men usually had. He did not inherit a barn from his father. There was no barn to inherit. The story was told in Umuofia, of how his father, Unoka, had gone to consult the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves to find out why he always had a miserable harvest.

        The Oracle was called Agbala, and people came from far and near to consult it. They came when misfortune dogged their steps or when they had a dispute with their neighbours. They came to discover what the future held for them or to consult the spirits of their departed fathers. The way into the shrine was a round hole at the side of a hill, just a little bigger than the round opening into a henhouse.  Worshippers and those who came to seek knowledge from the god crawled on their belly through the hole and found themselves in a dark, endless space in the presence of Agbala. No one had ever beheld Agbala, except his priestess. But no one who had ever crawled into his awful shrine had come out without the fear of his power. His priestess stood by the sacred fire which she built in the heart of the cave and proclaimed the will of the god. The fire did not burn with a flame. The glowing logs only served to light up vaguely the dark figure of the priestess.         Sometimes a man came to consult the spirit of his dead father or relative. It was said that when such a spirit appeared, the man saw it vaguely in the darkness, but never heard its voice. Some people even said that they had heard the spirits flying and flapping their wings against the roof of the cave.

       Many years ago when Okonkwo was still a boy, his father, Unoka, had gone to consult Agbala. The priestess in those days was a woman called Chika. She was full of the power of her god, and she was greatly feared. Unoka stood before her and began his story.

      “Every year,” he said sadly, “before I put any crop in the earth, I sacrifice a cock to Ani, the owner of all land. It is the law of our fathers. I also kill a cock at the shrine of Ifejioku, the god of yams. I clear the bush and set fire to it when it is dry. I sow the yams when the first rain has fallen, and stake them when the young tendrils appear. I weed” − “Hold your peace!” screamed the priestess, her voice terrible as it echoed through the dark void. “You have offended neither the gods nor your fathers. And when a man is at peace with  But no one who had ever crawled into his awful shrine had come out without the fear of his power. His priestess stood by the sacred fire which she built in the heart of the cave and proclaimed the will of the god. The fire did not burn with a flame. The glowing logs only served to light up vaguely the dark figure of the priestess. Sometimes a man came to consult the spirit of his dead father or relative. It was said that when such a spirit appeared, the man saw it vaguely in the darkness, but never heard its voice. Some people even said that they had heard the spirits flying and flapping their wings against the roof of the cave. Many years ago when Okonkwo was still a boy, his father, Unoka, had gone to consult Agbala. The priestess in those days was a woman called Chika. She was full of the power of her god, and she was greatly feared. Unoka stood before her and began his story. “Every year,” he said sadly, “before I put any crop in the earth, I sacrifice a cock to Ani, the owner of all land. It is the law of our fathers. I also kill a cock at the shrine of Ifejioku, the god of yams. I clear the bush and set fire to it when it is dry. I sow the yams when the first rain has fallen, and stake them when the young tendrils appear. I weed” − “Hold your peace!” screamed the priestess, her voice terrible as it echoed through the dark void. “You have offended neither the gods nor your fathers. And when a man is at peace with  his gods and his ancestors, his harvest will be good or bad according to the strength of his arm. You, Unoka, are known in all the clan for the weakness of your machete and your hoe. When your neighbours go out with their axe to cut down virgin forests, you sow your yams on exhausted farms that take no labour to clear. They cross seven rivers to make their farms, − you stay at home and offer sacrifices to a reluctant soil. Go home and work like a man.”

       Unoka was an ill-fated man. He had a bad chi or personal god, and evil fortune followed him to the grave, or rather to his death, for he had no grave. He died of the swelling which was an abomination to the earth goddess. When a man was afflicted with swelling in the stomach and the limbs he was not allowed to die in the house. He was carried to the Evil Forest and left there to die. There was the story of a very stubborn man who staggered back to his house and had to be carried again to the forest and tied to a tree. The sickness was an abomination to the earth, and so the victim could not be buried in her bowels. He died and rotted away above the earth, and was not given the first or the second burial. Such was Unoka’s fate. When they carried him away, he took with him his flute.

       With a father like Unoka, Okonkwo did not have the start in life which many young men had. He neither inherited a barn nor a title, nor even a young wife. But in spite of these disadvantages, he had begun even in his father’s lifetime to lay the foundations of a prosperous future. It was slow and painful. But he threw himself into it like one possessed. And indeed he was possessed by the fear of his father’s contemptible life and shameful death.

       There was a wealthy man in Okonkwo’s village who had three huge barns, nine wives and thirty children. His name was Nwakibie and he had taken the highest but one title which a man could take in the clan. It was for this man that Okonkwo worked to earn his first seed yams.

       He took a pot of palm-wine and a cock to Nwakibie. Two elderly neighbours were sent for, and Nwakibie’s two grown-up sons were also present in his obi. He presented a kola nut and an alligator pepper, which were passed round for all to see and then returned to him. He broke the nut saying: “We shall all live. We pray for life, children, a good harvest and happiness. You will have what is good for you and I will have what is good for me. Let the kite perch and let the eagle perch too. If one says no to the other, let his wing break.”

       After the kola nut had been eaten Okonkwo brought his palm-wine from the corner of the hut where it had been placed and stood it in the centre of the group. He addressed Nwakibie, calling him “Our father.”

        “Nna ayi,” he said. “I have brought you this little kola. As our people say, a man who pays respect to the great paves the way for his own greatness. I have come to pay you my respects and also to ask a favour. But let us drink the wine first.

        ” Everybody thanked Okonkwo and the neighbours brought out their drinking horns from the goatskin bags they carried. Nwakibie brought down his own horn, which was fastened to the rafters. The younger of his sons, who was also the youngest man in the group, moved to the centre, raised the pot on his left knee and began to pour out the wine. The first cup went to Okonkwo, who must taste his wine before anyone else. Then the group drank, beginning with the eldest man. When everyone had drunk two or three horns, Nwakibie sent for his wives. Some of them were not at home and only four came in.

        “Is Anasi not in?” he asked them. They said she was coming. Anasi was the first wife and the others could not drink before her, and so they stood waiting.

        Anasi was a middle-aged woman, tall and strongly built. There was authority in her bearing and she looked every inch the ruler of the womenfolk in a large and prosperous family. She wore the anklet of her husband’s titles, which the first wife alone could wear.

        She walked up to her husband and accepted the horn from him. She then went down on one knee, drank a little and handed back the horn. She rose, called him by his name and went back to her hut. The other wives drank in the same way, in their proper order, and went away.

        The men then continued their drinking and talking. Ogbuefi Idigo was talking about the palm-wine tapper, Obiako, who suddenly gave up his trade.

       “There must be something behind it,” he said, wiping the foam of wine from his moustache with the back of his left hand. “There must be a reason for it. A toad does not run in the daytime for nothing.”

       “Some people say the Oracle warned him that he would fall off a palm tree and kill himself,” said Akukalia.

       “Obiako has always been a strange one,” said Nwakibie. “I have heard that many years ago, when his father had not been dead very long, he had gone to consult the Oracle. The Oracle said to him, ‘Your dead father wants you to sacrifice a goat to him.’ Do you know what he told the Oracle? He said, ‘Ask my dead father if he ever had a fowl when he was alive.’” Everybody laughed heartily except Okonkwo, who laughed uneasily because, as the saying goes, an old woman is always uneasy when dry bones are mentioned in a proverb. Okonkwo remembered his own father.

        At last the young man who was pouring out the wine held up half a horn of the thick, white dregs and said, “What we are eating is finished.”

        “We have seen it,” the others replied. “Who will drink the dregs?” he asked. “Whoever has a job in hand,” said Idigo, looking at Nwakibie’s elder son Igwelo with a malicious twinkle in his eye.

         Everybody agreed that Igwelo should drink the dregs. He accepted the half-full horn from his brother and drank it. As Idigo had said, Igwelo had a job in hand because he had married his first wife a month or two before. The thick dregs of palm-wine were supposed to be good for men who were going in to their wives.

        After the wine had been drunk, Okonkwo laid his difficulties before Nwakibie.

        “I have come to you for help,” he said. “Perhaps you can already guess what it is. I have cleared a farm but have no yams to sow. I know what it is to ask a man to trust another with his yams, especially these days when young men are afraid of hard work. I am not afraid of work. The lizard that jumped from the high iroko tree to the ground said he would praise himself if no one else did. I began to fend for myself at an age when most people still suck at their mothers’ breasts. If you give me some yam seeds I shall not fail you.”

         Nwakibie cleared his throat. “It pleases me to see a young man like you these days when our youth has gone so soft. Many young men have come to me to ask for yams but I have refused because I knew they would just dump them in the earth and leave them to be choked by weeds. When I say no to them they think I am hard hearted. But it is not so. Eneke the bird says that since men have learned to shoot without missing, he has learned to fly without perching. I have learned to be stingy with my yams. But I can trust you. I know it as I look at you. As our fathers said, you can tell a ripe corn by its look. I shall give you twice four hundred yams. Go ahead and prepare your farm.”

        Okonkwo thanked him again and again and went home feeling happy. He knew that Nwakibie would not refuse him, but he had not expected he would be so generous. He had not hoped to get more than four hundred seeds. He would now have to make a bigger farm. He hoped to get another four hundred yams from one of his father’s friends at Isiuzo.

         Share-cropping was a very slow way of building up a barn of one’s own. After all the toil one only got a third of the harvest. But for a young man whose father had no yams, there was no other way. And what made it worse in Okonkwo’s case was that he had to support his mother and two sisters from his meagre harvest. And supporting his mother also meant supporting his father. She could not be expected to cook and eat while her husband starved. And so at a very early age when he was striving desperately to build a barn through share-cropping Okonkwo was also fending for his father’s house. It was like pouring grains of corn into a bag full of holes. His mother and sisters worked hard enough, but they grew women’s crops, like cocoyams, beans and cassava. Yam, the king of crops, was a man’s crop.

         The year that Okonkwo took eight hundred seed-yams from Nwakibie was the worst year in living memory. Nothing happened at its proper time, it was either too early or too late. It seemed as if the world had gone mad. The first rains were late, and, when they came, lasted only a brief moment. The blazing sun returned, more fierce than it had ever been known, and scorched all the green that had appeared with the rains. The earth burned like hot coals and roasted all the yams that had been sown. Like all good farmers, Okonkwo had begun to sow with the first rains. He had sown four hundred seeds when the rains dried up and the heat returned. He watched the sky all day for signs of rain clouds and lay awake all night. In the morning he went back to his farm and saw the withering tendrils. He had tried to protect them from the smouldering earth by making rings of thick sisal leaves around them. But by the end of the day the sisal rings were burned dry and grey. He changed them every day, and prayed that the rain might fall in the night. But the drought continued for eight market weeks and the yams were killed.

         Some farmers had not planted their yams yet. They were the lazy easygoing ones who always put off clearing their farms as long as they could. This year they were the wise ones. They sympathised with their neighbours with  much shaking of the head, but inwardly they were happy for what they took to be their own foresight.

          Okonkwo planted what was left of his seed-yams when the rains finally returned. He had one consolation. The yams he had sown before the drought were his own, the harvest of the previous year. He still had the eight hundred from Nwakibie and the four hundred from his father’s friend. So he would make a fresh start.

          But the year had gone mad. Rain fell as it had never fallen before. For days and nights together it poured down in violent torrents, and washed away the yam heaps. Trees were uprooted and deep gorges appeared everywhere. Then the rain became less violent. But it went from day to day without a pause. The spell of sunshine which always came in the middle of the wet season did not appear. The yams put on luxuriant green leaves, but every farmer knew that without sunshine the tubers would not grow.

         That year the harvest was sad, like a funeral, and many farmers wept as they dug up the miserable and rotting yams. One man tied his cloth to a tree branch and hanged himself.

         Okonkwo remembered that tragic year with a cold shiver throughout the rest of his life. It always surprised him when he thought of it later that he did not sink under the load of despair. He knew that he was a fierce fighter, but that year had been enough to break the heart of a lion.

         “Since I survived that year,” he always said, “I shall survive anything.” He put it down to his inflexible will.

         His father, Unoka, who was then an ailing man, had said to him during that terrible harvest month: “Do not despair. I know you will not despair. You have a manly and a proud heart. A proud heart can survive a general failure because such failure does not prick its pride. It is more difficult and more bitter when a man fails alone.”

        Unoka was like that in his last days. His love of talk had grown with age and sickness. It tried Okonkwo’s patience beyond words.

    Questions

    a. Describe the narrator’s tone in the following paragraph:

    But the year had gone mad. Rain fell as it had never fallen before. For days and nights together it poured down in violent torrents, and washed away the yam heaps. Trees were uprooted and deep gorges appeared everywhere. Then the rain became less violent. But it went from day to day without a pause. The spell of sunshine which always came in the middle of the wet season did not appear. The yams put on luxuriant green leaves, but every farmer knew that without sunshine the tubers would not grow.

    b. State at least two main episodes in these two chapters. Explain how they relate to each other.

    c. “The night was very quiet.” What literary device is this? Give reasons for your answer.

    d. “Do you know what he told the Oracle? he said, ‘Ask my dead father if he ever had a fowl when he was alive.’” Is this irony or satire? Give reasons for your answer.

    e. In your own words summarise the plot of the first three chapters of Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart.





    Unit 2: Introduction to African literary traditionsUnit 4: Themes and messages in a novel