The Public & Private in Achebe and Adichie

I was interested in the interplay between public and private lives in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, and how that dynamic is then complicated and further fleshed out in Adichie’s “Headstrong Historian”. I saw Things Fall Apart as being ostensibly concerned with Okonkwo’s public life – his relation to others in the clan, his public successes and failures (in wrestling, farming, the accumulation of wealth, etc.), his status and his taking of wives, and ultimately his (and the rest of Umuofia’s) difficult, tragic relationship with the white colonists. There’s a large extent to which Achebe himself undermines this as the sole reading, but the dissonant details happen largely at the margins. Obierika and Nwoye offer two somewhat alternative pictures of masculinity, but both narratives are eventually abandoned. Similarly, as Quayson points out, there’s an interesting portrayal of a mother/daughter relationship with Ekwefi and Ezinma, but it too is incomplete and left unfinished. And frequently the victims of Okonkwo’s violence, his wives and children, are not given the opportunity to defend or speak for themselves. I don’t mean this fundamentally as a criticism of the novel, by the way, but an observation that it seems to foreground the public life (of Okonkwo, and also of the village at large), while allowing the dissonant, contradictory details to flash and disappear, subtly undermining the overarching narrative (also, perhaps, undermining the effectiveness of a single, allegorical reading).

In “The Headstrong Historian”, by contrast, the focus seems to be purposefully reversed. Not only is the story told largely from the perspective of Nwamgba, and continues long after her husband’s death, but it also jumps to other members of her family, characters who would have occupied the margins of Things Fall Apart – her son Anikwenwa/Michael, a convert to Christianity, and her granddaughter (bypassing her grandson) Grace/Afamefuna. Concerns of public significance are of course present as well, but I saw them occupying a somewhat secondary position. There’s a clear emphasis on the highly particular effects that parental relationships can have on the trajectory of their children’s lives, as Anikwenwa first follows then defies his mother’s wishes, and Afamefuna does the same in reverse, following then defying her father’s wishes to come back to a fuller appreciation of her grandmother.

Both the story and the novel, while acting somewhat as mirrors of one another, serve in their own ways to highlight the multiplicity of narratives within a nation, a culture, a village, and even a single family. I certainly wouldn’t want to deny the presence of socio-political implications that go beyond the idiosyncratic, but (to bring it back to our discussion of Jameson at the beginning of Tuesday’s class) it seems extremely difficult to me to find a single narrative, or a single allegorical reading, that properly encapsulates either work. And that seems largely to be the point.

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