Theme of Social Conflict in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun

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Defined as conflict between two or more opposing groups within a society in efforts to attain irreconcilable goals and prevent the advancement of an opponent, social conflict is a theme that is at the forefront of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, and their respective historical settings, with Things Fall Apart set in pre-colonial Nigeria and Half of a Yellow Sun in post-colonial Nigeria. Both authors consider this theme in broader senses, such as the clash of European and traditional tribal institutions, the incompatibility of a modernised culture with its origins and the conflict between perspectives and accounts of a country’s story. In doing so, Adichie and Achebe present a commentary on cultural growth and provide a view of Nigeria as multi-faceted and developed, contrasting with what Adichie describes as the patronising ‘single story of Africa’ of poverty and despair that has too often been presented by Western literature.

As noted by Buakei Jabbi, the primary theme of Things Fall Apart can be seen as the ‘friction with new sets of values and institutional structures’, a theme typically interpreted as referring to the conflict between established Igbo society and institutions, and the imposition of European structures and ideals. Achebe’s consideration of justice systems within British and Igbo cultures in Things Fall Apart is an obvious reflection of this. For example, Samuel B Olorounto has observed how the use of the masked men or egwugwus and the judgement of the trial of Uzowulu and Mgbafo indicate how the Igbo system is one of justice and equality, one in which there are no ‘losers’, as shown in the penalties ruled being mutually beneficial. The offending Uzowulu is ordered to ‘go to [his] in-laws with a pot of wine and beg [his] wife to return to [him]. It is not bravery when a man fights with a woman’. Not only does this judgement illustrate the sophistication of Igbo society but the penalty itself is an action evoking a sense of community and togetherness, highlighting the significance of being a collective. The judicial system itself, being officiated by ancestral spirits, emphasises the strong ties of cultural identity in all aspects of life and demonstrates the strength of Igbo social identity. This established system of justice and equality contrasts directly with that which Okonkwo and the other men are subjected to at the hands the District Commissioner, who represents the European colonial forces. On tricking the men into visiting him and having them arrested, the District Commissioner states, ‘We have brought a peaceful administration to you and your people so that you may be happy’. The contrast between the first person plural pronoun ‘we’, to refer to the British, and the impersonal second person plural pronoun ‘you’, to refer to the people of Umofia, asserts the British as those in a position of power and superiority, and implies that they are in possession of far more “civilised” institutions than the Igbo. The use of the term ‘peaceful’ to describe the British system is not only ironic, given the aggressive and violent ways imperial forces are known to have treated indigenous communities in the colonial-era, as recounted in the novel’s latter half, but also insinuates that any system that the Igbo have is barbaric and wild, reflecting the widespread contemporary European idea of African peoples as “savages”. The District Commissioner’s claim that this system is being imposed ‘so that you may be happy’ demonstrates his ignorance of the culture he seems so intent on erasing, as it again suggests a lack of any such system within their culture, and carries a patronising tone that contributes to the “othering' of the Igbo. This “othering” is referred to in a wider sense by Achebe in his response to Heart of Darkness’ portrayal of indigenous African communities, in which he argues that Western perspectives such as those expressed in Heart of Darkness, ‘[project] the image of Africa as 'the other world,' the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilisation’. This perspective can be clearly linked to Things Fall Apart, where the Igbo judicial system is seen by the British as the ‘antithesis' of their own, thereby making it illegitimate. Therefore, in writing Things Fall Apart and comparing these conflicting societies and cultures, Achebe can be seen to be deliberately subverting these ideas of Africa as primitive and, instead, presenting an account of Nigeria in which traditional culture is shown to be nuanced, complex and developed and that of the British as brutal and cold.

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Clashes between ancestral culture and one that closely mirrors European ideals and institutions are also present in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun. Characters such as, Odenigbo, Olanna, Kainene and their family can be considered to reflect the assimilation of indigenous culture into that imposed by the British during the colonial era, which, as observed by Kwame Anthony Appiah, has resulted in Olanna and Odenigbo representing “a relatively small, Western-style, Western-trained group of writers and thinkers’. This is shown in the novel’s opening chapter, where Odenigbo’s intellect is emphasised in Adichie’s description of his books being ‘crammed’, ’piled’ and ‘stacked’ all over the house - terms which imply a sense of excess and disorder. However, Adichie deliberately includes the titles of some of these books, including ‘The Great Chain of Being’ and ‘The Norman Impact Upon England’ - books with a evident focus on British history and concepts - perhaps to comment on the nature of Odenigbo’s intellect and qualifications as being a product of Eurocentrism, born of the lasting impact of colonial occupation. Adichie further stresses the significance of English and Western education in the novel’s structure. For example, the opening chapter, written from Ugwu’s perspective, introduces Olanna not by her physical appearance, but by the sound of her voice and the way in which she speaks English. In prioritising these two qualities over Olanna’s physicality, or any other trait, Adichie calls the reader’s attention to the high value and importance that Nigerian society, even when free from imperial rule, placed upon the ability to speak English or to have links to the Western world through language, work or education as a way of signifying status and success. This cultural supremacy and subsequent rejection of indigenous Nigerian tribal languages and cultures clearly reflect a conflict within Nigerian society regarding the preference given to European culture and the rejection of their own.

Ugwu’s perspective in the opening chapter continues to convey a sense of intense admiration of anything vaguely British, which he views as ‘superior’, as illustrated again in his perception of Odenigbo and Olanna’s fluency in English. Achebe writes of how, to Ugwu, ‘Master’s English was music, but what Ugwu was hearing now, from this woman was magic. Here was a superior tongue, a luminous language, the kind of English he heard on Master’s radio, rolling to with clipped precision. It reminded him of slicing a yam with a newly sharpened knife, the easy perfection in every slice’. The use of the metaphor of Olanna’s English ‘remind[ing] him of slicing a yam with a newly sharpened knife’ is an especially important representation of the conflict between the merged European and traditional Igbo cultures. In Things Fall Apart, yams are mentioned repeatedly and described in reverential terms such as ‘the king of crops’, with a festival held in their honour, and are also used as an indicator of wealth, as shown in Achebe repeatedly mentioning how ‘Okonkwo was clearly cut out for great things. … He was a wealthy farmer and had two barns full of yams’, illustrating the yam’s great significance in pre-colonial Igbo culture. The use of this item, that has been viewed as having such great value, to describe the ability to speak English can be viewed as an almost ironic comment by Adichie on the way that long-established values have been warped and contorted so as to praise a culture said values have historically been disregarded and destroyed by. It can also be seen to stress the respect and esteem the skill was given in post-colonial Nigeria. The nouns ‘precision’, ‘perfection’, and ‘magic’, along with alliterated ‘luminous language’ further develop this sense of English’s elevated status, highlighting its ‘superior’ status in comparison to Igbo. Adichie’s presentation of this inequality between Nigeria’s native languages, which are regarded as inferior, and the language of imperialists, English, is indicative of the wider conflict between European and Igbo culture, reflecting the way in which its effects carry through generations - from that of Things Fall Apart’ s setting to the modern day.

As well as considering social conflict in relation to clashes between the diverging cultures of European colonisers and the native Igbo people, Achebe’s Things Fall Apart also contemplates the conflicts that occur within cultures. Samuel B Olorounto has noted how, when discussing the conflicts between old and new that arise in the novel, ’it has never been made clear … whether the “new” refers only to the incursions of imperialism or whether it should also include the new elements in the Igbo culture itself’, referring to how cultural developments can be just as contentious and incompatible with a culture’s roots as those imposed by the British. This conflict within society is best demonstrated in Nwoye’s gradual distancing of himself from Igbo customs, as shown in his response to the killing of twins. Achebe recounts Nwoye’s experience during the last harvest season when he and other members of the community were returning from a yam farm ‘when they heard the voice of an infant crying in the thick forest. Nwoye had heard that twins were put in earthenware pots and thrown away in the forest… A vague chill had descended on him and his head had seemed to swell… Then something had given way inside him’. Achebe has stated that one of his aims in writing Things Fall Apart was to allow Nigerians to learn of their heritage and history, much of which has been erased, and to educate international audiences about said heritage, and so this description of the typical practice of discarding of twins as a result of Igbo culture being highly superstitious can be viewed as a way for Achebe to achieve this. The ‘vague chill’ and feeling that ‘his head had seemed to swell’, coupled with the feeling of having something ‘giv[e] way inside him’ presents as physically repulsed and impacted by such actions, resulting in his determination to reject them. Achebe further develops this sense of Nwoye being physically aversion to adhering to tradition in his reaction to the death of Ikemefuna. Having forged a brotherly bond with him, in the wake of his death, Nwoye retreats into himself, describing again how he felt something ‘give way inside him, like the snapping of a tightened bow’ on sensing his loss. Nwoye’s repeated sense of having something ‘break’ or ‘give way’ internally, in instances where tradition contradicts his morals, emphasises his resistance to customs and the way this reluctance arises from his very core. The simile of a something ‘snapping like tightened bow’ internally implies that was a result of a prolonged build-up of tension, potentially arising from Nwoye’s constant unease and conflict with the practices of his father and community. The use of this image of a tool customarily used in Umofia reflects how, whilst he is still casting aside this culture whose practices he finds so morally compromising, they will still be a part of him.

Just as in Things Fall Apart, in Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, the theme of social conflict that occurs within a society is explored in relation to twins, in other words, in Olanna and Kainene’s very existence. Frances E. White observes how ‘readers of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart may remember that twins, among pre-colonial and colonial Igbo-speaking peoples, were seen as abominations. … Surely it is no accident that Olanna and Kainene are twins’, implying that the inclusion of the two twins in her novel, was a deliberate decision by Adichie’s to illustrate cultural growth and the vast difference in traditional beliefs and contemporary values. This is certainly true in the very fact that the twins survived their infancy, unlike those mentioned in Things Fall Apart. Olanna and Kainene also see their twin-hood as a means of uniting them. Adichie writes from Olanna’s perspective of how Kainene calling her ‘ejima m’ (‘twin’ in Igbo) ‘warmed her’, a verb that connoting comfort and affection, a stark contrast to the attitude presented in Things Fall Apart where twins are explicitly considered ‘abominations’. Whilst antiquated ideas are still present, as illustrated by Chief Okonji telling Olanna and Kaienene’s parents that ‘whoever said [they] lost out by having twin daughters is a liar’, their very being is a rejection of a central practice of pre-colonial Nigeria, reflecting not only social growth and.development, but also the conflict between old and new values. Furthermore, Adichie’s presentation of Odenigbo’s mother as traditionalist whose identity is shaped by adhering to feminine norms contributes to the theme of conflict within a culture. When talking to Olanna early in the novel, she demonstrates how abiding by said norms give her a sense of authority, in that one of her initial remarks to Olanna is, ‘I hear you did not suck your mother’s breasts’. This statement is repeated, emphasising the sense of superiority having breastfed gives her as a way of adhering to cultural ideas of femininity and the role of women being primarily as mothers and caregivers, and, although these ideas were gradually declining in significance by the late 1960s when Half of a Yellow Sun is set, they maintained a degree of continuity from those present in the Umofia of in Things Fall Apart, set years before. These old ideas of womanhood, embodied by Odenigbo’s mother, conflict with modern views that are less focused on motherhood and nurturing and, by the novel’s end, Olanna and Kainene’s identities are based on a rejection of such norms. They both discard submission and passivity, taking agency over their own lives, a quality present in Kainene’ from her first introduction to the novel, in her independence in running her family's business. However, Olanna’s develops throughout the hardships she experiences which force her to take control and responsibility in the absence of Odenigbo’s emotional strength. Adichie’s development of these characters, not only as twins but as women, is a clear indicator of how social development within a culture places tradition in direct conflict with modernity.

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Theme of Social Conflict in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun. (2022, Jun 16). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 21, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/theme-of-social-conflict-in-chinua-achebes-things-fall-apart-and-chimamanda-ngozi-adichies-half-of-a-yellow-sun/
“Theme of Social Conflict in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun.” Edubirdie, 16 Jun. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/theme-of-social-conflict-in-chinua-achebes-things-fall-apart-and-chimamanda-ngozi-adichies-half-of-a-yellow-sun/
Theme of Social Conflict in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/theme-of-social-conflict-in-chinua-achebes-things-fall-apart-and-chimamanda-ngozi-adichies-half-of-a-yellow-sun/> [Accessed 21 Jun. 2024].
Theme of Social Conflict in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 16 [cited 2024 Jun 21]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/theme-of-social-conflict-in-chinua-achebes-things-fall-apart-and-chimamanda-ngozi-adichies-half-of-a-yellow-sun/
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