By Mosarrap H. Khan
[This is the second part of the creative rewriting of the ending of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. In Part – I (Read here), I had offered an alternative ending to Things Fall Apart. In this essay, I offer my critical commentary for choosing to end the novel the way I did. Again, in this analysis, Okonkwo’s suicide becomes the pivotal concern for me.
On Chinua Achebe’s death (1930 – 22 March, 2013), I thought I will offer this as my tribute to this great Nigerian writer. This was first published in Cafe Dissensus Blog, the blog of Cafe Dissensus Magazine.]
The task of rewriting the ending of Chinua Achebe’s pioneering novel Things Fall Apart (1958) is not without certain pitfalls. Most certainly, one has to take into consideration that Things Fall Apart is part of a trilogy, even though reading only the first does not make us lose any of its thematic relevance and artistic merit. Nevertheless, the ending of the novel will have to leave ample scope for the other two volumes of the trilogy to grow. Hypothetically speaking, the outright defeat of the white men at the end of the novel would pre-empt the possibilities of No Longer At Ease and Arrow of God even being written because the central theme of both of these are pivoted around the colonial rule. That will also go against the grain of historical truth. After all, the colonial rule in Africa was a reality. Although creative rewriting allows one to imaginatively reconstruct new possibilities into the body of an already existing text, nonetheless it demands that one stays within the broader historical framework in which the original text was produced.
I start my commentary on the creative rewriting with the supposition that rewriting the ending of a text like Things Fall Apart would demand an awareness of the conditions that led to the production of the text. However, my reason to engage with the ending of the novel, in general, and Okonkwo’s suicide, in particular, goes back to my MA days, when in one of classes while we were debating Okonkwo’s suicide, I could not bring myself to accept the non-heroicness of his death. Since then, I have periodically asked myself: Why did Okonkwo commit suicide? Was it at all consistent with the rest of the novel? What if Okonkwo had lived a humiliated life like many of his colleagues would have done after his suicide? Would that have been in line with the authorial intention of showcasing the havoc caused by the colonial rule on an indigenous culture?
In my creative rewriting, I began with the crowd gathering at the Umoufia market place after the disturbance caused by the arrests of the village elders by the District Commissioner. Okonkwo could not rest in peace the previous night fearing the villagers might decide against a head-on battle with the white men. He was extremely agitated after the humiliation at the hands of the court messengers. He had decided in his mind to fight it out alone if his fellow villagers backed out: ‘But if they chose to be cowards he would go out and avenge himself’ (p.171). However, Okika who spoke just before him, did not show any sign of retreating from the impending battle. At least, Okika’s words do not suggest any backtracking: ‘Our fathers never dreamed of such a thing, they never killed their brothers. But a white man never came to them. So we must do what our fathers would have never done…We must root out this evil. And if our bothers take the side of evil we must root them out too. And we must do it now’ (p.175).
While Okika is already setting up a strong argument for a battle with the emphasis on the word now, Okonkwo’s hasty decision to kill one of the messengers on the spot would appear unwarranted, howsoever he is aggrieved with the treatment at the hands of the messengers. In Achebe’s novel, that killing in turn forces him to flee and commit suicide to avoid further humiliation from the white men.
My reconceptualization of the end of the novel precisely stems from my belief that after Okika’s call to war, Okonkwo would not resort to hasty violence as there already was a possibility of the clan setting out on a war against the enemy. If we try a Durkhemian interpretation of his suicide, it could be termed as an ‘altruistic suicide’ in which an individual who is highly attached to a group commits suicide when s/he considers herself/himself worthless or a burden to that group. This could be also be an example of ‘anomic suicide.’ Anomie is a state in which there is a weak social regulation, that is, the individual life does not identify itself with the goal of society. It is difficult to fit Okonkwo’s suicide in either of these categories. If we take his suicide to be altruistic, then he must have considered himself a burden to his society. The demolition of the church was a collective clan action and there is no reason why Okonkwo should consider himself guilty of that. Further, his suicide falls short of being ‘anomic’ as his life goal did not conflict with the goal of his clan. Though the clan was threatened with outer pulls as a result of the spread of Christianity, yet the clan as a whole still stood for old values.
Moreover, it is difficult to believe that a man of Okonkwo’s stature would commit suicide knowing fully well the implication of the action. According to Igbo custom, if one commits suicide, s/he defiles the land and is not eligible for a decent burial by the clan. His body would be thrown away in the Evil Forest. The overt masculinity of Okonkwo would not probably goad him to such an escapist mode of exit. My choice of rewriting starts from this assumption that Okonkwo would not commit suicide. He would rather prefer death at the battle field keeping to the values of his tribal society. That’s why I chose to end the novel with Okonkwo and others setting out for the battle against the white men while the women and children see their shadow recede in the dark. Considering the code of the society, it would be inconceivable that women would be allowed to take part in the battle.
This kind of an ending leaves the novel open-ended. Okonkwo could either die in the battle and, thereby, fit into the framework of the narrative that Achebe was constructing against the backdrop of colonization or live a disgraced life after the defeat at the hands of white men (that would be a foregone conclusion if one were being faithful to history), which he would probably not prefer to do as it is unbecoming for a heroic life like his. However, my invoking the death of Ikemefuna and Ezeudu just before Okonkwo’s journey for the battle anticipates Okonkwo’s death in the battle.
[Mosarrap H. Khan is a doctoral candidate in the dept. of English, New York University. He researches in the area of Muslim everyday life in South Asia. Check out his Personal Website.]
[Cafe Dissensus Blog is the blog of Cafe Dissensus Magazine.]