Invitation to World Literature
Things Fall Apart Things Fall Apart – Expert’s View
Experts' View: Juxtapositions
An excerpt from Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe
Okonkwo on the death of his adopted son
“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.
As a man who cleared his throat drew up and raised his machete, Okonkwo looked away, he heard the blow. The pot fell and broke in the sand, he heard Ikemefuna cry, “My father! They’ve killed me!” as he ran towards them. Dazed with fear, Okonkwo drew his machete and cut him down.”
Osonye Tess Onwueme
“Okonkwo was always trying to prove to himself, or to the world outside him, and to his society, that he was not going to be a failure like his father. It’s like he has an agenda to embody that masculine value that the Igbo man was respected for, to show those principles of manhood.”
“If you consistently believe that you have to ‘be a man,’ you don’t handle your home affairs well. Rather than reason with his wives over matters where conflict evolves, Okonkwo beats them.”
“The tensions of traditional life come to a head about a third of the way through the book, when disease spreads in the village and an oracle decrees that someone is at fault and must be sacrificed. The choice falls upon a character named Ikemefuna, who is an adopted son within Okonkwo’s own family.”
Kwame Anthony Appiah
“Ikemefuna is interesting because he is the character through whom we learn that Okonkwo has the capacity for gentleness and love and that it’s because of his obsession with not being seen to have that capacity that he does things that are manly but bad.”
“Ikemefuna was given to the village because of a dispute which had happened with another village. And he was under Okonkwo’s care, and Okonkwo became fond of him and [Ikemefuna] became close to Okonkwo’s son, Nwoye. But Okonkwo, again having to prove that he’s a man, ends up being the person who actually takes Ikemefuna’s life.”
David Damrosch Sums It Up
Achebe’s complex portrayal of Okonkwo is built up through juxtaposed scenes. The shocking episode of the killing of Ikemefuna is balanced, two chapters later, by the scene in which Okonkwo saves the life of his favorite daughter Ezinma, only surviving child of his wife Ekwefi. If Okonkwo participates in the killing of his foster-son for fear of being thought unmanly, in saving Ezinma—whom he loves so much that he wishes she’d been a boy—he displays his perfect mastery of traditional customs, even a maternal tenderness equaling Ekwefi’s. Achebe offers little commentary, but links the chapters imagistically through such elements as the pots that figure prominently in both scenes—the pot of palm wine that Ikemefuna carries and that breaks as he’s killed, and then the healing pot of medicine that Okonkwo administers to his daughter. Through such juxtapositions, Okonkwo becomes a richer figure than a man simply obsessed with outdoing his ne’er-do-well father. He rejects the half-measures proposed by his friend Obierika (who would have accepted the killing of his own son, but would have soothed his conscience by not participating in the killing), even as he rejects the fatalism of Ekwefi, who has already lost eight children and assumes that her daughter is now fated to die as well. In these scenes, Okonkwo comes to embody the fullest strengths and weaknesses of his society.
Unit 1 The Epic of Gilgamesh
The first known human story is that of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk. Images of artifacts from ancient Iraq mix with beautiful illustrations, dance, and costume to tell of the relations between gods and mortals, the search for friendship, love, and immortality. Featured cast members include Assyriologist Ben Foster, comic book illustrator Jim Starlin, and poet and playwright Yusef Komunyakaa.
Unit 2 My Name Is Red
Both an historical novel and a graphic murder mystery set among the miniaturists of the Ottoman court. With its focus on Istambul, a major crossroads of the world, it tells of the artistic/cultural contest between Europe and the East. Cast members include the book's Nobel-prize winning author, Orhan Pamuk, and its English translator, Erdağ Göknar.
Unit 3 The Odyssey
Odysseus must travel the known and unknown world before he can return home to his beloved island kingdom of Ithaca. What does this ancient story say to readers today? In this program, Odysseus's story is given ancient and modern historical and philosophical context, and illustrated with centuries of art. Featured are theater director Mary Zimmerman, actor-director Tim Blake-Nelson, and psychologist/author Jonathan Shay.
Unit 4 The Bacchae
The city of Thebes is torn apart by the conflicting demands of reason and religion, as the disguised god Dionysus returns to his home town demanding to be worshipped. Opposing him is the young king Pentheus, who is doomed to suffer the ultimate punishment for his disbelief. Featured speakers include world-renowned playwright/author Wole Soyinka, actor Alan Cumming, and Daniel Mendelsohn of Bard College.
Unit 5 The Bhagavad Gita
This epic tale of the warrior-prince Arjuna confronting a life-or-death dilemma during civil war presents a unique and powerful philosophy of duty, discipline, and serving a higher purpose. Beautiful illustrations connect the story with its rich history and culture. Featured speakers include Sheldon Pollock, Professor of Sanskrit Studies and acclaimed composer Philip Glass.
Unit 6 The Tale of Genji
This portrait of court life in medieval Japan follows the life and exploits of the great Genji. Written by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady of the Japanese court, it provides an insider's view of Japanese court life, the official and behind the screen. Art, clothing, music from the time of the novel illustrate the obserations of authors Jane Smiley and Chiori Miyagawa, among others.
Unit 7 Journey to the West
The powerful and mischievous Stone Monkey King brings chaos to heaven and earth. Freed from a mountain prison in order to guard a Chinese monk on his journey to retrieve the Buddhist scriptures from India, Monkey seeks his own spiritual transformation. Modern performance, contemporary art, and Buddhist philosophers provide a rich context to the ancient tale. Featured cast members include playwright David Henry Huang, storyteller Diane Wolkstein, and translator Professor Anthony Yu.
Unit 8 Popol Vuh
The Mayan book of creation, the dawn of life, and the glories of gods and kings. This magnificent epic was saved from destruction at the hands of the Spanish by Quiché chroniclers. Once repressed, the story is now interwoven with the history of today's Mayan people. Featured speakers include archaeologist Richard Hanson, humorist Mo Rocca, and Guatemalan artist Shuni Giron.
Unit 9 Candide
A satirical novel following the travails of Candide, a hopeless optimist whose faith in his tutor's mantra that his is "the best of all possible worlds" is tested beyond all limits. Voltaire's challenge to the aristocracy of his day proves refreshingly amusing and biting today. Original illustrations, songs, and comic book figures plumb the depths of this satire. Featured speakers include director Harold Ramis, actress Kristin Chenoweth, and cartoonist Chris Ware.
Unit 10 Things Fall Apart
In this foundational modern African novel, Chinua Achebe's story follows the lives of people trying to understand which belief systems deserve their loyalty. The protagonist, Okonkwo is a tribal leader who battles neighboring villages, the English, and his own demons in early colonial Nigeria. The perspectives of readers from around the world reveal the novel's universal themes. Cast members include playwright and professor Tess Onwueme and theater director Chuck Mike.
Unit 11 One Hundred Years of Solitude
Gabriel García Márquez's multigenerational saga of the Buendía family in the isolated town of Macondo inaugurated the boom in Latin American literature in the 1970s and marked the beginning of magical realism. Writer Sandra Cisneros and scholar of Latin American literature, Ilan Stavans lend their thoughts and voices to the discussion of this epic novel.
Unit 12 The God of Small Things
Fraternal twins Rahel and Estha struggle to reclaim their lives after their childhood is destroyed by tragic circumstances. As past and present merge in this narrative of Indian society and politics, the many layers of the caste system are mirrored in the poetic and inventive language of the author. Featured speakers include Simon Gikandi of Princeton University, author Evelyn Ch'ien.
Unit 13 The Thousand and One Nights
Shahrazad must hold the interest of her despotic husband the sultan with nightly tales, lest she lose her life in the morning. This wellspring of storytelling, circulating from medieval Persia to Egypt to Iraq, like its wily raconteur lives on in many modern adaptations. Art, performance, and film images are employed to show the collection's broad span of influence. Featured speakers include Marin Alsop, musical director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Aly Jetha and Shabnam Rezai, co-producers of the 1001 Nights animated series.