Literature is a social document

- Rey Villanueva Lava () - September 20, 2009 - 12:00am


MANILA, Philippines - Rey L. Lava has taught English for more than two decades. He is the principal of Buntatala National High School. He finished his Bachelor of Secondary Education major in English and minor in music at the West Visayas State University. In 1995 he was conferred the Outstanding Educator Award for Western Visayas.

The year 1997. I was a DECS scholar at the University of the Philippines Open University taking up graduate Diploma in Language Studies Education for Teachers. In one of our subjects, “Readings in New English Literature,” our faculty in charge Patricia B. Arinto, assigned us to analyze the novel Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, the award-winning Nigerian author.

I have read the book thrice. Reading Achebe’s masterpiece has given me a wide spectrum of perspectives on the relationship between literature and society, and how this relationship is the foreground of the novel itself.

Delfin L. Tolentino in his book Literary Theory and Critical Practice (UPOU, Baguio, 1997) states that “Marxists claim that literature does not exist in a vacuum. It is a product of society and it exists within society: Therefore, the literary work has a definite relationship with society.”

What we see in literature is an accurate image of what we see in real life. Literature is a social document. It reflects the various aspects of society. It deals with the lives of men and women in society. Social reality is, to a large extent, the subject of literature.

The novel Things Fall Apart uses an element of realism that mirrors the realities of life — what transpired in the life of the Africans before and during the colonization of the place in its totality and complexity. The first half of the novel consists of chapters characterizing pre-colonial African life and culture, and the other half depicts the African life during the colonial period.

The pre-colonial society as depicted in the novel speaks of both the positive and negative aspects of life in the Ibo community. On the positive side: Life in the pre-colonial Ibo community is rounded and intricate and is sensitively in correspondence with a range of human impulses. It admits both the aristocratic and democratic principles. It is a life lived by a dignified clan of equals who meet together in an Athenian way — to make critical, communal decisions.

At the same time it allows for an exceptional man and for an organization based on achievement. Age is respected but achievement revered. These descriptions are exemplified in the characterization of Okonkwo who is the tragic hero in the novel. Okonkwo is highly renowned and prosperous, having won many titles and having acquired wealth early in life. For a man whose father died without having a title, this is quite an achievement.

On the negative side, Achebe does not idealize pre-colonial Ibo culture. The novel does not shy away from showing or depicting the negative aspects of Ibo culture, such as its cruelty in the face of phenomena that it does not understand.

While there is a great deal of admiration for Okonkwo in the novel, he is nonetheless shown to be wrong in certain beliefs that are in fact derived from traditional communal values. For example, he denigrates what he considers to be feminine qualities, which is sanctioned to a certain extent by the highly patriarchal native of Ibo society. (Women are second-class citizens here). Okonkwo dislikes his son Nyowee because he resembles his father who was gentle. To him gentleness is a feminine quality.

Chapters 16 to 24 describe the African life during the colonial period. The depiction of the society in this period is in the same manner as that of the pre-colonial period. It also presents both the negative and positive aspects of colonialism. It speaks of how religion and education have influenced the lives of the Ibo.

On the positive side, colonialism has brought education to the Africans; its religion has converted them from paganism to Christianity. Education and religion have unshackled them from the bondage of ignorance and superstition.

On the negative side, colonialism has disorganized the life of the Africans. It robbed them of the bonds of kinship. It robbed them of their culture and tradition. The novel as a reflection of society shows the biased treatment of men and women. Society is undeniably patriarchal. Males exercise their power by imposing their ideology on society.

Women are denied the many privileges given to men. Their rights are restricted. On many matters they are not allowed to speak. In many activities, they are not allowed to participate. Yet the novel considers the role of the mother supreme.

Like most social institutions, literature exhibits a masculine bias. The role of men in society, especially that of Okonkwo, best exemplifies the above premise. The novel depicts Okonkwo as a character of heroic proportions.

Literature can be used as a tool to change society. Though it may not produce explicit and immediate changes in social and political structures, it can change human consciousness. From this change of human consciousness is the beginning of any social transformation.

Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is an effective tool in changing society’s view of African culture. It can combat the negative portrayal of the African culture by colonial writers like Joseph Conrad. It has also provided a viable model for coming to terms with the disorganization of African life which resulted from the colonial encounter. It serves as a commentary on the extent of destruction of African culture by colonialism.

Let me quote Patricia B. Arinto’s Readings in New Literature: “In Africa, the novel has the primary means of depicting the realities of life in a society which is torn between the pull of tradition and the pull of modernization. The novel explores the social world.”

This relationship between literature and society is indeed highlighted in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.

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