Embodiment in African Literature

Statement of the problem

Embodiment in African Literature reflects cultural traditions, colonial history and inner conflicts of African people, thus it is impossible to interpret African narratives without appropriate understanding of these aspects. In his novel Things Fall Apart and short story collection Girls at War Chinua Achebe brings up these issues, investigating religious and cultural ideals of Ibo people. Through symbols, myths, language and beliefs of Ibo society Achebe demonstrates the life of African people and the destruction of their unique culture.


Until the creation of African literature in the twentieth century, European narratives of Alan Paton, Nadine Gordimer and Doris Lessing had produced distorted images of African people and their culture. Rejecting these images, Chinua Achebe makes an attempt to provide a true portrayal of African indigenous population and European people through specific symbols and myths. Achebe is one of the most well-known authors of African literature who writes his novels and short stories in English language and who embodies his ideas on culture through his African characters. Achebe’s knowledge of both European and African cultural traditions due to his ambivalent upbringing allows him to critically observe the issues of race, colonialism and religion. Achebe’s education and his obsession with African culture have contributed to the formation of new ways of expression in African literature. Thus, embodiment in Achebe’s literary works lacks any prejudices or stereotypes; instead, it is aimed at discussing various cultural aspects from different perspectives complicated by unique traditions and customs of Ibo people. Through his writing Chinua Achebe challenges any displays of imposed reality, masterfully renewing historical past and culture of African population. On the other hand, the writer demonstrates that the failure of certain African societies is explained by both the colonialist impact and some destructive values of indigenous population. It is this truthful and critical analysis of Ibo culture that transforms Achebe’s literary works into real masterpieces.

The aim of this dissertation is to discuss the issue of embodiment in African Literature on the example of Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart and short story collection Girls at War. The research is divided into some sections. Chapter 1 reveals a statement of the problem that demonstrates the problematic of the research. Chapter 2 provides a brief overview of historical and social contexts of the period that is reflected in Achebe’s novels and stories. Chapter 3 analyses the opinions of critics in regard to Chinua Achebe and his works. Chapter 4 observes the research methods that are applied to the analysis. Chapter 5 investigates in detail the issue of embodiment in the mentioned literary works. Chapter 6 conducts a summarisation of the received findings, while Chapter 7 mentions the limitations of the research and proposes suggestions for further analysis of African Literature.

Review of the literature

Although Chinua Achebe brings up many important issues on African culture and colonialism, his novels and short stories have not attracted much attention from the side of critics. This controversy can be explained by ‘the problem of embodiment’, the notion analysed by Katherine Fishburn. Applying to the observation of early African American novels, Fishburn suggests that these narratives expose the problem of embodiment, because African writers continue to experience the pressure of slavery and social inequality. In particular, the researcher claims that “in composing the narratives that would prove them rational, the ex-slaves were faced with the dilemma of how to represent the body that had been the occasion of their enslavement and the impediment to their freedom” (Fishburn, 1997 p.xi). Another reason for the lack of critical works on African literature is the inability of European researchers to rightfully interpret African cultural traditions and customs. As African literature emerged only in 50s years of the twentieth century, earlier studies of African people were invalid and wrong. Although Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart has been widely researched, such critics as Killam, Gleason and others have limited their analysis to the principal theme of the novel.

Paying attention to only cultural and social aspects, these critics have decreased the importance of Achebe’s narration in whole. However, some modern researchers manage to provide interesting interpretations of Chinua Achebe’s fiction, overcoming this limitation. In particular, Benedict Chiaka Njoku (1984) claims that “in the world of reality from which Achebe abstracts, the Ibo culture stresses the worth of every man and every woman” (p.6). On the other hand, even such profound analyses of Achebe’s novels and short stories continue to implicitly challenge the possibility of appropriate representation of Ibo people and Ibo culture through English language. A further analysis makes an attempt to oppose this notion, demonstrating uniqueness and power of embodiment in Achebe’s literary work and proving the claim that “Achebe is most successful in expressing his African experience in English and still preserving its African authenticity” (Obiechina, 1990 p.57).

Research methodology

The dissertation is based on two theoretical methods – a qualitative research method and a social constructionist approach. As valid theoretical tools, these methods provide an opportunity to analyse the discussed literary works from various perspectives and to evaluate cultural issues brought up by Chinua Achebe. In particular, the qualitative method is aimed at observing Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart and short stories Girls at War on the basis of different interpretations, generating new results in regard to African people and their life. This method is utilised in the form of different studies on culture, social inequality and white superiority, constituting the core of the research. Applying the social constructionist approach to the research, the paper uncovers the importance of culture for African people and the threat of its destruction from the side of white missionaries. This approach regards every person through a particular social group that possesses individual traditions and customs, proving that people are shaped by society, in which they are brought up and live.


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