The Masks of Prestige
a final paper for my World Literature class
This World Lit class has given me so much more than I could have hoped for. Predictably, I was not so much interested in the academic analysis — I was more interested in whatever touched me personally. And there was plenty of that. The readings seemed to fall in quite nicely with what I‘ve been working on in therapy. I’d say that the author who touched me the most is Frederick Douglass, who had to learn that he deserved freedom before he could attempt to have it.
Our final paper was to be a comparative analysis of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and three or four other works of our choosing. I do not like sad endings in books. I did not initially like Achebe’s novel for that reason, so I read it a second time before writing the paper. By writing about it I came to appreciate it much more. You may object to my need to find the good, the hopeful, the uplifting, in such a terrible story. But this is, after all, my paper. I am learning that I deserve to feel good, to do what pleases me, no matter what has fallen apart, or will fall apart, as all things must do in our world.
The Masks of Prestige
“One of the greatest crimes a man could commit was to unmask an egwugwu* in public, or to say or do anything which might reduce its immortal prestige in the eyes of the uninitiated. And this is what Enoch did” (Achebe 186).
*(a masquerader who impersonates one of the ancestral spirits of the village)
What happens when two very different cultures meet and interact? If they stay in contact for a long time, a great contrast builds. Chinua Achebe paints a vivid picture of such a contrast in his novel, Things Fall Apart. In this paper I will focus on a few of the effects of this contrast on the Ibo side, but a similar examination could be made of the effects of colonization on British culture. Because of the cultural contrast, some of the masks of prestige are stripped away in Iboland, and the weaknesses underlying a mere show of power are clearly revealed for all to see. Even the gods are unmasked. But so too do hidden strengths appear out of what was previously considered among the Ibo to be weakness and disgrace.
Although there is character development in Things Fall Apart, each character feels more like a symbol, a piece of something rather than a whole person. The main characters in the novel are actually the two tribes — Ibo and European, and each individual represents one or more character traits of their particular culture. Even the respective gods are included as aspects of the carefully drawn portraits of the two cultures. In the film, Chinua Achebe: Africa’s voice, Achebe says, “I am not criticizing the culture, I am presenting a portrait of a culture.”
When Christian missionaries first arrive in Mbanta, the Ibo village of Okonkwo’s mother where he and his family are riding out his seven year banishment from his own village, they ask for a piece of land to build a church. Snickering behind their backs, the villagers offer the Europeans a place in the Evil Forest, thinking thus to soon be rid of them. The villagers laugh even more when the Europeans accept the offer gladly and proceed to build their church in a place where no native would ever think of staying a minute longer than necessary, let alone building anything. The Evil Forest is the place where the Ibo dump their abominations, a place of dreaded malevolent spirits.
“The inhabitants of Mbanta expected them all to be dead within four days. The first day passed and the second and third and fourth, and none of them died. Everyone was puzzled. And then it became known that the white man’s fetish had unbelievable power. It was said that he wore glasses on his eyes so that he could see and talk to evil spirits. Not long after, he won his first three converts” (Achebe 149).
When still no one has died in the Evil Forest after twenty-eight days, which the Ibo people believe to be the outer limit for the patience of their gods, the Christians win even more converts. Also interested is Okonkwo’s eldest son, Nwoye, whom Okonkwo despises for being too soft and unmanly. “One morning Okonkwo’s cousin, Amikwu, was passing by the church on his way from the neighboring village, when he saw Nwoye among the Christians. He was greatly surprised, and when he got home he went straight to Okonkwo’s hut and told him what he had seen” (Achebe 150).
The tribe has a caste of people who are dedicated to the gods and considered taboo. These people are called osu, and cannot mix with the others at all. The osu are required to leave their hair uncut, uncombed and unwashed — as a mark of their caste. Because the church is still standing even though built in the Evil Forest, and because the minister has been rescuing infant twins that the tribe also consider taboo and have the practice of abandoning in that forest, the osu begin to think they too might be accepted by this church. One Sunday a few of them show up for services. At the end of the service the newly converted Ibo clanspeople want to drive the osu away but the Christian minister, Mr. Kiaga, stops them. “Before God,” he said, “there is no slave or free. We are all children of God and we must receive these our brothers” (Achebe 156).
One of the converts threatens to go back to the clan if Mr. Kiaga lets the outcasts into the church. Mr. Kiaga refuses to back down and the man does indeed go back to his old gods. When Mr. Kiaga tells the osu that they will have to shave off that mess of hair if they want to join the church, the outcasts are afraid, thinking they will die. But Mr. Kiaga says,
“You fear that you will die. Why should that be? How are you different from other men who shave their hair? The same God created you and them. [ ] The heathen say you will die if you do this or that, and you are afraid. They also said I would die if I built my church on this ground. Am I dead? They said I would die if I took care of twins. I am still alive”(Achebe 157).
Because Mr. Kiaga is so sure of himself, and is demonstrating by his own failure to die that what he preaches must be true, people begin to trust him. Both Nwoye and the osu also have good reason to want to escape the belief system of a clan in which they are looked down upon. When the opportunity presents itself, they leave, and so the new church is built up with those who had been least successful under the old tribal ways.
Historically, the ones who converted were given jobs and education under the British system. They became the new leaders, the new prosperous, the new prestigious, like Chinua Achebe himself, whose parents had converted to Christianity before he was born and who worked closely with the British, thus enabling Achebe to be educated in European schools (Norton Vol. E, 824–827). The wonderful thing about Chinua Achebe is that he didn’t run away from his own culture. He used his European education to help him write about Nigeria, to help the world understand, to bridge the two cultures by giving his people a voice in the larger world.
“Over the years, Achebe received dozens of honorary doctorates and several international literary awards. He was an honorary member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and his work was translated into more than 40 languages. In 1994, he fled to Europe from the repressive Nigerian regime that threatened to jail him. However, he later returned to Nigeria to serve as president of the town union of his native village of Ogidi, honored as such because of his dedication to his ancestors’ myths and legends. In early 1999, he was appointed as a goodwill ambassador for the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA), which works for family planning and reproductive health around the world” (Encyclopedia of World Biography).
While Mr. Kiaga was busy unmasking the Ibo tribal gods and thus reducing their power and prestige in the eyes of the clan, Okonkwo was doing everything he could to preserve the old system. He begins to beat Nwoye after he hears that his son has been seen among the Christians. Nwoye might have been killed if not for the intervention of Okonkwo’s maternal uncle, Uchendu, who shouts, “Leave that boy at once! Are you mad” (152)? Okonkwo had already killed his stepson, Ikemefuna, and later regretted it. He had been banished from his village for seven years after he accidently killed another boy. Was he going to now kill a third boy, his own son? That would be madness, he’d be ruined. Okonkwo stops the beating and Nwoye leaves his father’s compound and never returns. Because now Nwoye has an alternative, a place to go. And so do other downtrodden and outcast members of the tribe, like the osu.
The people who benefit from the status quo will fight to keep the power structure in place. The people who are subjugated under that power structure will jump ship as soon as there is another place to go. We saw this also in Frederick Douglass’s memoir, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. As long as slaves believed they were lesser beings, they were easy to keep enslaved. For this reason the slave-holding “religion,” as Douglass calls it, forbade slaves from learning to read. It was in fact learning to read that freed Frederick Douglass to think of himself as a person, just like any other person. And why should one person be free while another is enslaved if they are equals? This is Mr. Kiaga’s point, and it was Frederick Douglass’s ticket northward. Because there was a place to go, an alternative way to live, and because he came to believe he actually deserved freedom, Frederick Douglass made a run for it. In all of these cases the runaways had reason to fear that they would die if they tried to escape the old system. But the danger was not from “the gods,” who had been unmasked in the minds of these runaways, but from the people who were fighting to keep the old belief system (and their own high status within it) in place. These words, written by Frederick Douglass, could also speak for Nwoye and the osu.
“The ties that ordinarily bind children to their homes were all suspended in my case. I found no severe trial in my departure. My home was charmless; it was not home to me: on parting from it, I could not feel that I was leaving any thing which I could have enjoyed by staying. [ ] I looked for home elsewhere, and was confident of finding none which I should relish less than the one which I was leaving. If, however, I found in my new home hardship, hunger, whipping, and nakedness, I had the consolation that I should not have escaped any one of them by staying” (Norton Vol. E, 248).
A similar drama can play out psychologically in the mind of a single individual. In Tolstoy’s story, The Death of Ivan Illich, Ivan has spent his life currying favor within the established power structure and has acquired many accoutrements of prestige. He is proud of himself, but not happy. Like our friend Okonkwo, Ivan Illych was a grump! When illness stops Ivan’s career advancement, he at last becomes more introspective and is able to contrast feelings he had as a child with the supposed rewards of grown-up prestige.
“And in imagination he began to recall the moments of his pleasant life. But strange to say none of those best moments of his pleasant life now seemed at all what they had then seemed — none of them except the first recollections of childhood. There, in childhood, there had been something really pleasant with which it would be possible to live if it could return. But the child who had experienced that happiness existed no longer, it was like a reminiscence of somebody else.
“As soon as the period began (during his reminiscence) which had produced the present Ivan Illych, all that had then seemed joys now melted before his sight and turned into something trivial and often nasty.
“And the further he departed from childhood and the nearer he came to the present the more worthless and doubtful were the joys. [ ] ‘It is as if I had been going downhill while I imagined I was going up. And that is really what it was. I was going up in public opinion, but to the same extent life was ebbing away from me. And now it is all done and there is only death’ ” (Norton Vol. E, 773).
Okonkwo too might have said at the end, “And now it is all done and there is only death.” The British had come and interrupted the power structure of the Ibo society. They had offered the weaklings and the poets, the outcasts and the women, a way out of a clan that kept them subjugated. This is seen as tragic by the powerful men of the tribe. These words spoken by one of the oldest members of Okonkwo’s matrilineal umunna (male kinsmen), express the sentiments of every failing power elite.
“As for me, I have only a short while to live, and so have Uchendu and Unachukwu and Emefo. But I fear for you young people because you do not understand how strong is the bond of kinship. You do not know what it is to speak with one voice. And what is the result? An abominable religion has settled among you. A man can now leave his father and his brothers. He can curse the gods of his fathers and his ancestors, like a hunter’s dog (or a slave, or a child, or a woman, or an outcast — my comment) that suddenly goes mad and turns on his master. I fear for you; I fear for the clan” (Achebe 167).
Chinua Achebe derived the title of his novel, Things Fall Apart, from a line in W.B. Yeats’ poem, The Second Coming. Achebe begins his story with this inscription from the poem:
“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer,
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” (Achebe, front-matter).
The image of the falcon and the falconer is similar to the image of the dog and the master in the preceding speech by Okonkwo’s elder. Things fall apart when the subjugated no longer obey the master. When Frederick Douglass learns to question the institution of slavery, he gains the courage to disobey his master. When Ivan Illych begins to question the “public opinion” which had been his master, he is no longer enslaved by it and is then free to ask a new question about the right way to live, and hear a new answer. When the osu of Mbanta hear Mr. Kiaga say that under his god all are equal, they are freed to step out of their old societal position as outcasts devoted to a tribal god.
The strong and prestigious members of a society are rarely the ones who welcome change. It is the underdogs, the people who would actually benefit from it, who embrace it. The old guard, the Okonkwos of the world, will always resist change unless they somehow have a change of heart, as Ivan Illych did. Okonkwo and Ivan Illych died very different deaths. Okonkwo went protesting all the way. Ivan in his last few hours realized that surrender was to his advantage, that happiness lay in that direction, and not in the uphill battle to maintain prestige in the eyes of the world. Neither man died with prestige, but Ivan Illych died with peace. Okonkwo, just like his father, from whom he had tried in every way to differentiate himself, would be buried in shame. His friend Obierka says to the District Commissioner, “That man was one of the greatest men in Umofia. You drove him to kill himself; and now he will be buried like a dog” (Achebe, 208).
The dog image again. Okonkwo’s final act is an act of strident disobedience in both cultures. Suicide is an abomination to the Ibo. By killing himself he evades capture and punishment by the British, but it was not the District Commissioner who drove Okonkwo to it, not really. It was Okonkwo’s own choice in the face of a change he could neither master nor surrender to. Like Ivan Illych, Okonkwo perceived that what he had strived for his whole life was no longer valuable, but he could not accept this, could not turn within himself to ask, “Is there a better way?” No one would join with him in the fight against the British. None of the other men of the village would use their machetes against the soldiers of the Commissioner. Okonkwo was all alone. His former prestige was not enough to convince anyone to side with him in the beheading of British soldiers, nor was all the effort Okonkwo had put into demonstrating a life of manliness enough to earn him a burial with honor. He would be unceremoniously dumped, just as his “weak” father had been, into the Evil Forest, his body now an abomination to his own tribe.
As we can see in Things Fall Apart, as well as the other examples I’ve cited from our readings for the semester, seeking after prestige can give a person power for a while. But both the prestige of a god and an individual’s personal prestige are only held up by public opinion. When a god is unmasked, the former order that was held together by belief in that god (or belief in any hierarchical idea, such as slavery or feudalism), things do fall apart, by necessity. Slave owners lose slaves, abusive husbands lose wives and children, governments lose power, kings and queens are beheaded.
On a large scale in the world, and on a small scale in our personal lives, things are always falling apart. We can’t escape change. Illness interrupted Ivan Illych’s life, foiling his plans for success and added prestige. His long illness also gave Ivan Illych the chance to step back from his daily life and reconsider his choices. If Okonkwo had been a little less impulsive, if he had had a place to go, a therapist’s office, a monastery, a quiet hideout in the forest, he might have seen an alternative, a way to evolve instead of die. He might then have become a mature leader and not just a tyrannical seeker after titles. He might then have become able to help his people deal with change.
We are not our masks, we are not our roles, we are not our prestige or our lack of it, we are not what happens to us. When we are able to step back, we find that we always have a choice about what we want to identify with. In these lines from Song of Myself, Walt Whitman beautifully illustrates this choice:
“Trippers and askers surround me,
People I meet, the effect upon me of my early life or the ward and city I live in, or the nation,
The latest dates, discoveries, inventions, societies, authors old and new,
My dinner, dress, associates, looks, compliments, dues,
The real or fancied indifference of some man or woman I love,
The sickness of one of my folks or of myself, or ill-doing or loss or lack of money, or depressions or exaltations,
Battles, the horrors of fratricidal war, the fever of doubtful news, the fitful events;
These come to me days and nights and go from me again,
But they are not the Me myself.
Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,
Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,
Looks down, is erect, or bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,
Looking with side-curved head curious what will come next,
Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it”
(Norton Vol. E, 448).
Human celebrity, as well as human ideals, and even the gods which have prestige in a society, are all dependent upon the good opinion of the people to maintain status, and these celebrities, these ideals, and these gods can be suddenly cast aside when public opinion shifts. Okonkwo, the prestige hungry Ibo strongman around whom Chinua Achebe builds his portrayal of the Ibo tribe in Things Fall Apart, takes his own life in a show of resistance to changes he can’t control. Okonkwo chooses to hang himself to demonstrate his contempt both for the reticence of his own people to fight for the good old days, as well as for the British invaders and their system of so-called “justice.” His son, Nwoye, a gentler person, and a person with very little prestige, chooses to leave his father and his tribe to join with the missionaries. The flexibility necessary to embrace change often emerges from the downtrodden in society, those who have less to lose and more to gain by giving up the status quo. Anyone who is able to let go of the perception of the world they have held in the past, as well as letting go of the self-concept that was fostered within that worldview, becomes free to embrace a new vision.
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Random House, 1994.
Achebe, Chinua. Encyclopedia of World Biography, Online ed. Detroit: Gale, 2010. Database: MC Library Catalog.
Chinua Achebe: Africa’s Voice/Films for the Humanities and Sciences. New York: Films Media Group, 2005. Database: MC Library Catalog.
Douglass, Frederick: “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave.” Norton Anthology of World Literature, Volume E. Ed. Martin Pulchner. New York: Norton, 2012. 236–293.
Tolstoy, Leo: “The Death of Ivan Illych.” Trans. Louise Maude and Aylmer Maude. Norton Anthology of World Literature, Volume E. Ed. Martin Pulchner. New York: Norton, 2012. 740–778.
Whitman, Walt: From “Song of Myself.” Norton Anthology of World Literature, Volume E. Ed. Martin Pulchner. New York: Norton, 2012. 448–453.