Discovering the Heart of Darkness in Minnesota: Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart”

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In his well-known article “Novelist as Teacher,” Chinua Achebe writes, “I would be quite satisfied if my novels did no more than teach my readers that their past—with all its imperfections—was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God’s behalf delivered them.”   Although Achebe is referring to African readers, presumably teaching literature from another culture should also have positive effects, such as opening the minds of readers to new knowledge, exploring different ways of thinking, and increasing empathy for people of other backgrounds.  What happens, though, when some readers take quite the opposite meaning away from reading a book such as Things Fall Apart?   What if reading certain texts actually increases prejudice about the “Other”?

This question first occurred to me several years ago when I first taught a course in the African novel.  Most of the students in this particular class were white and Midwestern, with very little knowledge about Africa.   (I did have a few African-American students in this particular class, and their reactions were dramatically different from the white students’ reactions.)

Overall I believe this course was generally successful.  It introduced students to a body of literature—in fact, an entire part of the world—that was completely new to them.  In so doing, I believe it sparked interest in and empathy for struggles African nations are currently facing. I also believe (or at least I would like to believe) that it helped dispel some of the misconceptions about Africa.  However, while teaching the course, I also noticed some tensions that I have not noticed in courses about English or American literature.

I began the course by providing some historical background on the colonization of Africa.  We then read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness before proceeding to Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.  My goal in pairing the texts was to highlight the differences in the way Achebe portrayed the Igbo culture; rather than menacing dark figures on the shore, they are complex human beings with their own traditions and social structures.  However, it was more difficult to get to this discussion than I had anticipated because students—particularly the white women, who were the majority of the course—were so focused on the sexism in the novel.   As one student wrote in the course’s e-mail discussion group,  “Even though I know this book takes place in a different time and place, I can’t help but to gasp with disgust when I read about the treatment of women.”  Certainly, they are not the first to comment on the portrayal of gender relations in the book; many readers do.  However, some of the students were so appalled by the sexism that had difficulty discussing anything else.

For the record, I, too, find the representation of gender relations in Things Fall Apart troubling.  But, obviously, it is just one part of one complex book and a complex culture.  My fear is that, for students who may only read the 8-10 or so texts assigned in the one World Literature course, that they may take away from the reading more prejudice than they came in with—that, for example, “Africans are savages” because of the way they treat women and children.  Certainly there are many pedagogical strategies for dealing with negative reactions.  In the case of Things Fall Apart, I tried to get students to realize that Okonkwo is not the moral norm of the novel—that he is portrayed as a deeply flawed character even by the standards of his own culture.  Other critics have suggested comparing Okonkwo’s depiction of Igbo culture to the realities suggested by historical and social scientific research, which asserts that women had significantly more power than Things Fall Apart suggests.  And since students were so obsessed with comparing Igbo culture with our own supposedly egalitarian society, I also tried to historicize the novel and compare it to the state of gender relations in England and the United States during the same period.  I’m not sure how well these strategies worked, though, in overcoming the initial revulsion some students had towards the novel; as we know, emotional reactions can be more powerful than rational discussions.

What I find most intriguing, though, is that these vociferous discussions arose from devoutly apolitical students who would not describe themselves as feminists.  When we (as instructors) try to discuss feminist issues in relationship to Anglo-American texts, usually they are not particularly interested.  They believe, for the most part, that gender equality has already been achieved; discussions about inequality have no relevance to their lives. Therefore, I was surprised at the vehemence of their reaction to Achebe.  These are students trained in “Minnesota Nice” culture; they are rarely vehement about anything.

The treatment of women in Things Fall Apart provoked the most tension in the course, but there were other trouble spots as well.  I asked students to read Achebe’s essay responding to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  I was (and still am) quite surprised to find that many students did not like the essay because they found Achebe’s “anger” threatening.

“If he considers part of his “duties” as a novelist to be to educate and inform his readers as he says he does, I think that he should rethink his methods.  In his essays, he is letting his emotions get the best of him.  I am not saying that Achebe should not be angry. Denial of emotion is wrong.  And he really does have something to be angry about.  But my problem comes with his sharing his anger with the entire literate world by having it printed in a journal.  I really feel that there are better ways of dealing with problems besides vocalizing your anger.”

While I am open to teaching tips dealing with the specific situations described above, I would like to focus more generally on the psychodynamics of the literary encounter between white Westerners and racial “Others.”  While the academy endlessly debates WHAT we should teach, I do not believe enough attention has been paid to what happens (psychologically, emotionally) when we teach it.  For example, in the MLA Approaches to Teaching Things Fall Apart nobody discussed possible negative emotional reactions or how to deal with them.  This lack of attention paid to the literary encounter is odd, since so much attention has been paid to the dynamics of the colonial encounter in other contexts.

Abdul JanMohamed, for example, writing of European colonization, asserts that “Motivated by his desire to conquer and dominate, the imperialist configures the colonial realm as a confrontation based on differences in race, language, social customs, cultural values, and modes of production” (18).  Certainly, reading a novel or poem is not the same as conquering and colonizing a culture.  But can we not see some of these same dynamics operating subconsciously in the literary encounter?  JanMohamed goes on to suggest that “such literature is essentially specular: instead of seeing the native as a bridge toward syncretic possibility, it uses him as a mirror that reflects the colonialist’s self-image” (18).  JanMohamed is referring here to colonialist literature. However, I think his insights can also be applied to the literary encounter between white Western reader and African text.

I’d like to suggest that the pedagogical tensions I mentioned earlier derive at least in part from specularity of the American-African literary encounter.    I think that—at least for some sheltered white students—Africa still serves as a heart of darkness.  Just as Conrad depicted the exploration of the Congo as a metaphor for journeying deeper into the human heart, my students experienced African literature as a mirror providing them with glimpses into their own culture’s heart of darkness.  The strong reaction against Achebe’s sexism, I believe, says more about the situation of the white Midwestern students than it does about the situation in Africa.  These are students who are raised to be nice, not to express anger, and to be believe that our society does not have problems of inequality.  My theory is that reading about problems faced by the Other struck a nerve that forced them to confront—albeit at a subconscious level—the inequality in our own culture.  Since they are not “allowed” to be angry, they are unsure what to do with this knowledge.  One outlet is to express disgust toward Things Fall Apart. That would account for the intensity of emotional reaction that seemed to me out of character and sometimes out of proportion.

As an example, let me quote an excerpt from another student’s electronic discussion posting.

“After all of the arguments about Achebe’s work last week I finally came to some of my own final conclusions. At first I was appalled at the way this society behaved and portrayed women in this novel. It disturbed me deeply and I had a very difficult time reading it. After a lot of thought and analysis, I realized that just because our society deems spousal and child abuse as wrong and cruel doesn’t mean that every other society should function in the same way. In going over the text to collect my thoughts I really tried to separate myself from my moral and value system to understand why these people did what they did within their clan. Even though I still don’t agree with the beating of the women, I can understand that this is just the way their people lived and functioned. This type of thing was a societal norm, and those norms are very difficult to change or see past.”

With all the attention paid in our media to the problems of battered women and abused children in our country, it is difficult for me to believe that this young woman actually thinks that she lives in a culture free from spousal and child abuse.  Perhaps she is just innocent.  What I think may be happening, though, is that reading Achebe forced her to confront her own culture’s conflicts-what it professes as opposed to what it actually practices.  This confrontation is deeply painful and can result in misdirected anger.

Another issue that the students found hard to confront was the overt and often violent racism Africans experienced at the hands of whites.  As one student wrote in her electronic journal: “I still find it hard to think that the people of Europe and America would think that a darker skin tone meant more than just a darker skin tone.  I find it hard to think that Europeans and Americans were that far behind in their logic.”  Were that far behind in their logic?  Again, I find it difficult to understand how Americans can NOT be aware of racism not only in Africa but in our own country, but it seems to be another blinder that reading African literature forces students to remove.

I am still working out my thoughts on this subject, but it seems to me at this point that in trying to teach students about African literature culture, I was simultaneously teaching students to confront their own culture.  This secondary course goal, however, was always beneath the surface of discussions, a quiet but powerful undercurrent that sometimes erupted violently.  On the one hand, this double current can work out productively.  In the best possible scenario, students can learn about both themselves and another culture.

The danger, though, is that if these complicated emotional reactions are not worked through productively, that the students may leave with their initial repugnance intact.  I’m not completely sure how to do this or even if it is within the power of an instructor to bring about this transformation.  Perhaps it is part of the maturation process or perhaps a degree in psychotherapy would be helpful.  I do think it would be productive for our profession if we could discuss the psychodynamics of the literary encounter with the Other in more depth.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Author: DebraB

I am a Professor of English at Concordia University-St. Paul. I have a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. My research interests include American literature, contemporary literature, Middle Eastern literature, African literature and feminist theory.

13 thoughts on “Discovering the Heart of Darkness in Minnesota: Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart””

  1. Your extremely notable and sensitive exploration today is indeed tiptoeing on sacred ground of the Western white male, the Minnesota father, uncle, brother, grandfather, neghbor, as you call it , Minnesota’s own ‘heart of darkness’. The class goal and texts are admirable. and the result we wish would be transcendent. However, having taught courses in psychology and women’s studies in MN, I know that transgressing our ‘white fathers’ image is stlll forbidden and defended by daughters, wives, mothers, sisters. One way to not address the dichotomous reactions to the reading would be to acknowledge that even in Minnesota, men not only abuse women and children, but they invest in child trafficking and tourism, leaving the USA to fly to places like Indonesia, Brazil, Africa, and the Middle East, to get their compulsions satisfied, if this can’t be done locally. These are men with good jobs, families at home, respected locally, who can afford to “tour” other countries. The West has shown its light to expose African primitivism, but we rarely accept African, or any country, shining a light on our own.

    Click to access Human%20Trafficking%20Final%20Report.pdf

    Also, the women in any classroom on any campus are part of the 1 in 4 victims of incest and rape that occur in all economic levels, religions and races; therefore, some of the reaction that results in forthcoming anger or anxety is from unconscious, hidden, or acknowledged reality of their own abuse, or of someone in her or his family, or of a friend. By raging at another culture’s victimizing, we act out an abreaction to our own culture’s perpetrators.

    Balancing the foreground of the literature with preparatory statistics, reading, or a film on USA and MN crimes against women and children, criminal statistics of American men partcipating in child trafficking, tourism and prostituion, domestic abuse, and incest, we begin to gain insight into our own culture. To balance perceptions of Western literature and African, Indian, Eastern literature where these themes are explored, we can’t begin with our own prejudice or denial.

    My point is that we have find a literary or factual arena to rage and grieve our own culture’s abuse, disspell its own shame, in order to be prepare to respond with balance to another culture’s. Indeed, it is white middle and upper class men who are also viscious and exploitve of women and children, at home and in other parts of the world. Their children are in our classrooms. “What I think may be happening, though, is that reading Achebe forced her to confront her own culture’s conflicts-what it professes as opposed to what it actually practices. This confrontation is deeply painful and can result in misdirected anger.” This is the beacon. Your essay was fantastic!

    Click to access literature_review_1007.pdf

    Here are some links for

  2. Wow! Excellent post! I’m years into retirement now, and I joyfully taught kindergarten, but the memory of teaching about racism and sexism was in my classes, too – from Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King to the Hmong culture vs feminism and what we consider child abuse – omg.

    I’ve read Heart of Darkness as well as Things Fall Apart – each twice, I believe, and probably as a result of being a history major I wasn’t affected by the sexism – more by the colonialist and post-colonialist attitudes. So many folks think that what we value today are everlasting values that spring from inalienable rights or something – black and white thinking – and “Minnesota nice” fits right in there, too. (“But that’s WRONG!”)

    And I remember some feminists in one of my long ago history classes (History of Women in Europe or something like that). The professor used some straight on excellent history teaching. The women from the feminist group had a very hard time dealing with the historical issues instead of their contemporary feminist issues – some real battles there. (This was in addition to the research paper differences, sources, “foot”notes, etc.) – lol –

    I belong to a lot of reading groups and I see this phenomenon continue in reading classics – some of it is naïveté, I’m sure. But think of the ruckus that comes up when teachers try to teach Huckleberry Finn! – Historical fiction the author can explain the cultural differences, with classics the authors don’t even think to do that – their readers understand.

    I don’t have any answers – especially not for adults. Just keep teaching – someone has to lead/teach. 🙂

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Becky. It’s interesting that you mentioned “Huck Finn.” It has happened that I have taught “Huck Finn” in American Lit at the same time that I teach “Heart of Darkness” and “Things Fall Apart” in World Lit, sometimes with the same students in both classes. It is amazing how many of the same issues come up in both courses. Maybe I should do a blog post or paper about that one of these days.

  3. I find this post fascinating! It’s a window onto seeing my younger self struggling with university texts that I lacked the maturity to comprehend, indeed I was chatting about one of them, Nabokov’s Lolita, just the other day after one of my virtual friends from India had reviewed it.
    Which other books from Africa do you choose for this course?

    1. Lisa: I’ve only taught this course three or four times. Each time, I change the book list a little bit. Here are the books I assigned most recently.

      Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart, Norton Critical Edition.
      Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, Norton Critical Edition.
      Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions, Lynne.
      Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun, Anchor.
      Naguib Mahfouz, Miramar, Anchor.
      Mark Mathabane, Kaffir Boy, Free Press.
      Zakes Mda, The Heart of Redness, Picador.
      Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, A Grain of Wheat. Heinemann.
      Fatima Mernissi. Dreams of Trespass. Basic Books

      Also, I should note that the response I mentioned in this post only happened the first time, if I recall properly. When I taught the course later, the revulsion against the portrayal of the Igbo was not as strong. I am never quite sure what to expect when I teach this book!

      1. Thanks, that looks interesting – I’ve read a bit of African Lit (see for those I’ve reviewed on my blog). I’ve read the first two and the Adichie, but I don’t know most of the rest though I’ve read different titles by Zakes Mda and Mahfouz. Does Mahfouz generate a similar sort of gender discussion? I read his Cairo Trilogy a long time ago and was outraged by the sexism of his household. Today I wonder if I misread it… perhaps he was satirising it, I hope so! I have Bessie Head on my TBR to read soon, recommended by Kinna, (daughter of feminist author Ama Ata Aidoo) at Kinna Reads (

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