Synopsis of Class: December 5, 2000

We started class by going over once again the 2000-year time-line that can be found in last class' synopsis. What is fascinating about Achebe's work is that it represents all the changes that we've been exploring across this 2000 year span—the movement from an oral culture to a literate culture, from a polytheistic shame culture to a monotheistic guilt culture, from a feudal culture to a bourgeois culture, from a gift/barter economy to a capitalist economy—in a single generational conflict (that between Okonkwo and Nwoye). We examined, as another example, the debate between Mr. Brown and Akunna (179-181) in which we see two cultures, normally separated by many hundreds of years, speaking to each other (a monotheistic, democratic, literate culture, on the one hand, and a polytheistic, feudal, oral culture, on the other). We thus see in a single debate all the issues we've been exploring across over 20 centuries of epic literature. I discussed how Achebe attempts to present both sides without completely idealizing any one side. We see the negative side of the African culture (for example, p. 156) just as we see the negative side of the colonial culture (particularly pp. 193-95). We spent some time listing those epic conventions that in Achebe's tale recalls the culture of ancient Greece in Homer's Odyssey (for example, machinery, epic games, shame culture, polytheism, misogyny and its relation to a gift culture, and the society of spectacle).

We also discussed the last page of the book and its relation to Conrad's Heart of Darkness (pp. 45-46). There is one more point I want to make about those lines. Notice that here the perspective of the third-person narration changes. We are presented, that is, with a "third-person limited" perspective in this last chapter insofar as we are, to some extent, looking through the Commissioner's eyes in these pages. We are thus presented with the perspective of the white colonialist, the sort of viewpoint that, according to Achebe, we are given in Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Indeed, the very last sentence about the Commissioner's book title for his envisioned anthropological text, The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger, directly evokes the Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs for whom Kurtz in The Heart of Darkness was writing his own anthropological account. We are thus made to read these last pages ironically; we cannot help but see this self-professed anthropologist (and perhaps the entire "scientific" perspective of the colonial West) as short-sighted, particularly when we read a line like the following: "One could almost write a whole chapter on [Okonkwo]. Perhaps not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph at any rate" (209).

Note that this is the last class synopsis, since we'll be spending Dec. 7 preparing for the final exam (which will be Dec. 12, 8:00-10:00 am in HEAV 214). Best of luck with that!


(p.s. don't forget to bring exam booklets.)