Monday, March 19, 2018

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


I have just been commenting on Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart ; and as I often do when I have finished preparing my own “Something Old” commentaries, I went on line to see what others had to say about the work. I found some fair critiques, but I also struck one of those dreadful Amazon Books sites where people are encouraged to “review” and “rate” (stars out of five) a given book. Most of the comments on Things Fall Apart were very positive – four or five stars out of five – and had the sort of eulogistic comments that seem to have been encouraged by a high school English teacher. One long commentary gave the novel only one star, with the reviewer presenting a complex argument that the book was “too Western” and simplistic, implying that the reviewer knew more about the society depicted than the novelist did.
But the one that really caught my eye gave a one-star rating and sarcastically set out the reader’s difficulty with the novel.
It said: bestowing daddy issues on a flawed protagonist is not a sufficient excuse for all of the character's flaws… the main character is a generic bully, with no unique characteristics that make him interesting to the reader” and it complained of “the rampant misogyny present in the book.”
Apart from telling us that the amateur reviewer had done Feminism 101, these comments were a classic case of missing the point of something.
In Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe depicts carefully and in detail pre-colonial Igbo tribal society in Nigeria. Whether it appeals to the (modern, Western) reader or not, such society was built around male chieftainship and was therefore very patriarchal. The main character of the novel is indeed overbearing, assumes women are his servants, can be violent and measures his prowess in terms of being a hunter and a warrior. In other words, he is a representative figure of his time and society. To complain of the novel’s “mysogyny” is to complain of the norms of a society alien to the reader.
One of the main strengths of Achebe’s approach is that he is able to condemn the European colonialisn that destroyed a cohesive, traditional society without idealising that traditional society. We are not being invited to like, approve of or emulate the main character’s attitudes. We are invited to see them in their historical context. The amateur reviewer brought her-or-his values to the book, proceeded to look no further than her-or-his values, and refused to concede the historical accuracy of Achebe’s account.
There are, I think, two problems here.
One is the tendency to label glibly the depiction of things of which we disapprove. How often one sees such labels as “racist”, “sexist”, “mysogynist” or “homophobic” applied to complex and worthwhile works of literature, on the basis of minor or incidental details that are far from the work’s main impact.
Second, perhaps more pervasive, there is the naïve tendency to rate novels in terms of how much the reader “likes” characters. It is often the intention of a novelist to concentrate on unsympathetic or flawed characters – on anti-heroes rather than heroes. I recently saw a film version of Guy de Maupassant’s Bel Ami with somebody who disliked the film intensely because the title character was such a swine. To no avail was my argument that the character was meant to be seen as a swine because de Maupassant intended to satirise amoral arrivism.
Embedded in this attitude is the desire to “identify” with characters, as the movies have endlessly encouraged us to do. This sort of identification is fine in works aimed at children, but very limiting if applied to literature for adults. If we read books only to identify with likeable main characters, we would never make the acquaintance of a practised con-woman like Becky Sharp, a psychopath like Raskolnikov, a deluded daydreamer like Emma Bovary or any number of other interesting protagonists.
As for Okinkwo in Things Fall Apart, we do not have to share his values to understand his tragedy and the tragedy of his society.

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