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It may have been in 1980 that the American novelist, John Updike, wrote a letter to Chinua Achebe. Updike had just finished reading The Arrow of God and had a few things to say about it. He said in the letter:

The final developments of Arrow of God proved unexpected and, as I think about them, beautifully resonant, tragic and theological. That Ezeulu, whom we had seen stand up so invincibly to both Nwaka and Clarke, should be so suddenly vanquished by his own god Ulu and by something harsh and vengeful within himself, and his defeat in a page or two be the fulcrum of a Christian lever upon his people, is an ending few Western novelists would have contrived; having created a hero they would not let him crumble, nor are they, by and large, as truthful as you in their witness to the cruel reality of process.

Updike considers it quite an accomplishment that Achebe could destroy such an important character “in a page or two.”

But if you read between the lines, you’d sense Updike’s unease about Ezeulu’s death. Something about the summary manner of the character’s destruction seems a little unfair, even illegal. Perhaps Updike feels that the reader could have used more explanation. A stronger case should have been presented to justify the character’s fate.

This idea that characters in Achebe’s novels die strangely violent deaths is actually not unfounded. After rereading Things Fall Apart times without number, I still get chilled to my bone when I get to Unoka’s banishment.

It takes place in a few sentences. He is picked up from his house and dumped in the evil forest where he dies a death too horrifying to imagine. The narrator must know that the reader can’t possibly be satisfied with the explanation given of Unoka being a lazy bone or of his swollen body being an abomination to the Earth Goddess.  Who the hell is this Earth Goddess and why does she authorize such a horrifying death? No explanation is given. The narrator moves on quickly to the next matter. Unoka is forgotten.

The same goes for Ikemefuna’s death. Yes we know all the circumstances leading up to his death. But you’d have to be an utterly gullible reader to be content with the meagre explanation the novel offers. And since we know that Achebe is way too smart to court gullible readers, it is safe to say that he purposely holds back from presenting a thorough explanation for the violent acts in his novels. But why?

It is clear, in Achebe’s response, that he senses the accusatory undertones in Updike’s praise. Achebe’s response is that he doesn’t expect Updike to understand. After all, Updike comes from a tradition where a character seems too precious to be “destroyed in a page or two.”

Of course a Westerner would be most reluctant to destroy “in a page or two” the very angel and paragon of creation—the individual hero. If indeed he has to be destroyed, it must be done expansively with detailed explanations and justifications, not to talk of lamentations. And he must be given as final tribute the limelight in which to speak a grand, valedictory soliloquy!

The non-Westerner does not as a rule have those obligations because in his traditional scheme and hierarchy the human hero does not loom so large.

So what exactly do you think Achebe is saying here— that the lives of his characters mean nothing?

If you are familiar with Achebe’s work, would you say he deals harshly with his characters?


The beautifully creepy image in the post is a piece by Zimbabwean artist, Kudzanai Chiurai. See more of his work HERE.

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Ainehi Edoro is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she teaches African literature. She received her doctorate at Duke University. She is the founder and editor of Brittle Paper and series editor of Ohio University Press’s Modern African Writer’s imprint.

6 Responses to “Paper Death: How To Kill A Character The Achebe Way” Subscribe

  1. Chielozona Eze March 18, 2014 at 9:27 am #

    Great teaser, Ainehi. When the discourse is set in West/Non West paradigm, we easily lose sight of issues, and in this regard, a more profound understanding of characterization as an integral part of narrative. It is, indeed, what narratives are all about. The truth is that not even in the Igbo traditional cosmology do you find people (characters) die without justifications. These justifications are often woven into intricate rituals that make sense when subjected to some hermeneutic practice. There is a suddenness in the fate of Achebe’s characters that leave the philosophically minded readers wanting for more explanation: Okonkwo, Unoka, Ezeulu name them.
    It is true that Achebe is too smart to be accused of “courting gullible readers.” Perhaps only time will reveal the degree to which Achebe’s pressure to “explain Africa” impacted his attitude to his characters.

  2. Ainehi Edoro March 18, 2014 at 10:07 am #

    Hi Eze. I’m happy you bring up the question of characterization. Roland Barthes has talked about how the death of characters is central to the logic of narrative. It’s funny but we tend to think more about how characters live within stories as opposed to how they die.

  3. Obinna Udenwe March 18, 2014 at 2:39 pm #

    I believe it is the sole prerogative of the creator (author) to chose how he wants his/her characters to die and the circumstance that should surround their death. If a writer is god as it is in a particular work of art, then the ‘author’ should for that particular work of his creation decide to wield immense power over the characters, even over the readers, deciding on what to reveal and what not to, he should also decide on who to kill, how to kill and the description if he so chooses. If a work of art has been so wonderfully created like Achebe’s works under discussion, the reader feels hatred for the author when he discovers the killing of the favourite character. I asked Helon Habila this question once, why he had to kill one of the twins in Measuring Time, Mamo or Lamamo, i cant remember which one now when the character was so lively and so much needed in the work, and he said, i should go back and re-read the whole novel again. And he laughed.
    For Achebe, i think he was influenced generally by the Igbo society where death is a very strange and bizarre occurrence that renders the society speechless. If someone dies in our society -say my village now, for a day or two, the whole village will be like a grave-yard. No one will go to work – farm, business etc.

  4. Ainehi Edoro March 18, 2014 at 2:55 pm #

    Obinna, I particularly like your closing statement. So maybe Updike is the naive one. Maybe Achebe is making fun of the fact that Updike would imagine that one can account for death simply by explaining it. Is there even such a thing as an adequate explanation for death. Is there any way to fully account for why a life has to be taken. Just because you let a character prattle on and on about their demise doesn’t make death justified. Maybe Achebe is saying that there is something fundamentally mysterious about killing a character whatever the presumed justification might be.

  5. Chielozona Eze March 31, 2014 at 8:04 pm #

    Oh, I missed out on this important discussion. I didn’t think that Updike was talking about the death of a character per se, but how characters die unexpectedly, that is, narratively so sudden. Characters have always died in stories, from Homer, African ancestors to Adichie. If there is no proper justification for the death of a particular character, then the author is doing the reader a disservice.
    Yes, Ainehi. You are right about Barthes. And Barthes is actually only repackaging Aristotle’s notes on tragedy. As Ricoeur would argue narratology goes back to Aristotle’s Poetics.
    We might one day raise an important question: did Achebe succeed in the characterization of Okonkwo, or Ezeulu?

  6. Les April 1, 2014 at 7:35 am #

    I did not feel that sense of dis-satisfaction. I am non western, I am Igbo like Achebe. Our ideas on death differ. Drastically. Hence Achebe says to Updike ‘You cannot understand”. Death is a sudden cutting down. Meaningless. Random. Arbitrary. The whim and mischief of fickle gods, sprites, fairies and their human devotees/collaborators. But thanks for pointing it out.

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