Things Fall Apart
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At both AS and A Level, this examined unit asks learners to examine how narratives work, with reference to their chosen text.
TOPIC: Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart
- Apply relevant methods for text analysis, drawing on linguistic and literary techniques
- Identify how meanings and effects are created and conveyed in texts
- Analyse the ways a narrative text draws on its generic and literary contexts.
At AS Level, this is examined via analysis of narrative techniques in an extract from the text, printed on the paper.
At A Level, learners choose from two questions, each focussing on an aspect of narrative. Their study of narrative techniques in Section A is applied to their own creative writing in Section B.
Approaches to teaching the content
This examined unit requires learners to read a substantial prose fiction text: Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe.
In this combined Language and Literature course, the key focus is on how narratives work, drawing on integrated linguistic and literary approaches. Learners will study aspects of narratives such as the use of voice, point of view, time and chronology, dialogue, characterisation, genre, symbols and motifs, structure and settings.
They will need to apply relevant techniques in their response to their chosen text via either an extract (AS) or a question (A Level) in relation to Things Fall Apart. They should use these in textual analysis to explain how meanings and effects are created.
It is important for both AS and A Level that learners have an awareness of broader contextual factors. These would include understanding of how the text draws on genre conventions, as well as the social and historical context of the text.
Common misconceptions or difficulties learners may have
In the transition from GCSE study, learners may worry that this approach differs from a familiar schema of plot, themes, characters, setting. In fact, the difference is just a shift in emphasis from WHAT to HOW, from ‘characters’ to ‘characterisation’. They will still be studying the familiar aspects, but the focus will be on critical analysis, exploring how, for example, a particular perspective shapes the creation of character. Or the role of different settings in the novel in the development of plot and the themes conveyed.
Conceptual links to other areas of the specification – useful ways to approach this topic to set learners up for topics later in the course
For A Level learners, there is an immediate link to Section B of the examination, where they move from ‘Reading as Writers’ to ‘Writing as Readers’ and show their understanding of narrative techniques as they produce their own original writing. It may well be productive for AS learners to engage in this sort of creative text production as part of their study of narratives.
Learning to apply relevant linguistic and literary techniques in close analysis is a fundamental part of all AS and A level components, whether the focus for study is spoken or written language, the literary genres of poetry, prose or drama, or non-fiction genres such as journalism, travelogue or memoir.
For all units, learners will benefit from a perceptive understanding of the ways contextual factors (including genre, purpose and audience) influence the writer’s choices and the reader’s interpretation.
For a perceptive understanding of narratives, it is vital to study them in context, not, for example, to analyse a line of dialogue in isolation. The term ‘context’ refers to a range of aspects in this component. First, any part of the text needs to be considered in light of the novel as a whole; then with awareness of broader genre conventions; and also with some knowledge of the social, historical contexts - particularly where these differ significantly from those of the reader.
It may be useful to think of the derivation of the word: con+text = WITH the TEXT. The following activities focus on a range of aspects of the text in context, such as:
- Narrative perspective / point of view
- Voice - representation of speech and thought
- Settings and style
- Motifs and symbols
- Genre conventions
- Social historical context.
Before reading Things Fall Apart, it is important for learners to have an understanding of its context. Firstly, because Achebe is presenting to (mostly Western) readers a story set in a particular African context: the Igbo (sometimes spelt Ibo) tribe of Nigeria at a time just before colonisation by the English. Also because Achebe is explicit about his purposes in writing the novel. He said:
"The last four or five hundred years of European contact with Africa produced a body of literature that presented Africa in a very bad light and Africans in very lurid terms. The reason for this had to do with the need to justify the slave trade and slavery. … This continued until the Africans themselves, in the middle of the twentieth century, took into their own hands the telling of their story." (Chinua Achebe, "An African Voice", The Atlantic)
Learners should use internet sources to gather and share information about contextual details. A list is provided in the learner resource sheet.
Learners should be familiar with these terms. The protagonist of Things Fall Apart is Okonkwo in that he is the main character; it is HIS story that is being told in 3rd person narration. But Achebe does not tell the story entirely from his point of view. The focaliser sometimes changes to the inner thoughts and observations of another character, e.g. his adopted son, Ikemefuna, or his son, Nwoye.
Sometimes Achebe presents a neutral ‘camera-eye’ view of the action, allowing the reader to hear in dialogue the reactions of other characters, such as his friend, Obierika, or his favourite daughter, Ezinma. There is some omniscient narration, but it is often confined to a brief comment, or a single word suggesting an external judgement.
As learners read each chapter, they should note where the perspective shifts from:
- Internal perspective: Okonkwo’s
- Other characters'
- External camera-eye view
- Omniscient narration.
It is particularly important to notice where there is the voice of an omniscient narrator, evaluating the actions of Okonkwo. Examples of different narrative perspectives are provided on the worksheet.
Achebe has Okonkwo as protagonist in the novel, but it is important for learners to consider whether he is being presented as a ‘hero’, i.e. someone the reader should empathise with and admire.
Achebe’s presentation of Okonkwo and his role in Things Fall Apart is particularly significant, as readers are likely to find his attitudes to women and children disturbing. Learners should discuss whether these attitudes are presented as the norm for the Igbo tribe, or whether Achebe offers dissenting voices.
As they read the novel, learners should collect quotations referring to Okonkwo’s attitude to gender, before discussing the questions in small groups.
Proverbs recur throughout the novel. Achebe shows the importance of such inherited, shared wisdom for the people of the tribe.
As learners read, they should make a list of proverbs found in the novel. Note who says them – a character or the narrator – and what is happening at that point.
Working in small groups, learners can take a few of the proverbs for further study:
- What idea do you think Achebe is conveying?
- Are there sayings in English that sum up the same or similar idea?
Ask learners to find examples of recurring motifs and symbols from each chapter.
Suggested Interpretations can be found by clicking on the resource links.
Many of the proverbs refer to the natural world as a source of wisdom. Achebe portrays the life of the Umuofia as intricately bound up with their surroundings: the animals, plants and weather. For a Western 21st century reader, this contributes to the effect of a strangely unfamiliar world.
Learners should work in groups to collect examples of lexis and imagery from the field of the natural world. The activity asks them to substitute more familiar terms and images and comment on the effects. Each group can present their examples to the class.
Achebe narrates Things Fall Apart in a way that creates the voice of an oral storyteller. Some readers interpret the voice as that of an anonymous, wiser member of Okonkwo’s tribe, looking back on the events leading up to the arrival of Christian missionaries and Okonkwo’s death.
Learners will be aware of features of spoken language from their study for Unit One. The activity can be completed individually and shared in small groups. Each person’s work can be collected or displayed for the class.
An example has been completed on a worksheet.
For the AS exam, learners are given an extract from the novel and asked to write about the way the author tells the story. This is a chance for them to draw together all that they have studied about narrative techniques, genre and context.
For the A Level exam, learners are asked to respond to a particular question about the novel, for example analysing ways in which the author creates suspense, or uses settings. In their answer, they will refer to some close analysis of extracts in support of their points.
In this activity, learners can prepare their answers for homework, or use it as timed exam practice.
They can find more Sample Assessment materials on the OCR website.