Pathos, Ethos, and Logos in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart
by Darlene Reilley
Let every people bring their gifts to the great festival of the world’s cultural harvest and mankind will be all the richer for the variety and distinctiveness of the offerings. – Chinua Achebe (PCSR 76)
All African writers are compared with Chinua Achebe, and all African literature is compared with Things Fall Apart. Achebe won the Man Booker International Prize in 2007 and other prestigious honors. Achebe writes about what he knows—African cultures. In TFA, traditional indigenous African cultures are discussed through the telling of Okonkwo’s life—the ups and downs of a warrior’s life in an Ibo village in Nigeria. African culture and Post-Colonial concerns abound in the novel, but this annotation asks another question: how does Achebe succeed in making this “strong man” into a character with appeal? Plato called the techniques ethos, pathos, and logos. Achebe combines persuasive techniques to make a character most would not like, likeable.
Achebe uses ethos—the credibility or ethical appeal—to create a world the reader wants to believe in. One reason this novel is so successful is because Achebe uses what he knows—he is an African man and he explores indigenous culture. From the beginning the novel sinks into a traditional story as if it were an oral story: “Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond” (1). Achebe sets the scene with “drums beat” and “flutes sang” and “spectators held their breath” (1). Okonkwo is established as “one of the fiercest [warriors] since the founder of their town engaged a spirit of the wild for seven days and seven nights” (1). Achebe uses traditional oral storytelling methods—establishing a tempo, a setting, and a character to create the believability of the story. But he doesn’t allow the character to win without challenges. “During the planting season Okonkwo worked daily on his farms from cock-crow until the chickens went to roost” (13). Okonkwo is a trusted man (72). Okonkwo admits when he doesn’t know the answer to something (133). Achebe sets up challenges that test the boundaries of the character and make him work for what he wants.
Achebe uses pathos. To start, Okonkwo works hard in his fields and in his training as a warrior because of his father’s failure to work when he was young (13, 17). When Ikemefuna, a boy given to the Ibo tribe to satisfy a debt, comes to the village, he is placed into Okonkwo’s care. Okonkwo treats Ikemefuna like a son. When it’s time to complete the council’s order of killing Ikmefuna, Okonkwo goes with him on the final walk (59-60). In the end, it is Okonkwo who carries out the sentence of the council leaders (60). Okonkwo feels genuine remorse and “did not taste any food for two days” and “did not sleep at night” (63). Later, when his daughter is taken by a priestess to a temple in the middle of the night, he follows and offers to wait until she is released (108). Achebe created a multifaceted character in Okonkwo. Achebe creates a character who is emotionally unavailable, but has a deep want to take care of his family and his clan.
Achebe uses logos. In one scene where a gathering of women helps prepare a wedding feast, a woman cries out (114). All the women flock to leave, but the priestess says: “We cannot all rush out like that, leaving what we are cooking to burn in the fire” and suggests that a few women stay (114). It is logical that someone has to tend the stoves despite a cry for help. Later in the novel, we learn that it is a crime to “kill a clansman” (124). When Okonkwo’s gun accidentally fires, he is forced to flee for his life (124-125). He gathers his family and runs to the only other people who will take him in—his mother’s relatives (129). His Mother’s brother says “Your mother is there to protect you” and that “mother is supreme” (134). This makes sense in their culture—you turn to your mother for comfort. After his seven-year exile ends, Okonkwo throws a feast to thank his mother’s family for all their help (163-167). His wives say that the party doesn’t have to be so large (164), but his uncle understands: “It is good in these days when the younger generation considers themselves wiser than their sires to see a man doing things in the grand, old way” (166). His uncle tells them that it is good they come together—he is afraid of what may happen if they don’t (167). And finally, when the council decides to not let the missionaries into the clan’s culture, they still include them as people by telling a missionary:
“You can stay with us if you like our ways. You can worship your own god. It is good that a man should worship the gods and the spirits of his fathers. Go back to your house so that you may not be hurt. Our anger is great but we have held it down so that we can talk to you.” (190).
Even though the missionaries and conquerors have done everything they can to harm the people, the people see them as people—perhaps misguided, but people. Achebe uses logical appeal.
Through the use of ethos, pathos, and logos, Achebe has ensured that his character is likeable. When Achebe wrote TFA, he wanted to show the world what it was like from the point of view of an indigenous person. He accomplished that, but also went a step beyond—he allows us to look into a world which we may not have the capability of seeing in person. One thing writers do is shine a light on what aspects of humanity we need to explore. Achebe shows us that one part of mankind is more interesting because of their roots. I give this book three stars.
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: First Anchor Books. 1994. Print.
“Colonialist Criticism.” In The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. 2nd ed. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffins, and Helen Tiffin, eds. New York: Routledge. 1995. Print.