The Role of Women in the Novel: Things Fall Apart


While women in the Igbo society of the 1890s appear to be thoroughly subjugated to their male counterparts, are they depicted by Achebe as utterly powerless? Kim Piper Hiatt has the following to say about the role of women in “Things Fall Apart”: Discerning the role of women in Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart (TFA) requires an attentive and unbiased reading of the novel. At first glance, the women in TFA may seem to be an oppressed group with little power, and this characterization is true to some extent. However, this characterization of Ibo women reveals itself to be prematurely simplistic as well as limiting, once the reader uncovers the diverse roles of the Ibo women throughout the novel. An excellent example of powerful women in the Ibo village is found in the role they play in the Ibo religion. The women routinely perform the role of priestess. The narrator recalls that during Okonkwo’s boyhood, “the priestess in those days was a woman called Chika. She was full of the power of her god, and she was greatly feared” (17). The present priestess is Chielo, “the priestess of Agbala, the Oracle of the hill and the Caves” (49). There is an episode during which Chielo has come for Okonkwo and Ekwefi’s daughter Ezinma. We are told, “Okonkwo pleaded with her to come back in the morning because Ezinma was now asleep. But Chielo ignored what he was trying to say and went on shouting that Agbala wanted to see his daughter . . . The priestess screamed. ‘Beware, Okonkwo!’ she warned” (101). There is no other point in the novel in which we see Okonkwo “plead” with anyone, male or female, for any reason. We witness a woman not only ordering Okonkwo to give her his daughter, but threatening him as well. The fact that Okonkwo allows this is evidence of the priestess’s power. The ability of a woman to occupy the role of a priestess, a spiritual leader, reveals a clear degree of reverence for women being present in Ibo society. Another example of such reverence for women is unveiled in the representation of the earth goddess, Ani. Ani is described a playing “a greater part in the life of the people than any other deity. She was the ultimate judge of morality and conduct.And what more, she was in close communion with the departed fathers of the clan whose bodies had been committed to earth” (36). It seems logical that a society that views its female members as inferior beings would not represent their most powerful deity as being a woman. Ani’s power is further illustrated through her role in the yam harvest. It is important that all the members of the clan observe the Week of Peace prior to the harvest in order, “to honor [their] great goddess of the earth without whose blessing [their] crops will not grow” (30). For a female spirit to possess such an important role in the success of the yam crops is indicative of the actual deep-rooted power of women. When Okonkwo breaks the Peace of Ani, Ezeani proclaims, “The evil you have one can ruin the whole clan. The earth goddess whom you have insulted may refuse to give us her increase, and we shall all perish” (30). The idea of women’s power being attached to nature is also found in Chapter fourteen, when Okonkwo returns to his mother’s clan after being exiled from the Ibo village. Uchendu, reproaching Okonkwo for his sorrow about having to come to live with his mother’s clan, explains:
It’s true that a child belongs to its father. But when a father beats his child, it seeks sympathy in its mother’s hut. A man belongs to his fatherland when things are good and life is sweet. But when there is sorrow and bitterness he finds refuge in his motherland. Your mother is there to protect you. She is buried there. And that is why we say that mother is supreme (134).
Uchenda’s words reveal that women are viewed as the foundation of the clan and its people. They are the constant that can be relied upon; they are the nurturers andcaretakers of the people. These are not insignificant, powerless roles.    In addition to these notable examples of the power of these women, we observe women performing various roles sprinkled throughout the novel. We are told that it is “the women [who] weeded the farm three times at definite periods in the life of the yams, neither early or late” (33). This is an extremely important duty, considering that if this task is not carried out correctly, the yam crops will fail. We also see women in their role as educators of their children. The education process is done in part through the ritual of storytelling. The narrator describes, “Low voices, broken now and again by singing, reached Okonkwo from his wives’ huts as each woman and her children told folk stories” (96). It is through storytelling that the children learn important lessons about the human condition, are taught the Ibo creation myths, such as the birds and the tortoise story, and master the art of communicating by retelling the stories themselves. As stated earlier in the novel, “Among Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten” (7). The Ibo women are playing a significant role in the facilitation of this learning, which is vital to their children’s ability to function within the Ibo culture.    At first glance, the role of women in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart may appear to unfairly limited in terms of their authority and power. Upon delving beneath this deceiving surface, one can see that the women of the clan hold some very powerful positions: spiritually as the priestess, symbolically as the earth goddess, and literally as the nurturers of the Ibo people, the caretakers of the yam crops and the mothers and educators of the Ibo children.