Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” and V. S. Naipaul’s “A Bend in The River” both have characters which represent an inner cultural struggle between African/traditional culture and the newly introduced European culture. Two characters who are clearly dealing with this struggle of cultural identity are Nwoye (the main character Okonkwo’s son in “Things Fall Apart”) and Ferdinand (the son of a sorcerer who stayed with the main character Salim and who is now a student at the Domain in “A Bend in The River”). These characters both experience a change in culture and they are forced to make decisions concerning their cultural alliance at a very young age. It is significant to learn about the young Africans’ perceptions on imperialism because it is their thoughts and decisions which affected the next generations of Africans. Comparing these two characters through their reasons for leaving the old culture behind, the “seduction” of the new Western culture and its effect on them, and their general thoughts on imperialism can give an accurate idea of how the perpetual culture shock in Africa in the twentieth century affected the young (and as a result of this the later) generations of Africans.
Primarily it is important to see whether these two characters had any reason which would lead them to leave behind their tribal culture in order to embrace the new Western culture and even religion (Christianity). Nwoye’s culture was a brutal one. All of the men are expected to become warriors, hunters, and successful farmers. Along with this constant source of pressure (which Nwoye is never able to overcome) there are violent traditions followed without the slightest hesitation. For example in “Things Fall Apart” a person Nwoye sees as his brother is killed because the oracle says that it is necessary. His culture and its “requirements” of him are probably the main reasons that he turns to Christianity. He admits that he is happy to leave is father after he is questioned and beaten for being seen among the Christians. He knows he will never be a man like his father. However, with this new faith he realizes that he does not need to be. This is why leaving is the choice he makes.
Ferdinand, as Nwoye was, is born to a tribal family. However, he is born after colonialism has ended. Throughout the story readers can observe that he is ashamed of his culture and looks at his sorcerer mother with a mocking eye. He sees the success of the new Africans who have been westernized and he envies the intellectuals and the power they have. He sees tribal life as something of the past. An example of this perspective is at the beginning of part two of the novel where there is a metaphor of an ant column which does not wait for “stragglers” who fall behind. Ferdinand refuses to be a straggler and turns to the new opportunity of European culture.
Moreover, it is important to note that both of these characters have adequate reasons for choosing to leave their own culture behind to embrace a new one. The authors make this clear. Constant pressure, violence, and aspirations for money and power (which is an aspect of herd psychology) were probably the main reasons why Africans began to doubt their own culture. Nwoye and Ferdinand are the embodiments of these doubts in the novels. At Indar’s lecture Ferdinand admits that he is not sure about his views on African religion. After the lecture Indar tells Salim that the reason of this dilemma is the “really difficult question.” This question is “Are Africans peasants?” He says that as long as this remains unsolved “these young men will keep the world in turmoil for the next half century.” As long as the youngsters like Ferdinand even suspected that their own people were peasants it would be impossible for them to ever comfortably feel like a part of the African culture.
Secondly, along with the reasons for leaving a culture behind there are also reasons why the new culture would appeal to a person. Nwoye is drawn to the European culture through Christianity. The hymns, stories, and the preaching make Christianity look like a peaceful and merciful religion which accepts everyone, and gives people second chances when they need it. The author expresses Nwoye’s admiration of this religion on page 110 by saying:
“Although Nwoye had been attracted to the new faith from the very first day, he kept it secret. He dared not go too near the missionaries for fear of his father. But whenever they came to preach in the open market-place or the village playground, Nwoye was there.”
Here readers can immediately understand that Nwoye has a secret fondness for Christianity. The fact that he is keeping this secret makes it exciting for him. He does not share his thoughts about it with anybody else in fear. However, as he perpetually muses about it the feelings are growing stronger.
Ferdinand is drawn to the new culture because of his lust to be a successful intellectual. He wants to be better than the average African whom he might even regard as a peasant. He wants foreign education so that he can be a business administrator. Even in the early chapters of the novel before his education in the Domain and training by people of the international bourgeoisie (like Indar) during his lycee years he urges Salim to send him to university in the United States. Since he comes up with this desire spontaneously one day it is highly probable that he heard that one of his friends from the lycee had plans like this. Ferdinand is obviously naïve in the field of peer pressure and herd psychology. As mentioned before, he does not want to be left behind at any cost and the European culture and the education and opportunities it brings are exactly what appeal to him.
Another key point here is that both of these characters are basically persuaded to “join” the new culture through some form of speech. What influences Nwoye the most is the preaching and stories of the mercenaries, whereas Ferdinand learns about (and as a result is completely immersed in) European culture through lectures made by the people who have gone abroad for education and then returned to rule Africa and train the next generation of intellectuals. The missionaries who preach in “Things Fall Apart” are also Africans. A notable fact here is that it is Africans who teach the young generations about the new culture and religion. These teachings imply that there are new opportunities, new ways of life, and second chances. These are why the culture of the Europeans appeals to the youngsters.
The third field in which Nwoye and Ferdinand can be compared is their general thoughts and perceptions of Imperialism/Colonialism. Because of the stories going around about slavery, intruders in the land, and white men completely eliminating an entire tribe, Nwoye is initially scared. His father Okonkwo, being very conservative and opposed to strangers on the land making changes to their way of life, forbids him to even go near the missionaries. The slightest thought or suspicion of his son joining these newcomers pushes him to beat his son. At first Nwoye obeys his father and keeps at a distance but later, being young and easily influenced, ignores his initial perceptions, what his father says, and the rumors (about slavery and mass murder), and he joins the Europeans.
Ferdinand’s perceptions on Imperialism/Colonialism are clearer because he is being raised in a society which has come out of this stage. Throughout “A Bend in The River” there is an implied question. This question is “Is sacrificing one’s culture worth modernization and keeping up with the rest of the world?” Ferdinand would answer “yes.” He looks at his own mother’s culture (tribal culture) with a mocking eye. On page 36 in the novel Salim says “He seemed to be humoring the mother he had only just got to know. She was a village woman…” This quote clearly shows the reader how Ferdinand views his mother who is still part of the tribal culture. Since he is born into a society which is right in the middle of a cultural transition Ferdinand has to make a choice. From his choice to ignore the African culture for modernization and European culture the reader can understand that Ferdinand thinks that Colonialism has been beneficial for Africa. He believes that it has enabled them to leave behind their “straggler” status in the world.
In the lecture chapter in the book with Ferdinand’s question and Indar’s explanation of it to Salim Naipaul shows that there is a debate whether Africa is a peasant country or not. Youngsters like Ferdinand are concentrating on this question. However, they do not consider the question “Was Africa always a peasant country in comparison to the rest of the world, or was it the rest of the world that forcefully turned it into a peasant country?” Ferdinand is the living embodiment of Europe’s classic excuse “We are spreading civilization.” Nwoye represents the African who was fooled by an initial perception on what the Europeans were doing. In his mind the Europeans were not erasing the old tribal culture; they were saving him from his brutal, unfair life. Therefore unwillingly he, as Ferdinand, also represents the African who believes he was “saved” and given a future by Europe’s spreading of their culture.
To summarize, in both novels the authors are using these young characters as stereotypes to criticize Africans’ perceptions of intruders and their gullibility. However, they are not only criticizing naivety. They are also criticizing why there are so many reasons which pushed the youngsters to making the decisions (about cultural alliance) which they made. There are many reasons why the Europeans were successful at the beginning and even after colonialism. The naivety and desperation of people like Nwoye and (afterwards) the new future opportunities for ambitious people like Ferdinand who were also affected by herd psychology were keys to their success. Simple, spontaneous, small choices are what determined the choice of a continent and its next generations. This is what “A Bend in The River” and “Things Fall Apart” can show people.