The Commonwealth Literature and Chinua Achebe

He is a novelist who translates the pain and suffering of the society he himself is a part of, writes Dr. Farooq Ahmad Peer.The term “Commonwealth Literature” has a long h...

He is a novelist who translates the pain and suffering of the society he himself is a part of, writes Dr. Farooq Ahmad Peer.

The term "Commonwealth Literature" has a long history. It was first used by Oliver Cromwell after establishing the Republican Government in England, in 1649. Literally it implied common good or public good; a body politic in which power rests with the people. It came into disuse as a form of Government for nearly three hundred years, till it was resurrected in the Statute of Westminster 1931, when with the creation of the Dominions, the British Empire was re-christened as the British Common Wealth of Nations.

Though Commonwealth concept came into practice in the mid twentieth century, there are various factors that were responsible for its growth in the nineteenth century. The concept began to evolve in the aftermath of the American war of Independence which had convinced the British statesmen that they should formulate a new approach towards the emerging nationalism in the colonies which were destined to become independent in due course. In order to forestall violent break-up of the Empire, in the pattern of what happened to its thirteen colonies in America, British thought it imperative to follow a path of concessions and reforms and develop self- governing institutions in the colonies. The Durham Report of 1839 was a concrete expression of this new approach; it envisaged that the colonies could govern themselves, and yet remain colonies. The colonies could be self-governing in all respects excepting external affairs. As a natural corollary to this development, Canada, Australia, New Zeeland and South Africa attained the self-governing status in 1867, 1900, 1907 and 1909 respectively. These four self-governing colonies together with Britain formed the founder membership of the Common Wealth.

The distinctive feature of this new grouping was that they all were colonies of settlement, with close ethnic connections with Britain and had adopted the British pattern of political institutions. However, the Balfour Declaration of 1926 had concretized the common wealth concept further and made it the group of self-governing communities composed of Great British and Dominions. This institutional framework remained unchanged until independence was granted to India in 1947 and until India decided to stay in the Common wealth after becoming a republic in 1950. With the entry of India, the modern Commonwealth acquired a new complexion and character and demonstrated its potential for evolution and growth. The association became multi – racial and it was declared as a free association of independent nations where equality of status was fully recognized. The Commonwealth is the British Empire in reverse and it is a flowering of independent entities out of the bondage of colonial dependency.

English language represents a significant point of convergence in the multi-racial, multi –cultural, multi-regional Commonwealth. In terms of historical impact, the English language is perhaps the most useful legacy left over by British Empire.  It is a matter of pleasure that the language of the rulers never dies with the rulers. It lives a new life in the life of the erstwhile ruled, by becoming a part of their free existence. This has been true of Greek and Latin in the ancient West, Arabic and Persian in the medieval East and now of English and French in the modern world.  English has been a powerful instrument of protest in the past and has become the most important medium of communication in the International spheres. Its terminology and concepts have greatly enriched the languages of the people in the commonwealth countries.

In the twentieth century, Commonwealth Literature has attained an independent status in being a vehicle of highlighting the social, political and religious problems of various commonwealth countries during their pre- independence and post- independence periods. However, out of various literary genres, it is primarily fiction that has attracted the attention of the commonwealth writers, probably because of its being the easiest means of depicting the socio-political problem of their countries and verily due to the conventions associated with this genre ever since its birth in the eighteenth century England.

The African fiction today, of which Chinua Achebe is the major exponent has its origin in the African literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, is no exception in the sense that it has become one of the major means of highlighting the problems faced by the African countries during the British rule as well as after getting liberated from colonialism. The novel is the most indispensable literary genre in Africa, because, as compared to poetry, drama and essays, it depicts, social, political and other important changes of the African society. In 2008, an article appeared in one of the leading national newspaper of India, The Hindu in which Chinua Achebe, the renowned Commonwealth writer and the great African novelist was discussed as a less known writer in India and widely known in the other parts of the world. It is observed that in our part of land also Chinua Achebe is less known to the people though the difficulties, frustrations aspirations and prejudices and exploitations which he highlights in his fiction have a close resemblance one way or the other with those of Kashmir. He in his novels very boldly talks about the social and political ills and feels for his people and country. He very clearly sates in his speeches and lectures that as a writer he has a mission to show social commitment and concern. According to him, all art is propaganda, though not all propaganda is art. It should illuminate the people with historical experience and other human and contemporary issues. Mulk Raj Anand, the legendary Indian Fiction writer remarks, "I believe literature, though universally significant deals with a contemporary situation. I mean the human and novel situation at any one given time." At a close look into Achebe's novels, the young writers of our soil are bound to receive inspiration awakening and thereby project the social and political problems in their writings instead of the traditional concerns and themes. They are also bound to learn lessons from Achebe and teach people to regain their lost glory and identity and understand the plights, tensions and other political malaises of their society with an effort of reformation and solution.

Chinua Acheba follows the main historical development of the English novel, at the same time making new additions to this tradition. His significance for the African literacy scene is of the same order as the importance of Ben Jonson, Philip Sydney, George Eliot, Henry James, D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf to the English literary scene. Both,  he is the novelist of the fifties and his importance lies not only in what he contributed to the African novel but also in  influencing various writers of African literature. Chinua Achebe was born in 1930 at Ogidi in Eastern Nigeria. His novels are about the Igbo community of the region, their tribal traditions, beliefs and their contribution to modern Nigeria. As the son of a Catechist in a missionary church, Achebe had a close concern with the missionary presence in the early twentieth century. He explains, in his essay "Colonialist Criticism", that he retains much of the seriousness of purpose of the missionary movement. However, in his hands, the direction is reversed, for he never tires of exploring, affirming and explaining the complex values of the traditional African frame of the ideas which the missionaries sought to suppress. He says, in his essay "Colonialist Criticism".

"I hold, however, and have held from the very moment I began to write, that earnestness is appropriate to situation, why? I suppose because I have a deep seated need to alter things within that situation to find for myself a little more room than has been allowed one in the world".

Achebe's novels reveal three essential and related concerns: the legacy of colonialism at the individual and social level, the concern with English as a language of internal and international exchange and a deep concern with the obligations and responsibility of a writer towards his society and art. Discussing the impact of colonialism upon Nigerian Society, he says in an interview with Robert Seruaza in 1967,

"But, unfortunately, when two cultures meet, one might expect if we were angels we could pick out the best in the other, and retain the best in our own. But this does not often happen. What happens is the some of the worst elements of the old are retained and some of the worst of the new are added and so on, so if it were for me to order society, I would be very unhappy at the way things have turned out."

Achebe is optimistic about the economic and political benefits of the colonial experience, but he believes that in human and cultural terms, the contract was most harmful. Hence, Achebe's main concern has been to show that Africa has to struggle for its identity and dignity, because the writer's duty is to teach his people to regain these things.  He says in his essay "The Role of the Writer in a New Nation":

"The worst things that can happen to any people is the loss of their dignity and self – respect. The writer's duty is to help them regain it by showing them in human terms what happened to them, and what they lost".

Achebe believes that a writer has to be a teacher. He has to teach people different lessons about different things. It is his foremost duty to pay attention towards the problems and follies of his society and make people aware about such things. In fact, Achebe says, "the writer cannot be excused from the task of re-education and regeneration that must be done". In his own fiction, he attacks the Whiteman's hypocrisy as well as the ugliness of his own society. He believes that his purpose as a novelist is to "expose and attack injustices".

Achebe's novels form a coherent picture of the Nigerians social and political history during the century which preceded independence. Each novel outlines a distinct phase of Nigerian history. Things Fall Apart (1958) and Arrow of God (1964), for example, mainly deal with the impact of disintegrative forces of the European upon the African tribal life. These forces are represented by the missionaries who brought into the villages their disruptive education coupled with disruptive beliefs. The two novels have attained the grandeur and solidarity of the best of English novels, both in terms of structure and seriousness of moral purpose. He analyzes the theme of cultural conflict by creating men of heroic stature like Okonkwo or the old Chief Ezeulu and making them represent the best of the traditional beliefs, against the British figures. Similarly, in No Longer at Ease (1960), which concerns with the modern Lagos, Achebe explores the search for values in a world where change is the only certainty and where the old beliefs are crushed even before any security can substitute them. Even A Man of the people (1966) is an absorbing and prophetic account of the best and independent Nigerian Scene. The novel details the corruption which overcame the civil governments of Nigeria up to 1966 and which prepared the ground for the military coup in that year. Achebe's most recent novel Anthillis of the Savanah (1987), confirms the black, intellectually cynical vision of political Africa that the earlier novels depict.

All the novels of Achebe are a comment on four stages of transition and violent changes which affected the whole of Africa and the rest of the colonial world in the past hundred years.  However, he is not a mere reporter of public events and rejects the over facile view of history based on misreading of evolutionary doctrines in the nineteenth century, which have prevailed until very recent times. Instead, his novels affirm permanent moral and social values as they emerge in detailed moments of crisis in the lives of individuals and communities. His novels depict clearly that he is a writer of the people and their pain is his pain. As a writer he has a strong message and guideline of the duty of a writer for all the writers of the world particularly for the beleaguered writers of Kashmir.

(Dr. Farooq Peer is HoD, English, Amar Singh College. Feedback at and

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