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The significance of Chinua Achebe’s short stories – Part 1

By Adekunle Mamudu
01 October 2017   |   3:46 am
Balogun identifies Achebe’s stories as realistic, conveying themes and aesthetics with techniques borrowed from African folklore. He concludes that these stories rate favourably with the best in the world (58).

In spite of the success of Chinua Achebe’s short stories, critics have paid little attention to them, preferring, instead, to concentrate on his novels which, erroneously, are considered superior to his short stories. The fact that the short story is a neglected genre is well established and does not need to be restated here. What needs to be stated, perhaps, arising out of curiosity is that despite the numerous calls for critical interest in the short story, not many responses have been recorded. Critics like Ossie Enekwe, Odun Balogun, Charles Nnolim and Helen Chukwuma have bemoaned the neglect of the short story in Nigeria. Beginning with Chukwuma Helen’s “The Prose of Neglect” and furthered by Ossie Enekwe and Charles Nnolim and re-echoed by others, notable scholars have often called for greater attention to be paid to the short story.

Based on these calls, or perhaps by true commitment or genuine interest, a few scholars and critics have done a handful of critical works and comments on Achebe’s short stories, from which one is yet to find a single one dedicated to the study of his creative competence and artistic accomplishments. In his essay “Chinua Achebe’s Short Stories,” Enekwe examines Achebe’s short stories in Girls At War and Other Stories and concludes that though not perfect, some of the stories especially “The Madman” and “Civil Peace” pass as Masterpieces”(12).

Balogun identifies Achebe’s stories as realistic, conveying themes and aesthetics with techniques borrowed from African folklore. He concludes that these stories rate favourably with the best in the world (58). Patricia Emenyonu also rates Achebe’s short stories as globally recognised when she observes that “the international community had recognized great art like Achebe’s short stories” (262).

Charles Dameron conducts a thematic analysis of all twelve stories and concludes that what Achebe does is to “augment the historical portrait of an African people that he has elaborately created in his sequence of novels” (10). F.U. Eguda-Ugbeda separates Achebe’s twelve stories in the collection Girls at War and Other Stories into two groups – social and sacred and further, into three categories: social lives of the Igbo, their sacred lives and war stories. He says that “all the stories speak volumes of the life, death, desires, aspirations, inspirations and expectations of the people” (138).

Tony Afejuku and Adekunle Mamudu establish the destabilizing effects of diseases in Africa, especially in the midst of superstitious beliefs drawing exemplifications from the stories in the collection. They examine the depth of dislocation caused by disease at three levels—the individual, family and community—as portrayed in three stories in the collection. Generally, the few scholars and critics who have made comments on Achebe’s stories commend the artistic competence of the writer—their area of focus—notwithstanding.

Having reviewed available scholarly comments on Achebe’s short stories, this essay will proceed to ask and answer the question: Why does the Achebe short story stand tall? The Achebe short story stands tall because it is a product of Achebe, painstakingly woven and adorned with alluring ornamentations in the loom of the one whose craft understands and illustrates the true essence of the short story—an illustration of the human predicament—through an action that exhibits the workings of the human mind. Every Achebe short story is a clear illumination of the human character, often resulting in an epiphany, either for the character or the reader, faithfully rendered in line with the theories of the genre. These theories are found in the observations and prescriptions of Edgar Allan Poe in his “Review of Twice Told Tales,”(45) where he emphasises the need for brevity, unity and a single effect in each story, Lawrence Cooper’s criticism of Poe’s dicta entitled “A Theory of the Short Story” (60) and Brander Mathews “A philosophy of the Short Story” (52). Achebe is a faithful adherent of Poe’s prescriptions. In his adoption of Poe’s notion, Achebe’s stories possess remarkable unity, adopt few stylized and memorable characters and tautness of plot. Other attributes of the Achebe short story include tight narrative frameworks, wholesomeness, pointed-ness, brevity and reader engagement. His stories are also written to deliver a single effect on the reader.

Furthermore, Achebe indulges in a peculiar deployment of narrative devices such as humour, irony, parables, proverbs, aphorisms, suspense and surprise that imbue his stories with the engaging trappings of African folklore.

Achebe’s Girls at War is a collection of twelve stories that remains as alluring as ever as each story is strewn with the strokes of adroit craftsmanship. The stories continue to endear themselves to a general readership as they attract, by their artistic beauty and thematic content, both readers and critics. Achebe manages his creative enterprise in such a manner that hardly leaves any room for error. His imaginative competence, together with his artistic renditions casts upon the reader a feeling of satisfaction. In “The Madman,” for instance, Achebe’s poignant statement on the society’s disregard for the destitute, a class into which anyone can fall without warning, remains, in literature, a classic example of social art. His illustration of the feeling of the ostracised and the ill treatment meted to the mentally deranged through his vivid dramatisation of the madman is quite lucid. He reverses the roles of the two characters—the social reject, named the mad man and the highly placed and respected Ozo-title-awaiting Nwibe—to illustrate the pains suffered by the destitute in the hands of the “sane,” through the reversed character of Nwibe. This ability and accomplishment of Achebe in the accurate presentation of character in a story that is highly effective and affective on the reader is what Valerie Shaw observes in her definition of the short story as “a stretch of fictional prose which is shaped and controlled so as to leave no margin of error in the way it creates a pleasing, unified impression on the readers’ imagination” (22). Shaw’s statement stresses the presence of accuracy both in its presentation and in the desired effect on the reader.

Achebe’s short stories enjoy a good measure of tautness. In his renditions, which focus on the human predicament in moments of crisis, Achebe’s stories are crafted with precision, such that a single word does not appear out of place. His stories always end up as beautifully woven pieces of clothes, ornamented with alluring colours without a single piece of thread hanging redundantly out of place. “Civil Peace,” “The Voter” and “The Madman” stand out in this creative ingenuity of his. In “Civil Peace,” The apt illustration of total break- down of law and order shortly after the civil war, where ironically, the slogan is “happy survival” with a few characters and a single incident of an armed robbery successfully portrays the trauma of living in post war times. In “The Voter,” Achebe deploys the stylised character of Rufus to illustrate the ingenuity of man, caught in deep crisis. As a party agent, Rufus is induced with money, which he greedily accepts on oath, and swears to vote for the rival party before a deadly and dreaded charm. He is unable to resist the temptation of accepting the money. He assesses the situation to be harmless as one vote for the opposition will not alter his party’s victory at the polls. But on the day of elections, Rufus is unable to make up his mind on who to vote for. He over-stays his time in the polling booth, trapped in his indecision until the policeman’s voice bellows at him to come out of the booth. In that moment, at his wits end, he inviolately tears the ballot paper into two halves and casts his invalid votes for each of the candidates to whom he is indebted. Achebe in this story exposes the workings of the human mind in the moment of deep psychological crisis. The human capacity, as portrayed, is capable, under intense pressure to throw up ingenuous solutions to complex problems. This story stands tall, imbued with the masterly touch of Achebe whose creative ingenuity underscores the effectiveness of his characters and their actions in the stories. Although the story is rendered in a taut plot, it delivers the message and illustrates its theme quite succinctly. Achebe enjoys the endorsement of short story theorist, X.J. Kennedy who, while commenting on tautness in the short story, says that the short story is more than just a sequence of happenings. A finely wrought short story has the richness and conciseness of an excellent lyric poem. Spontaneous and natural as the finished story may seem, the writer has written it so artfully that there is meaning in even seemingly casual speeches and apparently trivial details. (10)

Kennedy’s view from the fore-going excerpt is that the short story must ensure a good measure of tautness. He says further, that in the short story, every word deployed by the writer should convey significant meaning. Kennedy likens the short story to a lyric poem where every word finds a place in the composition in the order of relevance or pertinence. Achebe, obviously crafts his story in such taut tradition as we find in poetry. In fact, Odun Balogun confirms Achebe’s “The Madman” as a poem when he says that the most artistically successful of Achebe’s short stories is undoubtedly “The Madman.” It is a consciously made piece of fiction. It is so consciously made and so poetic that it is in fact, a poem—a prose poem whose seven brief divisions, which move with cinematographic rapidity sound like the seven stanzas of a poem. (102).

Balogun is quite apt in his comments. Achebe infuses poetry into his stories as a good measure of his creative endeavour. With poetic elements, he heightens his art in many ways: He is able to create and convey vivid imagery and condensed meaning. Essentially, the hallmark of the short story is terseness. But in the terseness of the short story lies its art. Its ability to say so much with so little requires elements of poetry which Achebe has successfully achieved. Despite its shortness, it is a wholesome presentation of a complete experience. Therefore, poetic use of language becomes necessary for a wholeness to be attained. Achebe shows a powerful control of the form by his artistic organization of the work such that the presentation shows a unique artistic rendition of various matters into one wholesome and captivating story. By adopting the showing method in his stories, Achebe is able to focus on the pungent scenes, hints and incidents that give his evergreen renditions that flavour of completeness and wholeness. In “Girls at War,” Achebe moves from one scene to the other, in a form of panorama, selecting and compiling relevant matter that document the experiences of his characters in order to present a whole and meaningful story of the tragedy of war. This is in agreement with Nikolai Yakushin’s saying that “the artistic merit of the short story is defined above all by the extent to which the writer can choose from a multiplicity of events and persons passing before him exactly the ones that reflect what is most characteristic for a given period of society’s development. (30)
In “Girls at War,” Gladys—a Biafran Loyalist—sets out to see to the successful realisation of the Republic of Biafra through her membership of the Civil Defence Corps. She is quite effective and duty bound in her daily dispensation. But as the war wears on, she begins to show weakness and needs to break her hard posture in order to survive the war. She grows from that strong and determined girl bearing a banner that declares “we are impregnable” (105) to a whore teaching men while in bed with her to “go ahead but don’t pour in troops” (118). It is a complete story that demonstrates the theme of female subjugation. As a patriarchal society, women are not able to hold out on their convictions for too long before interference from men. When hunger sets in, and it is found that only Reginald Nwankwo of the Ministry of Justice has access to food, which she needs for survival, she is quick to embrace him as a mistress and takes instructions from him. The story, though short is a complete and whole story achieved through Achebe’s careful selection of material and adroit use of language. Of course, without a mastery of the language, Achebe could not have achieved much. He is generally credited with many titles that acknowledge his command of the English language. What Achebe does is to combine the use of plain and embellished linguistic presentations in the bid to present succinctly, that which he desires. The result, often, in the eyes of his readers is a display of an uncommon command of the English language which enables him to achieve wholeness in his stories.

In his comments on the wholeness of the genre, Billie Travalini says:
What is most impressive about the modern short story is its sense of wholeness…Wholeness comes from causality of sub-surface thinking and surface action or vice versa. What becomes important is not whether a story focuses more on the mental process or physical but if such focusing works towards wholeness… So for a short story to be successful, readers must recognize in the working, a familiar and useful sense of wholeness. (51)

As Travalini posits, the short story in fulfilling its function in the society, which is either to delight or to instruct, or both in every single episode, it must present the reader with a clearly defined message. Karen King Aribisala builds on this in her clearer picture of this wholeness when she says:
She [short story] has an inherent purity of line and structure in that she utilizes the minimum number of characters and or situations honing them to a fine edge, a polished gem that makes a complete statement – startling sometimes with aggression, sometimes with a calm quietude, but always with strength. (76)

Aribisala simplifies the wholeness of the short story by equating it to a “polished gem that makes a complete statement.” The Achebe short story indeed possesses a completeness of its own. And contrary to the belief by many, the short story is not a summarized novel. The Achebe short story avoids summaries and abridgements. It conveys messages through wholly composed stories by laying emphasis on the crucial point that is to be wrought off. The Achebe short story is as closely knitted as a poem and any unnecessary omission denies it of its effect on the reader. It is this understanding of the workings of the short story that moves Janette Turner Hospital into saying that “the [short story] is not a condensed version of the former, and is never a draft or a trial run for a novel. They are two distinct genres, as unmistakably different from one another as painting is from sculpture, as poetry is from prose (78). The Achebe short story operates within a tight narrative framework which enhances the aesthetics of the genre, thereby giving it a measure of urgency, which leads to a speedy revelation of the human predicament and reaction to be wrought off. Achebe, in his stories is able to achieve his mission in a few pages, with each of his stories being on the average, six pages long. This, perhaps, is one of the greatest selling points of his stories. As a genre that cherishes brevity, readers of the short story look forward to a brief artistic rendition that can be read in a sitting. Achebe’s stories, therefore, satisfy their need and cannot but be in great demand. But beyond the brevity, is the tight narrative, a presentation of a narrative within a tight framework that is both entertaining and instructive. Achebe goes straight to the heart of the matter in his short stories, presenting only materials relevant to the story at hand. Shaw says that the genre is able to satisfy both kinds of pleasure at once by:

Combining a tight narrative framework with the apparently casual effect of colloquial dialogue, or enhancing a sense of organic unity by highlighting a single sense of detail which seems gratuitous, but which yet has a tightness that makes it indispensable, part of a design and at the same time entirely natural and unforced. (24)

Achebe, in his works has proven to be a master of the tight narrative as his stories are indeed marked by a tight narrative framework. This type of “tight narrative framework” of the short story is also a prescription of H.G. Wells when he says that:

A short story should go to its point as a man flies from a pursuing tiger: he pauses not for the daisies in his path, or to note the pretty moss on the tree he climbs for safety. But the novel by comparison is like breakfast in the open air on a summer morning; nothing is irrelevant… (140)

• Dr. Mamudu teaches literature at the University of Benin.