Nigerian literary giant Chinua Achebe is celebrated as the father of modern African literature. In this seminar, fellows will read two novels from his famed “African Trilogy” – his groundbreaking first novel, Things Fall Apart (1958), about the tragic downfall of the Ibo warrior Okonkwo, and its sequel, No Longer at Ease (1960), about Okonkwo’s Western-educated grandson who returns to Nigeria for a job in the colonial civil service.

In following the lives of the Okonkwo family – from the first contact of European colonists to the waning days of the British Empire – fellows will reflect on the complicated relationship between African tradition and Western influence, the ravages of corrupt governance, and the challenge of moral agency when different belief systems overlap and compete.

Image Credit: Door; Lintel, Olowe of Ise, The British Museum

Martha Bayles on American soft power


Martha Bayles

Martha Bayles is a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, and since 2003 she has taught humanities at Boston College. She is currently at work on a monograph on the threats to independent journalism around the world; and a book about the importance of “voluntary restraint” in the American tradition of free speech.

Preview the Syllabus by Week/Session



First, watch the 1964 interview with Achebe, conducted at the National Museum in Lagos by Lewis Nkosi, a South African journalist; and Wole Soyinka, a Nigerian (Yoruba) writer who was already becoming famous for his poetry and plays. If you watch carefully, you will see a bit of rivalry between Soyinka and Achebe, as well as mutual respect. Come to class prepared to share your responses to this video as a reflection of the times: five years after the publication of Things Fall Apart, and four years after Nigerian independence. 

Second, read Chapters 1-8 of Things Fall Apart, which immerse the reader in the life of Umuofia, an Igbo village in the 1890s, when it was still unaware of the outside world, including the British colonial presence along the southwestern coast of what is now Nigeria. 

To bend your mind a little, I also attach a short piece by the young Igbo writer Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, about her great-grandfather, who was a slave trader. She published it in the New Yorker in 2018. 

Discussion Questions:

  1. Obviously, the world of Umuofia is very different from our own. Choose three things about it that you find appealing, and three things that you find unappealing, and explain your reactions. Do not mince words! 
  2. What is Achebe’s own attitude toward this world? Keep in mind that he grew up in the 1930s and 1940s, when the old ways of life still existed but were being rapidly transformed by British colonial rule. 

Other Courses You Might Be Interested In

African American Political Thought

Learn how the political tradition of Black Americans has made an indelible impression on American history.

Sophocles’ Antigone

Consider the conflicting understandings of the familial, the divine, and the political, and their proper relationships through Antigone.

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man

Study this monumental work on race, identity, and citizenship in America.

Slavery & the American Founding

Consider the status of slavery and race in the American Founding.

Lincoln with Douglass

Reflect on the writings of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass -- and their crucial role in America’s confrontation with slavery.

Shakespeare’s Prince & Tyrant

Explore the political and religious contexts of Shakespeare's plays.