Cat gently acquiring knowledge

            The classical concept of tragedy derives primarily from ancient Greece, the foundation civilisation of Western culture. Naturally, it need not be the only concept of tragedy but even if we interpret tragedy in a broader sense, usually at its basis remains the Greek version. Tragedy is extraordinary death. It is not simply a sad event, not all death is tragic and the tragic figure has to be, broadly, someone we can sympathise with, at least in part. He or she can’t be simply stupid, criminal or petty. The tragic figure normally dies a sadder but a wiser person. Tragedy involves a descent and a sense of waste and often produces in the audience or reader the feeling of ‘there but for the grace of God go I’. The learning process which suffering involves, both for the central figure and, vicariously, for the audience or reader, is termed catharsis. The tragedy so far described is personal tragedy but we could also have a collective tragedy, one involving a culture or a community or a civilisation or even humanity or the human condition as a whole.

            Both protagonists of these two novels are very obviously highly fallible, insecure men. Hamartia is the classical term for the fatal weakness in an otherwise admirable individual which helps to bring about his downfall. Both Okonkwo and Sancher have hamartia in bucketfuls. The first is insecure, one weakness being his fear of being thought weak, from which follow his over-zealous adherence to tradition, his inflexibility, his lack of imagination, his impatience, impulsiveness and, perhaps most of all, his lack of judgement. He is a violent man in a heroic or violent society which lays store by a warrior’s prowess in killing other warriors (who are other black men in other Ibo communities around).
Sancher is also, or has been, a violent man in a violent revolutionary movement, the Cuban-inspired, Soviet-backed armed revolution against Portuguese colonialism in Angola, Africa, and in the subsequent Angolan civil war which was also black against black.

            Sancher’s hamartia is also insecurity because of his guilty and very haunted  conscience over being involved in the violence generally and having at least raped (and perhaps murdered) the twelve year old virgin in Angola. He has been obsessed with sex and has, in his own words, screwed thousands of women. (Okonkwo doesn’t have to screw thousands – he’s got several wives and can always acquire more). Sancher is fearful, almost cowardly, drunken and a man who wants to abort his own child with his own hands without asking his partner’s permission.
            Sancher’s catharsis (which runs almost the length of the novel) derives from his guilty conscience. This is revealed to us incrementally through the various voices. He recoils from the horror of armed violence and revolution and from ideologically defined categorisation of humanity into ‘them and us’. He advocates tolerance and compassion for the dark-skinned, the landless, rights-less immigrant, the retarded, the helpless, and for repressed, lonely women generally. Many of the voices, though not all, ultimately sympathise with him. They feel his suffering - as presumably the reader is also expected to. Okonkwo’s catharsis begins with the accidental shooting, his exile and then his return to a changed Umuofia with which he patently cannot cope.
            Okonkwo’s tragic fall is initiated by the kind of pride that goes before the fall, the pride or attitude or over-confidence which brings about that fall - which in tragedy is termed hubris. In Okonkwo’s case this is occasioned by his unnecessary and defiant participation in the killing of Ikemefuna. In a sense, he denies the tribal authority and tradition he wants to defend. He does this again, at the end of the novel, by hanging himself so that he dies an outcast, an abomination. It would have been very easy for Achebe to arrange a heroic  warrior’s death for his protagonist  - he could have died proudly in a hail of bullets while attempting to decapitate another court messenger. But it seems that Achebe chooses the pathetic over the heroic and thereby, perhaps, weakens the personal tragedy. His ending is also bathetic (or anti-climactic) and ironic. Obierika acts as a kind of chorus or choric figure to the dim-witted District Commissioner, Okonkwo’s nemesis, that is to say, the source of one’s downfall or force for revenge or retribution. This has the effect of diverting attention from the personal tragedy and humiliation of the somewhat bone-headed Okonkwo to the condescending or over-simplified summation of Ibo culture as ‘primitive’.
            Achebe’s novel ends by moving to the sadness involved in the extinction of a complex, cohesive, mannered, traditional and tribal culture which, if defined thus, is not primitive BUT aspects of which remain savage, a term which Achebe does not investigate. This society is certainly not modern because it is characterised by trophy killing for status purposes, human sacrifice, illiteracy, the subjugation of women, the killing of twins, absence of trade and literacy etc etc, some items of which are commented upon by Obierika, whose opinions we are to take seriously, in the other instance of his choric role.
            Sancher’s death is also bathetic and ironic. He is not killed by a member of the Riviere community but by a simple, mundane heart attack, symbolically in the mangrove which is so hard to cross. If there is hubris (and perhaps his nemesis also) involved, it is in his heavy drinking. Sancher’s acquired compassion redeems him and, very much unlike Okonkwo, he leaves a positive legacy. The many voices are disparate but for not a few, the women, Evariste and Etienne, Sancher has been a catalyst for a change in their lives towards freedom and self-respect, escape generally from the out of date prejudices and cruelties of this cut-off, backward outpost. So at the least, Sancher has learnt something in his life and imparted this to others. Okonkwo, predictably, has failed in this respect.
            Even so, perhaps the true tragic figure in Mangrove is Xantippe, the black-skinned figure who haunts the community. It is said that the local people were jealous of his complete happiness and in consequence horribly destroyed it by burning down his cabin with his wife and children inside. Xantippe’s figure stands for all the repressed, the black-skinned, the mentally affected, the very poor and, through his family’s extinction, all helpless women and children, He also stands collectively for all the exploited and cruelly-treated of history and Xantippe’s elegy to his dead wife Gracieuse is more moving than Sancher’s ironic and bathetic death.

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