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Realist Novel Essay, Research Paper
The realist novel
Casting the contradictions
A large proportion of modern African works of fiction can be defined as realist novels. Though
what, precisely, is a realist novel? And what of the notion of Realism itself? As Stephen Heath
has lucidly expressed it, the ‘realistic’ is a process of significant fictions (that is, not substantial but formal) and it may be
described as the vraisemblable of a particular society, the “generally received picture of what may be regarded as ‘realistic’”.1
Heath, I think rightly, points out that this vraisemblable is founded partly by the novel itself. In terms of the connection between
the novel and reality, then, there is a dialectical process at work. Within this process it seems important to say that there is no
direct, spontaneous relation between a literary text and history. Incorporating the mediating role of ideological formations, the
text “takes as its object, not the real, but certain significations by which the real lives itself” as Terry Eagleton puts it.2 Realism is
therefore a convention of discourse, a range of different patternings that gives rise to an impression of reality, a range of
Granted that realism is a conventional, formal concept, what of the formal realism of the novel? Ian Watt and Lucien Goldmann
have suggested answers to that question. The formal realism of the novel would appear to allow “a more immediate imitation of
individual experience set in its temporal and spatial environment”3 than do other literary forms. And not only individual
experience, surely, but areas beyond that limit: where a ‘world’ can be created “whose structure is analogous to the essential
structure of the social reality in which the work has been written.”4 Given, then, the possibility of an imitative rendition of both
individual and collective experience, the use of the realist-novel form can certainly make available (through varying emphasis) a
function of judgment in relation to the experience that it renders. Stated ideas, embedded in the text, could be expected to
occupy a central position in the ‘judging’ process. But then (in approaching these realist novels) certain implicit ideological
assumptions – from which the stated ideas derive their authority – also need to be noted.
An approach to the ideological concerns of realist fiction entails something akin to what Richard Hoggart has called ‘reading for
value’. He sees the aim as to find “what field of values is embodied, reflected or resisted, within the work … what, in assumed
meanings or counter-meanings … is in play”.5 Such a reading moves us right into the centre of the critical debate about the
relationship between ideology and literary form. For these ‘values’ are, after all, in a novel.
There are two concepts of immediate importance here. The first has been articulated in the theoretical work of Etienne Balibar
and Pierre Macherey.6 The literary text, they contend, presents ideological contradictions in the form of their resolution. Such a
concept enforces the view that the distinctive work of literature
… is not simply a contrived harmonization of the discordant ideological themes that echo in the text: rather, it
consists in a ‘prior’ recasting of these themes in such a way that their final reconciliation becomes possible.7
The second concept of importance is that stressed by Francis Mulhern, among others, when he points to the personalisation of
social contradiction as being one of the distinguishing features of realist fiction.8 Both these concepts – the possibility of
ideological contradictions being presented in the form of their resolution and (as a corollary) the projection of contradictions by
literary personalisation – chart the road ahead.
Before plunging along that road, one remembers a remark by Achebe that seems to frame the whole enterprise:
… it is clear to me that an African creative writer who tries to avoid the big social and political issues of
contemporary Africa will end up being completely irrelevant – like that absurd man in the proverb who leaves his
burning house to pursue a rat fleeing from the flames.9
Given such views, an African novelist would necessarily not be concerned with the ‘fleeing rat’ but with the central problem of
the ‘burning houses’ of the post-colonial period. In examining the manner in which this concern is projected through a formal
literary response, the following questions are of paramount importance: what ideological contradictions are being considered,
either implicitly or explicitly (at the level of stated ideas), within the presented worlds of this novel? In what manner are these
contradictions personalised? To what extent is a resolution of the contradictions projected or achieved? These are the questions
that need to be asked and answered.
The presented world of Chinua Achebe’s A Man of the People (1966) 10 is clearly analogous to that of the Nigerian First
Republic – the period that stretched from Independence to the first of a plethora of military coups. It is a world of demagogic
politicians, idealistic young men, and the struggle for political power that has been activated by the possibilities of self-rule. The
novel is concerned with the nature of events that are almost exactly contemporary with its writing. A wide field of values, a
range of ideological contradictions is under consideration here.
In the opening paragraph of the novel, the narrator (the self-inquiring young Odili) describes Chief Nanga as “a man of the
people”. The importance of this phrase is stressed, by Achebe, from the outset. Odili goes on to remark that it is necessary to
admit the appropriateness of the title “or else the story I’m going to tell will make no sense”. His comment emphasises the
central importance of the term in relation to an understanding of certain ideological issues: what is a man of the people? what
does the title imply? The consideration of these questions is immediately carried forward by Odili’s account of a congratulatory
festival for Chief Nanga, the Minister. Odili sees the applauding villagers as being “not only ignorant but cynical.” His view is
expressed in these terms:
Tell them that this man had used his position to enrich himself and they would ask you – as my father did – if you
thought that a sensible man would spit out the juicy morsel that good fortune placed in his mouth. (p. 2)
Certain juxtapositions of values are implicitly present here. Good sense versus ideals, acceptance rather than protest, a conflict
between ‘normal’ behaviour (apparently sanctioned by folk-wisdom) and an unusual integrity, between practical politics and
incorruptibility: these are the contradictions that are clearly under consideration. Achebe broadens his approach to these issues
by introducing an episode where a white American searches for “authentic Africans” (p. 57). The issue is then raised – what,
exactly, is an authentic African and, by extension, to what extent are Chief Nanga and Odili authentic men of the people? The
question of the relevance, or otherwise, of principled behaviour is raised by the lawyer-politician Max when he asks Odili:
“Now do you expect a man like that (Nanga) to resign on a little matter of principle …?”. The moral concern about the
relationship between those with power and those without is given focus by Achebe’s use of initials. In opposition to V.I.P., a
classification of P.I.V. (Poor Innocent Victim) is posited. The reversal of the initials underlines the difference in socio-political
status and introduces a sense of irrationality in regard to the value-judgements of those who would use them. Much the same
process is at work in the initials of the competing political parties: the governing People’s Organization Party (P.O.P.) and the
opposition Progressive Alliance Party (P.A.P.). Apart from the comic implications of P.O.P. and P.A.P., there is the more
serious implied question of a lack of real political alternatives. The point that any party can govern, that nothing will really be
changed, is appreciated by the ex-policeman who sees the C.P.C. group (the ‘new’ force of Max and Odili) as merely
completing a trilogy of vultures who feast on the body politic.11 Another contradiction raised in Achebe’s text is that between
the apparent reality of Nigerian independence and the continuing influence of the former colonial power. When Odili speaks of
the necessity for ‘clean’ election tactics, Max replies with a question:
Do you know, Odili, that British Amalgamated has paid out four hundred thousand pounds to P.O.P. to fight this
election? Now you tell me how you propose to fight such a dirty war without soiling your hands a little. (p. 142)
The essential dilemma – the necessity for political effectiveness opposed to a felt need for honesty and integrity – is projected
here within the neo-colonialist frame of reference.
In terms of the socio-political contradictions that are being considered, particularly at the level of stated ideas, there is a
passage in Man of the People that can be regarded as the ideological core (or thematic centrepiece) of the work. It is marked
by Achebe’s use of the logic of the proverb. Odili, in a period of thoughtful reflection, considers the overall position. He defines
it in terms of a man who has just come in from the rain, dried himself and put on new clothes. That man, thinks Odili, is more
reluctant to go out again than another who has been indoors all the time. By metaphoric extension, he sees this as the trouble
with the new nation “that none of us had been indoors long enough to be able to say ‘To hell with it’.” He sees the people as
having been all in the rain together until yesterday (Independence) and then
a handful of us – the smart and the lucky and hardly ever the best – had scrambled for the one shelter our former
rulers left, and had taken it over and barricaded themselves in.
Then, Odili considers, the smart and lucky handful (the new ruling group), from their privileged position in the dry house, seek
to persuade those outside that the first phase of the struggle has been won and that the next phase – the democratic extension of
the house – called for different tactics. It required “that all argument should cease and the whole people speak with one voice
and that any more dissent and argument outside the door of the shelter would subvert and bring down the whole house.” (p. 42)
In using the image of the rain and the house, Achebe focuses attention on the paramount contradiction of the
post-Independence period: a few are inside the house of power, the majority are outside. The relationship between this
majority and the new elite is under consideration. Concepts of fair-play and human justice (in the face of dishonest gains) are
clearly raised by Achebe’s analogy. The nature of honesty itself is in question. These issues constitute the field of values in A
Man of the People.
Odili, the young University graduate and teacher (a figure who has his foot planted in the door of the ‘house’ and pushing hard),
and Chief the Honourable M.A. Nanga, M.P., are the major figures created by Achebe to personalise these social
contradictions. Odili, as narrative voice, is handled ironically by the novelist. In terms of characterisation, he is defined by a
greater or lesser identity with the more constant values of Chief Nanga. Odili is portrayed as an ambitious youth with opinions
and attitudes that are in a constant state of flux, a perpetual process of modification. He approaches the contradictions of his
individual position with what is projected as a naive searching for the ‘right’ way, for himself and for the nation. Odili accepts, as
no idle talk, the common saying that “after Independence … it didn’t matter what you knew but who you knew.” (p. 19) He is
willing, with some reservations, to work within this situation to achieve positive political influence and a measure of
self-advancement. It is a situation where “a long American car driven by a white-uniformed chauffeur and flying a ministerial flag
could pass through the eye of a needle.” (p. 63) Odili, however, is a young man full of doubts and is projected by Achebe as
having a limited understanding of his own motives. Does he proceed from high ideals or from a desire for revenge on Nanga for
alienating the affections of his girlfriend? He constantly questions his motives and, by implication, those of all who would enter
the house of the elite. He begins to see the essentially relative value of his principles. Going to University “with the clear intention
of coming out again after three years as a full member of the privileged class whose symbol was the car,” he undergoes a radical
change. He vows “never to be corrupted by bourgeois privileges” and yet now, as a paid political organiser for the C.P.C., he
finds himself motoring around the country in a party car. He attempts to answer his own question:
How important was my political activity in its own right? It was difficult to say: things seemed so mixed up; my
revenge, my new political ambition and the girl. (p. 121)
It is apparent that Odili’s constant self-questioning plays an important role – as catalyst and as debater – in Achebe’s
Chief Nanga is characterised as a man of clearly defined ‘principles’. He does not question his motives. He is in the house of
power and intends to remain there. Despite Achebe’s satiric thrusts, Nanga is projected as being a man of certainty. He is seen
to have correctly appreciated the national situation and made full use of his opportunities. In this respect, the figure of Nanga is
surrounded by a field of values that are projected as being ‘realistic’, commonsense views. Achebe’s satirical treatment of the
character enforces a debate on those values. The implicit questions are these: can a man be popular, and a scoundrel? can a
man be honest and, at the same time, corrupt? is political success evidence of a betrayal of ideals? Nanga affirms that his
purpose is to make sure that his constituents “press for their fair share of the national cake.” He tells his audience that he would
have preferred to speak in the vernacular but he uses English because (as he puts it) “speeches made in vernacular were liable
to be distorted and misquoted in the press.” (p. 15) In passages such as these, where one notes the socio-political
contradictions that are revealed by the use of satire, the main target is clearly the exposure of hypocrisy. Indeed, Nanga’s
hypocritical approach to his role of benevolent politician clarifies the connection between ‘honest’ national aims and personal
hypocrisy (a connection that is supported by the treatment of Odili and becomes, itself, a major projected contradiction). Chief
Nanga is a man who “attracts drama irresistibly to him.” (p. 51) He also attracts a large measure of Achebe’s attention as a
figure who activates the fictive debate of values.
Both Odili and Nanga are juxtaposed against such characters as the lawyer Max, Odili’s father, and the trade-unionist who
considers that nervousness is at the root of the country’s trouble. “‘We say we are neutral,’ he says, ‘but as soon as we hear
communist we begin de shake and piss for trouser’.” (p. 90) All these figures contribute to Achebe’s personalisation of social
contradiction, a process by which the consideration of values is embedded in the realist novel form.
It would appear that Chinua Achebe does attempt (or suggest) a certain degree of resolution to the contradictions that he brings
under scrutiny in A Man of the People. In the final section of the novel, the main figures are shown against a backdrop of
election riots and the downfall of the government. Yet Achebe portrays Odili as moving towards a state of bitter cynicism,
rather than towards any positive hope for meaningful change. To say that the people have been moved to anger by the
corruption of the politicians, Odili thinks is “sheer poppycock.” Rather, it is a case of the people having become more cynical
than their leaders, and apathetic too. This is not a popular, idealistic revolt:
No, the people had nothing to do with the fall of our Government. What happened was simply that unruly mobs
and private armies having tasted blood and power during the election had got out of hand and ruined their masters
and employers. And they had no public reason for doing it. Let’s make no mistake about that. (p. 162)
The overthrow of the government is projected (through Odili) as basically an opportunist manoeuvre of no real lasting benefit in
the resolution of the vast socio-political contradictions that are nationally present. Achebe presents, with deliberate emphasis,
what is essentially a stalemate situation. The “fat-dripping, gummy, eat-and-let-eat regime” disappears in the face of a military
It can be seen as no mere coincidence that the novel’s publication coincided with the military takeover in Nigeria in January
1966. On the contrary, the striking parallel between the limited resolution that is projected in A Man of the People and the
nature of historical events can be seen as a vindication of Achebe’s ‘realist’ presentation. To the extent that any possible
resolution is suggested (albeit a deliberately minimal one), it would appear to be based on the liberal humanist ideals of personal
honesty and individual integrity. But Achebe’s novel gives no indication that these values will be sufficient to shelter the Nigerian
people from the rain on the horizon. Nor does it (can it) draw, with any clarity, the future lines of battle.
While the presented world of A Man of the People is analogous to that of the civilian-rule era in Nigeria, Wole Soyinka’s
Season of Anomy (1973)12 extends the realist picture to include the period of civil war and the years immediately following it.
As one can deduce from the title, it is a time of lawlessness, chaos and disorder. It is a period of national aberration when
relationships between men and men (and men and nature) have been warped into destructive patterns of hostility. Soyinka’s
novel, although dealing with ideological contradictions similar to those that are projected in Achebe’s work, tends to be more
intense in its questioning of values, more desperate in its search for valid answers.
The section-headings of Season of Anomy – from “Seminal” to “Buds” to “Tentacles” to “Harvest” to “Spores” – suggest a
general movement from natural birth to fruition and then to a distributive rebirth. This arrangement has relevance on three levels.
The first is on the level of ironic thematic comment, with the enforcement of the implied view that the process of national
independence has worked, in fact, in the reverse of a ‘natural’ order. The second is on the level of the protagonist Ofeyi,
sometime head of the government’s Cocoa Campaign (itself shown as being a most unnatural enterprise). The third and
interconnecting level is that of the communalist centre of Aiyero: the symbolic generator of fruitful values, an island of sanity in
the surrounding chaos, and the focal point of Ofeyi’s search for definitive values. Turning to an examination of the ideological
contradictions that are under scrutiny in Season of Anomy, it is necessary to look closely at Soyinka’s remarkable village of
From the start, the text underlines the distinctive nature of Aiyero. It is a place quite different from the society that surrounds it.
A “quaint anomaly” it is called, and much more besides. It is a village that has
… long governed and policed itself … so singly-knit that it obtained a tax assessment for the whole populace and
paid it before the departure of the pith-helmeted assessor, in cash, held all property in common, literally, to the last
scrap of thread on the clothing of each citizen … .
Clearly, in the encircling rush for wealth and power, Aiyero represents a radically unusual way of life. Aiyero’s existence
provokes strong guffaws from the ‘outside’ world. It is dismissed (by that world) as “the prime example of unscientific
communalism, primitive and embarrassingly sentimental” (p. 2). There is another unusual feature which intrigues the visiting
Ofeyi: the people of Aiyero always return to the place of their birth. Aiyero has a strange compelling power, too, for Ofeyi.
What brings them back? The answer is to be found in the positive nature of the place itself. In many ways, Season of Anomy is
the story of Ofeyi’s search for that answer. Ofeyi tells Ahime, Aiyero’s Chief Minister, that “‘our generation appears to be born
into one long crisis’” (p. 6). Yet there seems to be no crisis in the traditional village of Aiyero. It is a place where the rural values
of communal living are being constantly affirmed, a ceremonial centre where human activity is tuned to invocations of
renewal.13 Aiyero works as a referential model of positive behaviour and, significantly, provides a point of comparison that
allows Soyinka’s text a degree of affirmation.14 For, thanks to Aiyero, Ofeyi can see his goals clearly ahead. Having resigned
from the Corporation (an arm of the exploiting Cartel), his dream is of
… a new concept of labouring hands across artificial frontiers, the concrete, affective presence of Aiyero
throughout the land, undermining the Cartel’s superstructure of robbery, indignities and murder, ending the new
phase of slavery. (p .27)
With the support of the Aiyero “presence” (as central to the nation’s spiritual and political rearmament) the dream is set up as a
potential reality, an alternative way forward. The projected clash between the old-new ideals of Aiyero and those of the
governing Cartel is designed to emphasise certain conflicting issues. A potential for ‘good’ against an actual ‘evil’, an affirmative
presence against a destructive exploitation, a fruitful reality against a specious mockery15 – these are the polarities that are
As he carefully delineates the competing sets of values, Soyinka effectively introduces certain supplementary questions that are
pertinent to the realisation of Ofeyi’s dream. For it is apparent that the dichotomy between Aiyero and the Cartel sets off a
chain of oppositions that proceed from the basic clash of values. While the nature of the Aiyero dream is fairly clear, the
method of its enactment is not. There is also the possibility, deliberately canvassed by Soyinka’s narrative method, that these
ideals can perhaps never be enacted on a grand scale. Once Aiyero becomes “a moral thorn in the complacent skin of the
national body” (p. 86) the forces of the Cartel are shown as moving into a vicious counter-attack. Immediately, the implied
question is raised: how, legitimately, can positive ideals of peace and harmony be defended against a destructive power? How
to defend the Aiyero people (at the strategic settlement of Shage) from the “Cross-river whiff of violence, rape and death” (p.
89)? The framing of these questions leads straight into the timeless debate about means and ends. Demakin (the Dentist, and
professional revolutionary) asks Ofeyi: “‘What did you think it would lead to, the doctrines you began to disseminate through
the men of Aiyero?’”. Ofeyi’s answer is a significant one. “‘Recovery of whatever has been seized from society by a handful,
re-moulding society itself …’” (p. 117), he says. So the process that Soyinka outlines in Season of Anomy is one of recovery
and subsequent re-moulding. In the debate between the two figures (the Dentist and Ofeyi), particularly around the question of
the use of violence, the author constructs the text’s ideological frame of reference.16 The examination of socio-political
alternatives is well under way.
In terms of the personalisation of social contradictions it is apparent that Ofeyi is Soyinka’s asker of questions, his searcher for
confirmation. It is Ofeyi who deliberately engages in the constant debate regarding tactics and aims. He it is who is always
present at such harrowing moments as the ghastly massacre at Kuntua church (pp. 196-201). It is Ofeyi who undergoes a
process of self-examination as he searches for his woman (Iriyise), kidnapped by the Cartel. It is clearly for him that the
arguments of old Ahime and the militant Demakin are meant. Soyinka uses the figure of Ofeyi, the searcher, to fill in the details
of the continuing dream of Aiyero. Ofeyi speaks to Zaccheus, his jazz-playing foil, of creating “‘new affinities, working-class
kinships as opposed to the tribal’” (p. 170). Shortly after, the two friends stand and gaze at the floating, bloated corpses on the
lake, vivid evidence of the Cartel’s determination to prevent the building of new kinships of the sort that Ofeyi has in mind.
When Ofeyi reaches Temoko prison it is through his progress into the various areas – from the outer area of the
self-imprisoned, to the Lepers yard, then past the Death Cells, and finally into the Lunatic yard – that Soyinka creates his
complex analogy of national imprisonment and absurdity. Starting from his statement to Ahime that the Aiyero “‘grain must find
new seminal grounds’” (p. 6), Ofeyi becomes the main traveller along the text’s fictional road. It is a road that leads to that
pointed confrontation with the absurd when men, women and children (trying to escape from the murderers) begin to break into
the Federal prison.
Of the numerous subordinate figures in Season of Anomy, all of them filling out minor facets of the text’s total process of
personalisation, Demakin (the Dentist) fulfils an important function. Ofeyi meets him during his travels abroad, seemingly by
accident. However it transpires that Demakin is one of the Aiyero men himself. He appears to represent the militant,
urban-guerilla thrust of the revolutionary movement. Demakin, more than any of the other figures, clarifies the characterisation
of Ofeyi (and his ideas) by a process of reflection. By presenting the Dentist as a determined, no-nonsense figure and having
Ofeyi react to his various opinions, Soyinka is able to chart the progress of Ofeyi’s movement along the Aiyero road. As that
progress also represents the possibility (or otherwise) of the Aiyero ideals being realised, Demakin has a significant role to play.
Ofeyi sees the Dentist as a “self-effacing priest of violence … whose single-mindedness had resusicitated his own wavering
commitment” (p. 22). He later remarks on the Dentist’s “unassailable logic of extraction before infection” (p. 92) and listens
while Demakin contends that the spreading of ideals by the intellectuals is not, by itself, sufficient. “‘Rich black earth or rich
blackguards – you can only shoot one’” (p. 96), the Dentist says. Demakin strives for the creation of a situation wherein the
Aiyero ideas can take root. As to envisaging what will happen then, he leaves that to Ofeyi. While Ofeyi is, as the Dentist puts
it, occupied with “’seminal rounds of the distant ideal’” (p. 118), Demakin is concerned with channeling what he sees as the
inevitable violence and with directing it towards the necessary targets. By means of this continuing dialogue, the text brings
under scrutiny the potential coalition of the radicalised intellectual reformer and the practical revolutionary. The narrative thrust
of Season of Anomy enforces the view that such a coalition is a necessary one.
During a key meeting with Ahime and Demakin at Cross-River, Ofeyi’s role is contrasted to those of the others. Ofeyi is shown
wondering about the link between his work for Aiyero and his search for Iriyise. He realises that there is a connection and
begins to sense that “‘the search would immerse me in the meaning of the event, lead me to a new understanding of history’” (p.
218). Demakin, for his part, is concerned with the projection of Iriyise as a “’super-mistress of universal insurgence’” (p. 219).
When the plan for a trek of the Aiyero people is broached, Ahime sees it as a cleansing act that will “‘purify our present
polluted humanity and cure our survivors of the dangers of self-pity’” (p. 218). Demakin is determined that the trek should mark
the route for a successful return. The reader notes that, rather than joining this tactical regrouping, Ofeyi continues with his
search for the girl. It is significant, in terms of the socio-political implications of these varying attitudes, that Ofeyi is also
imprisoned and, although he does find his Iriyise, it is the Dentist (the man of action) who rescues him. In a practical sense, it is
Demakin who makes possible the continued presence of the Aiyero dream.
Soyinka’s novel ends on a note of partial resolution. As the men leave the walls of Temoko prison, the anonymous narrator
informs us that “In the forests, life began to stir” (p. 320). It is a concluding line that is informed with a sense of guarded
optimism. The Aiyero ideas have not triumphed but they have not been crushed either. Pitted against the destructive forces of
the dominating Cartel, the dream of Aiyero has survived intact. The coalition of militant revolutionary and intellectual idealist has
been cemented and shown to be potentially effective. The text clearly suggests that the season of anomy in Nigeria (and
elsewhere) is a temporary one. The values of Aiyero provide the basis for a fruitful way forward. Soyinka’s creation of the
Aiyero alternative thus allows him to suggest
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