One of the most valuable aspects of a book, or any literature, is the insight offered about the views of the author and the surrounding society and times. The way in which certain ideas are presented in different stories can be very telling about the attitude of the author, or maybe in describing a message he is trying to convey. This is perhaps the most important thing to walk away with after having experienced a piece of literature. It is sometimes difficult to find the underlying theme of a story, but it is imperative in order to find some common thread among several pieces of literature. The presentations of these common themes are key in making comparisons or discovering contrasts between pieces of literature that at first appear to be dissimilar and unrelated, such as “Things Fall Apart”, “Cry, the Beloved Country”, and “A Tale of Two Cities”.
One of the most prevalent themes throughout these three books is change, and how the characters deal with it. The characters in each book were faced with decisions regarding changes that faced them, their family, or the whole of society. The way in which the characters reacted when faced with these changes is very different from one story to the next.
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In Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” the theme of changing society is obvious in the revolution. The conditions of life grew continually worse for the peasants, who were the majority of the population in France at the time. The aristocrats were taking what little prosperity was left from the common people, turning France into a giant slum, sporadically dotted with grand castles and nobles living overly extravagant lifestyles. While France was taking this prolonged turn for the worse, the people of France were growing intolerant with the conditions forced on them by the aristocrats. The peasants decided they would confront their growing oppression. Led by a few, the people would revolt, and bring about their own change. They stood united and strong, refusing to back down until they had accomplished what they set out to do. Obviously, the French Revolution was historically a success, although the book doesn’t reveal the outcome as it expects the reader to already be aware of this fact. Dickens shows the masses dominating their environment, and reversing the conditions that had for so long been changing for the worse.
Change is also heavily dealt with as a theme in Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart”. The age-old traditions of the clan are threatened as the white missionaries enter their civilization. The newcomers begin to force their own way of life on the Africans, by raising a Christian church, gaining converts, and instituting their own court of law and government. Many of the clansmen are unhappy with the Europeans suddenly changing their way of life, but they do not stand up for themselves as was done in “A Tale of Two Cities”. A few of the clan’s elders and leaders, especially the main character Okonkwo, attempted to put a stop to the growing strength of the Christians by confronting them, but they were not successful. The people of Okonkwo’s village Umofia, would not unite behind him, or any of the other leaders.
They were in essence refusing to even try to stop this new force that was beginning to dominate their culture. Since the clansmen would not stand together, the few who did attempt to cease the intruders’ changes were easily defeated. Before long, their village and surrounding villages were taken over by the white Christians. In the face of a strong threat to their culture, traditions, and even livelihood, the native characters in Achebe’s book backed down and allowed themselves to be victims of change.
Much the same as the other two stories, “Cry, the Beloved Country” dealt with the issues of change. In this story, this theme was more subtle than in the other two stories. Abselon, the son of Reverend Kumalo moved to the city of Johannesburg, and the city was changing rapidly. It was becoming more industrialized and beginning to show the downsides of a big city, such as crime, pollution, and slums. As more white people entered the city, segregation and white supremacy was turning into a major problem, much like in the rest of South Africa. In this story, the people’s reaction to the changing times is different from both “A Tale of Two Cities” and “Things Fall Apart”. The people neither stand united against the changes nor do all the people sit by and allow it to happen. Rather, in this story, the people are divided into those who oppose the changes in South Africa, and those who simply chose to adapt and permit it.
There was a group of Africans in Johannesburg led by a friend of Kumalo, who preached black power and made an attempt to resist the domination of the richer white class, such as organizing boycotts of a bus. Others felt they were powerless to stop the very powerful white leaders and saw the attempts of the others as futile. They were content to live very poor lives, and have no voice in their society. This story shows both sides of the coin, which is more often the reality of a group that is faced with some sort of change. Rarely will an entire class of people view a solution, in the same way, they are often split on the decision of how to respond, and so progress is very slow, both in the changes being made, and the action is taken to resist them.
Aside from affecting society as a whole, the changes in these stories also had a great impact on the lives of the characters in each book. The lives of the stories’ main characters underwent changes in areas of family, love, relationships, and even personal feelings. The old adage “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”, seems to apply to these stories. Some of the characters’ relationships grew stronger and some were weakened. Some characters’ convictions were reaffirmed and some were broken. Perhaps for dramatic effect or perhaps in attempting to mimic reality, the authors of all three stories seemed to put their characters’ responses at one extreme or the other.
At one end of the spectrum, where the characters from Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart”, especially Okonkwo, whose life fell apart because of the changes taking place around him. When the missionaries began populating the village with Christians, Okonkwo’s son joined them, and Okonkwo disowned him because of it. He became progressively more enraged and short-tempered, severing ties with friends and family with whom he quarrelled. He lost his status in the village, as the whole system fell apart around him. The things that mattered most to Okonkwo, his title, his land, his pride, and possessions including family, were all stripped from him. Unable to cope with his frustration and weakened state, Okonkwo lashed out, killing a messenger of the court, as if taking the life of that one man would destroy the intruders who had made his world come crashing down around him. Finally, seeing no other alternatives, he disgraced himself in body and name by taking his own life. In this story, Achebe shows just how much damage can be done to a man who faces the hardships of unwelcome change.
The other two stories, “A Tale of Two Cities” and “Cry the Beloved Country” both demonstrate the other, more positive side of human response by exemplifying determination, and strength of will in the characters. In “Cry the Beloved Country”, the reverend Kumalo endeavours to continue his Christ-like attitude even in the midst of such trauma as the death of his son, and the birth of his fatherless grandchild. He does not show anger toward his son for committing the crime, nor to the white men who prosecute and sentence him, nor even to his supposed friend who abandons Kumalo and Abselon by claiming that his own son was not even present at the time of the murder. Kumalo opens his arms to his son’s wife and child, promising to love and take care of them like his own children. He even gains a friend in James Jarvis, the victim’s father and man who was determined to see Abselon found and killed. Kumalo greatly exemplifies the perseverance of the human spirit, as do characters such as Carton, and the Mannettes in “A Tale of Two Cities”.
Lucy and Dr. Mannette show the power of love when Lucy revives her father, striving to establish a full functioning relationship with him, rather than abandoning what seems to be a hopeless, demented old man. But the even more magnificent display of unselfish love comes from Carton. In the face of France’s deterioration and the terrible bloodshed caused by that change, Carton manages to overcome his fears and make a dramatic change in his own character, which he had been unable to accomplish since his childhood. He shed his hated attributes of the drunken cruel jerk he had been and became the kind loving person that he wanted to be. Finally, in clarity of mind, Carton selflessly sacrifices his own life to save the life of someone that Lucie loved, to fulfil the promise he had made to her. This act, paired with the actions of Kumalo in “Cry the Beloved Country”, are terrific examples of people thriving in the face of sudden hardship, and the continuing love of the human spirit.
One thing that all three books had in common, regarding the underlying theme of change, is that the way that change seemed to be viewed and presented by the authors. In each story, the change that occurred was portrayed as inevitable. In “A Tale of Two Cities”, Dickens was able to portray the degradation of the peasants and the ensuing revolution as inevitable because they were historical events that had already taken place. In Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart”, it is also known that white missionaries were responsible for much of the replacement of the clan systems in Africa, and the westernization of these ancient cultures, so it was not surprising to have the downfall of the old traditions be seen as unstoppable.
The reader could see and feel the frustration of Okonkwo in trying to defend his heritage. Lastly, it is undisputed that technology and industry greatly and continually change any society. So again, it seemed fit to see the changes that were being made in the industrialization of Johannesburg and the downsides that resulted. The message that I took from examining the changes presented in these three stories is that change is a part of life that cannot be ignored. People must either face the changes that others create or respond by forcing changes of their own, for nothing remains the same forever.
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