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By Justin J.R.K. Kirkey
An Involved Essay: The Comparison of
One Hundred Years of Solitude with Things Fall Apart
Things – and societies – fall apart. Societies are born; they grow, thrive, decline, and finally perish. Their procession through these phases, though, can be very different. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, a novel that tells the story of the rise and fall of the Buendia family, can be compared with Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, a novel that tells the story of a man whose world slowly disintegrates around him. Both novels share the major overarching themes of social disintegration and change, but differ in the ways that the two described societies deal with that change. Other points of contract between the novels are the way they treat the roles of men and women in society, isolationism vs. internationalism, fate vs. free will, and supernatural events.
In both novels, the reader experiences the progress and decline of a civilization. In Things Fall Apart, reader learns early on about the status of the Igbo people of Umuofia, in Africa. “Umuofia was feared by all its neighbors. It was powerful in war and in magic, and its priests and medicine men were feared in all the surrounding country” (Achebe 11). The novel puts the notion of a thriving people who have relied on customs and traditions for as long as anyone can remember. This time is the civilization’s high point. Okonkwo, the main character of Things Fall Apart, is a proud and prominent member of the Igbo community, an upholder of “the way things are.” A successful wrestler and husband to three wives, he always has an aura about him that suggests that he is born of a grade higher than the rest of society. However, as the title suggests, things fall apart. With the coming of the white man, Okonkwo’s world begins to slowly cave in around him. To some people in his tribe, this may seem like a great occurrence. Some might think that this is the natural progress of civilization, and depending upon differing viewpoints, it could be. In Things Fall Apart, though, the gradual coming of the white man signals the end of a time. It hearkens a changing world and the end of a way of life for the Igbo people, especially for Okonkwo, the upholder of its customs.
The reader of One Hundred Years of Solitude experiences similar high and low points of civilization. In this novel, though, the path towards social disintegration is different. One Hundred Years of Solitude spans several generations of the Buendia family in Macondo, and as the novel progresses, one can notice that time seems to flow in a circular manner, repeating itself numerous times. This suggests that civilization is a continuing history, but that it simply circulates over and over again. Each new Buendia family member born over the course of more than a century receives a name that has been in the family in the past. The recycling of names reiterates the recycling of time. For example, the founding father of Macondo, Jose Arcadio Buendia, has two sons: Aureliano Buendia and Jose Arcadio. In the following generations to come, 21 more Aurelianos and five more Jose Arcadios appear. Those sharing a name inherit similar personality and physical traits as well, emphasizing the sense that all has occurred before. As one very prominent female character states, “It is as if time were going around in circles and we have returned to the beginning” (Fuentes).
The way that the novel progresses this way, though, is ironic. Naturally, one would think that the Buendias should be progressing, but they are simply making the same mistakes over and over again. Their civilization stagnates, unable to follow the normal path of a society. It’s a contrasting method of decline compared to that of the Igbo people in Things Fall Apart. Disintegration occurs gradually because of a defined stimulus, the coming of the white man, in Things Fall Apart. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, the reason for decline is more abstract. In the end, “The town and the family are fated to die because they do not have what is required to continue. Their solitude, their commitment to withdrawal, fantasy, and subjective desires has doomed them” (Johnston). The decline of both the Igbo people and the Buendia family are ultimately inevitable.
Another major theme tackled in both Things Fall Apart and One Hundred Years of Solitude is that of the dueling ideas of an introverted society and an extroverted society. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, the founding father, Jose Arcadio Buendia, and the ensuing generations of Buendias, are constantly and fervently looking to connect to the outside world. They link themselves with sources of knowledge and progress, but usually come up short in their fanatical aspirations. The very first line of the book sums up the family’s passion: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” (Garcia Marquez 1). Discovering ice – this is a metaphor for all the Buendias represent. They want to progress, connect with the world, and gain knowledge through their extroverted explorations..
Okonkwo and many others in the Igbo community are basically the opposite of the Buendias and the people of Macondo. They are highly introverted, and want nothing to do with the outside world. All Okonkwo wanted was to return to the old ways, to get back to being the leader around Umuofia. The reason for the difference is understandable. The only connection the Igbo people had with the outside world was the white man, who did not bring inventions or knowledge but only uncertainty, fear, and ultimately the destruction of a dependable way of life, especially for Okonkwo.
Another issue that the two novels address in different ways is the way that society treats men and women differently. In Things Fall Apart, women are in absolute subordination to men. Okonkwo, the great warrior, has three wives, and they all fear him in some way or another. This is typical of Igbo society. Men were considered superior, and were responsible for hunting and acquiring of food. Women cared for children and took care of “less important” things. An aura surrounds the Igbo women that suggests they are more than their society labels them, but they cannot overcome that barrier and ultimately play insignificant roles in society.
In One Hundred Years of Solitude, on the other hand, the roles of men are women are quite different. Macondo is a much more egalitarian society than that of the Igbo people. Men and women are treated in a fairly similar way to that of modern democratic societies. Macondo’s slight tendency towards patriarchy is almost negated by the important role that women play. The men of the Buendia family are, as stated before, very passionate about their thirst for knowledge and progress, and often end up locking themselves up for long spans of time. When this happens, the women of the household, especially the motherly Ursula, have to pick up the slack, and they always do. They also treat extraordinary and supernatural events in a casual, almost dull manner, contrasting with the men’s extreme reactions. They put men in their place, bringing down to earth their fantastic ideas and checking their megalomaniacal aspirations.
The way that Ursula and many of the other women in One Hundred Years of Solitude dampen the emergence of the fantastic into the story is different than that of how the Igbo people treat the supernatural in Things Fall Apart. In the latter novel there is none of the “magical realism” that characterizes Garcia Marquez’s tendency to mix fantasy and reality. Instead, the Igbo people have incorporated the seemingly supernatural into daily life (Epstein). The egwugwu, a group of masqueraders from the village, dressed up in ornate garments, impersonate the ancestral spirits of Umuofia. The Igbo people fear the unknown, and the egwugwu are their method of dampening that unknown, much as Ursula does. Similarly, the Igbo people relieve their fear of the
Supernatural by sectioning off an “evil forest” thought to be full of demons and malignant spirits. They do not confront the unknown, but instead find a distinct and practical way to deal with it.
The dueling themes of fate versus free will also play major roles in Things Fall Apart and One Hundred Years of Solitude. In both novels, fate always seems to have a cruel advantage over the characters. Throughout Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo sometimes blames his chi, or “personal god,” for his newly ill-fated destiny. As a young man, he was always successful and strong. When he became older, hough, things did not generally go his way. When his gun accidentally exploded and killed a prominent son of a late tribal leader, the town was outraged and exiled him. In exile, only hard work and free will ensured Okonkwo’s success. Fate was no longer sufficient for his success.
One Hundred Years of Solitude seems doomed from the beginning, despite resistance by man’s will. Although Jose Arcadio Buendia founded Macondo, nature is inevitably taking it back. He built the village in the jungle, which appears throughout the novel as almost an ethereal being watching over feeble-minded humans. It symbolizes the resistance of nature man’s free will and attempts to order the universe (Ortega). For instance, nature seems to punish the village after an evil banana company arrives. Five years of rain destroys much of the village, and the remaining two Buendias resort to ancestral, primal desires. The pressures of nature leave the Buendias disoriented and ultimately destined to perish (Gullon).
No matter what unique path a society follows in the phases of life, it must perish in the end. In Things Fall Apart, the coming of the white man stimulated the decline of Igbo society. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, prophesied fate and the over-powering will of nature contributed to societal decline. From these rich, detailed novels the reader emerges all too aware of how many ways there are for a society to disintegrate.
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– – -. One Hundred Years of Solitude. 1967. Trans. Gregory Rabassa. New York: Avon Books, 1971.
Ortega, Julio. “Untitled.” 1969. Modern Latin American Literature: Volume 1 A-L. Comp. David William Foster and Virginia Ramos Foster. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1975. 381.
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