Paratexts: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart

A collage of Things Fall Apart Covers

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(Re) Introducing Things Fall Apart

Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was published in 1958. It can be said that the story has not been altered much since its initial publication decades ago. It is a narrative of many contrasts: colonialism and traditional culture, animism and Christianity, the masculine and the feminine, culture vs modernity. At the heart of the narrative is the protagonist Okonkwo who seems to represent everything wrong with the man: abusive, misogynist and self-entitled. But beyond such a brutish veneer, it is hard not to pity a man who watches his world snatched from him cruelly by settlers of the time. It is a tragic downfall of a man that ends with the protagonist committing suicide.

When grouped geographically, the paratexts of Things Fall Apart begin to illuminate the intention of the main graphic designers of the novel: C.W Bacon (Britain), McDowell Obolensky (America), and George Hallett (Africa). From the images, it becomes apparent in the paratext that the question is not necessarily whether Things Fall Apart is the first African novel, but rather, how to visually present it as thus. I considered twenty-one covers since the initial publication of Achebe’s narrative in 1958. Heinemann’s edition (1890), preferred to foreground religious conflict within the novel. In McDowell’s (1959), the first American edition, the concentration is on the visual mask. Penguin Modern Classics edition (2001) is representative of the turn of the century depictions which visualise the protagonist as an elderly, sombre man.

But also recently there have also been digital editions published on the novel keeping Halett’s initial design. What this shows is the unstable textual condition, and this article intends to illuminate how the constant changing of a text (re)defines a piece of world literature by presenting the different ways a text is made to perform itself in different epochs, while keeping its narrative structure/integrity.

Story Versus Text: Definitions

A story is what the reader remembers. It makes them say things like “I do not like Okonkwo”. But a text is what the reader buys. It is a summation of many stories that the publisher sells. It is what we see on display in the window-sills of bookshops. Therefore, in defining Things Fall Apart, it is important to separate Things Fall Apart, as the novel with the protagonist as Okonkwo; and Things Fall Apart as the text that is packaged by graphic designers, and repackaged by publishers.

Stories never really change. That is to say that just like the birth of Christ has always remained the same, it is how it is told that changes. Everything I have offered by way of a reductive introduction to Things Fall Apart is uncontroversial, unchanging and speaks to the given idea that Achebe’s narrative is a literary classic. But the way in which the narrative has been distributed is incomplete and selective. It is important too, to think of ways a story circulates to help supplement our understanding of it.

One way in which Things Fall Apart has survived the test of time, is by bestowing Achebe’s text with a definitive graphic look. This has been done a few times, allowing for Things Fall Apart to sell in excess of 10 million copies.

Performing Textuality

Found at Rhodes University, Department of Literary Studies in English

When Heinemann, the publishing house founded by William Heinemann in 1890, first offered to publish Achebe’s book, it commissioned graphic artist C.W. Bacon to design the hardcover dust jacket. This particular design focused on the religious conflict at the heart of Things Fall Apart. Bacon’s green cover features cell-shaded, or cartoon like men in masks in the foreground. They stand behind two banana fronds, with a church appearing in the background.

The first U.S Edition of Things Fall Apart, which was published in the year 1959, a year after the initial publication in 1958 by McDowell, the graphic designer Obolensky, concentrates on the mask. While this can be said to be a shorthand for Africa, it offers a slightly more modernist approach. There is more font on the text, which is dominated by the orange, black and white dust cover. The title is set in a clean San-serif font that is produced in upper-case letters. This design can be said to be an interesting masterpiece. It was designed in the way that designers as such as Miles at “Blue Note” for “designing covers for albums by Milt Jackson, Thesolonius Monk, and Kenny Dorham” (Toole).

While Things Fall Apart is referred to as the first African novel, its international success was never really anticipated. This prompted Alan Hill, editor at Heinemann to develop the African Writers Series. The result was a softcover version, in orange, black, and white. The cover was designed for British audiences and featured drawings of a mask, a leaf, and carved drum—which itself evokes a different signature for Africa.

Penguin gave Things Fall Apart a different look in 1968, a decade after the initial publication designed for South Africa. The Cape Town photographer, George Hallet created some performative photographs for it. For a short period in time, photography was important to the packing of books. Hallet used photographs as covers, especially with South African models. Creating covers for the text was a performance as Hallet explains, “. . .In London you could find anything in terms of props. I created theatre, I used the streets of London or bedrooms, and I never used professional studios. . .” He was particular “. . .I created an ambience using costumes and my imagination. I got people to perform the theme out of the book that I felt reflected what was going on in the book, and which mated the potential purchaser look at the book. They had to be dramatic and interesting, and different from everything else” (Toole).

The result is a cover jacket that postulates a future version of South Africa’s Minister of Arts and Culture, Pallo Jordan, enacting Okonkwo’s rage against the colonial religion. The text on this cover is minimal, just the author’s name, and the title of the story. The word “apart” emphasized for effecting, performing Okonkwo’s rage. This is what can be defined as “remediation” (Bolter).

The Remediation of Texts: Conclusion

This change in cover narrative while keeping the story intact, is the remediation of Things Fall Apart. In essence, “the remediation” of a story is the way in which a story is re-packaged. It does not compromise the story because it depends on it. But this performance, though not intentionally destructive to the codex, changes the text by making it perform, and (re) perform itself in different “textual conditions”.

Put simpler, here is an example: since 2018, Okada Books has a digital edition of Things Fall Apart. This then adds another layer to the field of textual production. How is textuality performed in a virtual space, one with more inter-play within the “signifier” and the “signified”; or rather between “story” and “text”?

Less theoretically, how does a more complex network affect the distribution of a piece of world literature? Especially one that is not material, or physical–such as the internet?

Suffice it to add, I am left with more questions than answers: to what extent can we believe Sean O’Toole when he says, “book covers are minor seductions, a form of fireworks that will become irrelevant in the age of the electronic table. As long as they exist they will continue to entreat readers, with varying degrees of success?” (Toole). And perhaps more specifically, what are the consequences of dismissing paratexts as “minor seductions”? When I could argue this is what has kept Achebe’s Things Fall Apart alive in different epochs.

Covers

Barber, Karin. The Anthropology of Texts, Persons and Publics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Bolter, David Jay. Computers, Hypertext, and The Remediation of Print. London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001.

Brown, Bill. ”Materiality.” Critical Terms for Media Studies (2010): 49-63.

Derrida, Jacques. ”Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” Bass, Alan. Writing and Difference. New York: Routledge, 1978. 351-370.

Ellis, John M. ”What Does Deconstruction Contribute To Theory of Criticism.” New Literary History (1988): 259-279.

Genette, Gerard. Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation. New York: Cambridge, 1997.

McGann, Jerome J. The Textual Condition. New Jersey: Prince University Press, 1991.

Toole, Sean O’. Chimurenga Chronicle. 25 March 2013. 01 12 2018.

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