The first English novels, appearing in the Eighteenth Century, were heavily influenced by an earlier tradition of Christian morality tract. This sense of teaching some kind of moral lesson has remained a characteristic feature of novels ever since. Of course, in the world of the secular novel, morality generally becomes a difficult thing, very different from the simple portrayal of appropriate reward and punishment for various types of behaviour.
Things Fall Apart is an interesting twist on this, written in English by African author Chinua Achebe, portraying a culture far removed from that of England. The book describes the life of a man called Okonkwo, who struggles to reach the heights of his traditional tribal society in late nineteenth century Nigeria. His rise up the greasy pole is made difficult, both by the arcane rules of his own society, and by those of English missionaries, who arrive in Nigeria. In the Nigerian culture, morality is hugely important. However, the details of what is considered right and wrong are profoundly different to that of Victorian England. In this story of a collision of values, we learn that the instinct to define correct behaviour is deeply ingrained in people the world over. Actual rights and wrongs, however, are virtually arbitrary. People could be considered bad, and win praise for it; or they can be deemed good, yet fall foul of the law through no fault of their own.
Reading about Okonkwo’s life, I couldn’t help thinking of Oscar Wilde, living in London at about the same time, facing a society which defined homosexuality as a crime beyond any other. One day that worst of all crimes would not be a crime at all. In writing about this kind of impermanence of right and wrong, Oscar Wilde could also be summing up Things Fall Apart:
“A man cannot always be estimated by what he does. He may keep the law, and yet be worthless. He may break the law, and yet be fine. He may be bad, without ever doing anything bad. He may commit a sin against society, and yet realise through that sin his true perfection.”