Reading Questions for Anthills of the Savannah

Members of English 27, Brown University, Autumn Term, 1997

See also the reading questions created by the previous (Spring 1997) class in this course.]

1. "That was when I smiled at myself and my puny, empty revolts, the rebellion of a mouse in a cage." (66). Beatrice laughs at her acts of rebellion: spurning "a seat of honor" in the presidential car and greeting a "mere driver first." Does she truly regard her revolts as puny and empty, are they necessary or beneficial acts to aid her in attacking tradition and male chauvinism? Is her cause strengthened by such minor decisive movements? What of the following episode where Beatrice throws herself upon the President (72-4)? Are these two events comparable? what makes this woman defy such minute complexities one moment and let loose her powers of sexuality the next? Does she use her attractiveness as a weapon in this scene or is she coerced and trapped into "the bedchamber of African polygamy"? (73). Is this event another example of her "empty revolts" or is it a grand representation of her female cage.

Can other characters and situations also be described as fighting their own caged mice rebellions? Those to consider include the people of Abazon and their prayers for rain, and the problematic hierarchy of Chris, Ikem and Sam. Are their prayers and disputes all in vain? What other examples of "empty revolts" does Achebe refer to? What is his definition of such a revolt? Does the novel allow for rebellions which succeed; must all rebellions be caged? Could the era of postcolonialism be characterized as a successful end to a rebellion? [Corissa Binns]


"The Honourable Commissioner for Words," the Attorney General manages through his laughter. "That's a good one. By God that's a good one." He is dabbing his eyes with a handkerchief still neatly folded.

"Opposed! It sounds too much like me," protested the Commissioner for Works.

"That's true," says the Attorney-General, pausing in his laughter to reflect. "Commissioner for Words and Commissioner for Works. There's a point there."

"Theologically speaking there is a fundamental distinction." This is Professor Okong in his deep pulpit voice. (7)

In this passage from the beginning of Anthills of the Savannah Chinua Achebe is already cluing the reader into some of the ironies of the book. The juxtaposition of Words and Works (not to mention clever alliteration) in this politico-office banter and their assignment to separate commissioners evokes "do as i say, not as i do" sentiments, or imagery of the right hand that doesn't know or care what the left does. It is interesting, however, that the one who objects in all seriousness to this "joking" is the reverend, and on "theological" grounds. What is the significance here? From what we have read so far, there is no reason to believe those in the upper echelons of the church are any more conscientious about the correlation between their "words" and "works" than the politicos. Or is it a sharp poke at the church? Because the church so fundamentally distinguishes between their "words" and "works?" This little bit of dialogue seems fully loaded. [Jenni Ellingson]

3. Achebe's novel seems to me very self-referential in a number of ways, both in terms of the author and of the wider political scheme of things. Ikem, for instance, occasionally utters lines which sound as if they could be Achebe's thoughts, as on page 146 when he is making his speech and says, "As a writer I aspire only to widen the scope of that self-examination," speaking about forcing people to examine their lives in every context. More telling, I think, is the paragraph on page 114 when the Abazon elder says ". . . why do I say that the story is chief among his fellows? The same reason that our people sometimes will give the name Nkolika to their daughters -- Recalling-Is-Greatest. Why? Because it is only the story can continue beyond the war and the warrior."

In one of Fanon's essays in the PoCo reader he mentions that the colonial government of Algeria began arresting story-tellers towards the end of that civil war, because of their power to disseminate news and keep the people united in opposition to the French. I wonder if here, by his reference to African politics in general coupled with a reflection on the power of story-telling, is not offering an answer to the debate we've heard so much about in class: what value does writing have in an oral culture; what place can it hold when its very existence is an usurpation by colonial powers? Perhaps Achebe answers that by pointing out its power as a storytelling tool, and therefore one more way of , to steal a painfully trite though vaguely appropriate phrase, "fight the power." [Greg Gipson]

4. Discuss the similarities, if any, between the government employees in Anthills of the Savannah and in A Forest of Flowers. How does the author (or narrator) navigate issues of national loyalty (if there is or can be such a thing in Nigeria) with more personal matters? How are ideas of "help" and "progress" filtered through Western norms? Is that a natural progression? Is there any of this to be found Aké? [Andy Greenwald]