Chinua Achebe’s “The Novelist as Teacher”

Chinua Achebe’s stance on the novelist as a teacher is a curious one. He mentions towards the beginning of the essay that he is placed into the role of a teacher – whether he desires the position or not – because his works are read mostly by children of school age. Although Achebe accepts that “it is part of [his] business as a writer to teach” (71), he does not believe that it is his role to undertake the lessons others wish he would teach. When faced with criticism for squandering “a rare opportunity for education” (69), Achebe is adamant that “no self-respecting writer will take dictation from his audience” (69). Even though he seems to have very little regard for what society expects of him (both as an author and as a teacher), Achebe sees the value of being looked at as an educator – he has taken advantage of this inadvertent role of teacher in order to impress certain lessons upon his readers. Within the essay, “The Novelist as Teacher,” Achebe defines his prerogative as an educator to be helping “[his] society regain belief in itself and put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self-abasement” (71). He then moves on to explain why this is the most important lesson to be learned from his novels, but that he would still be satisfied if his works did nothing more than show his people (his readers) that they have a past before the Europeans came. Throughout the essay, Achebe both disputes and accepts his role as a teacher, creating a somewhat confusing message. He does not agree that as a teacher he is obligated to listen to society, but that instead he is obligated to send his own message. In the end, he describes his novels as “applied art” (72), or a work of art that is also useful, saying that “art is important, but so is the education of the kind I have in mind” (72). Achebe describes an interesting dynamic between author, text, and reader that is hard to define. It is clear already from Achebe’s essay that the expectations of author and reader do not always line up, but how does one determine for what an author is truly responsible? Or to what extent is it the readers’ responsibility to derive meaning from a text?

Kat Kelly


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