Derick K. Ariyam
Dr. Daniel Scott
9 February 2009
Mr. Brown/Mr. Smith
The only two white characters in Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart that are provided names (as opposed to titles) are Mr. Brown and Mr. Smith. Both of these characters appear in the last part of the novel and both are received very differently by the Ibo people. Where Mr. Brown was tolerated and even later esteemed by the clan for his mild and more passive approach to proselytization, Mr. Smith was very different. Mr. Smith was more aggressive and vigilante in his religious convictions and in turn fomented a passion among the Ibo people that led to the destruction of the church. In this paper, I would like to look into the characterizations of these two individuals, Mr. Brown and Mr. Smith, and show how they are compared and contrasted in the texts.
The chapter that introduces Mr. Brown into the narrative begins by mentioning that the Ibo Tribe were not all opposed to his work—or the changes his arrival was introducing. Economically, the new church brought about an increase in trade goods, and even brought value to local exports which helped the public coffers of the tribe. The land that Mr. Brown used to build his church was “cursed” disposal land, called the Evil Forest, which was currently being used as a dumping ground for bodies that were not permitted proper burial under the Ibo religious beliefs. Mr. Brown preached non-violence and a passive approach to spreading the Christian faith. He even made efforts to quell some of the more ardent converts to his faith from taking any measure that might offend the Ibo people. In one instance, he even sat down with a ranking member of the tribe and was willing to listen to the beliefs of the Ibo people and look for commonalities and differences between their beliefs. Interestingly, Mr. Brown even recognized the supreme God of the Ibo people, whom they call “Chukwu,” as the same God of the Judeo-Christian religion. Though this might seem like a straightforward comparison, it would seem that most missionaries would prefer to discredit all of the Gods of the Ibo people as heathen and therefore having zero commonalties with their own religion. They may in fact, prefer to binarize the opposing religions as good/evil, right/wrong, Christian/Ibo. Mr. Smith would fit among this type of missionary.
Mr. Smith is presented as the opposite of Mr. Brown. Achebe writes that he was “a different kind of man” (184). Where Mr. Brown quelled religious zealots, Mr. Smith encouraged them. He openly condemned the beliefs of the Ibo people as well as the lax practices of his predecessor Mr. Brown: “He saw things as black and white. And Black was evil” (184). It didn’t take long then for an over-enthused convert to do something to offend the Ibo people. And when this incident happened, it caused the destruction of the church, and the beginning of a shift in perspective that pitted the Ibo people directly against the Christian missionaries.
Interestingly enough, Chinua Achebe doesn’t fall into the binary of good versus bad that seems so clear on a surface juxtaposition of these two missionaries. It would be easy to say Mr. Brown was a good missionary and Mr. Smith was a bad one. But on a more complex level, Achebe actually shows that the colonist fundamentals of Mr. Brown and Mr. Smith were the same.
When Mr. Brown listens to Akunna
describe his people’s religious beliefs, there is a line mentioned towards the
end of that scene that reads, “Mr. Brown learned a good deal about the religion
of the clan and he came to the conclusion that a frontal attack on it would not
(181). This reveals that Mr. Brown is not looking for a compromise of religious harmony in his desire for understanding, nor will he simply accept the Ibo tribe’s religion. He is looking for a way to defeat it. And Brown’s adjusted method becomes clear later on, and works on subtle level that disarms the Ibo people before attacking.
Mr. Brown builds a school. Instead of trying to convert the Ibo people on a spiritual level, he invites the people to his school for learning, and under the guise of education, is able to indoctrinate students (and a new generation) at the level of discourse and ideas. He threatens the Ibo people of impending colonization by claiming that only tribesman skilled in the “white man’s” language will be successful in the future, and have good jobs. Ironically, it is he that is doing the very colonization he is warning the people against.
So who then is running a more nefarious administration: Mr. Brown or Mr. Smith? True, Mr. Smith’s open rebukes to the Ibo people and their “pagan” beliefs stir up the blood of the Ibo people, but at least with Mr. Smith, his intentions are more open and transparent. Mr. Brown is more subtle, and is working on a level that lures its subject in before attacking. Mr. Brown and Mr. Smith are then not simple opposites that can be compared as such; it is much more complex than that. And Achebe works effectively in Things Fall Apart, to capture that complexity.