Placing Chinua Achebe’s Anthills Of The Savannah And Franz Kafka’s The Trial In The Modernist Lens

Project and Seminar Material for Linguistics and Communication

Placing Chinua Achebe’s Anthills Of The Savannah And Franz Kafka’s The Trial In The Modernist Lens


This research investigated and analysed works of two outstanding modernist writers in Africa and Europe. The work was carried out with specific objectives which are; to highlight the basic features of modernism,to discuss the reasons for writers in this vogue deviating from earlier trends and placing emphases on newness. It outlined and analysed these basic features in the texts, Anthills of the Savannah and The Trial. In the course of these analyses, the researcher highlighted seven features of modernism. This formed the Data and Textual analyses in this work. From these analyses, the study succeeded in situating these novels within the fold of modernism. It looks at the major thematic preoccupations of the novels and how they reflected the existence of humans in modern society, which is the concern of the modernist writers. Once more, the research has proven that modernism and any other literary trend is not an exclusive preserve of the West. It is possible to adopt the style in any other part of the World as Achebe and Kafka have done.

Chapter One


1.0 Background to the Study

Literature is often seen as a representation of man’s experiences in the society. These experiences are not represented abstractly but rather in line with the factual and visible happenings in our society. Over the years, every literature produced is meant to portray or address a particular issue in our society. The nature of life and man himself is dynamic and is reflected as such in literature.

Both the traditional and modern man has found literature entertaining and has consequently preserved it. It is because man in his early society recognizes the entertainment values of literature that he developed it. The modern man has also continued the tradition of entertaining himself through literature in form of songs, drama, and storytelling that accompanied traditional rituals. The National Teacher Institutes NCE/DLS course book on English language cycle 1 gives three ways by which literature keeps the society entertained. These are psychological escape; entertainment through indulgence of our sense of humour and entertainment through our sense of beauty (225-226). Literature thus is an inspiration of societal happenings. These happenings are segmented into epochs, and modernism happens to be a literary movement that is currently in vogue. What used to be the trend at a particular time will not necessarily be in another. For instance, during classical era from the fifth A.D. onwards it was old English literature or Anglo-Saxon literature. Literature at that time consisted of spoken verse and songs or poems such as epic poems composed orally. The purpose of these forms of literature was to pass along tribal history and values to a population who could not read or write.

The Renaissance was a period when there was a rebirth of Greek and Roman literature as well as other forms of classical knowledge. The discovery of the works of classical scholars like Aristotle and Plato exerted unprecedented influence on the Renaissance man’s thought; that is secularisation of classical learning.

The Romanticism era was a time of war, notably the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. These wars along with the political and social turmoil that came with them served as the background for the literature of this period. Their concerns were the free expression of feeling of the artist and their thematic preoccupations were the lives of the ordinary people (as opposed to classical period) and the poet‘s feelings about nature etc.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, globalization and industrialization coupled with the first and second World Wars brought a new literary movement into existence. This was a break away or departure from the earliest trends such as classicism, medievalism, neoclassicism, romanticism and realism. This new movement was called modernism. The era placed emphasis on newness. Modernist movement originated in Europe and North America. The proponents of this movement were mostly influenced by Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Joseph Conrad, and D. H. Lawrence among others who tended to question how rational the human mind operated. They also believed that life does not always follow the right road; instead it was rough and quite unpredictable. Therefore, their ideas were completely new and appealing to the writers of the time.

In its broadest definition, Modernism according to Hofmann “is modern thought, character, or practice. More specifically, the term describes the modernist movement, its set of cultural tendencies and array of associated cultural movements originally arising from wide-scale and far-reaching changes to western society in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth century’s” (12).

According to Bill Ashcroft et al, Modernism “is a twentieth century European movement in the creative arts that sought to break with the dominant conventions of nineteenth century art, such as realism, linear narrativity, perspective and tonality” (143). They posit that, although modernism is usually defined as a European movement, it has been argued that the encounter with African cultures in the so called ‘scramble of Africa’ period of 1880s and 1890s was crucial to the development of modernist aesthetic (114). These were the periods that the European powers were engaged in violently oppressing the ‘uncivilized’ cultures of Africa.

In general, the term modernism encompasses the activities and out-put of those who felt traditional forms of art, literature, religious faith, social organisation and daily life were becoming outdated in the new economic, social and political conditions of an emerging fully industrialised world.

While literature differs according to the different eras or periods it is produced, it also differs in regions. Due to the incessant colonial conquests of African nations in the 17th century, a literary piece coming from an African writer may tend to treat issues that are peculiar to the dilemma and predicament suffered by Africans in the hands of the colonisers. As a matter of fact, this is the major preoccupation of most African literary pieces in the earlier stage of African literature. A typical example of such work is Chinua Achebe’s Things fall Apart. Anthills of the Savannah treats the combined themes of corruption and misguided leadership occasioned by a brutal military dictorship. This comes out from the witnesses of Chris Oriko, Ikem Osodi and Beatrice who are all participants in the events presented. There is disorder in the novel which resulted to different evil practices such as gossip, political agitations among others. Also, Kafka’s The Trial centres round K.’s condition under arrest and his final death. It treats humanistic issues such as guilt, freedom, alienation, etc. The first two people that came to arrest K., Franz and Willen robbed him first of his breakfast and later tried to rob him of his clothes. The second sentence of the opening chapter refers to Josef K.’s breakfast “…it is only this morning that the land-lady’s cook does not bring Josef K.’s breakfast. That never happened before.” (2) Josef K. also emphasizes the importance of the breakfast when he talks to Frau Grubach.

… I judged the whole thing still more severely. There’s nothing learned about it. It is completely null and void. I was taken by surprise that was all. If immediately on waking I had got up without troubling my head about Anna’s absence, and had come to you without regarding anyone who tried for my way, I could have breakfast in the kitchen for a change and could have got you to bring me my clothes from my room; in short, if I had behaved sensibly, nothing further would have happened, all this would have been nipped in the bud. But one is so unprepared”. (2)
A closer look at this novel however reveals there is in fact no trial but what we can call interrogation. This trial is questionable because what exactly is K. charged with? In other words, what is this trial all about? “It’s true that you’re under arrest, but that shouldn’t stop you from carrying out your job. And there shouldn’t be anything to stop you carrying on with your usual life”. (18)

The trials in the novel are; man under trial, law and justice under trial, the society under trial and trial of life. The novel shows the nature of man in the society and his fate as a human being as it provides a lot of humour meant to make us laugh as underneath, it lies some serious messages. Kafka is here telling us that all people are guilty of something and the punishments are in inverse proportion to the sin. The atmosphere presented in the texts is consistent with modern literature.

Other works from outside Africa however may treat different issues ranging from socio-political, economic and cultural issues, but the umbrella of modernism cuts across races, geographical regions and languages. Therefore, writers writing from a perspective of modernism have a similar goal which the movement stands for.

With the aim of bringing to the fore the meaninglessness and the lost of man’s faith in religion, modernist movement was established to raise the obvious point that the way man is living in modern times, humanity is heading towards nowhere but doom. The increase in industrialization which led to the technological advancement also contributed in giving rise to the movement. The first and second world wars also lend a hand to the birth of the movement as the uncertainty of life and the brutality of the human mind came to the fore. People started seeing life as it were. The realities of life started dawning on many people, some started questioning the future of humanity as weapons and machines were specially created by man to annihilate his fellow man. Writers started questioning this by capturing these situations, the future of humanity and their very existence in their works.

Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah and Franz Kafka’s The Trial are modernist novels in that they attempt to capture the realities of man and humanity in general. These books portray the features that accompany a modernist novel as Achebe and Kafka happen to find themselves in the era of modernist writers.

The literary themes that are prevalent in the modernist novel are those that are related to the society. Their themes tend to be those of fractured, disorganized, broken and fragmented society due to the action of man. This is seen in Anthills of the Savannah where the bid to take over power (coup) led to the killings of many people. Societal problems like corruption, brutal military dictatorship which are replicas of the Nigerian society are highlighted.

Also, Kafka tries to picture the meaninglessness of life through the character of Josef K. where K. is arrested and charged to court without knowing the gravity of his offence. Kafka here is saying the law is not accessible to everyone as not everyone receives justice. The society is presented as disorganized as people are assassinated, and it is associated with ills such as gossips and rumours. These issues are consistent to modernist literature as modern writers’ attempts to capture issues that affect the society negatively.

Anthills of the Savannah and The Trial have no continuous flow of content from page one to the end. There is discontinuity of narration from one chapter to another. This is an essential feature of modernist novels. While one person /character narrates their story, the other character takes up from the next chapter thereby distorting the continuous flow of narration. The authors have achieved this thereby making their work to be called modernist novels.

Anthills of the savannah and The Trial therefore, are modernist novels because they have succeeded in incorporating the features that are known with modernist literature. Thus, Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah and Franz Kafka’s The Trial are novels that have been captured through the modernist lens.

1.1 Statement of the Problem

This research work seeks to capture the various features of modernist literature in Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah and Kafka’s The Trial. It places the texts in the modernist lens which figures out the concerns of modernist writers. The research seeks to relate the features of the modernist novel as they relate to the novels, Anthills of the Savannah and The Trial. The researcher will also explain why the novels fall under the category of modernist text taking into cognizance the themes as well as the general structure of the novels; how they have been artfully incorporated by the authors to qualify the books as modernist novels. This problem is important, in that it would aid the students of literature to know the placement of a text in a particular dispensation of the literary era.

1.2 Purpose of the Study

This research work aims at examining the nature of modern literature which is to condemn the excessive industrialization and questioning the effect on man. It is set out to bring out the essential qualities of modernists which are peculiar to this literary movement and how this can be seen and identified in the texts. The purpose of this study also is to fish out the thematic preoccupations that are peculiar to the modernist writers and how the authors’ novels fit into the modernist category of writings. The researcher will also examine the features and themes of the novel and how they relate to current happenings in our today’s society. The research will also consider the style of the modernist writer and its very relevance in this current dispensation of literature.

1.3 Significance of the Study

The importance of this study cannot be overemphasized, because it serves the purpose of affording the scholars in the field of literature the opportunity of knowing the reasons for modernist writers’ deviating from the earlier trends like Classicism, Neo-classicism, medievalism, Romanticism and Realism, placing their emphasis on newness. Gone was the Romantic Movement that centres solely on nature and being. Modernist fiction speaks of the inner self and consciousness. Instead of progress, the modernist sees decline of civilization. All these are reflected in the literary creativity of the time. This work will be of enormous benefit as it will show why modernist writers reacted by questioning the future of man by reflecting modernist sentiments in their works. It will also serve as a reference material in our schools thereby aiding students in understanding modernism clearly.

1.4 Delimitation / Scope of the Study

The research will place Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah and Kafka’s The Trial in the modernist lens. It will explore selected features of modernism found in the texts. There are a lot of features of modernist fiction but only some of them will be selected as they are found in the texts. The research will cover predominantly Achebe’s Anthill of the Savannah and Kafka’s The Trial as its primary texts of study. It will as well deal with other sources that are relevant to the study.

1.5 Definition of Terms


Literature according to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary is any pieces of writing that are valued as works of art, especially novels plays and poems.


A novel according to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary is a story long enough to fill a complete book, in which the characters and events are usually imaginary

Post-Colonialism Lens

A collection of theoretical and critical strategies used to examine culture of former colonies of the European empires, and their relation to the rest of the world, as well as the effects on personal and national identity for the colonised society (

1.6 Methodology and Research Design

The approach to the research is analytical. Anthills of the Savannah and The Trial will be the primary texts while works on the internet and related books will be consulted. The primary texts will be analysed in the light of their preoccupation with modernist qualities. It will be a library research no field work will be required. This would include the use of journals, articles online essays Critical reviews on the books (Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah and Kafka’s The Trial) and modern literature in general will be adequately considered.

Chapter one consists of the background of the study, statement of the problem, purpose of the study, significance of the study, definition of terms as well as methodology/ research design. Chapter two deal with literature review, while chapter three handles the textual and data analysis. The chapter four: summary and conclusion.

Chapter Four

Summary and Conclusion

4.0 Preamble

This research has attempted highlighting out some of the features of modernist novels in the two texts; Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah and Kafka’s The Trial. The study has succeeded in situating the texts in the modernist fold. The present chapter presents the summary and conclusion of the study.

4.1 Summary

The research work sets out to find out if features of literary movements considered as past can still be found in contemporary works. As earlier stated in the background to the study, trends in literary genres have styles of writing and expressing their ideological onslaughts in literature from The Classical era (old English literature) to the present day. Nowadays, it is common to hear people talk of post modernism which is a new trend in the field. The researcher selected the modernist techniques which originated towards the end of the nineteenth century and remained till about the middle of the twentieth century from works in Africa and America. This was done to repudiate the notion that modernism is an exclusively reserve for the west. Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah and Franz Kafka’s The Trial were chosen for this purpose.

To achieve the above, the researcher reviewed already existing literature on the texts under study. This was done to serve as foundation for the research. Taking a look at the dimension of the research as the title suggests, the study adopted the Post Colonial literary theory as the Theoretical Framework.

The research has succeeded in placing the two texts; Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah and Kafka’s The Trial in the modernist lens, using the modernist features of writing and has proved the fact that the texts are modernist artistic works. The study has therefore been able to prove that modernist writers write truly to reflect and express human activities and their existence in the society. They achieve this largely through narrative techniques and themes.

4.2 Conclusion

From the foregoing, we view Literature as a representation of man’s experiences in the society; it becomes clear that writers have an enormous duty to perform in the society if they are serious-minded people that want to be relevant to their world. The extent to which they perform these roles depends on their ability to combine three basic elements: the creative spirit, the social history of their setting and their background as writers. Furthermore, the research has shown that modernism and any other literary trend for that matter, is not an exclusive preserve of the West. This is why it is possible to deploy such techniques in the Western novels where it originated and in African novels as Franz Kafka and Chinua Achebe have done.

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