‘Answer’ by Chinua Achebe is a short poem about a person ridding himself of an inferiority complex. This free verse portrays a persona who fears yet admires the culture of his colonial masters. He eagerly follows their ways, abandoning his own culture until he realizes its value. The poem heavily employs enjambment and imagery to show the aftereffects of colonialism and westernization.
‘Answer’ by Chinua Achebe is a poem about getting rid of one’s inferiority complex.
The poem begins right away with the persona’s breakthrough. He experiences immense relief from no longer fearing or admiring the colonial masters. The speaker then narrates his life before the breakthrough: how the colonizers’ ways fascinated and scared him, how he pleased them (to his discomfort), and how he hung on their approval because he believed they were superior. He also mentions the supposed benefit pleasing his masters brought him: a rise in rank. Though not stated, the term “white-collar”, Achebe’s nationality (Nigerian), and ‘Answer‘s diction tell us the people admired and feared are European colonizers, and the speaker himself is Nigerian—by extension, African.
In the end, the speaker realizes the beauty of his homeland, abandons the ways of European colonizers, and returns to cherishing his own.
You can read the poem here.
‘Answer’ is an isometric poem of 31 short lines written in free verse. It reads like prose, employs enjambment, and spots no rhyme or comma where there should be. The notable omission of necessary commas either depicts the stream of consciousness narrative technique or the urgency of the speaker’s thoughts. ‘Answer‘ concludes with a final full stop, having used the punctuation previously to transition into new thoughts.
- Imagery: This is the dominant device in ‘Answer.’ The poem uses visual imagery to paint a picture of Nigeria—and by extension, Africa—at the height of colonisation. The device is especially evident between lines 12 and 31, where the speaker narrates how he lived before and after his eye-opening discovery. By describing the beauty of his environment between lines 26 and 31, he shows appreciation for his homeland.
- Enjambment: Enjambment is the second dominant device in ‘Answer.’ Throughout the poem, sentences are broken into multiple short lines.
- Metaphor: Three forms of metaphor run throughout the poem: extended metaphor, implied metaphor and the, so to say, simple metaphor. The simple (or most direct) metaphor appears in “potsherds of broken trance” (line 25). On realising his people’s ways aren’t inferior after all, the persona compares his long felt admiration cum fear to potsherds, which are broken pieces. He uses this comparison to show the energy with which he gets rid of his insecurities. “Crouching shadows” (line 24) is an implicit metaphor for the speaker’s abandoned culture, and “roughness of a prickly/day” (line 19-20) portrays the discomfort that came with pleasing colonial masters. The entire poem is an extended metaphor for the events and effect of colonialism and westernisation.
- Personification: “terror-fringed fascination” (line 2) performs the human acts of binding, seizing, shaking and throwing. “Source” in line 21 feeds and the speaker’s mentions his “proud vibrant life” (line 31) waiting for him.
- Synecdoche: “crowding faces” (line 4) is a synecdoche for European colonizers.
- Metonymy: “white-collar hands” (lines 7 and 8) represents European colonizers.
- Simile: “like a cheap watch in…” (line 9) is the only simile in the poem. It uncovers the speaker’s feelings about his culture before his realisation. He thinks his people’s ways are inferior, cheap.
The major themes of ‘Answer‘ are:
Other themes like that stem from the above major themes include:
- Inferiority complex
- Cultural dominance
- White supremacy
I broke at last
the terror-fringed fascination
that bound my ancient gaze
my ear and threw it down
beside me on the earth floor
and rose to my feet. I
‘Answer‘s opening lines describe the speaker’s dread and awe for a group of people. The metonymy “white-collar hands” and Achebe’s nationality tells readers it’s a group of European colonizers who ventured into Africa. The speaker’s fear stems from the knowledge that the whites have clearly come to rule his people. At the same time, however, their ways fascinate him. He notes the effect of these juxtaposed feelings: the abandonment of his homeland’s culture.
These lines uncover the beginning of westernization, when, like the speaker, some Nigerians—by extension, Africans—saw their values as “cheap”, inferior. Despite that, the persona starts ‘Answer‘ by telling readers he has killed both his fear and admiration for the colonial masters. On that note, one can say the poem begins on a cautiously positive note.
and rose to my feet. I
made of their shoulders
and heads bobbing up and down
day and quench the source
that fed turbulence to their
feet. I made a dramatic
These lines portray how colonizers determined the status of the persona’s people, using that “terror-fringed fascination” to their advantage. The speaker’s complex shows in his behavior here. He mentions how eager he was to have the Europeans approve of him so he could rise in rank.
It provides a glimpse into the continent of Africa at the height of colonization. Historical records detail the acts tribal chiefs committed to pleasing the whites. Between lines 18-20, the speaker points out these acts didn’t always favor his people. But leaders had to secure their status and perhaps, curry favor with their “superior” masters. In summary, these lines tell how the poet persona—by extension, Africa—became a slave to the colonizers, inferiority complex being one reason.
feet. I made a dramatic
descent that day landing
backways into crouching shadows
of sunlight become my home again
on whose trysting floor waited
my proud vibrant life.
‘Answer‘s final lines expand upon the speaker’s realization mentioned at the beginning. Using imagery, the persona speaks of the value and beauty of his homeland. He realizes that, in fact, it isn’t inferior to that of the colonial masters and abandons the supposed benefits pleasing them had provided him. The theme of patriotism shines through lines 26-31, as the poet persona returns to cherishing his home. It’s a message to Africa—specifically Nigeria—to always remember and cherish their culture, even in a westernized world.
‘Answer‘ was first published in 1971 as part of the poetry collection, Collected Poems by Chinua Achebe. The second and third revisions of the collection were published in 1973 and 2004 respectively.
Relief laces the speaker’s tone. He’s finally rid himself of an inferiority complex, so he now feels at ease with his culture.
Towards the end, the persona also exudes patriotism in the way he describes his homeland.
The subject matter of the poem doesn’t come as a surprise. From Things Fall Apart (1958) to There Was A Country (2012), Achebe was famous for portraying his people’s way of life in both pre-colonial and post-colonial times. ‘Answer‘ is only one of his many attempts to show the world the reality of Nigeria, and by extension, Africa.
Achebe definitely saw the future called westernization when he wrote ‘Answer.’ Since he didn’t call that future a good thing, one can say ‘Answer‘ is a premonition. However, the poem starts and ends on an optimistic note. The message between lines 26-31 is Achebe’s hope for a future where fellow Africans don’t feel inferior to Europeans. In this light, ‘Answer‘ is not a premonition.
Achebe wrote the poem as an answer to what, in the present African society, has become a long-standing debate: the effects and remedies (if needed) of westernization. Hence its title.
If you enjoyed reading ‘Answer‘ by Chinua Achebe, you might find these other poems interesting:
- ‘Love Cycle‘ by Chinua Achebe: a poem comparing a couple’s relationship with the effects of sunrise and sunset on Earth.
- ‘Meeting the British‘ by Paul Muldoon: a poem recording the Native American’s thoughts on French and English colonizers.
- ‘No More Boomerang‘ by Oodgeroo Noonuccal: a poem portraying the drastic changes in Australian culture after colonisation.