The Use of Proverbs in 'Things Fall Apart' by Chinua Achebe

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Proverbs are a vital form of communication within the Ibo culture. They are sayings that have their roots in folklore and are typically passed down from generations to generations. Proverbs aid the Ibo in defending their thoughts and opinions, however in the hands of Chinua Achebe – author of Things Fall Apart – through various hints that are placed within proverbs in the novel linking to the main protagonist of the novel – Okonkwo – proverbs are the exact things that lead to the Ibo culture’s eventual demise.

Firstly, the proverbs that describe the resilience and strength of Umuofia when a leader is lost in its presence hints at the demise of Okonkwo- therefore, the Ibo culture. For instance, this statement is exemplified with a proverb: ― “The clan was like a lizard; if it lost its tail it soon grew another”. This proverb is used to express the strength and powerful system that was established in Umuofia. Okonkwo was one of the most powerful men in the tribe, but after his exile to his motherland, he knew that someone was to take his place in the tribe’s hierarchy. The lizard’s tail represented a powerful leader in Umuofia, so when Umuofia lost a leader, it shortly would regain a new one. The use of comparing Umuofia to a lizard represents how the system in Umuofia was based on the strength of individuals and how people like Okonkwo, were to always represent the power and warlike credibility associated with a leader. The incorporation of this proverb in the novel allowed the reader to understand that Okonkwo was at square one and that he had lost many years of hard work that got him to the leadership position he once had. Okonkwo knew that he lost the chance to fight the impending foreign religion that was taking over Umuoifa as well as the opportunity to retrieve the highest titles in the clan, therefore admitting defeat to the invading group on behalf of the Ibo culture.

Despite the fact that Ibos set collective welfare and community sentiment above all, they give extreme significance to a man’s individual achievements and accomplishments. This is featured through the saying: ―”Eneke the bird says that since men have learned to shoot without missing, he has learned to fly without perching”. This proverb is used to explain to Okonkwo that people who have never practiced or experienced something can be caught off guard when things change. This relates not only in the context that Nwakibie- a wealthy farmer- used it in, but it also related to the internal struggle Okonkwo faced throughout his entire life to be seen as a power strong man, unlike the image his father represented which was one of weakness. The use of Eneke the bird symbolizes the habits that one person can inherit through their life. The bird never had to learn to sit on the branch, because all it did was fly. This is because men have never shot without missing. This can also relate to Okonkwo who had never experienced failure or the feeling of situations in his control. Okonkwo was a very controlling man, so when the white man came during his exile, they established an area that caused Okonkwo to seem like a failure when he returned. He placed an enormous amount of pressure on himself to uphold his power, so when things were falling apart he loss the only thing he new how to do. This relates to the bird if it had to one day perch on the branch, it would fail because it never learned nor executed the action which could lead in its death. African and Ibo life are communicated through this proverb in the context of the situation involving Nwakibie, a rich farmer who determined that Okonkwo was fit to receive yams in order to start his own harvest. However, the proverb also related to the power hungry actions that consumed Okonkwo which lead to his downfall. The proverb communicates the importance of strength and balance in a leader, which Nwakibie saw and warned Okonkwo about in the beginning of the story. While people’s individual achievements – such as Okonkwo’s – are vital parts of Ibo life and culture, Ibos likewise maintain the standards of versatility and tolerance. For example, interdependence, social harmony and equality appear to be recommended by the saying: ―”He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart”. This specific proverb is used by Okonkwo to point out to Obierika- Okonkwo’s best friend- that they have lost their tribe to the white men and their new religious ideas, hence the reference to them “falling apart”. Okonkwo mentions the knife that the white men brought with them which represents the violence that was bestowed upon Umuofia when they fought back against the impeding imperialistic ideals.

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Culture plays an important role in the African and Ibo culture. This proverb touches on the importance that their religion and customs such as their multiple gods and the evil forest had on their people. Even though some of the traditions may have been severe, to the natives it was apart of their life; their culture. It also discusses the weakness the native’s religion faced when the idea of Christianity was imposed on them. Many natives had to make the difficult decision to keep to their roots or join a new foreign group that preached many new ideas they have never heard before. This single proverb may be one of the most important in the novel because it captures the overall meaning and purpose that ‘Things Fall Apart’ represented. The proverb also came at a pivotal time in the novel, as it was when Okonkwo realized that they were losing Umuofia to the impending white aliens. It expresses his anger mixed with failure as he knew that their culture and traditions have fallen apart due to the knife of imperialism. In addition to the proverbs, for the Igbo, the storytellers that pull one in and the stories that resonate for one show his or her values. The deterioration of the community is followed in the way that the Igbo envision the white individuals as negligible “fairy-tales”. Rather than appreciating accounts of the Europeans’ approach as factual reports, the news of their own inescapable colonization strikes the Igbo as a marvelous story. As the tribe’s older folks of Mbanta present, one claims that, though they heard “stories about white men who made the powerful guns and the strong drinks and took slaves away across the seas, no one thought the stories were true”.

Uchendu, Okonkwo’s thoughtful uncle, reacts, “There is no story that is not true. ” The Igbo tell stories to order their reality and to credit meaning to specific occasions. But the tale of the white individuals isn’t a story they have woven, whose meanings they can control. The vast majority of the Igbo individuals can’t incorporate the fantastical story of the Europeans into their worldview since it lies so far outside their frame of reference- this was evidently emphasized in the 15th Chapter, when the villagers had labelled a bicycle used by the white individual as an “Iron Horse”, therefore demonstrating the fact that the Igbo people had no knowledge of such people and culture. However, by neglecting to value Uchendu’s philosophy that each story contains some truth, the Igbo fail to understand that their power to compose their own stories has turned out to be threatened by the colonizers, which led to things falling apart.

With Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe uses proverbs to hint the audience of things falling apart for the Ibo culture with relation to the main protagonist of the novelOkonkwo. Either through proverbs that Okonkwo had personally heard from his friends and relatives or through proverbs that had clear relations with Okonkwo’s mental thoughts and situations, the proverbs cumulatively implied the much foreseen demise of the Ibo culture – as stated by the title of the novel. Interestingly enough, the much foreseeable end of the Ibo culture was easier to predict after the similar comparison of Okonkwo with fire had been included within the novel- Such as Okonkwo and his “fiery behavior”, which had clearly symbolized Okonkwo as a fierce and “fiery” warrior that had to eventually come to a halt. Indeed, with the implications of such proverbs, Chinua Achebe hints his audience of things falling apart soon.

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The Use of Proverbs in ‘Things Fall Apart’ by Chinua Achebe. (2022, September 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 23, 2024, from
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