Things Fall Apart is a 1958 novel written by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. The first book in a trilogy, Things Fall Apart is Chinua Achebe’s magnus opus and is regarded as one of the greatest works of modern African literature. It is a staple of school curriculums throughout Africa and is studied extensively in many English-speaking countries. Set initially in pre-colonial Nigeria, Things Fall Apart tells the story of an Igbo man named Okonkwo, a member of the fictional clan of Umuofia in the south-east of Nigeria. The novel consists of three parts, with the first following Okonkwo’s rise through the ranks of his clan as well as detailing his family history and the various traditions and beliefs of the Igbo society. The latter two parts deal with the arrival of the Europeans and Christian missionaries in Africa and the effects they had on the traditional ways of Igbo community’s life along with the changes in Okonkwo’s life.
Chinua Achebe portrays Okonkwo as a prideful, abusive and misogynistic man. Okonkwo was overambitious and resorted to violence any time his patience was tested. However, Achebe also puts Okonkwo’s behaviour in context by describing the traditional culture and beliefs of the Igbo clan at the time. In the Igbo community any outward display of affection was considered feminine and weak. A man’s success within the clan was judged by his harvest and how well he controled his wives. However, as Achebe highlights, Okonkwo’s behaviour was often driven by societal pressure and norms. He was constantly scared of turning into his father who was considered an “efulefu” (worthless man) of the clan and he was obsessed with being strong and worthy of the titles being bestowed upon him by his clan. Okonkwo’s rise through the ranks of Umuofia may have easily been hampered by any sign of weakness. Achebe uses the instance of Okonkwo killing his surrogate son Ikemefuna, who was surrendered to Umuofia by another clan in order to settle a dispute, to stress Okonkwo’s obsession with displaying strength. In part one of the book, Achebe also manages to paint a broad and vibrant picture of precolonial Igbo culture. Igbo culture in the precolonial era is revealed to be deeply religious yet rife with superstitious beliefs. The people are greatly concerned about angering their Gods and often performed sacrifices to appease Them. Moreover, anything that was considered unnatural by the clan, such as twins, were immediately discarded to avoid angering the Gods. However, despite their antiquated practices, the Igbo community was very tight-knit and the societal rules helped everything run smoothly. Igbo’s outdated practices come to the fore when Okonkwo was banished from his clan for seven years after accidentally killing someone at an elder’s funeral. Accidental crimes were considered “feminine” by the clan and thus Okonkwo and his family were exiled to his mother’s clan, Mbanta, with his huts and livestock in Umuofia destroyed. Achebe’s takes great effort in portraying how deeply emasculated Okonkwo felt by his exile even though he was happily accepted by his mother’s clan. Chinua Achebe, an Igbo man himself, takes a very neutral approach when telling Okonkwo’s story; highlighting all the negative aspects of precolonial Igbo community such as its treatment of women and superstitious beliefs but also emphasizes on their traditions and societal rules.
Achebe also succeeds in drawing parallels between the changes in Okonkwo’s life in and the turmoil in Africa’s socio-political scene as Christian missionaries began infiltrating parts of Nigeria, including Umuofia and Mbanta. Moreover, Achebe presents a great juxtaposition between the spiritual and superstitious religious beliefs of the local clans and the strict, monotheistic beliefs of the Europeans.
While the locals were initially amused by the arrival of the white men, they are soon dismayed by the disruptions the Europeans were causing in their traditional way of life. These changes enraged Okonkwo and his anger was deepened when his son, Nwoye, abandoned his Igbo beliefs to join the Christian missionaries. Okonkwo ended up disowning his son as he considered it a great insult and damage to his patriarchal line.
Through Okonkwo’s experiences, Achebe exhibits the growing divisions in the Igbo clans as well as the change in attitude the locals had towards the Europeans. Upon their arrival in Nigeria, the Christian missionaries began to appeal to the locals, especially the younger ones and the “osu” (outcasts). As people inside the clan started to convert to Christianity, the ties within the clan that had ensured its survival so far also began to weaken. The view the leaders held towards Christian missionaries is best represented by a quote friend Obierika, who was a friend of Okonkwa: ‘The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers and our clan can no longer act like one.’
In the third part of Things Fall Apart, the British start increasing their presence in Umuofia and establish their own rule of law, no longer just focusing on spreading Christianity. Local clansmen found in violation of British laws were routinely humiliated and punished. An example of this was seen when the clan leaders were locked up and beaten after the “egwugwu” (masqueraders impersonating ancestral spirits of the village) destroyed the local church. It was following this event that Okonkwo realized that his clan had no intention of fighting the British and after having killed a messenger who worked for the colonialists, committed suicide. The suicide marked Okonkwo’s final act of humiliation as suicide is against the traditions of the Igbo and it meant that Okonkwo is stripped of all his titles and denied a proper burial.
Achebe through Things Fall Apart dispels the Western notion that Africans were uncivilized and in need of western intervention before the colonial era. In fact, Achebe presents a well-functioning society, with its own set of rules and traditions. However, once the Europeans arrived, African people, who were accustomed to their way of living and had had the same values for generations, were suddenly forced to conform to the standards set by the colonialists, which ultimately stripped them of their identity.