Things Fall Apart was known in its time as an extremely original book. It is responsible for the boom in African-written stories that drastically changed perspectives of African colonization and life. Not only was it known for being a novel that inspired African authors to write their own stories, it was also a unique blend of African storytelling techniques and imitations of English poems and books. Despite this innovative style, many argue that it takes the form of a classical Shakespearean tragedy that is designed to show both sides of Nigeria’s colonization. In Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe used a tragic hero, African storytelling methods, inspiration from Irish poetry, and a classic Nigerian story to craft a novel that is an adaptation of a classical Shakespearean tragedy.
A classical Shakespearean tragedy has certain parameters that must be fulfilled in order for a story to qualify as one. The most important of these parameters is the incorporation of and focus on a tragic hero as defined by Aristotle. A tragic hero is written to be rooted for by the reader. They have a commendable goal which they are aiming to achieve, but they’re definitely not perfect. The tragic hero also must possess a tragic flaw that ultimately leads to their downfall. It’s due to this tragic flaw that readers are able to relate to and connect with the hero. For the majority of the story, the reader is hoping the hero will succeed, but the hero makes a mistake that leads to his death. This is exemplified in the actions of Okonkwo from Things Fall Apart. His tragic flaw is a fear of weakness. His father was an extremely lazy man, and for his whole life, Okonkwo has worked to not be seen as weak like his father was. It’s this fear that motivates him to do things that make him seem strong. He kills his foster son, Ikemefuna, he dissociates himself from his son, and he attempts to go to war with the Christians. When his plan to fight for the village fails, he is scared of being weak and letting the Christians win so he commits suicide, eliminating any opportunity for him to be thought of as weak. It is his tragic flaw that ultimately leads to his death thereby qualifying him as a tragic hero.
Things Fall Apart also makes use of African storytelling which is known for being rather expressive. Often instruments, costumes, and masks are utilized to bring a story to life. From one generation to the next, stories are passed down and the art of storytelling is taught. Widely incorporated in African stories are riddles, proverbs, and myths make a point, extend the story, and entertain. Another strategy, repetition, is able to get an idea across and helps the listener remember key details. The goal of African storytelling is not only to entertain, but to educate the audience, effectively catching their attention and teaching a lesson. While he cannot use instruments, costumes, or masks to tell the story, Achebe does make sure to write in plenty of proverbs and share traditional myths that further develop the storyline and add depth to characters. He also sprinkles words of Nigerian dialects throughout the novel. These methods help accurately depict what African culture is like.
Throughout Achebe’s college years, he was captivated by poetry written by W. B. Yeats. The flow of the language that the Irish poet used greatly impacted Achebe’s writing style. As an English major, Achebe was required to read and analyze works written by English, American, and other authors. It was this introduction to literature that shaped Achebe’s writing so much. In the effort to show off his knowledge, he titled Things Fall Apart after Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming” which describes a dramatic downfall, similar to what is seen in the book. The language he used was flowing and varied like Yeats’ work, but still used Nigerian vocabulary. It is, after all, an African story.
Books about yams and tribal relations are uncommonly come across. Certainly no English author before Achebe would write about the beauty of African culture. All books and writings about Africa were about colonizing the savages and doing the Africans a favor by making them civilized. Things Fall Apart even points that out in the ending when one of the missionaries writes a memoir about what it is like to try and save the African people. The character aims for entertainment rather than accuracy and he seems to have no regard for the intricacy or uniqueness of the lives of Africans. The story is so distinctly African, and it makes no move to hide that. It points out the atrocity of European colonizers and embraces African culture.
It is this fearless approach of Achebe’s that makes it stand out so much and appeal to the writing world. As a book with so much impact, it makes strides in new styles of storytelling by meshing African methods with English methods, African language with English language, and African stories with European stories. These factors create a story that is set apart on another level from other stories, but plot and use of a tragic hero still make it qualify as a classical Shakespearean tragedy.