Introduction to Things Fall Apart
Things Fall Apart is Chinua Achebe’s acclaimed masterpiece. It narrates life in Nigeria at the turn of the 20th century during the rise of the colonial era. It was first published in 1958 and immediately became one of the favorite books to the readers. Things Fall Apart has multiple translations, offering access to the outside world to pre-colonial Nigerian culture and the traumatic changes people faced during the start of the colonization. The novel chronicles the clash between the traditional norms of the Igbo tribe and the white colonial government of that time, concluding that the divided nature of the indigenous Igbo tribe and the flaws in their native social structure led to the disintegration and ultimately fall off the Umuofia community.
Summary of Things Fall Apart
The protagonist of the story, Okonkwo, is a Nigerian leader of the Igbo community. He seems a self-made man who earns distinction and glory and brings honor to his people after he defeats an undefeatable wrestler, Amalinze the Cat who earned the nickname because he never lands on his back in a wrestling contest. Okonkwo’s deceased father, Unoka, motivates his victory as a wrestler and his success as a leader. As Unoka’s flaws, cowardice, unpaid debts, and wrong policies cost the family a fortune, Okonkwo resents and despises his father’s harmful practices and runs his family under his strict command displaying an enormous amount of masculinity by beating up his wives and children.
As a leader, the test for Okonkwo emerges when a man from a neighboring village kills a woman from Okonkwo’s village, inviting the tribal wrath. To dispense justice to avoid the protracted tribal feud, Umuofia village takes the son of the murderer, Ikemefuna as a peace offering in revenge for that killing. The boy, Ikemefuna, is to be sacrificed, but not immediately. As a leader, Okonkwo takes the boy home, where he receives the love and care of Okonkwo’s family. Okonkwo’s son, Nwoye, too, becomes fond of the new member and the boy’s influence over the family touches Okonkwo’s heart. On the other hand, Ikemefuna also respects Okonkwo as his ‘second father’
Over the years, Okonkwo’s anger doubles up owing to multiple factors. It becomes the reason for violating the celebrated customs of the tribe. He violates the Peace Week by beating his third wife, Ojiugo, who forgets to prepare meals, leading to another awful incident when he hits and shoots his second wife on a trivial issue but misses the shot. Later, Ogbuefi Ezeudu, the oldest man of the village meets Okonkwo to deliver a private message that the oracle demands the death of the Ikemefuna, whom he is treating as a family member. Keeping the boy’s attachment with his family in his mind, Ezeudu also stops him from taking part in his killing. But Okonkwo does not want to showcase his weakness and come out too feminine so he not only participates in the killing of the boy but also delivers the final blow with his machete. Sink in depression, Okonkwo visits his friend Obierika and starts feeling somewhat relieved. Meanwhile, the news of his daughter’s illness arises a sense of fear; he begins thinking that the tragedy has befallen his daughter for defying the oracle. However, the child recovers after the visit of Agbala, the prophet.
Although her recovery relieves Okonkwo, the death of one of the clan’s leaders, Ogbuefi Ezeudu, adds to his woes. He recalls his last meeting with Ezeudu in which he warns him against taking part in Ikemefuna’s death, but he ignores it. While attending the leader’s funeral, the tragedy compounds Okonkwo’s woes when his gun accidentally explodes and kills Ezeudu’s son. This heinous crime leads him to his seven-year exile. Following the punishment, he settles in his native village, Mbanta, where he reconciles his life, throwing his disappointment away.
During his second year of exile, Obierika, his best friend, visits him with money the villagers earned by selling Okonkwo’s yams and promises to deliver his share by building huts for him and his family until he returns to Umuofia. Obierika also tells him about the unjust approach of the white missionaries. Soon after Obierika’s departure, six missionaries, including a white man, Mr. Brown, arrive in their village. Mr. Brown’s Christian ideas seem nonsense to the naïve villagers, but Okonkwo’s son finds attraction toward Christianity. Horrified by this from his own son Okonkwo beats him up which leads to Nwoye leave the house and live independently. When the missionaries decide to build a church on the land, the natives resent. Yet the church witnesses completion despite this resentment. Soon the people start believing in Christianity’s power and many of them converted to Christianity.
Following their success in Mbanta, the white men travel and establish a school in Umuofia. On the other hand, during the same time, Okonkwo’s exile ends, but his return to Umuofia brings a great shock to him as he notices various radical changes. Many clan leaders have converted to Christianity. These unexpected changes numb his senses. He notices Mr. Brown’s active role in this transformation, encouraging the villagers to educate themselves. The major clash between the clans and white authorities arrives when Reverend James replaces Mr. Brown. The new head shows no mercy and disrespects their old traditions, too. The situation reaches the boiling point when Enoch, a newly converted man, unmasks an Egwugwu. Being revengeful, Egwugwu burns his compound and destroys the church because the new setup has cost his tribe a fortune.
Upon knowing this, the District Commissioner interns six village leaders, including Okonkwo. Despite the District Commissioner’s instructions to treat the leaders with respect, the court messengers humiliate them by shaving their heads and whipping them. Following their release, clansmen call for a meeting to establish a workable agreement on whether they should live in collaboration with the whites or opt for war. During the negotiation, five court messengers arrive and try to dismiss their gathering. Enraged by the missionaries’ growing influence, Okonkwo steps forward and beheads one of the messengers with his machete, hoping his clansmen will join him. The remaining hope of Okonkwo dies when his fellow leaders allow the other messengers to escape. This indifferent approach of clansmen makes Okonkwo realize that things have already fallen apart, and people will never enter the war against white supremacy, which is contrary to the age-old tradition.
When the District Commissioner, Gregory comes to take Okonkwo to the court, embittered on his people’s choices and fearing the humiliation of dying under white law, Okonkwo reaches home to commit suicide. Okonkwo’s action of committing suicide receives backlash amongst his own tribe since it’s against the teaching out Igbo. Gregory feels that the life of Okonkwo would make a reasonable paragraph for his book.
Major Themes in Things Fall Apart
- Tribal Belief and Traditions: Tribal belief marks the center of the text but unfortunately they suffer a decline with the arrival of the new religion of Christianity. However, some locals, including Okonkwo, refuse to accept this new change that is going to devastate the old structure. At first, they stand with Okonkwo to fight against the setup that appears inhumane to them, but they give up their old customs and turn toward prosperous Christianity, leaving Okonkwo in a state of extreme distress. This demonstrates how tribal beliefs and traditions have been deliberately belittled before western culture’s influence.
- Masculinity: In African tradition, masculinity is regarded as one of the greatest virtues. Okonkwo, the protagonist, values this trait and tries to exhibit it at various places. However, he despises his father for having feministic qualities. He dislikes his son’s passive nature as well who takes after his grandfather. Okonkwo’s masculinity becomes other people’s problems on various occasions, especially for his family, which suffers due to his violence and cruelty. For example, despite possessing a soft corner for Ikemefuna, he kills him with his machete and beheads the messenger who tries to violate their private meeting. He also criticizes his people for avoiding war against white supremacy and choose peace.
- Destructive Impacts of Colonialism: Colonialism is one of the major themes in the novel that appears in the second part of the book. When Okonkwo returns to his village after the exile, he notices the arrival of Christianity. The entire tribe is enduring the pain of newly established laws and government. Despite knowing the influence and cleverness of the white men, he goes against them to maintain their tribe’s laws and freedom. He notices how Mr. Brown is changing the minds of the people by equipping them with the knowledge that is resulting in changes in their traditional norms. People begin to question their ancient traditions, calling them savage practices. Although this cultural onslaught disturbs the locals, some of them join this new shift. This transformation of the people leads to the pulverization of the indigenous culture and cultural setting.
- Social and Cultural Transformation: The novel fictionalizes the clash between ancient traditions of the Igbo tribes and the progressive social development. The arrival of British missionaries divides the Igbo community into two different parts. While some of them refuse to accept the newly established social order and religion, some others whole-heartedly embrace it. However, for some, it becomes difficult to decide whether they should accept the new faith or go with their old practices. Their choices become clear when Okonkwo kills a messenger and people remain silent, which shows that they are willing to surrender to the British.
- The Superiority of Whites: The novel revolves around the Igbo traditions, their language, and culture but Achebe has used English to present it to the world. He has also used traditional proverbs in English to clarify implicitly that the native Igbo language cannot be translated into any other language. However, when Christian missionaries establish their religion and administrative machinery, many locals throw away their old customs and embrace the newly established structure. The superiority of the white culture is shown through the character of Mr. Brown and other missionaries, who reshape the locality by preaching religion and education.
- Fate and free will: According to an Igbo saying, a human’s chi or spirit is aligned to his free will. In other words, a person can control his free will as Okonkwo tries to do so. He ascends to his society and attains the position of chief. However, once things start getting astray, it appears that he is capable of using his free will but incapable of exercising the right choice as his fate directs him to perform heinous crimes like killing and committing suicide. His spectacular rise and tragic fall show that the Igbo society believes in the concept of free will.
- Justice: Justice and its dispensation is a powerful preoccupation presented in the novel. The Igbo people have established their institutions and administration to administer justice in their social structure. Okonkwo’s exile and Ikemefuna’s death provide insight into their system. However, when white men arrive with their institutionalized religion and government, local culture and laws appear vicious to them. That is why Okonkwo’s death at the end leads to the fact that hypocritical and inhumane British law slaughters the sense of justice once seems rooted deep in the Igbo tradition.
- Ambition: Ambition also plays a crucial role. Okonkwo’s strong determination along with his discontent with his father’s idle ways leads him to assume the leadership of his clan. However, his strict and narrow approach in life makes him rigid and ruthless ending with his tragic crimes and death.
Major Characters in Things Fall Apart
- Okonkwo: The central figure and protagonist, Okonkwo, is a strong-headed man, wrestler, and leader, who attains greatness overshadowing his inherited laziness. Okonkwo believes that his father is unmanly or weak in nature. Therefore, he adopts opposite ideals and becomes brave, wealthy, violent, and tries to be productive. He marries three times and runs his family ruthlessly. However, he gets caught in the vicious circle of his own rules and goes against the norms. After killing Ezeudo’s son, he goes into exile for seven years. When he returns, he finds vast changes in his community, where most of the villagers have abandoned their old customs and converted to Christianity. He resists the arrival of the white people and even kills their messenger. Thus, his obsession with masculinity, anger, and the tragic flaw of his character makes him reach the point where he takes his own life with guilt and failure before being punished for his crimes by the British.
- Nwoye: Okonkwo’s only son who shares his grandfather’s characteristics that often invite his father’s wrath, Nwoye receives a heavy thrashing to get rid of his flaws and weaknesses. When Ikemefuna comes to stay with Okonkwo’s family, he sometimes seems to align with his father’s desires. However, when he comes to know about the boy’s death and his father’s role in it, he hates his ruthlessness. This hatred leads him to accept the English civilization when the British arrive. This change brings comfort to his subjugated life.
- Ezinma: Okonkwo’s daughter, Ezinma is from his second wife, Ekwefi. Okonkwo loves his daughter because of her fearlessness and bold character. Her courage and boldness win both his father’s appraisal and respect in that Okonkwo wish her to be a boy.
- Ikemefuna: Ikemefuna is the boy Mbaino clan hands over to Umuofia to settle a dispute. He becomes the adopted son of Okonkwo and wins his heart, showing the strong and courageous side of his character. Although the boy secures a special place in Okonkwo’s family, he kills the boy with his machete to prove his masculinity.
- Unoka: Okonkwo’s father, Unoka’s cowardice and recklessness bring shame to his son, Okonkwo. He loves to spend time singing. Moreover, he remains under debt that even after his death, the family carries the burden. Thus, his idle ways of living and indifferent life choices downgrade his status in the tribe where traits like courage and masculinity automatically get an upper hand over the person.
- Brown: Mr. Brown is another important character in the novel. He is the representative of the Christian religion, preaches Christianity to the locals, and motivates them to get educated. He is a kind and God-fearing man. Although he is set to change the local social fabric, he hates the use of unnecessary power or barbaric approach. He helps them establish their school and hospital and wins many hearts by adoring the ancient local system.
- Reverend James Smith: Reverend James Smith comes to Umuofia when Mr. Brown is sent back home due to health issues. However, he proves his opposite. His arrival in Umuofia introduces people to the chaotic side of the new culture. He criticizes the old customs and wants the villagers to embrace the new laws. He also intends to establish the dominance of the colonial beliefs for which he suspends a local woman from the church. He soon faces the local wrath for his arrogance.
- Ogbuefi Ezeudu: As one of the oldest men of Umuofia who visits Okonkwo and warns him not to participate in Ikemefuna’s killing, Ezeudu’s role is of a tribal elder who visits others to convey some important social message.
Writing Style of Things Fall Apart
The writing style of the novel, Things Fall Apart, shows the straightforward and simple approach of the writer, Chinua Achebe, in that he fictionalizes the historical narrative from an omniscient point of view. He tries to show the factual representation of the events and incidents that seem to have become the reason for the collapse and disintegration of the ancient Igbo society. The use of Igbo oral traditions such as proverbs, idioms, and folk stories show the reason for his use of the English language that he has adapted to reflect his culture. Although the diction is formal, the sentence structure is simple and the tone is serious and somber, Achebe has shown that local cultures can be reflected through the English language.
Analysis of Literary Devices in Things Fall Apart
- Allegory: Achebe presents locusts as an allegorical representation of the colonial era who was invading the country to disrupt normal life and destroy the culture.
- Action: The main action of the novel comprises the tribal feud, the arrival of colonialism in Nigeria, and Okonkwo’s response. The rising action occurs when Okonkwo kills the messenger and invites the wrath of the colonizers. The falling action occurs when he commits suicide as nobody from his own tribe sides him against the British.
- Climax: The climax occurs when Igbo leaders gather to discuss the issue of the crime of the missionaries and Okonkwo ends up killing one of the messengers. It leads Okonkwo to understand that things have turned worse and that he may not be spared anymore.
- Conflict: There are various conflicts in the novel, Things Fall Apart. The first one is the internal conflict of Okonkwo, who tries to mask himself multiple times to maintain his position in the tribe. The second conflict involves the traditions of Umuofia and the new laws brought by the British; old culture versus new culture and tradition versus modernity.
- Characters: Things Fall Apart presents both static as well as dynamic characters. Okonkwo is a major character, while Nwoye, Mr. Brown, and Mr. Smith are the minor characters. However, it is Nwoye who struggles to shape and reshape his beliefs and undergoes changes. Therefore, he is a dynamic character, while Okonkwo remains the same throughout, the reason that he is a static character along with various other characters.
- Foreshadowing: Foreshadowing in the novel begins with the title which indicates that there might be no happy ending. The second example of foreshadowing in the novel occurs when the first swarm of locusts arrives in the village, which prefigures the arrival of the missionaries.
- Imagery: Imagery is used to make readers perceive things involving their five senses. For example,
i. Just then the distant beating of drums began to reach them. It came from the direction of the ilo, the village playground. Every village had its own ilo which was as old as the village itself and where all the great ceremonies and dances took place. The drums beat the unmistakable wrestling dance – quick, light and gay, and it came floating on the wind. (Chapter-1)
ii. In this way the moons and the seasons passed. And then the locusts came. It had not happened for many a long year. The elders said locusts came once in a generation, reappeared every year for seven years and then disappeared for another lifetime. (Chapter-7)
iii. The crowd roared with laughter. Evil Forest rose to his feet and order was immediately restored. A steady cloud of smoke rose from his head. He sat down again and called two witnesses. They were both Uzowulu’s neighbors, and they agreed about the beating. Evil Forest then stood up, pulled out his staff and thrust it into the earth again. (Chapter-10)
The first example shows the images used for sound, the second for seasons and colors, and the third again for sound and colors.
- Irony: Things Fall Apart shows tragic irony as the proud, arrogant, successful, and ambitious man, Okonkwo, ends up hanging himself.
- Metaphor: Things Fall Apart shows good use of various metaphors. For example,
i. Their sound was no longer a separate thing from the living village. It was like the pulsation of its heart. It throbbed in the air, in the sunshine, and even in the trees, and filled the village with excitement. (Chapter-5).
ii. Dusk was already approaching when their contest began. The drums went mad and the crowds also. They surged forward as the two young men danced into the circle. The palm fronds were helpless in keeping them back. (Chapter-6)
The first metaphor compares the sound to a thing and the second drums to mad people.
- Mood: The novel shows a joyous and celebrating mood in the beginning but turns tragic and gloomy as soon as the Okonkwo faces an exile and white missionaries arrive to change the tribal beliefs.
- Motif: The most important motifs of the novel are chi, animal images, fire, locusts, and yams.
- Personification: The novel shows the use of personifications at several places. For example,
i. The night was very quiet. It was always quiet except on moonlight nights. Darkness held a vague terror for these people, even the bravest among them. (Chapter-1)
ii. Okonkwo’s fame had grown like a bush-fire in the harmattan. (Chapter-1)
iii. The sun breaking through their leaves and branches threw a pattern of light and shade on the sandy footway. (Chapter-5)
These examples show that the night, darkness, fame, and sun as having human attributes.
- Point of View: Things Fall Apart is narrated in a third-person or omniscient point of view that is the author’s own point of view.
- Protagonist: Okonkwo is the protagonist of the novel. The novel starts with his grand introduction and involves various tragic incidents that become the reason for his tragic death.
- Resolution: Resolution is when all the mysteries, conflicts, and problems reach a conclusion. Things Fall Apart ends with Commissioner’s plan who decides to write a book in which little importance will be given to Okonkwo’s tragedy.
- Rhetorical Question: A rhetorical question is a question that is not asked in order to receive an answer from the audience. Some of the rhetorical questions used in the text are,
i. When Unoka died he had taken no title at all and he was heavily in debt. Any wonder then that his son Okonkwo was ashamed of him? (Chapter-1)
ii. Why should a man suffer so grievously for an offence he had committed inadvertently? But although he thought for a long time he found no answer. He was merely led into greater complexities. He remembered his wife’s twin children, whom he had thrown away. What crime had they committed? (Chapter 13)
These two examples show that the rhetorical questions posed do not need answers. They only stress the main point.
- Setting: The setting of the novel is the Umuofia and Mbanta villages of the Igbo tribe in Nigeria.
- Simile: The novel shows good use of various similes. For example,
i. Okonkwo was as slippery as a fish in water. (Chapter-1)
ii. The earth burned like hot coals and roasted all the yams that had been sown. Like all good farmers, Okonkwo had begun to sow with the first rains. (Chapter-3)
iii. You drove him to kill himself and now he will be buried like a dog. (Second Book, Chapter-25)
The first simile compares Okonkwo with a fish, the second the earth with coals, and the third a corpse with a dog.
- Symbol: Things Fall Apart shows that the symbols of fire, yams, and locusts. Whereas the fire represents Okonkwo’s rage, locusts show the white settlement, and yams represent masculinity.
- Theme: The novel shows a clash of cultures along with human’s adaptive nature, their desire for change, and the influence of the new religion.