Things Fall Apart
Things Fall Apart is a timeless story of one man's struggle against his own self-destructive tendencies. At the same time, the novel is firmly rooted in a specific era, in both its setting and the date of its composition. When it was published in 1958, Things Fall Apart achieved almost immediate international fame as the first major novel about Africa written by an African. The work was composed on the eve of decolonization, which was the achievement of independence by many African nations, including Achebe's native Nigeria, from almost a century of European colonial rule.
At its most basic, the novel challenges conventional Western perceptions of African peoples, societies, and cultures. Achebe intends to provide his readers with a clear and conscious alternative to the negative and stereotypical image of Africa constructed by European authors, such as Joseph Conrad and his novel Heart of Darkness. Achebe's African characters speak refined, sophisticated English in contrast to the childlike pidgin (hybrid) English often spoken by African characters in novels popular among European audiences. He frequently employs folk-tales and proverbs in his novel not only for dramatic effect, but to illustrate the vitality and wisdom of traditional African culture.
Achebe does not overly romanticize the Ibo people or uncompromisingly vilify the British colonial rulers. He leaves it up to the reader to assess the overall impact of colonialism and Page 520 | Top of Articlewhite rule in Africa. This balancing act—the recognition of the vitality of African traditions alongside the acknowledgment of some of the benefits of the British presence—is particularly significant in the context of a Nigeria emerging slowly and often painfully into self-rule in the 1950s. Things Fall Apart is not only a premier example of African literature, but one of the first contributions to what became known as postcolonial literature among formerly colonized peoples of Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean.
Things Fall Apart addresses the theme of war and peace in a number of ways. Achebe challenges the European perception of Africans as savages needing to be pacified by presenting his characters as complex human beings motivated by feelings such as love, pride, fear, envy, and duty. From the beginning, however, Achebe emphasizes the importance of war and violence in the Ibo society. The setting of the novel is a district of nine villages known as Umuofia, a region famous for its prowess in war. The main character of the work is Okonkwo, a man renowned for his courage and physical strength, and respected far and wide as an exceptional warrior. Yet his fiery temper and his frequent willingness to resort to violence rather than seek peaceful solutions to problems are often destructive, to both himself and his people. Indeed, Okonkwo is in many ways a tragic figure familiar from ancient Greek literature, brought down by the very quality that has enabled him to emerge as a dominant force in Umuofia: his violent, warlike nature. Okonkwo is a man whose strength is so great it must be contained, lest it destroy his community. Okonkwo also presents a threat to himself. He is unable to achieve inner peace due to his great fear of seeming soft and unmanly, but the world that is changing before his very eyes increasingly has no place for this proud man of war. In the end, Okonkwo's death mirrors the end of warlike Umuofia's independence. War between Umuofia and British colonial forces is averted and peace is achieved, but at the price of Okonkwo's life and many of the cultural traditions of the Ibo. Things Fall Apart reminds readers that much was lost in the process of colonizing Africa and bringing order to the people of the "Dark Continent'"s interior.
Part 1: Chapters 1-3
The novel begins with the introduction of its main character, Okonkwo, a proud, successful warrior from Umuofia who lives in a large compound of huts and storage barns with his three wives and numerous children. Achebe contrasts the self-disciplined, prosperous Okonkwo with his father Unoka. Unoka is always in debt and has a reputation for being lazy, but he is also generous and seems to be a much happier man than his successful son is. The fear of being like his father, whom he considers weak, often serves to motivate Okonkwo's thoughts and actions throughout the novel. The narrative begins in Chapter 2 with the threat of war between Umuofia and its neighbor Mbaino over the murder of the wife of one of Umuofia's leading men, Ogbuefi Udo. Okonkwo is sent as an emissary to Mbaino, and warfare is averted by the provision of a virgin and a fifteen-year-old boy named Ikemefuna. Chapter 3 is a flashback to Okonkwo's youth and his establishment of himself as a self-reliant, prosperous farmer and a strong-willed, determined man. Okonkwo seeks the help of a wealthy farmer named Nwakibie, who has nine wives and thirty children. Nwakibie is impressed by Okonkwo and provides him eight hundred yams to begin establishing his farm. The harvest, however, is poor and Okonkwo "remembered that tragic year with a cold shiver throughout the rest of his life." Soon after, Okonkwo's father Unoka dies.
The action returns to the present in Chapter 4 to a meeting of clan leaders called to decide the fate of Ikemefuna. The assembly decides that Ikemefuna is to remain for the time being with Okonkwo and his family. Ikemefuna and Okonkwo's eldest son Nwoye, who is twelve, have become close friends. Nwoye is a source of concern for Okonkwo as he notices traces of Page 522 | Top of Articlehis father's sensitivity and laziness in him. In Chapters 4 and 5, two episodes demonstrate Okonkwo's lack of self-control and emphasize how the violence that is the source of his strength can be destructive to both his family and his entire community. First, he beats his third and youngest wife, Ojiugo, during the Week of Peace, a time sacred to the earth goddess, Ani, during which no violence must take place. Okonkwo's violation of this custom has the potential to offend the earth goddess and lead to a bad harvest. In Chapter 5, Okonkwo severely beats and nearly kills his second wife Ekwefi during the Festival of the New Yam, a time, once again, sacred to the earth goddess. This time, however, Okonkwo's actions do not violate any sacred customs so the festival continues, concluding with a wrestling match between Okonkwo's village and its neighbors. Wrestling is a source of great joy to Okonkwo since it is a display of his raw, masculine power and strength. Maduka, the son of Okonkwo's closest friend Obierika, wins one of the matches. Okonkwo and Ekwefi's daughter, Ezinma, one of Okonkwo's favorite children, is introduced. She will play an important role later in the story.
Chapter 7 reveals Okonkwo's relationship with the two eldest boys in his household, Ikemefuna and Nwoye. Okonkwo tells them stories of violence and bloodshed, initiating them into the customs and exploits of the clan's ancestors. Ikemefuna, who is now eighteen, has become like a son to Okonkwo, and he calls Okonkwo father. While Okonkwo, Ikemefuna, and Nwoye are eating together, one of the village elders, Ogbuefi Ezeudu, enters and informs Okonkwo privately that Ikemefuna is to be killed. The Oracle of the Hills and Caves, a sacred place in which the god Agbala communicates with the Ibo, has decreed that Ikemefuna is to essentially become a human sacrifice.
Ezeudu warns Okonkwo not to take part in the killing. Okonkwo tells Ikemefuna he is to return to his native village. Nwoye bursts into tears at the news and Okonkwo beats him violently. Several days later, some leading men of the clan, including Okonkwo, escort Ikemefuna on what they say is to be his journey home. When they are beyond the borders of Umuofia, according to prearranged plans, one of them attacks Ikemefuna from behind with a machete. Ikemefuna, seriously wounded, runs to Okonkwo, who without thinking quickly finishes him off. When the group returns, Nwoye senses what has happened and remembers a time not long ago when he heard the sound of a baby crying in the forest. The clan believes that twins are omens of evil so when twin babies are born, they are left to die in the forest. Nwoye's inability to understand what he sees as the murder of innocents—the sacrifices of Ikemefuna and the twins—will be a crucial factor in his conversion to Christianity later in the novel.
In Chapters 8 through 10, Achebe weaves detailed portraits of the customs of the Ibo into his plot. As the action of the novel slows, he provides more insight into the thoughts and motivations of his characters. Chapter 8 begins with Okonkwo's sullen and melancholy state after Ikemefuna's death, during which he refuses to eat for two days. His daughter, Ezinma, finally persuades him to eat. He visits his friend Obierika who is in the process of working out the details for the marriage of his daughter, Akueke. Obierika's son Maduka enters and Okonkwo congratulates him on his wrestling victory. Okonkwo compares his own son Nwoye unfavorably to the more masculine Maduka. Okonkwo and Obierika discuss the matter of Ikemefuna's death. Obierika expresses his concern that by being involved in the death of a boy who called him father, Okonkwo may have offended the earth goddess. Once again, according to Ibo beliefs, Okonkwo's impulsive actions and his fear of appearing weak have placed his community in jeopardy. After his discussion with Obierika, Okonkwo begins to feel better and returns to his own compound, promising to return later when Obierika's future in-laws arrive. When he returns to Obierika's hut, the men are negotiating the matter of the bride-price, or the amount of payment provided by the groom's family to the family of the bride. The men discuss the various customs of their neighbors as they relax and drink wine made from palm oil. The chapter ends with the first mention of white men in the novel. According to distant rumors reported by Obierika, they have skin as white as chalk and no toes (a reference to the fact that they wear shoes).
After his visit with Obierika, Okonkwo sleeps for the first time in three nights, but is wakened by his second wife Ekwefi, who tells him that Ezinma is dying. She is suffering from Page 523 | Top of Articleiba, or fever, and is very ill. Achebe once again provides details of Ibo beliefs and customs, this time in the discussion of the ogbanje, a child who dies, only to be reborn over and over again to torment its mother. Because nine of her ten children have died, it is believed that Ekwefi is cursed by the presence of an ogbanje, who would be her only surviving child Ezinma. Ekwefi and Okonkwo, who has gathered herbs for medicine, tend to Ezinma, whose fever finally breaks. In the following chapter, Achebe provides another glimpse of Ibo customs through the village court administered by the egwugwu, the nine masked spirits of the ancestral founders of the nine villages of Umuofia. Along with other leaders of the clan, Okonkwo is dressed as one of the egwugwu. They are hearing the case of a man named Uzowulu whose wife has been taken from him by her family. His wife's family counters that he has beaten his wife almost unceasingly since their marriage. The decision of the egwugwu is that Uzowulu shall beg his wife to return to him and offer recompense to her family.
In the next three chapters Achebe continues to integrate the customs of the Ibo into his narrative, developing storylines involving religious practices, marriage rituals, and funerals. Chapter 11 begins on a dark night. Okonkwo's wives and children are in their huts telling stories. This setting provides Achebe with an opportunity to present the folk-wisdom of the Ibo through their tales. After Ekwefi recounts the tale of the crafty tortoise, and as Ezinma is about to begin her story, the night is pierced by the cries of Chielo, a kindly old woman who is also a priestess of the god Agbala. Earlier, in Chapter 6, Chielo had asked Ekwefi about Ezinma's welfare when they met in the marketplace. Now, Chielo is in an ecstatic state, prophesying messages from Agbala. She arrives at Ekwefi's hut and demands, at the request of Agbala, to take Ezinma to Agbala's shrine. Ekwefi wants to come but Chielo angrily refuses. Chielo carries out the frightened Ezinma on her back. Meanwhile, Okonkwo and his other wives and children have awoken and try to comfort Ekwefi, who is concerned about her only child. Ekwefi decides to follow Chielo at a safe distance. Eventually Chielo and Ezinma, after trudging through the nine villages, arrive at the Oracle of the Hills and Caves and enter. Ekwefi arrives shortly thereafter and waits outside alone until Okonkwo arrives, startling her. He stays with her until dawn. Chielo and the sleeping Ezinma then emerge from the shrine and return to the village. The episode not only reveals more of the customs of the Ibo, but allows Achebe to present the humanity and complexity of his characters.
Chapter 12 opens on the next morning, the day of the ceremony known as uri, in which the family of Akueke's future husband brings palm wine to the extended kinsmen of the bride's family, which in this case is most of Okonkwo's village. The day is a joyous one of merriment and feasting, and forms a dramatic contrast to the events of the previous night. In Chapter 13, one of the oldest men in Umuofia, Ogbuefi Ezeudu, dies. Okonkwo remembers that Ezeudu had warned him not to take part in Ikemefuna's death. In a ceremonial firing of guns during the funeral rites, Okonkwo's gun explodes and a piece of iron accidentally kills Ezeudu's sixteen-year-old son. For this, Okonkwo must go into exile for seven years, because it is a crime against the earth goddess to kill a member of one's clan, even accidentally. The chapter ends with Okonkwo, his wives, and his children leaving the village, and their compound being destroyed to cleanse the land of the spiritual pollution caused by Okonkwo's crime. Thus, like Ikemefuna and the twins left to die in the forest, Okonkwo is an innocent victim who nonetheless must suffer for the good of the community. This exile is also the culmination of all the occasions when Okonkwo has offended the earth goddess in the novel up to this point. Okonkwo's thoughtless and violent actions in the previous chapters, have foreshadowed the kind of event that occurred when Okonkwo's gun explodes, killing Ezeudu.
Part 2: Chapters 14-17
Okonkwo arrives in his mother's native village of Mbanta, where he is welcomed by the eldest surviving member of his mother's family, her brother Uchendu. Soon after Okonkwo's arrival, Uchendu calls a meeting of his sons and daughters along with Okonkwo, and discusses the significance of the phrase Nneka, which means "Mother is Supreme." Uchendu explains that one's motherland, like one's mother, serves as a place of refuge and protection in difficult times. He tells Okonkwo that his sullen attitude since he Page 524 | Top of Articlearrived in Mbanta will displease the dead, the spirits of his mother's kinsmen.
About one year after Okonkwo goes into exile, his friend Obierika visits him in Mbanta. He brings Okonkwo money from the sale of Okonkwo's yams, which Obierika had stored for him when he went into exile. He also recounts the destruction of Abame, which began with the appearance of a white man riding on an iron horse, which is later explained to be a bicycle. Okonkwo asks if the white man was an albino, but Obierika says he was quite different and tells Okonkwo the story of Abame's fate. When the people of Abame consulted their oracle about the white man, they were told that he would divide and destroy their clan, and that more white men are on their way. The men of Abame kill the white man and tie his iron horse to a tree so that it cannot escape. Some time later, three other white men come to Abame and then leave rather abruptly. A few weeks later they return with a large number of other men, surround the marketplace, and fire on the people of Abame, killing most of them.
This is the first real instance of the coming European control of Africa mentioned in the novel. Okonkwo dismisses the men of Abame as cowards and fools who should have armed themselves. He and Obierika then part on rather lighthearted terms. But when Obierika visits Okonkwo two years later, a great deal has changed. Christian missionaries have built a church in Umuofia, have won converts, and are sending out evangelists to spread the new religion.
Okonkwo's son Nwoye is among the missionaries in Umuofia. When Obierika asks Okonkwo about Nwoye, Okonkwo refuses to speak about the matter. Nwoye's mother then tells Obierika the story of Nwoye's conversion and the arrival of the missionaries in Mbanta. The white man in charge speaks to the inhabitants through an interpreter, Mr. Kiaga. Mr. Kiaga speaks a different dialect than the inhabitants of Mbanta, and instead of saying "myself," he is understood to say "my buttocks." This is a source of much amusement to the villagers, as is the claim by the white missionary that the gods of the clan are false and that there is only one true God. But when the missionaries break into a haunting hymn about frightened brothers sitting in darkness, Nwoye becomes deeply moved, and the words of the song touch his soul "like the drops of frozen rain melting on the dry palate of the panting earth."
The wary villagers allow the missionaries to stay in the Evil Forest, a place "alive with sinister forces and powers of darkness,"where people who die of evil diseases such as leprosy and smallpox, are buried. The missionary's ability to survive in the Evil Forest puzzles, shocks, and finally impresses the villagers, and a small number of converts are won. When Okonkwo's cousin Amikwu sees Nwoye among the Christians, he quickly tells Okonkwo. Enraged, Okonkwo confronts Nwoye and nearly chokes and beats him to death. Nwoye leaves Mbanta to go to the missionary school that has been established in Umuofia. He never returns.
There is brief violence between the Christian converts and the villagers after some of the converts taunt the inhabitants of Mbanta about the impotence of their gods. A crisis is also developing within the community of converts over the admission of osu, or outcasts, into the congregation. Osu are individuals at the bottom of the village social hierarchy, who cannot take part in the life of the clan. Many of the new converts reject the idea of the osu becoming members of the congregation. Mr. Kiaga argues that such men are exactly the sort of men that need Christ the most, and welcomes them into the church. A rumor is also circulating that one of the new converts has killed the sacred python, and this possibility leads to a meeting of the village leaders, including Okonkwo, to address the matter of the Christian presence in their village.
Okonkwo, true to his character, urges violent action against the Christians, but the assembly ultimately decides to ostracize them, excluding them from membership in the clan entirely. Soon after this, villagers chase Christian women away from the common stream, and Mr. Kiaga fears that there will be more reprisals against them. However, when a convert named Okoli, who was rumored to have killed the sacred python, dies rather suddenly, the villagers believe that their gods have acted to punish offensive actions against them and there is no need, therefore, to act against the Christians. After this no more actions are taken against the Christians in Mbanta. Okonkwo, meanwhile, is quite anxious to get back to Umuofia, since his period of exile Page 525 | Top of Articlehas nearly come to an end. He prepares a great feast to express his gratitude to his mother's clan for receiving him. At the feast, Uchendu warmly thanks Okonkwo for bringing the clan together, particularly in the wake of the "abominable religion" that has come to their village.
Part 3: Chapters 20-22
Okonkwo returns to Umuofia, but a great deal has changed in the seven years he has been away. A number of villagers have converted to Christianity, but even more significantly, the English colonial authorities have established a court where the local District Commissioner judges cases and enforces authority. Okonkwo does not understand why his fellow clansmen do not rise up and attack the white men and their black helpers, the hated kotma, a pidgin phrase for court messengers. Obierika explains that if they did kill the few white men, it would be only a temporary solution. The real problem, he argues, is the growing number of their own people who have been given power by the English, and who would summon much larger forces to crush any threat to their power, as they had at Abame. Indeed, trade with the white men has brought wealth to Umuofia and the attitudes toward Christianity have softened somewhat, primarily because of the presence of a white missionary named Mr. Brown. Mr. Brown is a respectful and eloquent man who is well-liked by the villagers. But when Mr. Brown happily tells Okonkwo that his son Nwoye, now called Isaac, has entered a missionary teacher's college, Okonkwo angrily asks him to leave his hut. Mr. Brown leaves Umuofia due to illness, and Mr. Smith comes to replace him. Mr. Smith is a very different kind of missionary, who sees the traditional gods and beliefs of the villagers as evils to destroy. During his tenure as head of the Christian community in Umuofia, one of the converts, a man named Enoch, tears the mask of one of the egwugwu participating in a ceremony in honor of the earth goddess. According to traditional beliefs, the ancestral spirit dies when exposed, and the inhabitants of Umuofia are at a loss over what action to take. The remaining egwugwu confront Mr. Smith but do not harm him. The church, however, is burned to the ground.
After the burning of the church, six leaders of Umuofia, including Okonkwo, are summoned by the District Commissioner, the local colonial authority, to his headquarters. At first, the District Commissioner receives the men politely, but before they can tell him their version of events, he brings in twelve of his guards. A scuffle ensues, and the guards handcuff the six Umuofia leaders. When the District Commissioner leaves the room, his guards shave themen's heads, taunt them, and beat them. Meanwhile, messengers proceed to Umuofia where they demand payment of a fine for the release of the prisoners. The six men are set free and return to the village. That night Okonkwo, bitterly humiliated, is excited when he hears the village crier announcing a special meeting the next day. He hopes that this will be the start of war against the white men and their government.
The next morning's meeting, however, is disrupted by the arrival of five of the District Commissioner's men, who demand that the meeting be stopped. Okonkwo confronts one of them and in a fit of rage decapitates him with his machete. The other messengers flee and the meeting dissolves in confusion. The next day, the District Commissioner himself arrives looking for Okonkwo. Obierika takes him to Okonkwo's lifeless body, which is hanging from a tree. Because suicide is an abomination against the earth goddess, the men of Umuofia cannot bury Okonkwo. Obierika asks the District Commissioner if he and his men will cut the body down, and they proceed to do so.
Achebe begins his treatment of the theme of war and peace in the very title of his work, which is taken from the Irish poet William Butler Yeats's "The Second Coming":
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
Yeats wrote this poem in the aftermath of the First World War, at a time when many European intellectuals feared that the destruction caused by four years of war foreshadowed the end of their civilization. Achebe uses the phrase "things fall apart" to describe the experience of Umuofia and, by extension, all Africans Page 526 | Top of Articlewho became subjects of European colonial rule. The title suggests that what the Europeans saw as "pacification" was actually the end of traditional African civilization. In the words of the District Commissioner, "We have brought a peaceful administration to you and your people so that you may be happy." Yet from the perspective of the Ibo people, this administration brings a vision of destruction and fear of an unknown, chaotic future, much like the image in Yeats's poem. For the Ibo, anarchy comes with the establishment of European civilization, which destroys the fabric of their traditional way of life. Achebe goes on to weave the theme of war and peace into his novel. The powerful man of war, Okonkwo, is brought down by his own excessively violent tendencies, and the establishment of a peaceful, colonial administration by the white outsiders brings an end to Ibo independence and identity.
Okonkwo is one of the most successful men in his clan, and he has achieved greatness through courage, physical strength, and determination. He is full of life, and has the qualities of a wild animal within him:
He breathed heavily, and it was said that, when he slept, his wives and children in their houses could hear him breathe. When he walked, his heels hardly touched the ground and he seemed to walk on springs, as if he was going to pounce on somebody.
He first gained fame as a wrestler, when he defeated a seemingly invincible opponent, named the Cat, as a young man of eighteen. There is also a sexual element in Okonkwo's physical prowess; he wins his second wife Ekwefi's heart as a result of the wrestling victory. Okonkwo has captured five human heads in various wars, "and he was not an old man yet." These powerful, animal-like characteristics make him a formidable force within his village and beyond. When he is sent as an emissary to Mbaino as one of Umuofia's leaders, his very presence inspires respect. Indeed, his reputation as a warrior is so great that it helps to prevent wars.
Yet, his violent rages and frequently uncontrolled temper represent power that can also be destructive. Umuofia, in accordance with its ancestral traditions, only undertakes just wars, fought in accordance with the recommendation of the Oracle of the Hills and Caves, where the clan communicates with its gods. "[T]here were indeed occasions when the Oracle had forbidden Umuofia to wage a war. If the clan had disobeyed the Oracle they would surely have been beaten." Okonkwo, however, is not interested in debate, and is all too willing to choose violence over other solutions. On numerous occasions, Okonkwo's explosive temper places the entire community in jeopardy. For example, he beats one of his wives during the sacred Week of Peace dedicated to the earth goddess, and then nearly kills his second wife during another festival in honor of the Earth. His murder of one of the court messengers leads to further repression by colonial authorities and ultimately to his own death. Indeed, toward the end of the novel Okonkwo is willing to defy the wishes of his fellow clansmen if they refuse to resist the white men and their government. He thereby rejects the authority and integrity of the very community he wishes to save.
Critics have noted that Okonkwo resembles heroic figures from Greek literature, most notably Achilles, most famous for his exploits in Homer's Iliad. Like Achilles, Okonkwo's reputation as a warrior transcends the boundaries of his community. They are both ferocious fighters, yet they are both willing to ignore and even reject authority if it conflicts with their desires. Offended by his king and commander, Achilles refuses to fight, and his fellow Greeks suffer grievously for his absence. In Okonkwo's case his defiance is not as overt, but his consistent fear of being seen as "womanly" leads him frequently to act without thinking, and to place his community's needs, or the customs of his people, secondary to his own immediate interest. Nowhere is this fear of looking weak clearer than in the episode involving the killing of Ikemefuna, in which Okonkwo takes part at the risk of yet again offending the earth goddess.
Violence and Brutality
The world Achebe depicts is often a violent one. Men beat their wives, fathers beat their children, and on certain occasions, a man drinks palm wine from the first human head he brought home from battle. There are limits, however. Wars are undertaken in consultation with gods, and if the gods forbid it, the war is not fought. Okonkwo's excessive beating of his wives and Page 527 | Top of Articleson Nwoye frequently leads to intervention on the part of other wives or older relatives.
One of Achebe's goals was to depict the Ibo not as the stereotypical savages common in European accounts of Africa, but as human beings and members of a proud, complex culture. Achebe's desire to portray the Ibo realistically means that his novel also includes customs that could be characterized as repulsive to Western sensibilities. One act that stands out in particular is the sacrifice of Ikemefuna. Ikemefuna's death clearly disturbs those closest to him, including the normally stoic Okonkwo, but this act can be justified. The sacrifice of Ikemefuna is part of an arrangement that ultimately prevents war between Umuofia and Mbaino that, had it occurred, would have resulted in many more lives lost. Achebe emphasizes the innocence of Ikemefuna in the source of the conflict between Umuofia and Mbaino—the death of Ogbuefi Udo's wife—by repeatedly stressing the boy's sorrow and confusion. Ikemefuna's lack of involvement in the conflict makes the sacrifice a pure one and not an act of revenge. Moreover, this kind of ritual use of a scapegoat is not unknown in other cultures. Achebe does not explain or justify these actions, nor does he condemn them as practices of a more brutal age. In fact, at times his characters question the wisdom of such practices in order to show the Ibo as a society capable of change and development, and not blindly loyal to ancestral customs. The wise Ogbuefi Ezeudu notes that not so long ago a man who had violated the Week of Peace by committing violence was "dragged on the ground through the village until he died. But after a while this custom was stopped because it spoiled the peace which it was meant to preserve."
In Umuofia, gender roles are clearly defined. War is emphatically a masculine undertaking, and other than their status as bearers of future warriors, women have little to do with the world of warfare and masculine military prowess. But Achebe explores the connection between women and war in his characterization of Okonkwo as a man driven by the fear of seeming womanly. This fear is also his greatest motivation to action as a warrior. As a young man, Okonkwo learned that the word for a man who had taken no titles or received no honors within his clan was agbala, "another name for a woman." Okonkwo's father was such a man, and during his life, Okonkwo seeks to avoid any connection to what he sees as softness or effeminacy. He kills Ikemefuna himself because "[h]e was afraid of being thought weak."
Okonkwo thinks the men of Mbanta are "womanly" when they refuse to attack the Christian community growing in their midst. He beats his son Nwoye for sobbing at the loss of his friend Ikemefuna. When Okonkwo learns that a recently deceased man, who was renowned as a great warrior, could never do anything without telling his wife, he is shocked. "I thought he was a strong man in his youth," he says. The kind of closeness and love felt by such a man for a woman is essentially unknown to Okonkwo. He is sorry that his favorite child, his daughter Ezinma, was not a boy: "He never stopped regretting that Ezinma was a girl." For Okonkwo, the refusal of the clan to fight the encroaching colonial authority is equivalent to the men of Umuofia becoming womanly, and he vows to undertake the war himself if they advocate peace. Respect for tradition, the gods, the clan, and duty all seem secondary to Okonkwo's desire not to appear soft and feminine, especially in the face of threats.
European Presence in Africa
Though Umuofia and the other places mentioned in the novel are fictional, the overall process of the establishment of colonial rule, and the responses to it, are generally historical. In fact, the murder of a white man riding an iron horse, or bicycle, that leads to the destruction of Abame is likely based on the 1905 death of Dr. J. F. Stewart who, according to various reports, was killed after he rode his bicycle into the village of Obizi. The broad historical background of Things Fall Apart is the establishment of European control over nearly the entire African continent. European explorers, traders, and missionaries, primarily British and French, had begun penetrating Africa's interior earlier in the nineteenth century, spreading Christianity and establishing trading posts. By the 1880s, however, a rapidly industrializing Europe sought raw materials to fuel its factories and additional markets for its manufactured goods. Great Britain, France, Germany, and other nations established more direct political rule Page 528
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over African territories. After 1885 in what became known as the "Scramble for Africa," the major European powers raced to claim various parts of Africa as their own before one of their rival powers could. By 1914, only the African states of Liberia and Ethiopia remained independent.
The British, in addition to Nigeria, controlled other territories in West Africa as well as large sections of Eastern and Southern Africa, and were by far the most powerful European presence on the continent. Pacification was a long process, however, and intermittently from 1886 to 1917 there was resistance among the Ibo. The British generally used a system of indirect rule, preferring to leave a great deal of power in the hands of their governors who would work closely with local African authorities. The existence of many different clans, each with their own traditions and identities, worked well for the British authorities. The British would often pit rival African tribes against one another, granting certain peoples privileges and power in exchange for loyalty, thereby making it impossible for tribes to unite against British rule. The inhabitants of Umuofia resent the kotma, or black helpers, much more than they do the white men because they are from foreign and possibly enemy tribes. The rivalries among the Ibo that were exploited by the British are illustrated when the kotma at the District Commissioner's headquarters taunt Okonkwo and his fellow prisoners from Umuofia. Such practices worked in individual societies as well. In the novel, those who would gain the most from British rule would be those lower down or on the margins of Ibo society, such as the efulefu, the worthless men of the clan. These groups are among the earliest converts to Christianity, and conversion to the white man's religion usually resulted in obedience to the white man's government.
The Spread of Christianity
Achebe uses two missionaries as metaphors for different techniques whites used to establish control over Africans. In order to ingratiate themselves into the community, some missionaries moved slowly, like Mr. Brown. Others, like Mr. Smith, were uninterested in native ways and sought to eradicate them as soon as possible. Like other European colonial powers, the British believed they had a duty and responsibility to civilize the primitive peoples Page 529 | Top of Articlethrough conversion to Christianity and adherence to law and order. In the novel, the District Commissioner says, "We have a court of law where we judge cases and administer justice just as it is done in my own country under a great queen."
Conversion to Christianity, adherence to British law, and familiarity with British customs were also believed to make the Africans into consumers of British goods. Christianity and consumerism often went hand in hand. The white missionary in Mbanta promises to bring the inhabitants many bicycles. From the perspective of the British, the stateless world of the Ibo, with its numerous clans frequently engaged in warfare, was anarchy. At schools established by missionaries, students learned not only about the Christian religion but also English, math, and other subjects that were considered by Europeans to be superior to the folk-wisdom and traditional learning of the Africans. Achebe himself is the product of a colonial education. Indeed, those who led African independence movements in the 1950s were educated in European schools, where they noticed that the ideals of freedom, justice, and mercy that were taught and preached in the mission schools were not always practiced in the colonial administrations.
The Decolonization of Africa
Achebe published Things Fall Apart in 1958, two years before the establishment of Nigeria's independence from Britain in 1960. The divisions among the various tribes and clans that were exploited by the British colonial authorities were significant obstacles to the achievement of political unity in the newly independent states of Africa. Achebe's novel, in attempting to show colonialism from the perspective of the colonized, and in providing Africans with a sense of dignity and humanity, was also instilling a renewed awareness of traditional practices, beliefs, and culture. Achebe was not so romantic as to desire a return to pre-colonial ways before the impact of the British in Nigeria. Indeed, his presentation of beatings, human sacrifice, and the killing of twins along with his richly drawn and intensely human characters serves to remind his contemporary African readers not to accept their past uncritically, nor to identify solely with the customs of their tribe. He emphasizes, by having characters such as Ogbuefi Ezeudu comment upon changes within the clan, that the
Ibo were not frozen in time before the white man came. They were a dynamic people who responded to change. Thus, in the dawn of Nigeria's independence, in which old enemies are now fellow countrymen in a sovereign African state, unity and cooperation must transcend old tribal affiliations. Sadly, Achebe's vision of strong, unified African states did not often come true. Nigeria was torn by civil war from 1966 to 1970, and, like much of Africa, continues to suffer periodic unrest and grinding poverty.
From its publication in 1958 on the eve of African decolonization to the present day, Page 530 | Top of ArticleThings Fall Apart has received worldwide critical praise. In F. Abiola Irele's article "Homage to Chinua Achebe," he writes, "The publication in 1958 of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart was experienced as a significant literary and cultural event in Africa." It may seem remarkable that until Achebe's work Western readers had virtually no sense of African pre-colonial history. Indeed, part of the justification for European control was that there was no government, no civilization—in short, no history—in Africa before the Europeans arrived. The simple act of presenting the arrival of the Europeans from the non-European side was profound. South African writer Nadine Gordimer, in a quote that appears in the 1994 Anchor edition of the book, called Achebe "gloriously gifted, with the magic of an ebullient, generous, great talent."
In Robert M. Wren's classic study of Achebe's writing, Achebe's World: The Historical and Cultural Context of the Novels of Chinua Achebe, he states,
Achebe portrays a civil, ordered society based upon a hierarchy of gods, ancestors, elders, and families…. To this society comes an invader, as incomprehensible as he is uncomprehending: the colonial officer, the missionary—the European—and with him come Africans from far and near to do his bidding.
Achebe's introduction of flesh-and-blood Africans to Western readers who were only familiar with shadowy, unflattering stereotypes was particularly significant at a time of emerging African independence. African critic Simon Gikandi said in "Chinua Achebe and the Invention of African Culture" that Things Fall Apart provided Africans "with a different kind of education." The accessibility of the characters, the steady and swift movement of its plot, and its clear, evocative style has made the novel a favorite introduction to literature beyond Europe and the United States. Yet another dimension of Achebe's novel is that it frequently incorporates images familiar to Western readers. Okonkwo's resemblance to Greek heroes such as Achilles has been noted. Rhonda Cobham points out in her essay "Making Men and History: Achebe and the Politics of Revisionism," that in what is probably the most reprehensible act in the novel, the sacrifice of Ikemefuna, Achebe uses language and imagery that resemble Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac in the Hebrew Old Testament. "Achebe picks the form of human sacrifice most compatible with Judeo-Christian myth as the centerpiece of his examination of human sacrifice in Ibo culture." But it is Achebe's exquisite skill at capturing the conflicts and contradictions of being caught between two cultures that has made his novel so powerful. "The greatness of Things Fall Apart," according to Michael Valdez Moses in The Novel and the Globalization of Culture, "lies in Achebe's ability to reveal both what was truly at stake in that tragic conflict and why it was that the confrontation was decided in favor of modernization." As someone who was part of both worlds, Achebe would be familiar with such tension himself.
Patrick C. Nnoromeleme
In the following excerpt, Nnoromeleme argues that heroic status amoung the Igbo (Ibo) is based on contradictions, particularly between a hero's social responsibility and his personal ambition and power. Thus, Okonkwo's downfall is in keeping with his status as a heroic warrior figure.
Although Things Fall Apart remains the most widely read African novel, the failure of Page 531 | Top of Articleits hero continues to generate haunting questions in the minds of some of its readers, especially among those who seem to identify with the hero's tragedy. Central to this discomfort is the question: why did Achebe choose as his hero an aspiring but brutal young man who ultimately took his own life? The author himself acknowledges that he has "been asked this question in one form or another by a certain kind of reader for thirty years."
Things Fall Apart is not a novel without a cultural context. It is a text rooted in the social customs, traditions, and cultural milieu of a people. The characters and their actions are better understood when they are examined in that light. To do otherwise not only denies the novel a full measure of appreciation, it also renders vague and imprecise the significance of certain events, actions, and actors in the story.
The fact of his account is that the Igbo clan (of which I am a member) is a group of African people with a complex, vigorous, and self-sufficient way of life. Prior to the invasion of their land and the eclipse of their culture by foreign powers, they were undisturbed by the present, and they had no nostalgia for the past. In the novel, Achebe portrayed a people who are now caught between two conflicting cultures. On the one hand, there is the traditional way of life pulling on the Umuofia people and one man's struggle to maintain that cultural integrity against an overwhelming force of the colonial imperialism. On the other hand, we have the European style which, as presented, seems to represent the future, a new community of the so-called "civilized world." It now appears this African man, Okonkwo, and the entire society of Umuofia must make a choice between the old and the new—if they have the power. The desire to become a member of European-style society has its attraction. For one, it is conveyed to the Umuofia people, including Okonkwo, as a means of enjoying the spoils of twentieth-century civilization. But Okonkwo refused to endorse the appeal. He recognized that accepting the invitation is done at the expense of the things that comprised his identity and defined his values.
So when some members of the Umuofia community unwittingly accepted the invitation and endorsed "a strange faith," things fell apart for the Igbo people in Achebe's novel. Umuofia's integrated, organic community was irreparably fractured. Their gods were blasphemed and their hero disabled. Their customs were desecrated and shattered. The people were divided or put asunder. The British District Commissioner took charge and controlled the people. So we have what seems like a total imposition of one cultural, social, and political structure upon another. The hero of the novel found himself plunged into disaster. He had to kill himself. Obierika, one of the characters in the novel, expressed it this way: "That man [Okonkwo] was one of the greatest men in Umuofia. You drove him to kill himself: and now he will be buried like a dog." This was a tragic act, leading to the exacerbating question of why did Achebe let the hero fail especially among those who have experienced or confronted the harsh face of colonialism. However, Okonkwo's calamitous act was not unexpected. All that happened to him and the fact that he had to take his own life were primarily the function of the Igbo's conception of a hero and, perhaps, the rift within the clan brought about by foreign domination.
A hero, in the Igbo cultural belief system, is one with great courage and strength to work against destabilizing forces of his community, someone who affects, in a special way, the destinies of others by pursuing his own. He is a man noted for special achievements. His life is defined by ambivalence, because his actions must stand in sharp contrast to ordinary behavior. So a hero is not made in isolation; rather he is a product of the social matrix within which he operates. The person's determination to pursue his individual interest concomitantly with that of the society is a constant source of dynamic tensions because his obligations to his society can become an impediment to his individual quest for fame and reputation. However, this impediment must be overcome if he is to be a hero. Paradoxically, a hero becomes both the disrupting and integrating principles of the community. Okonkwo, the central character in Things Fall Apart, is the epitome of this complex concept and the personification of the cultural ambiguity of the Igbo people.
In Things Fall Apart, Achebe made it clear that Okonkwo's single passion was "to become one of the lords of the clan." According to Achebe, it was Okonkwo's "life-spring." Okonkwo wanted to be a hero. Unfortunately, the road to heroism in the Igbo's belief system is chronically fraught with difficulties of varying degrees.
The first challenge Okonkwo was expected to overcome was his father's reputation—in this case his father had none. However, he was determined to succeed in whatever respect his father had failed, knowing full well that among his "people a man was judged according to his worth and not according to the worth of his father"—a juxtaposition of opposing claims about which the narrator (quite understandably) made no attempt to reconcile. His father, Unoka, enjoyed gentleness and idlness. He "was lazy and improvident and was quite incapable of thinking about tomorrow." Unoka was said to rejoice in song, dance, and drinking of palm-wine as his way of avoiding responsibility. In fact, he preferred these things to tending his yam-field. He was a man without title in the village of Umuofia, and he could not endure the sight of blood. Biologically, he was a male, but among the Igbo, he was never a man. So people laughed at him. In order to become a hero, Okonkwo felt he must overcome this public estimation of his father. At the outset of the novel, Achebe made the following remarks about Okonkwo: "His fame rested on solid personal achievements." "He had no patience with unsuccessful men." "His whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness." So Okonkwo hated what his father was and became the opposite.
Not only is a hero expected to overcome the reputation of his father, he is also expected to surpass the reputations of his peers. In other words, he must outperform people in his age group or those he grew up with. Among the Igbos good effort is respected, "but achievement was revered." Okonkwo must achieve concrete things to be a hero and he did. Here is Achebe's account of his achievement:
If ever a man deserved his success, that man was Okonkwo. At an early age, he had achieved fame as the greatest wrestler in all the land. That was not luck. At the most, one could say that his chi or personal god was good. But the Igbo people have a proverb that when a man says yes, his chi says yes also. Okonkwo said yes very strongly: so his chi agreed. And not only his chi, but his clan too, because it judged a man by the work of his hands. That was why Okonkwo had been chosen by the nine villages to carry a message of war to their enemies unless they agree to give up a young man and a virgin to atone for the murder of Udo's wife.
Okonkwo's accomplishment in Umuofia earned him the respect and honor of the elders and the people. He defeated Amalinze the Cat and was proclaimed the greatest wrestler in Umuofia and Mbaino. He demonstrated exceptional skills as a warrior of the clan by bringing home five heads during inter-tribal conflicts. Achebe portrayed him as a man with "incredible prowess" and passion to conquer and subdue his enemies. He was a successful farmer and married three wives—clear evidence among the Igbos of a strong and wealthy man. The ultimatum of war that he delivered to the enemy of Umuofia yielded immediate results. Achebe wrote: "When Okonkwo of Umuofia arrived at Mbaino as the proud and imperious emissary of war, he was treated with great honor and respect, and two days later he returned home with a lad of fifteen and a young virgin. The lad's name was Ikemefuna, whose sad story is still told in Umuofia unto this day." Okonkwo started with nothing, but through hard work and determination he became successful.
Another barrier one is expected to overcome in the quest for heroism is the person's obligation to the society, which, of course, may adversely affect his individual quest for reputation. The nature of the dynamic tensions this can create was evident in Okonkwo's lifestyle. Perhaps this accounts for the reason some interpreters of Things Fall Apart think that Achebe paints "a paradoxical portrait of a protagonist who is both a typical Igbo man as well as an individual."
Among the Igbos, a person's obligation to the society calls for cooperation. It calls for submission to the counsel of elders, the precepts, and laws of the land, which are established for the good of the society. I think the most difficult aspect of it all is the subordination of one's own interest to that of the group or society. Okonkwo had a scrupulous desire to fulfill his obligation to the society, but he often realized that it only brought him to a crossroad of conflicting loyalties. A typical example of this happened on the night when the Priestess of Agbala came to take Ezinma, Okonkwo's daughter, for Agbala's blessing. In spite of his inexorable commitment to support and defend the laws of the land, Okonkwo felt the natural pull to resist established social order. He was expressively unapproving of the untimely visit by the Priestess. He perceived her arrival as an intrusion to his Page 533 | Top of Articlefamily's domestic life. However, his insistent but unsuccessful protestations only elicited a scream from the Priestess of Agbala, who warned: "'Beware, Okonkwo!' 'Beware of exchanging words with Agbala. Does a man speak when a god speaks? Beware!'" Albeit, the Priestess took Ezinma to the Oracle of the Hills and Caves and returned her safely to Okonkwo's family the following day. But we learned from the narrator that Okonkwo was noticeably worried, and wondered about these conflicting loyalties.
Even Obierika, who seemed to disapprove of Okonkwo's commitment to the central doctrines of his culture, observed and agonized over the lack of equilibrium between the pull of private values and public expectations. The force of this pull is succinctly captured in the following passage:
He remembered his wife's twin children, whom he had thrown away. What crime had they committed? The Earth had decreed that they were an offense on the land and must be destroyed. And if the clan did not exact punishment for an offense against the great goddess, her wrath was loosed on all the land and not just on the offender. As the elders said, if one finger brought oil it soiled the others.
Obierika, like Okonkwo, felt the endemic tensions of conflicting cultural values—the incessant discord between public loyalty to the goddess of the clan and private loyalty to the family. But the difference between Okonkwo and Obierika was, Okonkwo was a man of few words. He allowed his actions to speak for him. However, the cumulative effects of all these things led to his eventual suicide. This is the kind of dilemma one confronts on the road to heroism and it can be overwhelming. A hero, in Okonkwo's world, must face (it seems) a constant strife between two sets of values, the societal and the personal, but he never can find the equilibrium. It is, therefore, not a surprise to see Okonkwo takes his own life. I believe this was precisely what Sarr observed when he critically remarked that at times, the reader of Achebe's novel, is faced with contradictions. "Ibo society" he added, "is full of contradictions." "It is a male-dominated society, in which the chief goddess is female and in which proverbial wisdom maintains 'Mother is supreme'"—a sustained duality in belief systems common to much of Africa. Central to this observation is the fact that the Igbo community is a society that is at once communal and individualistic. Such a worldview or ambiguous value system reveals, Sarr properly concluded, "the dilemma that shapes and destroys the life of Okonkwo."
Although Okonkwo expressed rigidity and inflexibility in his life, Achebe told us that down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. I believe the most charitable way to understand this is by looking briefly at different manifestations of Okonkwo's esoteric life. For example, when he violated the peace week beating his youngest wife, which was an offense to the goddess, Okonkwo agreed to make offerings as demanded by the custom of Umuofia. In fact, he offered an additional pot of palm-wine, which was a distinct indication of genuine repentance and cooperation for the good of the community. Achebe had Ezeani say to Okonkwo:
You know as well as I do that our forefathers ordained that before we plant any crops in the earth we should observe a week in which a man does not say a harsh word to this neighbors. We live in peace with our fellows to honor our great goddess of the earth without whose blessing our crops will not grow. You have committed a great evil. [As Okonkwo heard this] He brought down his staff heavily on the floor. Your wife was at fault, but even if you came into your Obi and found her lover on top of her, you would still have committed a great evil to beat her. [As soon as Okonkwo heard this] His staff came down again. The evil you have done can ruin the whole clan. The earth goddess whom you have insulted may refuse to give us her increase, and we shall all perish. His tone now changed from anger to command. You will bring to the shrine of Ani tomorrow one she-goat, one hen, a length of cloth and a hundred cowries. He rose and left the hut.
Okonkwo made the sacrifices to the earth goddess.
In another occasion, we learn that Okonkwo breathed a heavy sigh of relief when he found out that his wife, Ekwefi was unharmed after he had fired at her in a fit of rage. Thus, we observe within some of these occasional flashes of cruelty, a rare manifestation of tenderness. Similarly, on the night when the priestess of Agbala carried Ekwefi's daughter off to the Oracle of the Hills and Caves for the young girl to pay homage to her god, Ekwefi followed in terror for her child. Cognizant of his wife's state of terror, Okonkwo joined Ekwefi to provide re-assurance. When Ekwefi noticed Okonkwo's presence, "Tears if gratitude filled her eyes." As both of them waited outside their home in the dawn, Achebe said, Ekwefi remembered the generous love with Page 534 | Top of Articlewhich Okonkwo had taken her at the moment she became his wife. Perhaps Okonkwo was not a cruel man. For these occasional episodes are seemingly indications of a kind-hearted man.
Paradoxically, Okonkwo would never achieve heroism among the Igbos if he totally subordinated his interest to that of the society at large. Hence, it was incumbent on him to exhibit other qualities that might be perceived as a threat to social order. "And he did pounce on people quite often." As Achebe said, Okonkwo made people wonder whether he respected the gods of the clan. He "was popularly called the 'Roaring Flame.'" "Okonkwo was not the man to stop beating somebody halfway through, not even for fear of a goddess." In his culture, a man who was unable to rule his own family was not considered a real man, not to mention a hero. So Okonkwo "ruled his household with a heavy hand" and made people afraid of him. A hero should be impervious to emotions. The narrator told us that Okonkwo expressed no emotion, except anger. He was stoical to the harsh realities of life and appeared immune to problems. This is the life of a hero, a self-made man. Sometimes Okonkwo acted as if he was answerable to no one, and at other times he was the opposite. Obierika (Okonkwo's closest friend) pointed to this cultural ambiguity in the system when he sought (as he always did) a compromise from Okonkwo between conflicting loyalties. But Okonkwo responded impatiently, "The Earth (goddess) cannot punish me for obeying her messenger." It would seem, for the Igbos, a hero must lead a life of self-contradiction; and Okonkwo was one primary example. It is, therefore, not surprising why contemporary commentators like Wasserman and Purdon contended that "Okonkwo represents a type of selfish individualism that is in essence a threat to Ibo notions of clan, and culture."
Source: Patrick C. Nnoromeleme, "The Plight of the Hero in Achebe's Things Fall Apart," in College Literature, Vol. 27, No. 2, Spring 2000, pp. 146-155.
Achebe, Chinua, Things Fall Apart, Anchor Books, 1958.
Cobham, Rhonda, "Making Men and History: Achebe and the Politics of Revisionism," in Approaches to Teaching Achebe's "Things Fall Apart," edited by Bernth Lindfors, Modern Language Association of America, 1991, p. 95.
Gikandi, Simon, "Chinua Achebe and the Invention of African Culture" in Research in African Literature, Vol. 32, No. 3, Fall 2001, pp. 3-8.
Irele, F. Abiola, "Homage to Chinua Achebe" in Research in African Literature, Vol. 32, No. 3, Fall 2001, pp. 1-2.
Moses, Michael Valdez, The Novel and the Globalization of Culture, Oxford University Press, 1995, p. 108.
Wren, Robert M., Achebe's World: The Historical and Cultural Context of the Novels of Chinua Achebe, Three Continents Press, 1980, p. 23.
Yeats, William Butler, "The Second Coming," in Vol. 2 of The Norton Anthology: English Literature, edited by M. H. Abrams, 6th edition, W. W. Norton & Co., pp. 1880-81.