Things Fall Apart
by Chinua Achebe
- Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place
- The Novel in Focus
- Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written
- For More Information
Chinua Achebe was born in 1930 in Ogidi, Anambra State, Nigeria, to an Igbo family of “devout Christian parents” (Achebe, Morning Yet on Creation Day, p. 65). He attended a mission school for his primary education and the elite Government College, Umuahia, for high school. At age 18 Achebe joined the first set of students admitted to Nigeria’s premier university, known then as University College, Ibadan, from which he graduated with a degree in English. After college he taught high school before joining the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation, where he rose to the position of Director of External Broadcasting in charge of foreign services. Along with three other novels by Achebe, Things Fall Apart was published while he was in broadcasting. Since leaving radio, Achebe has been a university professor in Nigeria, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Universities across the globe have bestowed honorary doctorates on Achebe, mainly for his work as a novelist. Issued in several editions and translated into the world’s major languages, Things Fall Apart remains the best selling novel of Africa.
Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place
Igbo society around 1850
With the exception of a handful of districts, the Igbo people of southeastern Nigeria were one of a few African societies that did not organize into kingdoms. Unlike Nigeria’s Yoruba and Hausa peoples—who constructed large, centrally administered empires—the Igbo organized their communities into federations of independently governed villages.
Each Igbo village consisted of several clusters of blood relations or families:
First, a person belonged to the smallest social unit known as uno, or house. This was a natural family, consisting of a man, his wife or wives, and their children. The second group was the umunna, or lineage, composed of a number of related houses. Finally a group of lineages formed a compact village or town, obodo.
(Ohadike, p. xxiii)
The “house” or family consisted of a husband, his wives, and his children. The husband, who was usually the family head, lived in an obi (hut), in which he received his guests and housed the Page 422 | Top of Articlefamily deities. Each wife lived in her own house with her unmarried children. When adult males married, they raised their own homestead, usually in the vicinity of the lineage. Adult females, on the other hand, married into other villages, usually within the federated group, where they become members of other “houses.” There had to be no blood ties between marriage partners, a principle that was strictly observed. Adjacent villages with shared strategic interests entered into political agreements. The villages formed a federation that developed its own rules, local deities, festivals, and other features of a civil society, as does the federation of villages of Umuofia in Things Fall Apart.
Each political unit beyond the house—the lineage, the village, and the federation of villages—was always an association of equals. Hence, at each level there was no titular head whose word carried more legal weight over and above the rest in the population. Apart from reverence for the wisdom that age is universally presumed to confer on the old, each house was equal in the lineage, each lineage in the village, and each village in the federation. This is not to say, of course, that there were no social and political hierarchies brought about either by developments in the historical experience of groups or achievements in other civil endeavors. A group of lineages might, for example, allot an important priesthood to the lineage or village founded by the oldest of the founding fathers, or give a village of the best warriors certain leeway in security matters.
How were these federations of equals governable in the absence of an elaborate apparatus of state? The communities devised what Don Ohadike calls “cross-cutting ties” to enable all citizens to participate directly as members of groups organized around age, gender, and social achievement. These bodies were “the councils of elders, age-groups, councils of chiefs, women’s associations, and secret societies” (Ohadike, p. xxiii).
The council of elders typically consisted of the oldest men in lineages, who settled disputes within their lineage. In matters that affected other lineages and villages, elders of the concerned groups met to resolve the issues, with the oldest man presiding over the deliberations. Old men were granted such authority because they were deemed to be wise with experience and the closest to the ancestors. Elders did not rule by fiat: their opinions carried weight because they reached conclusions only after consulting widely among other adults in the family and by deliberating among themselves.
Society was also divided into age-groups or associations of people born within five-year periods. The groups were named for a memorable event around the time of their birth, a practice that still exists. For example, “the Biafran War age-group” is made up of people born during the civil war of 1967-70, in which millions of Igbo joined the secessionist attempt to break away from Nigeria (Ohadike, p. xxv). Each age-group formulated its rules of association, carried out civil works and other maintenance projects assigned it by the larger community, and promoted good citizenship among its members.
Men (and, in some communities, women) of means were recognized for their achievements through initiation into the group of the titled (or chiefs). The chieftaincy titles were marks of recognition and distinction, arranged in a hierarchy of usually three or four steps that became more exclusive as the rank escalated. Their names and hierarchy varied regionally. Most able-bodied and responsible men could attain the lower titles, while the higher titles were conferred very rarely on truly exceptional individuals. Whereas those who could not progress beyond the lowest titles were not highly regarded, those who earned the higher ones received commensurate public recognition at village deliberations. Untitled men might be described in uncharitable and effeminate terms; certainly they were regarded with some scorn by their age-mates.
Each chieftaincy level had its own signs, symbols, and other paraphernalia of distinction. The highest honor was very exclusive. To qualify for consideration a candidate would have attained all the lower titles, amassed substantial wealth, and be the oldest living male in the extended family on his father’s side. Titled men were assigned the front row at communal gatherings. They were the only ones allowed to speak at the council of chiefs or the titled, and their words carried great weight at communal deliberations.
The two most significant women’s associations were the otu umu ada of women of the same lineage and otu inyeme di of women who married into a lineage or town. Through these associations, women influenced decision-making processes in their lineage of birth as well as their lineage of marriage. Like their Yoruba counterparts, women also controlled the distributive trade. The women’s equivalent of the men’s council of chiefs was the omu society, a very select group comprised of wealthy people. Because of the prestige that came with being a member of the omu society, it was looked upon with high regard in the communities.
[Image not available for copyright reasons]
Secret societies held esoteric knowledge about beliefs, oracular wisdom, and divinatory revelations that bound the lineages and villages together. Among them were diviners, oracular interpreters, and priests of communal deities. They made pronouncements on communal rituals, interpreted the wishes of the gods, and issued judgments on matters that affected the whole society, conducting their affairs with the help of secret codes, signs, and symbols to which only the initiated were privy.
Within the broad sociopolitical institutions summarized here, individuals belonged to more than one group and, in effect, participated in multiple ways in the running of the society. Except for the scorned osu caste (“untouchables”) of people, who dedicated themselves to the service of deities, it was nearly impossible for an individual to be completely left out of all the pressure groups in the community. The opportunities for meaningful participation in running the affairs of the communities were overwhelmingly democratic.
The highly inclusive sociopolitical structure reflects fundamental aspects of the Igbo worldview embedded in the religious understanding of the people. In addition to the supreme deity, there are three types of beings in the Igbo pantheon, all of which play significant roles in the lives of characters in Things Fall Apart: gods and goddesses, lineage and village oracles, and spirits attached to individuals. Nature and cosmic deities are recognized and worshiped universally. Prominent among them are Ani, the earth goddess; Amadioha, the god of thunder; and Ekwensu, the god of uncertainty. Every village or federation of villages appoints priests and priestesses to lead the sacrifices to these deities and also to ensure that all infractions of their desires—both the commonly known ones and those revealed through divination—are punished. Lineage and village oracles and deities vary, and are propitiated only by the concerned communities who inaugurated their worship in response to unmet needs and wishes that might have arisen at different points in their history. The priests and priestesses of these deities ensure that all communal taboos are observed, all communal calendars are followed, all oracular messages are delivered, and all necessary sacrifices are promptly carried out. The spirit of the individual, roughly a destiny guide (or guardian angel) in English, is called the chi. Unlike destiny or a guardian angel, however, the chi is an entity with whom the living can negotiate a lifepath. An all-knowing and all powerful entity like destiny, Achebe says, “is abhorrent to the Igbo imagination” (Achebe, Morning Yet, p. 96). Each adult has a representative symbol of his/her chi Page 424 | Top of Articleat the family shrine and only the person designated its owner can pour a libation to this embodiment of individual uniqueness.
Trade, religion, and the British Empire
Igbo land is divided by the largest river basin in West Africa, the Niger. The exploration of that river by the British opened up the interior of Igbo territory to the Europeans early in the nineteenth century. Interest in that territory did not develop fully until after the 1833 abolition of the slave trade throughout the British Empire and the discovery of an alternative trade suited to the expansion of industrial production in England. Palm oil was for a long time the main commodity of that trade. Up to about 1875, before the collapse of the price of palm oil, British trading companies (mainly the Royal Niger Company) established trading posts at port towns like Onitsha and Aboh, and traded with Igbo middlemen and women who organized the interior trade and brought goods to the ports. Chiefs of the Niger River communities collected custom duties and other levies from European traders. Their power waned, though, in the 1880s, when the Royal Niger Company introduced gunboats to patrol the waters. This development made the British traders less dependent on the chiefs for the safe passage of their goods and personnel, and more reluctant to pay the chiefs dues and levies. When disputes arose, the gunboats intervened. Under the guise of restoring order, they routed several Igbo communities.
At about the same time that trading posts were being established, Protestant and Catholic missionaries began to set up permanent camps at Onitsha and Asaba—the largest Igbo towns on either side of the Niger River—from where evangelization of much of the Igboland interior would be coordinated. (The Protestant Church Missionary Society [C. M. S.] founded its first mission in Onitsha in 1857.) The initial success of the missions, originally viewed with some bemused suspicion, is partly attributable to the polytheistic religious outlook of the Igbo communities. As some historians explain, Christianity was just asking for another god to be admitted into the already roomy pantheon. Subsequent events showed that Christianity’s monotheism would do heavy damage to the other gods. The Christian faith asked that other deities be renounced, and taught radically new views of life—for example, twins, whom the Igbo regarded as evil, should not be abandoned, and even social outcasts like the osu deserve religious fellowship. In fact, besides a new faith, the missionaries brought with them methods of education, legal procedures, and so forth, which led to considerable friction between the non-Christians and the converts over the latter’s utter disregard for very old traditions: “In Obosi, the chiefs accosted Bishop Crowther and protested the tendency of the Christians to ignore the objects of worship of their forefathers, to kill and eat sacred snakes and fishes, and to pull down objects of worship and shrines” (Ohadike, p. xliv). When violent disagreements broke out, the armed forces of Britain’s Royal Niger Company intervened on behalf of the Christians and in several cases sacked the protesting communities.
Military interventions on behalf of British merchants and European missionaries in the last two decades of the nineteenth century culminated in formal colonialism at the turn of the century when, as it usually did in its colonies, Britain moved to formalize the economic domination already established by the Royal Niger Company. Assuming control of the area from the company, the British government declared Igboland a “protectorate” and stood ready, with the power of its superior weapons, to quash all Igbo resistance.
In truth, the British did not have an easy time conquering Igboland. Towns and federations of villages employed different means to forestall foreign rule. According to A. E. Afigbo, some groups, like the Western Igbo Anioma people, simply refused to cooperate and fought long, drawn-out wars waged by secret societies of young men generally called Ekumeku—roughly translatable as “invisible,” “devastating,” “whirlwind,” and other terms that suggest stealth and overwhelming power (Afigbo, pp. 14-23). The Ekumeku resistance gave way only after many defeats. Other groups, like the Aro and the Afikpo, attempted diplomatic negotiations to keep the British away, resorting to war only after the attempts failed.
The Novel in Focus
Things Fall Apart could be alternatively titled “The Life and Times of Okonkwo.” Okonkwo dominates the plot in such a way that his achievements, failures, and death illustrate the ethos and major historical questions of his time. The story begins with a report of Okonkwo’s victory at the age of 18 over the most famous wrestler in all the nine villages of Umuofia. Over the next 20 years, through sheer willpower and remarkable forcefulness, he Page 425 | Top of Articleamasses considerable wealth, marries three wives, fathers eleven children, takes two titles, and becomes a very skillful warrior and the representative of his home village in the Umuofia judicial council.
Okonkwo’s rise to prominence occupies the first part of the narrative. He is born into crass poverty. His father, Unoka, has no farm to speak of, accumulates debts he does not pay, and fails to take care of his one wife and children. He fits into the class called efuleju, or worthless men. Unoka’s only passion is music. He shuns men’s conversation about wars and stories of blood and gore, and dies ignominiously of a liver disease—called the “swelling”—which is abominable to the earth goddess. His remains are left out in the so-called Evil Forest, a place for those who die abominable deaths, such as Unoka’s, and for suicides. The belief is that, because of how they died, these people will not become ancestors and their souls will roam the area without release.
Embarking on his life with no worthy inheritance, Okonkwo has to build his barn from scratch by means of the sharecropping system. This arduous way of accumulating wealth, in which the sharecropper receives only a third of the farm proceeds, is made even more difficult because Okonkwo becomes the practical head of his father’s family even while the old man is still alive.
In those formative years Okonkwo develops anxieties that will last throughout his life. He cultivates a fondness for everything his father hates: war, the sight of blood, violence, gruffness, and outstanding physical prowess. He also develops a deep fear of being called an agbala, or an effeminate man, an image attached to his father. He therefore detests almost everything his father enjoys: music, merriment, folk tales, and outward display of emotions. As a result of this psychological makeup, he is quick to break things, harsh with his wives and children, and sometimes unkind to less successful men. He “ruled his household with a heavy hand. His wives, especially the youngest, lived in perpetual fear of his fiery temper, and so did his little children … his life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and weakness” (Achebe, Things Fall Apart, p. 9).
In the course of the novel, Okonkwo’s first significant task as a prominent citizen involves Ikemefuna, a boy given to his federation of villages as part of the reparation paid by the Mbaino people, one of whose kinsmen had killed an Umuofia woman. The boy lives with Okonkwo’s family, in Okonkwo’s custody. For the three years the boy lives there he is treated as one of the children and becomes a very good friend of Okonkwo’s oldest son, Nwoye. The three years follow the regular rhythm of planting and harvesting until the Oracle decides it is time to sacrifice Ikemefuna. During the three years, Ikemefuna has integrated himself fully into the Okonkwo household, his memories of his own homeland dimming. He even calls Okonkwo “father.” Okonkwo too has become fond of Ikemefuna because the boy has exerted a manly influenced on Okonkwo’s own first son, whom Okonkwo is beginning to suspect of displaying unmanly traits.
On the eve of Ikemefuna’s killing, one of the highly esteemed elders, Ogbuefi Ezeudu, advises Okonkwo not to participate in the ritual killing: “That boy calls you father. Do not bear a hand in his death …. Yes, Umuofia has decided to kill him. The Oracle of the Hills and Caves has pronounced it. They will take him outside Umuofia as is the custom, and kill him there. But I want you to have nothing to do with it. He calls you his father” (Things Fall Apart, p. 40). Okonkwo, however, does not heed the advice.
The next day, after one of the men has dealt him a deadly blow, Ikemefuna runs to Okonkwo crying, “My father, they have killed me!” At this point, Okonkwo, ever afraid “of being thought weak,” draws his machete and cuts the boy down (Things Fall Apart, p. 43). Okonkwo returns home profoundly depressed.
The first time Okonkwo ventures out of his compound after the sacrifice, he visits his bosom friend, Obierika, who admonishes him that participating in Ikemefuna’s killing was a sacrilege and not an act of bravery: “What you have done will not please the Earth. It is the kind of action for which the goddess wipes out whole families” (Things Fall Apart, p. 46). In other words, Okonkwo’s participation is akin to killing a member of one’s family, an unpardonable violation of the earth.
After a while Okonkwo reinserts himself into the village routine. He participates in the betrothal and settlement of the bride price of one of Obierika’s daughters. Shortly thereafter, Okonkwo’s routine is disturbed again by the agitation caused by the sickness of Ezinma, his favorite child. Okonkwo is not known to fret over any domestic affairs that do not involve some punishment, but Ezinma is a very special child, who always brings out the softer side of Okonkwo. She among all of his children resembles Page 426 | Top of Articlehim most. The only child of his “favorite” wife, Ezinma readily senses her father’s feelings quicker than anyone else in the household. He often tells himself, “She should have been a boy” (Things Fall Apart, p. 44).
Ezinma is also a special child for another reason: she is an ogbanje: “a child who repeatedly dies and returns to its mother to be reborn” (Things Fall Apart, p. 150).
Okonkwo’s unusual concern for this child illustrates the anxieties of ogbanje parents. The ordinarily unruffled Okonkwo springs into the bush to procure herbs for Ezinma and he follows the priestess of the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves about in the middle of the night to assure himself of the child’s safety.
Okonkwo again returns to the public sphere soon after the ogbanje scare. This time he is part of the Umuofia court, the egwugwu, which consists of nine members, each representing an Umuofia village. The court justices wear elaborate costumes and masks to conceal their identities; as egwugwu, they are “the spirits of the ancestors, just emerged from the earth” (Things Fall Apart, p. 63). In spite of these official guises the community knows the voices and bodies behind the masks: “Okonkwo’s wives, and perhaps other women as well, might have noticed that the second egwugwu had the springy walk of Okonkwo” (Things Fall Apart, p. 64).
The court deliberations show the nonadversarial nature of the Umuofia judicial system. After listening to the parties in a domestic dispute, the lead judge says, “We have heard both sides of this case…. Our duty is not to blame this man or to praise that, but to settle the dispute” (Things Fall Apart, p. 66). He then delivers the verdict, telling the husband to “Go to your inlaws with a pot of wine and beg your wife to return to you”; he likewise directs the woman’s family, “If your in-law brings wine to you, let your sister go with him” (Things Fall Apart, p. 66).
A terrible life-altering mishap befalls Okonkwo during the funeral of Ezeudu, one of the highly respected old men in the village (the one who warned Okonkwo, to no avail, about not participating in the sacrifice of Ikemefuna). During the gun salute part of the funeral, which is required for great men like Ezeudu, Okonkwo’s gun misfires and kills one of the dead man’s children. Although the killing is unintentional, the earth goddess has to be appeased. That night Okonkwo leaves Umuofia with his family in tow. The following morning men from Ezeudu’s part of town descend on Okonkwo’s property in their war gear. As traditions require, “They set fire to his houses, demolished his red walls, killed his animals and destroyed his barn” (Things Fall Apart, p. 87). For the next seven years Okonkwo and his family live in Mbanta, his mother’s place of origin, where his uncle and other members of her family welcome him and give him land to farm.
Exile tries Okonkwo almost to a breaking point. He loses his prominent status in Umuofia, hears vexing news of drastic cultural and political changes that he cannot control, and sees that his daughters are maturing rapidly in a place in which he would rather not have them marry. The cultural changes descend on Mbanta in the form of a Christian church, which his oldest son, Nwoye, joins against his father’s protest, then renounces his ties to Okonkwo: “He is not my father” (Things Fall Apart, p. 101). In regard to politics, Okonkwo mostly remains calm in exile, thinking that Mbanta people are not as strong as his own Umuofia people, who surely would have driven away the Christian scourge.
On his return from exile, Okonkwo learns that conditions back home have not in fact lived up to his expectations. He discovers that, besides possessing a church, Umuofia now answers politically to a queen and her representatives. These representatives have a deadly armed force, make Page 427 | Top of Articlenew edicts (like outlawing the tradition of abandoning twins in the Evil Forest), build courts, appoint corrupt court messengers, and decide disputes in strange ways—for example, sending convicts to jail. Okonkwo is surprised that his people have not fought the harbingers of the atrocities. His friend informs him that the time for action has passed:
It is already too late…. Our own men and our sons have joined the ranks of the stranger…. If we should try to drive out the white men in Umuofia we should find it easy. There are only two of them. But what of our own people who are following their way and have been given power? They would go to Umuru and bring the soldiers….
(Things Fall Apart, p. 124)
There is an uneasy coexistence between the way of life encouraged by the colonial government and Christian missionaries on one hand, and Umuofia traditions on the other. In the midst of this uneasy coexistence, an overzealous Christian convert publicly unmasks an egwugwu during the annual celebration of the earth goddess. Led by the nine egwugwu who administer justice in the land, the Umuofia elders attack the church and raze it, against the protests of the Christians. Two days later the white District Commissioner intervenes. He invites six Umuofia leaders, Okonkwo included, to a meeting at his headquarters to discuss the recent troubles. Before the meeting begins, 12 men, all Igbo operatives in the colonial system, approach the Umuofia elders. Before the elders suspect anything, they are handcuffed, fined 200 bags of cowries, and led to jail, where, despite instructions to treat them with dignity, their heads are shaved clean to utterly humiliate them. The men return home after the village pays the fine.
The novel’s final tragedy strikes at the community meeting held after the detention. Okonkwo goes to the meeting fuming and pledges to avenge his humiliation, even if the clan resolves not to fight the abomination of colonialism and Christianity in the land. As the meeting progresses, a court messenger arrives to disperse the gathering. Okonkwo, who is sitting at the edge of the circle, confronts the messenger and asks what he wants. The messenger replies with a taunt: “The white man whose power you know too well has ordered this meeting to stop” (Things Fall Apart, p. 144). In response, Okonkwo draws his machete and decapitates the messenger, after which the community disperses in confusion. Then and there Okonkwo realizes Umuofia is not willing to fight along with him. He promptly returns home and hangs himself.
Later, the District Commissioner arrives to arrest Okonkwo for murder, only to find his corpse dangling from a tree. Because suicide offends the earth goddess and is an abominable form of death in Umuofia, Obierika asks the Commissioner’s men, who are from another community, to help them cut down the body. “That man was one of the greatest men in Umuofia,” says Obierika. “You drove him to kill himself; and now he will be buried like a dog” (Things Fall Apart, p. 147).
The unperturbed Commissioner finds in the death more material for the book he is planning to write about the history of African colonial conquest, which he has euphemistically titled “The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger”. Okonkwo’s illustrious, though tragic, life he plans to reduce to “a reasonable paragraph” about “the man who killed a messenger and hanged himself” (Things Fall Apart, p. 147).
Okonkwo: a victim of colonialism?
The event that causes Okonkwo’s suicide is clearly linked to colonialist meddling in Umuofia affairs. Nonetheless, the tragedy is not that simple, despite the blame laid by Obierika on the District Commissioner. Okonkwo’s predilections, mainly his one-sided interpretation of true manliness, also contribute to his undoing. In his determination not to be like his socially unsuccessful father, Okonkwo becomes a great farmer, a renowned wrestler, and a highly decorated citizen. But in trying to escape his father’s fate, he ends up a very brash man who shows impatience toward less successful men, denies his emotions, and sometimes even violates sacred tradition, as he does in the novel by beating one of his wives during a designated Week of Peace. Had he remembered his father’s deathbed advice that “It is more difficult and more bitter when a man fails alone” he probably would have reconsidered his resolve to fight the white man all by himself (Things Fall Apart, p. 18). In Umuofia, as in other Igbo communities, no person, however great, is deemed wiser than the community. In the saddest irony of the story Okonkwo’s body will, like his father’s, be abandoned in the Evil Forest.
Writing the novel in African English
The cultural context evoked in the story of Okonkwo’s rise and fall is not the only feature that distinguishes it as African. Things Fall Apart is the first best-selling novel in English in which African characters speak dignified language. It is also perhaps the first in which the narrative voice is attentive to the speech rhythms of its African characters. Page 428 | Top of ArticleTo the narrator, Okonkwo’s fame grows “like a bush-fire in the harmattan,” Ikemefuna’s rapid growth resembles that of “a yam tendril in the rainy season,” the passage of time is measured in “moons and seasons,” Obierika’s crowded compound during his daughter’s marriage ceremony is “as busy as an anthill,” and a white man’s bicycle is “an iron horse” to the people of Abame, who have never seen one like it (Things Fall Apart, pp. 3, 37, 38, 78, 97). All these similes are drawn from local experience, local fauna and flora, and local observations. The harmattan wind that blows over West Africa from October to February dries up vegetation, and extensive wildfires are not uncommon during that season; yams grow luxuriantly during the June and July rains; calendars once revolved around yam cultivation seasons; and thousands of termites living together in colonies make anthills a very busy place.
The novel is also unique in its representation of the speeches of the Igbo people. The elders speak with dignity, they consider the effect of their words before they utter them, and they use proverbs profusely to lend the authority of tradition to their words. Their use of proverbs especially enables the non-English speaking characters to sound authentic in English. The narrative shows that, next to the caffeine-suffused kola nut—he who brings kola brings life [to a conversation], says one proverb—the proverb is the great facilitator of speech. In Igbo culture, as the narrative admits, “proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten” (Things Fall Apart, p. 5). Through proverbs speakers appeal to customary precedence (“Eneke the bird says that since men have learned to shoot without missing, he has learned to fly without perching”), state social and philosophical observations (“A child cannot pay for its mother’s milk”), and refer to various traditions (Things Fall Apart, pp. 16, 117).
The story even tries to capture the dilemma of explaining Okonkwo’s rise and fall in two contradictory proverbs, which reflect the Igbo conception of personality: “When a man says yes his chi says yes also” and “A man could not rise beyond the destiny of his chi” (Things Fall Apart, pp. 19, 92). The first saying suggests that destiny is self-made, while the second implies that destiny can set the limit to achievement. Okonkwo follows the letter and spirit of the first, but the validity of the second seems to sneak up on him when he least expects it. The resolution lies in another proverb that reflects what Achebe describes as the pervasive duality of Igbo thought, which seems to elude Okonkwo: “Wherever Something stands, Something Else will stand beside it” (Achebe, Morning Yet, p. 94). To his peril Okonkwo seems not to know that hard work must be relieved by leisure, gruffness by amiability, rigidity by softness, masculinity by femininity.
Sources and literary context
The main literary instigators of the novel are the British colonialist novels of Africa, whose black characters, in contrast to their European counterparts, live out the white people’s racial imaginings. Achebe’s famously controversial essay on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,“Colonialist Criticism,” shows how such narrative texts depict Africans as beings on whom the contemporary environment has no effect or meaning. They are portrayed as wonderfully barbaric simpletons full of inexplicable superstitions. Their manner of speech is childlike, their worship pathologically heathenish. They seem incapable of deep moral introspection. Critics often refer to the title character of Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson as the best realized of such depictions. In contrast to such colonialist representations, Things Fall Apart shows religiosity instead of wanton paganism, the characters utter dignified speeches, the society is organized on rational principles, and deep moral conundrums routinely confront the characters.
Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written
Prelude to independence
In 1958 all African countries, as part of the global decolonization process that took center stage after the end of World War II, were agitating for political independence. Restoring the cultural glories of the colonized people was a major theme of the independence movement. Nationalist leaders, most of whom received their formal liberal education in Western institutions, were appalled by the destruction of traditional values, thought systems, economic production, and cultural institutions that had been wrought by colonialism and by missionaries under the guise of enlightenment and Christian salvation.
On the cultural and ideological front of the independence struggle, artists worked to foreground the precolonial ethos of their people in order to show that, contrary to received wisdom, European civilization and Christianity have not been unmitigated boons to colonized Africans. To Page 429 | Top of Articleuse an Achebe expression, the artists looked back to “try and find out where we went wrong, where rain began to beat us” (Achebe, Morning Yet, p. 44). This backward glance revealed to the artists that Africans did not learn of God only when Christians came; nor did their idea of governance and society arise in colonialism: “I would be quite satisfied,” says Achebe, “if my novels (especially the ones I set in the past) did no more than teach my readers that their past—with all its imperfections—was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God’s behalf delivered them” (Achebe, Morning Yet, p. 45).
No sphere of life was left untouched by the independence movement. Indigenous churches spread, and churches with foreign affiliations Africanized their liturgies and personnel. Educational institutions reexamined their founding philosophies and reformed their curricula to teach native topics and issues. Individuals changed their Christian names to indigenous ones. Even countries changed their names—Gold Coast, for example, became Ghana. In the French-speaking countries serious attempts at fathoming the essential character of the African way of life resulted in the creation of a philosophy of négritude, or the condition of being black.
One of the ironies of the kind of cultural nationalism that inspired the publication and wide acceptance of Things Fall Apart is that the text’s targets—that is, aspects of the European disruption of African routine—also made possible criticism of the novel. A good number of the cultural critics of Achebe’s generation are Christians educated in mission schools. Many of them are monogamists. Most live in cities and work in modern institutions. Their everyday paths do not often cross those of the rural dwellers to whom the precolonial ethos extolled in cultural nationalism still means much. At the time of independence, Igbo society, like that of other African communities, had been changed permanently: traditional shrines existed often in the shadow of huge cathedrals and mosques, traditional rule carried less authority than parliamentary procedures, local laws and customs were being overtaken by national legislation, monogamy had more legal authority than polygamy—all of which reflected not the weakness of traditional practices but the reality of the legacy of close to a century of colonial rule.
Upon its release Things Fall Apart received Western reviews describing the novel in terms that appear in some cases to reflect the biases of the reviewer’s own society. While Pheobe
[Image not available for copyright reasons]
Adams in the Atlantic praised Things Fall Apart’s success in conveying the “stately rhythm” of village life “that has come down through the centuries,” the Christian Science Monitor complimented the novel’s expert portrayal of “primitive tribal life” (Adams and Christian Science Monitor in Davison, p. 2). In either case, the reviewers acknowledged the as-yet-unparalleled view from inside Igbo life that was imparted by the novel. “Written with quiet dignity,” said Kirkus Reviews,”that builds to a climax of tragic force, this book about the dissolution of an African tribe, its traditions and values, represents a welcome departure from the familiar ’Me, white brother’ genre” (Kirkus Reviews in Davison, p. 2). “Patterns of feeling and attitudes of mind, “adds the Times Literary Supplement,” appear clothed in a distinctively African imagery, written neither up nor down” (Times Literary Supplement, p. 341). With similar admiration and a perception of the novel’s landmark significance, a reviewer in Black Orpheus considered its documentary as well as it artistic import: “This is a piece of history; the reader feels the calamity on every page of the impending collapse of an ancient, self-reliant, purposeful and organised society in which the individual personality is not an end in itself but a contribution to the whole…. This was not one village nor even one tribe, but … Africa” (Speed, p. 52).
For More Information
Achebe, Chinua. Morning Yet on Creation Day. London: Heinemann, 1975.
——. Things Fall Apart. London: Heinemann, 1958.
Afigbo, A. E., “Patterns of Igbo Resistance to British Conquest.” Tarikh 4, no. 3 (1973): 14-23.
Davison, Dorothy P., ed. Book Review Digest 1959. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1960.
Henderson, Richard N. The King in Every Man: Evolutionary Trends in Onitsha Ibo Society and Culture. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1972.
Innes, C. L. Chinua Achebe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Innes, C. L., and Bernth Lindfors, eds. Critical Perspectives on Chinua Achebe. Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1978.
Ogbaa, Kalu. Gods, Oracles, and Divination: Folkways in Chinua Achebe’s Novels. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1992.
Ohadike, Don C. “Igbo Culture and History.” In Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1996.
Review of Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe. Times Literary Supplement, 20 June 1958, p. 341.
Speed, Diana. Review of Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe. Black Orpheus 5 (May 1959): 52.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2875400053