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Things Fall Apart

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English Literature

Things Fall Apart (1958) is Chinua Achebe's debut novel, which forms the first part of The African Trilogy. The other two novels are Arrow of God (1964) and No Longer at Ease (1960). It is part of the canons of Seminal World Literature and African Literature and is often studied as part of the Historical Fiction genre.

This novel is one of the first to represent rural African life from an African author's perspective. This is a significant benchmark, as previous works by Western writers, such as Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1899), contained negative misrepresentations of these communities.

During an interview, Chinua Achebe pointed to the portrayal of Nigeria and its people in Joyce Cary's Mister Johnson (1939) as his inspiration for writing Things Fall Apart (1958).

The novel provides a wide global readership with an authentic insight into the traditions and societal structures of pre-colonial village life for Igbo (also known as Ibo) communities in rural Nigeria.

Summary of Things Fall Apart

The narrative follows the life and death of the character Okonkwo. The action takes place in Nigeria, specifically in the villages of Umuofia and Mbanta (Okonkwo's fatherland and motherland, respectively). The readership is presented with historical events as they affect Okonkwo, his family, and their wider community. The novel is concerned with the historical arrival of European missionaries and colonial powers in late nineteenth-century Nigeria.

Through stories about Okonkwo's childhood, adolescence and early adulthood, we are introduced to the intricacies of the Igbo community structure before colonial interference in their society. The narrative also focuses upon the hard work, resilience, and agricultural science employed by Okonkwo to ensure prosperity. By doing so, Achebe subtly rebuts deeply ingrained and ignorant stereotypes commonly held by western readerships regarding the capabilities of self-government among pre-colonial tribal communities.

At the climax of the novel, Okonkwo hangs himself after having killed a European messenger who had disrespectfully tried to break up a meeting of elders. His suicide was in response not just to the erosion of his community's traditional values, but because his actions and desire to go to war with the European colonisers were unsupported by his community. Indeed, the death of Okonkwo could be viewed as symbolic of the demise of his wider community.

Things Fall Apart quotes

Consider how the following quotes depict the introduction of British colonial rule and the end of a fully self-governing Igbo society:

I fear for you young people because you do not understand how strong is the bond of kinship. You do not know what it is to speak with one voice. And what is the result? An abominable religion has settled among you. " Things Fall Apart, (p.167).

An elder voices his concerns about future generations and the introduction of Christianity.

He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart. "(p.167)

Obierika (Okonkwo's friend) reinforces the Mbanta elder's view that Christianity was an instrument of change and division. The words 'we have fallen apart' echoes the title.

The title, Things Fall Apart, was inspired by a line in W. B Yeats' poem 'The Second Coming' (1919).

What is the main idea of Things Fall Apart?

A number of prominent themes are vehicles for expressing the main idea of the novel. These include femininity vs masculinity, tradition vs change, and fate vs free will.

Femininity vs masculinity in Things Fall Apart

Things Fall Apart A task designated as masculine StudySmarterThings Fall Apart A task designated as feminine Study Smarter Cooking in a pot,pixabay.com

An ax used for chopping firewood,

This is one of the main themes that run throughout the entire novel. It is notably apparent through the recurring generational conflict between father and son, the strict adherence to gendered roles, and Okonkwo's repression of all emotions other than anger.

The cycle of father-son conflict begins with Okonkwo resenting and feeling ashamed of his father's failure to live up to the masculine ideals of his society. Men are expected to be providers and leaders of their household. They are also expected to strive to earn the respect of their peers through sporting achievements, bravery in war, and earning titles.

Feminine gendered roles

Masculine gendered roles

Planting coco-yams, beans and cassava; these were considered 'women's crops'.

Planting yam was seen as a man's job; 'Yam, the king of crops, was a man's crop.'

Women were expected to sit modestly: 'Ezinma brought her two legs together and stretched them in front of her.'

It was acceptable for men to sit cross-legged.

Wives were expected to cook for their husbands and children. Similarly, daughters brought their fathers food, girls carried water, and adult women prepared the home for guests.

Domestic tasks that required heavy labor were seen as men's jobs; 'masculine tasks in the home, like splitting wood, or pounding food.'

Key quotes:

'Even now he still remembered how he had suffered when a playmate had told him that his father was agbala. That was how Okonkwo first came to know that agbala was not only another name for a woman, it could also mean a man who had taken no title.' (p. 13)

Calling a man a woman, or feminine, was regarded as an insult in this patriarchal society.

'Nwoye, was then twelve years old but was already causing his father great anxiety for his incipient laziness. At any rate, that was how it looked to his father.' (p. 13)

After the death of Unoka (Okonkwo's father) the cycle of father-son conflict resumes when Okonkwo is dissatisfied with his eldest son's work ethic.

'How can a man who has killed five men in battle fall to pieces because he has added a boy to their number? Okonkwo, you have become a woman indeed.' (p.56)

Okonkwo feels guilt and grief after having killed Ikemefena. He associates those emotions with feminine weakness and is ashamed of them.

Tradition vs change in Things Fall Apart

Okonkwo and his family function as the vehicle through which Chinua Achebe expresses his themes. Okonkwo can be interpreted as symbolizing the traditional order, and his son Nwoye as the embracement of cultural change. Therefore, the fraught relationship between the two signifies a much greater conflict than that of father and son.

Through Okonkwo, Chinua Achebe skilfully intertwines the past, present, and future of the Igbo community. This novel introduces the reader to a pivotal point in the life of both Okonkwo and his community, as the traditions by which they lead their lives and self-govern are encroached upon by colonial forces.

Key quotes:

'Suppose when he died all his male children decided to follow Nwoye's steps and abandon their ancestors. Okonkwo felt a cold shudder run through him at the terrible prospect, like the prospect of annihilation.' (p 153). Okonkwo has an intensely adverse response to his son Nwoye's conversion to Christianity, viewing it as a rejection and abandonment of their ancestors.

'He mourned for the clan, which he saw breaking up and falling apart, and he mourned for the warlike men of Umuofia' (p. 183) Okonkwo can see that Umuofia is stepping away from its traditions and undergoing a transitory period of change. Okonkwo believes that this change is for the worse; he is devastated to foresee the loss of his culture and community.

'The prison, which was full of men who had offended

against the white man's law. Some of these prisoners had thrown

away their twins and some had molested the Christians'. (pp. 174-175). Some Igbo traditions, including infanticide, have been outlawed.

'He says that our customs are bad; and our own brothers who have taken up his religion also say that our customs are bad. How do you think we can fight when our own brothers have turned against us?' (p. 176) Change ultimately occurs from within, with disenfranchised members of the community rejecting traditional ways.

'That must not happen in the dominion of our queen, the most powerful ruler in the world. I have decided that you will pay a fine' (p. 194). The European colonists have imposed their laws and justice system on the people of Umuofia.

Free will vs fate in Things Fall Apart

The novel delivers mixed messages regarding the theme of free will vs fate. The community of Umuofia discuss a quality called chi, which they believe can affect one's luck. However, they are also practical farming people who believe that one's actions are what has the ultimate say over their destiny.

Consider the character Unoka, who is presented both as an ill-fated man and the author of his own misfortune. The Oracle of Agbala tells him that he alone is responsible for his poor harvests due to his laziness, and to look to the example of his neighbors, whose harvests are successful because of the effort they put in.

In a later parallel to Unoka, Okonkwo is described as being both lucky and the author of his own good fortune, having brought about his wealth through sheer hard work and tenacity in the face of hardship. When an elder suggests that fortune has smiled upon him, the narrator reminds the reader that this has not been the case.

Fate vs free wants

Presentation of fate

Supporting quote

Presentation of free will

Supporting quote

Unoka

Unoka is presented as an unlucky victim of fate by the narrator.

'Unoka, what an ill-fated man. He had a bad chi or personal god, and evil fortune followed him to the grave.' (p. 18).

Unoka is not unlucky. He is an unsuccessful farmer as a direct result of his laziness.

'When your neighbors go out with their ax to cut down virgin forests, you sow your yams on exhausted farms that take no labor to clear.' (p. 17).

Okonkwo

Okonkwo is presented as fortunate by an elder of the clan.

'The oldest man present said sternly that those whose palm-kernels were cracked for them by a benevolent spirit should not forget to be humble.' (p 26).

Okonkwo is not lucky. Later the narrator reminds us Okonkwo was the active agent of his own fate.

'He had cracked them himself. Anyone who knew his grim struggle against poverty and misfortune could not say he had been lucky.' (p. 27).

Key quotes:

'When a man is at peace with his gods and his ancestors, his harvest will be good or bad according to the strength of his arm.' (p. 17) The Oracle of Agbala advises Unoka to look to his own actions rather than seeking to blame his poor harvests on bad fortune.

'The lbo people have a proverb that when a man says yes his chi says yes also.

Okonkwo said yes very strongly; so his chi agreed.' (p. 27) This popular saying suggests that free will is much more powerful than fate or luck.

'Clearly his personal god or chi was not made for great things. A man could not rise beyond the destiny of his chi.' (p. 131) During the early days of his exile, Okonkwo fell into a depression and blamed fate for his ill fortune.

Things Fall Apart and genre

Things Fall Apart is an example of Historical Fiction.

Historical fiction can be defined as a narrative that takes place in the past. This form can involve real historical figures and events. Ideally, historical fiction should accurately portray a range of factors instrumental to the time period in which it is set, such as traditions, speech patterns, and social structures.1

Things Fall Apart is a work of historical fiction that focuses upon both the thriving society that existed prior to the colonization of Nigeria by Europeans in the late nineteenth century as well as that of the early days of colonization.

The structure and form of Things Fall Apart

The novel uses a third-person narrative, which enables a variety of voices to contribute to the novel. This provides a greater insight into different characters' perspectives than a first-person narrative. Following the memories of different characters, each of the story's three parts focuses on a different time period.

This novel has been organized into three parts. Consider how this structure breaks the story down into three sections following the chronology of history: pre-colonial times, a transitory period, and colonial times.

Part one: Chapters 1-13.

Part two: Chapters 14-19.

Part three: Chapters 20-25.

Pre-colonial times

A transitory period

Colonial times

Set in Umuofia before Okonkwo's exile

Set in Mbanta during Okonkwo's exile

Set in Umuofia after Okonkwo has returned from exile

We are introduced to a fully self-governing Igbo community of nine rural villages, linked by shared customs and religious beliefs.

European missionaries introduce Christianity and a school. European colonists introduce trade opportunities. When members of the nine villages convert to Christianity, it causes division and conflict within the community. The converts begin to reject Igbo cultural practices such as the treatment of the Osu (outcasts) and the infanticide of twins.

Colonial powers have enforced their laws and judiciary systems. They interfere with the affairs of the entire Igbo community - not just those who have converted to Christianity - forbidding certain cultural practices.

Igbo language, folk tales, and translated proverbs in Things Fall Apart

The author has been quoted here explaining his decision to include untranslated Igbo words and phrases. They should be understood in the wider context of their writing. However, Chinua Achebe has provided a glossary of words and phrases at the end of the novel.

'I feel that the English language will be able to carry the weight of my African experience. But it will have to be a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit its new African surroundings.' Chinua Achebe.

'Let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English, for we intend to do unheard of things with it.' (From Achebe's essay 'Colonialist Criticism', Chinua Achebe Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays, 1988).

The direct use of Igbo

The language of the novel is predominantly English but is interspersed with Igbo words and phrases. Direct use of the Igbo language can help the readership to feel a greater connection to the characters and their culture. Igbo words and phrases are used in context and often include explanations of their meaning. Chinua Achebe faced some criticism for his decision to use the English language. He defended his choice, explaining that he intended to use English as a vehicle to create new, accurate representations of Nigeria.

Translated proverbs and folktales

These are heavily used throughout the novel. Chinua Achebe's language choices in the novel are another way in which he subverts the usual narrative regarding African literature. He showcases the importance of language and the rich oral tradition of the community. Proverbs and fables were a form of living education and history for the Igbo community, a method of passing down generational wisdom and morality.

Linguistic shifts

Throughout most of the novel, the literary style calls upon Igbo language patterns. Therefore a stark contrast can be seen when the narrative focuses upon the District Commissioner's thoughts on Okonkwo's suicide. We see the use of Standard English as the focal character changes. This linguistic shift can be interpreted as symbolic of the transition of power from self-governance to colonial rule.

Key quotes:

'Among the lbo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten.' (p. 7)

'He could hear in his mind's ear the blood-stirring and intricate rhythms of the ekwe and the udu and the ogene, and he could hear his own flute weaving in and out of them.' (p. 6)

By reading the Igbo words in context, the reader can understand that the Ekwe, udu, and Ogene are musical instruments.

'One could almost write a whole chapter on him. Perhaps not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph, at any rate. There was so much else to include, and one must be firm in cutting out details. He had already chosen the title of the book, after much thought: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.' (pp. 208-9)

The title of the book the District Commissioner plans to write reflects the ideas and prejudices that Chinua Achebe challenges with Things Fall Apart.

Chinua Achebe is often referred to by the accolade 'Father of African Literature'. With its focus on an accurate depiction of culture and historical practices, his novel Things Fall Apart can be seen as having ushered in both the Nigerian Literary Renaissance and a new type of African novel.

Things Fall Apart - Key takeaways

  • This novel belongs to the canons of African Literature and Seminal World Literature.
  • Things Fall Apart belongs to the genre of historical fiction.
  • Key themes in this novel deal with binary oppositions including femininity vs masculinity, tradition vs change, and fate vs free will.
  • This novel showcases the culture and self-governing community that existed in rural Igbo communities before British colonial rule.

References

1. Collins English Dictionary, 2022.

Things Fall Apart

The main idea of Things Fall Apart is to present a global readership with both a highly complex pre-colonial Igbo society and an insight into early stages of colonialism. 

One interpretation of the novel’s final message is that the once-unified culture and social fabric of the Igbo community has fallen apart, replaced by colonial influences and an ever-changing society.

The main setting for Things Fall Apart is the village of Umuofia in Nigeria. The secondary setting is the village of Mbanta where Okonkwo and his family spent seven years in exile.

Things Fall Apart (1958) was published by William Heinemann Ltd.

Okonkwo’s death can be seen as symbolising the death of his culture.  

Final Things Fall Apart Quiz

Question

Which of these best describes historical fiction?

Show answer

Answer

A work of fiction set in a past time period which may involve real historical figures and events

Show question

Question

What a division between the people of causes the nine villages? 

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Answer

religion

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Question

How does Chinua Achebe incorporate the Igbo language into his novel? 

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Answer

Untranslated Igbo words and phrases, and translated proverbs and folktales 

Show question

Question

The novel Things Fall Apart (1958) forms a part of which collection?


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Answer

The African Trilogy 

Show question

Question

What narrative style is used? 


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Answer

Third-person narration

Show question

Question

How does the structure of the novel correspond to real historical events?


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Answer

The traditions, laws, and religious practices that unified the rural Igbo communities 

Show question

Question

Following the gendered roles of pre-colonial Igbo society which of the following is considered to be a boy's job?


Show answer

Answer

Carrying their father's stool and goat skin bag

Show question

Question

Following the gendered roles of pre-colonial Igbo society which of the following is considered to be a girl's job?


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Answer

Carrying their father's evening meal

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Question

Which of Okonkwo's children does he favor?


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Answer

His daughter Ezinma 

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Question

Why is Okonkwo exiled from Umuofia for seven years?


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Answer

For the accidental killing of a clansman

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Question

How many wives does Okonkwo have?


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Answer

3

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Question

Which best describes Okonkwo's reaction to Nwoye's conversion to Christianity?


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Answer

Betrayal and rage

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Question

Which best describes Okonkwo's reaction to Nwoye's conversion to Christianity?


Show answer

Answer

Betrayal and rage

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Question

Which of these is considered to be a man's crop?


Show answer

Answer

Yams

Show question

Question

The reader is meant to be able to understand the meaning of the untranslated Igbo words and phrases.

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Answer

True

Show question

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