The title Things Fall Apart establishes the tenor of the book accurately. Achebe adopts it from the opening lines of W.B. Yeat’s 1919 poem 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 . . .
Turmoil and disorder permeate much of the book along with a perception that life was cheapened and being transformed in uncontrollable ways. It centers on the rise and fall of a man named Okonkwo (o-KON-kwo)† and somewhat follows the pattern of a Greek tragedy. The tone throughout the book is frequently solemn and tragic, even upsetting: when we read about the egwugwu (EH-gwou-gwou), the masked representatives of the ancestral ghosts, the atmosphere suggested is one of fear. The villagers possess a fervent faith, hold profound beliefs, and do not tolerate any permissiveness vis-à-vis their traditions. However, there are times of great festivity and delight during periods such as the celebration of weddings, the “Week of Peace,” holiday seasons, or wrestling contests, where the people drop some of their wonted reserve and have fun.
† A man of accomplishment, he is the robust and goal-oriented great man of an Igbo village in southern Nigeria. He possesses great strength and holds deep economic and political connections to his village, and his neighbors venerate him. Okonkwo has determined to expunge the dishonor bequeathed to him by his father’s indolence. To this end, he is a very successful yam grower. A farmer as well as a wrestler, he has won renown and brought honor to the village by being a champion. While only in his thirties, he has three wives and numerous children all of whom reside in their own dwellings in his village compound.
Things Fall Apart is set in the period between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in a little village called Umuofia (ou-mwoff-yah). The era is significant, as this was the time in colonial history during which the British were increasing their political, economic, and cultural impact in Africa.* Neighboring villages admire Umuofia for being wealthy and strong. Everyone there owns an obi or hut that sits in the middle of a compound. The primary work of the men is planting yams, which is one of the most important crops in the forest regions of Africa. Each wife has her own obi containing a barn for goats with an adjoining chicken coop. The women raise less important crops such as taro, cassava, and beans.
Only by industriousness does Okonkwo rise to prominence, not because of his birth. His father was an indolent man who fancied playing the flute to cultivating the soil. Okonkwo resisted his father’s lifestyle, and constantly feared failure. To prove his worth, he triumphed over the greatest wrestler in nine villages, established himself as a provider to three wives, became the owner of two barns packed with yams, and developed the repute for being hardworking. The reader discovers that he was also one of the egwugwu. He shows his significance to his fellow tribesmen when he is sent as an envoy to Mbaino (M-ba-EE-no) to broker an agreement for the return of hostages, and comes home with a boy, Ikemefuna† and a virgin. While his stern exterior hides a love for Ikemefuna; it also conceals an apprehension over Nwoye‡ who appears to take after Okonkwo’s father and an adulation for his daughter Ezinma.§ Above all Okonkwo is a man of tribal principle. Even after the Oracle commands Ikemefuna’s death he, though distraught, demonstrates his courage and detachment by killing the boy himself.
However, Okonkwo has several flaws. Firstly, his intolerance with those who are less prosperous and secondly, his conceit regarding his own standing, which the ancient Greeks termed “hubris.” He also has a temper; it leads him to beat his second wife during the “Week of Peace.” He goes so far as to take his gun and shoot at her, but fortunately misses, again demonstrating his wrathful and impulsive nature, a propensity that has disastrous consequences further on in the book. His ultimate fault, recklessness, leads him inadvertently to fire his gun at a boy and kill him; the tribe banishes him for seven years and he must then live in Mbanta (m-BAHN-tah) his mother’s village. There they provide him some plots of land to cultivate, and a plot of land on which to erect his compound. He accepts the law that forces him into exile, but this is regrettable coming as it does at a time when he had been progressively gaining affluence and social standing and would soon have acquired more titles. Though deeply disheartened he is comforted and inspired by Uchendu (ou-CHEN-doo).à The consequences of his exile tragically lead to his downfall.
† (I-keh-MEH-fou-nah) is an astute young man who lives with Okonkwo for three years but meets with a calamitous fate.
‡ (Ng-WOY-yeh) Okonkwo’s son from his first wife is a perceptive young man who much to his father’s consternation becomes a Christian.
§ (Eh-ZEE-mah) is born following numerous miscarriages and her mother adores and spoils her. Okonkwo dotes on her and repeatedly desires that “she were a boy.” She has an affiliation with Chielo (CHEE-el-o), the priestess who dedicates herself to Agbala (A-bah-lah), the Oracle of the Hills and Caves.
à Okonkwo’s maternal uncle with whom he and his family spend his seven years of exile.
Meanwhile, Christian missionaries arrive in Umuofia and Mbanta, build a church, and indoctrinate the people. In the beginning, the Christians encounter much opposition, but gradually much of the tribe, including Okonkwo’s son Nwoye, convert. The villagers are at a disadvantage. The customary Igbo culture had heretofore regulated their society, for they had been a tradition-bound people, but the incursion of the missionaries greatly altered their lives. The missionaries succeed in discouraging them from their own faith and traditions. The Christians even start dwelling in the “evil” forest to demonstrate to them that their convictions regarding its evilness are groundless. Furthermore, the Christians allow twins and outcasts to join their church, something unheard of by the villagers.
His exile over, Okonkwo and his family have a homecoming back in Umuofia and he discovers for himself that his village has been completely transformed. His dreams of becoming head of Umuofia are shattered because he has been absent for too many years. Okonkwo’s return had not brought forth the kind of welcome that he had anticipated. Too much had transpired since his exile and the villagers now have other concerns. While Umuofia is flourishing economically, Okonkwo is adamant in refusing to convert. The missionaries construct a school, a hospital, a court, and trading store, but ultimately Western ideology has destroyed the heart of native culture and its traditional economy. In addition, the natives have lost their sense of community forever and the Christians have annihilated every tradition, value, and conviction once held by them.
The missionaries are fanatical in their ways. One of them, Mr. Brown,* serves as an example. Another one arrives at a tribal assembly in which there are egwugwu and he unmasks one. This incites fury, and the villagers then choose to destroy the church, which they ultimately do. This act provokes the anger of the District Commissioner† who lures in Okonkwo and five other men, seizes them, and puts them in jail. Imprisonment dishonors these leaders. Upon their release, they hold another meeting. The commissioner orders some of his men to prevent the villagers from gathering, and Okonkwo, in a fit of rage, decapitates one of the commissioner’s men. Okonkwo’s actions distress his fellow tribesmen who then allow the commissioner’s remaining men to flee.
Okonkwo’s life has fallen apart. Receiving no further backing from the tribe, he hangs himself. The tribe even refuses to cut him down and bury him, as suicide defies the will of the earth goddess, and they cannot violate this taboo. His friend Obierika‡ pithily and with great force expresses Okonkwo’s tragedy: “That man was one of the greatest men in Umuofia. You drove him to kill himself; and now he will be buried like a dog.”
* He is a sympathetic and thoughtful man who is obliging towards the Igbo, and initially introduces the principles of Christianity to the people to convert from them their superstitions and hoary customs, but he becomes overzealous.
† At the conclusion of the book, he commands his men to remove Okonkwo’s corpse from the tree in which it hangs and has it buried.
‡ (O-byeh-REE-kah) assists him with his crops throughout the period of his banishment, and fills him in about the drastic changes going on in Umuofia. He is a pensive man who has doubts about the customs of his culture.
Okonkwo is a complex character. He is inextricably linked with his fellow villagers who admire him for having achieved affluence and high position without the backing of a powerful family. However, the majority of his drive is rooted in the repudiation of his father’s lifestyle, which he finds objectionable. To be sure, Okonkwo has his failings, and they cause his demise, but readers come to hold him in high regard nonetheless. He refuses to knuckle under to the principles espoused by the missionaries, even when nearly all his fellow villagers have done so; this stems from his intolerant nature and unyielding obedience to custom. His tragic flaws, unrecognized by himself, brand him a hero in the mold of a Greek tragedy. His impulsiveness and temper cause him to violate the rules governing the “Week of Peace” and ultimately the villagers banish him for his reckless behavior. His impetuous nature and careless attitude subsequently bring about his death at the conclusion of the book. But Okonkwo is also a stand-in for the tribe as a whole; his suicide is emblematic of the self-inflicted destruction of it, for he represented the influence and honor that it once enjoyed. With its downfall, the tribe’s ethical core and organization yields to that of the colonizers.
The Christian missionaries, who conquer these longstanding communities in Africa, bring with them their Western dogmas, and then convert the people to Christianity, serve as the antagonists. Things Fall Apart depicts a culture that binds itself in ritual and superstition, and the Christians revile and demean the traditions of African culture. A distinct lack of compassion is apparent on the part of the district commissioner whose only interest concerns the information he has amassed for a book he hopes to publish. However, many Africans eventually convert to Christianity nonetheless, barring a few individuals including Okonkwo. The missionaries are the ultimate cause of his death, for they have acted rudely to the leader of Umuofia and it is clear that Okonkwo has to exact retribution in the only fashion he knows how to—by being loyal to his culture’s traditions and confronting Christianity. Violence begets violence.
The main theme of Things Fall Apart is that British colonialism and the adoption of Christianity by African tribal peoples has shattered an elaborate, custom-rooted, ancient culture. The organizational system that the British foisted on the societies of Africa were believed to be “civilizing” though in actuality it had the contrary effect of being pitiless and brutal, overpowering large native populations and subjecting them to colonial overlords. Simultaneously with their colonizing efforts, Western missionaries strove to induce the natives away from their rituals, which they saw as superstitious, primitive, and cruel, and convert them to Christianity, not realizing the effect it might have on the ancient culture that had provided a framework within which they had lived for ages. Also, Achebe focuses on the complicated and subtle rituals and customs that form Igbo culture. He wrote Things Fall Apart to respond to portrayals by European writers that Africans were primitive or “noble savages.” He discredits these Western views by portraying a society that favorably compares in its intricacy and vibrancy to any in the West. His characters are complicated three-dimensional people instead of stereotypes. Actually, the white colonialists and missionaries are the ones who seem to be one-dimensional.
Achebe investigates another significant theme in the book: the shortcomings of a man such as Okonkwo, who has aspirations, is industrious, and trusts intensely in his culture’s traditions. He desires to attain his village’s highest title but his careless hotheaded conduct causes his fall. The reader also witnesses how Okonkwo’s obstinacy in upholding his customary religious ideals causes his own death. But he does reject the forces of colonial authority and consequently the reader can only feel esteem, even veneration, for this highly principled man.
Besides the main theme of the demolition of African societies caused by colonization, the reader sees how age-old orthodox customs and traditions successfully governed the people of these cultures for ages. Natural societies are comparatively free from law first because they are ruled by customs as rigid and inviolable as any law; and secondly because crimes of violence, in the beginning, are considered private matters, and are left to bloody personal revenge, or to banishment. Underneath all the phenomena of society is the great terra firma of custom, that bedrock of time-hallowed modes of thought and action which provides a society with some measure of steadiness and order through all absence, changes, and interruptions of law. Custom gives the same stability to the group that heredity and instinct give to the species, and habit to the individual. The routine keeps people sane; for if there were no grooves along which thought and action might move with unconscious ease, the mind would be perpetually hesitant, and would soon take refuge in lunacy. A law of economy works in instinct and habit, in custom and convention: the most convenient mode of response to repeated stimuli or traditional situations is automatic response. When, to this natural basis of custom, a supernatural sanction is added by religion, and the ways of one’s ancestors are the will of the gods, then custom becomes stronger than law, and substantially subtracts from an individual’s freedom in these societies. Nevertheless, it forges a people to exceptional closeness; when this bond shatters, we see the disastrous collapse of a culture, where people suffer and populations become divided. Tribal ways collapse and fall apart.