Things Fall Apart
The novel is set during the late 1800s – early 1900s in a small village called Umuofia situated in the southeastern part of Nigeria. The time period is important, as it was a period in colonial history when the British were expanding their influence in Africa, economically, culturally, and politically.
Umuofia is an Igbo village with very well defined traditions. It is a village that is respected by those around it as being powerful and rich. Each person has a hut or obi that is located in the center of a compound.
Each of the wives has a separate obi with a shed for goats and an attached chicken coop. The main occupation of the men is sowing and growing yams since yams are considered the most important crop. The women grew less significant crops like coco-yams, beans and cassava.
When Okonkwo is banished from his village, he takes his family to his mother‟s native village called Mbanta, where he is given two or three plots of land to farm, and a plot of ground on which to build his compound. The next seven years of Okonkwo‟s life are spent in the village of Mbanta. He then returns to Umuofia where the rest of the novel takes place.
List Of Characters
The hardy and ambitious leader of the Igbo community. He is a farmer as well as a wrestler, who has earned fame and brought honor to his village by overthrowing Amalinze in a wrestling contest. Still only in his thirties, he has three wives and several children who all live in their own homes in his village compound. Okonkwo has resolved to erase the stigma left on him by his father‟s laziness and is very successful growing yams. He has very strong economic and political ties to the village and is treated with admiration and respect. Okonkwo is a man of action.
Okonkwo‟s close friend, he helps him with the crops during his period of exile, and keeps him informed of the radical changes taking place in the village. He is a thoughtful man, who questions the traditions of society. He is also Maduka and Ekuke‟s father.
Okonkwo‟s second wife, she is the mother of Ezinma, her only living child, whom she will do anything for even if that means defying tradition.
Ekwefi and Okonkwo‟s daughter, she is born after many miscarriages and is loved and pampered
by her mother. She has a special relationship with Chielo, the woman who acts as the voice of Agbala, the Oracle. Okonkwo is fond of her and often wishes that „she were a boy.‟
Okonkwo‟s son from his first wife. He is a sensitive young man who, much to his father‟s dismay, joins the Christian missionaries.
A boy who is bought as hostage from Mbaino, and who lives with Okonkwo for three years. He is a clever and resourceful young man yet comes to an unfortunate end.
The priestess of Agbala, the Oracle of the Hills and Caves, who carries Ezinma on her back to the caves, saying that Agbala wants to see her.
Okonkwo‟s maternal uncle with whom he spends seven years of his exile, along with his family.
The Christian missionary who first introduces the tenets of Christianity to the people to take them away from their superstitious and age-old customs. He is a kind and understanding man who is accommodating towards the Igbo.
Reverend James Smith
Mr Brown‟s successor, he openly condemns Mr. Brown‟s policy of compromise and accommodation and attempts to efface all aspects of Igbo culture.
The man behind the whole affair, who handcuffs the six leaders of the village and imprisons them. At the end of the novel, he orders his men to take down the dead body of Okonkwo from the tree, and bury it.
Okonkwo‟s father who during his entire lifetime never lifted his hand to till the earth, and had passed his time playing the flute. Okonkwo always remembers his father‟s failure and strove to be as different from him as possible.
Obierika‟s son who participates and wins the wrestling contest.
The oldest man in Umuofia who forewarns Okonkwo not to get too close to Ikemefuna, since the Oracle had pronounced his death already and then tells him not to participate in his death. He dies a venerated warrior with three titles to his name.
The overzealous Christian who tears off the mask of the egwugu, creating strife in the community.
The Oracle of the Hills and the Caves, she dispenses advice and overlooks all aspects of life in the village of Umumofia. No one has ever beheld Agbala, except his priestess.
Okonkwo‟s third wife and mother of several of his children.
The protagonist of the novel is Okonkwo. The novel describes Okonkwo‟s rise and fall in a culture that is bound by tradition and superstitious. Okonkwo also has his faults, and it is these faults that lead to his downfall. His impatience and quick temper make him break the rules of the Week of Peace and eventually is ostracized from his village for his rash behavior. His headstrong nature and impulsive attitude consequently bring about his own death at the end of the novel.
Okonkwo is respected for having reached a position of wealth and status, without any support from family. In fact, most of his ambition and desire stems from the rejection of his father‟s lifestyle that is objectionable to him. Okonkwo refuses to bow down to the tenets of the Christian missionaries, even when almost the entire village has. His tenacity and tragic flaws that he cannot see make him a hero despite his unforgiving nature and rigid adherence to tradition. Okonkwo thus instills a feeling of respect and admiration in the hearts of the readers.
The antagonists are the Christian missionaries who wish to invade the content villages of Africa with their Western concepts and way of thinking and convert the people into Christianity. The customs of African culture are scorned and degraded. Gradually, many people are persuaded into converting themselves into Christianity, with a few exceptions, including Okonkwo. It is the missionaries who are the final cause of the death of Okonkwo. Their behavior toward the leader of the village is disrespectful and it is understandable that Okonkwo had to retaliate in the only form he knows, by resistance to Christianity and loyalty to his culture‟s traditions. The reader sees the heartlessness of the district commissioner who is only concerned about the material he has accumulated for the book he wishes to publish
The climactic point in the novel arises when, Okonkwo, without his realizing it, shoots a young member of his community and kills him. Though this was an accident, Okonkwo has to abide with the law that deems he should be banished from his village for seven years. This is an unfortunate situation, since until then Okonkwo has been steadily rising in wealth as well as status in his community and very soon would have acquired more titles. The calamity however results in his downfall. He now has to live in exile for seven long years of his life in his mother‟s land.
Another parallel climax in the novel is when the missionaries inculcate the lives of the villagers. Until then the people were governed only by the traditional Ibo culture and were custom-bound, but the invasion of the missionaries changes the lives of the villagers tremendously.
The outcome of the novel is Okonkwo‟s return to his village after his exile and his self-destruction. He discovers that everything has changed when he is not given the kind of welcome he had expected. Too much has happened since Okwonko‟s departure and the villagers have other things to worry about. Okonkwo can no longer dream of becoming head of the village because he has lost too many years in exile, and when he returns, all of the customs, values and beliefs of the village have been destroyed.
With the invasion of the Christians, the villagers find themselves at a loss. With their sweet words and strong beliefs, the missionaries manage to dissuade the villagers from their own religion and customs. The Christians even begin living in the evil forest, in order to prove to the villagers that all their beliefs about its evilness are baseless. Twins and outcasts were allowed to enter into their church.
The missionaries also provide many good services to the villagers. They build a church, a hospital, a school and also a court and trading store for the villagers. Yet ultimately the core of their culture has been subjugated to Western ideology and the traditional economy as well as social well being of the village is gone forever.
Things Fall Apart is about the tragic fall of the protagonist, Okonkwo, and the Igbo culture. Okonkwo is a respected and influential leader within the Igbo community of Umuofia in eastern Nigeria. He first earns personal fame and distinction, and brings honor to his village, when he defeats Amalinze the Cat in a wrestling contest. Okonkwo determines to gain titles for himself and become a powerful and wealthy man in spite of his father’s weaknesses.
Okonkwo’s father, Unoka, was a lazy and wasteful man. He often borrowed money and then squandered it on palm-wine and merrymaking with friends. Consequently, his wife and children often went hungry. Within the community, Unoka was considered a failure and a laughingstock. He was referred to as agbala, one who resembles the weakness of a woman and has no property. Unoka died a shameful death and left numerous debts.
Okonkwo despises and resents his father’s gentle and idle ways. He resolves to overcome the shame that he feels as a result of his father’s weaknesses by being what he considers to be “manly”; therefore, he dominates his wives and children by being insensitive and controlling.
Because Okonkwo is a leader of his community, he is asked to care for a young boy named Ikemefuna, who is given to the village as a peace offering by neighboring Mbaino to avoid war with Umuofia. Ikemefuna befriends Okonkwo’s son, Nwoye, and Okonkwo becomes inwardly fond of the boy.
Over the years, Okonkwo becomes an extremely volatile man; he is apt to explode at the slightest provocation. He violates the Week of Peace when he beats his youngest wife, Ojiugo, because she went to braid her hair at a friend’s house and forgot to prepare the afternoon meal and feed her children. Later, he severely beats and shoots a gun at his second wife, Ekwefi, because she took leaves from his banana plant to wrap food for the Feast of the New Yam.
After the coming of the locusts, Ogbuefi Ezeuder, the oldest man in the village, relays to Okonkwo a message from the Oracle. The Oracle says that Ikemefuna must be killed as part of the retribution for the Umuofian woman killed three years earlier in Mbaino. He tells Okonkwo not to partake in the murder, but Okonkwo doesn’t listen. He feels that not participating would be a sign of weakness. Consequently, Okonkwo kills Ikemefuna with his machete. Nwoye realizes that his father has murdered Ikemefuna and begins to distance himself from his father and the clansmen.
Okonkwo becomes depressed after killing Ikemefuna, so he visits his best friend, Obierika, who disapproves of his role in Ikemefuna’s killing. Obierika says that Okonkwo’s act will upset the Earth and the earth goddess will seek revenge. After discussing Ikemefuna’s death with Obierika, Okonkwo is finally able to sleep restfully, but he is awakened by his wife Ekwefi. Their daughter Ezinma, whom Okonkwo is fond of, is dying. Okonkwo gathers grasses, barks, and leaves to prepare medicine for Ezinma.
A public trial is held on the village commons. Nine clan leaders, including Okonkwo, represent the spirits of their ancestors. The nine clan leaders, or egwugwu, also represent the nine villages of Umuofia. Okonkwo does not sit among the other eight leaders, or elders, while they listen to a dispute between an estranged husband and wife. The wife, Mgbafo, had been severely beaten by her husband. Her brother took her back to their family’s village, but her husband wanted her back home. The egwugwu tell the husband to take wine to his in-laws and beg his wife to come home. One elder wonders why such a trivial dispute would come before the egwugwu.
In her role as priestess, Chielo tells Ekwefi (Okonkwo’s second wife) that Agbala (the Oracle of the Hills and Caves) needs to see Ezinma. Although Okonkwo and Ekwefi protest, Chielo takes a terrified Ezinma on her back and forbids anyone to follow. Chielo carries Ezinma to all nine villages and then enters the Oracle’s cave. Ekwefi follows secretly, in spite of Chielo’s admonitions, and waits at the entrance of the Oracle. Okonkwo surprises Ekwefi by arriving at the cave, and he also waits with her. The next morning, Chielo takes Ezinma to Ekwefi’s hut and puts her to bed.
When Ogbuefi Ezeudu dies, Okonkwo worries because the last time that Ezeudu visited him was when he warned Okonkwo against participating in the killing of Ikemefuna. Ezeudu was an important leader in the village and achieved three titles of the clan’s four, a rare accomplishment. During the large funeral, Okonkwo’s gun goes off, and Ezeudu’s sixteen-year-old son is killed accidentally.
Because the accidental killing of a clansman is a crime against the earth goddess, Okonkwo and his family must be exiled from Umuofia for seven years. The family moves to Okonkwo’s mother’s native village, Mbanta. After they depart Umuofia, a group of village men destroy Okonkwo’s compound and kill his animals to cleanse the village of Okonkwo’s sin. Obierika stores Okonkwo’s yams in his barn and wonders about the old traditions of the Igbo culture.
Okonkwo is welcomed to Mbanta by his maternal uncle, Uchendu, a village elder. He gives Okonkwo a plot of land on which to farm and build a compound for his family. But Okonkwo is depressed, and he blames his chi (or personal spirit) for his failure to achieve lasting greatness.
During Okonkwo’s second year in exile, he receives a visit from his best friend, Obierika, who recounts sad news about the village of Abame: After a white man rode into the village on a bicycle, the elders of Abame consulted their Oracle, which told them that the white man would destroy their clan and other clans. Consequently, the villagers killed the white man. But weeks later, a large group of men slaughtered the villagers in retribution. The village of Abame is now deserted.
Okonkwo and Uchendu agree that the villagers were foolish to kill a man whom they knew nothing about. Later, Obierika gives Okonkwo money that he received from selling Okonkwo’s yams and seed-yams, and he promises to do so until Okonkwo returns to Umuofia.
Six missionaries, including one white man, arrive in Mbanta. The white man speaks to the people about Christianity. Okonkwo believes that the man speaks nonsense, but his son, Nwoye, is captivated and becomes a convert of Christianity.
The Christian missionaries build a church on land given to them by the village leaders. However, the land is a part of the Evil Forest, and according to tradition, the villagers believe that the missionaries will die because they built their church on cursed land. But when nothing happens to the missionaries, the people of Mbanta conclude that the missionaries possess extraordinary power and magic. The first recruits of the missionaries are efulefu, the weak and worthless men of the village. Other villagers, including a woman, soon convert to Christianity. The missionaries then go to Umuofia and start a school. Nwoye leaves his father’s hut and moves to Umuofia so he can attend the school.
Okonkwo’s exile is over, so his family arranges to return to Umuofia. Before leaving Mbanta, they prepare a huge feast for Okonkwo’s mother’s kinsmen in appreciation of their gratitude during Okonkwo’s seven years of exile.
When Okonkwo returns to Umuofia, he discovers that the village has changed during his absence. Many men have renounced their titles and have converted to Christianity. The white men have built a prison; they have established a government court of law, where people are tried for breaking the white man’s laws; and they also employ natives of Umuofia. Okonkwo wonders why the Umuofians have not incited violence to rid the village of the white man’s church and oppressive government.
Some members of the Igbo clan like the changes in Umuofia. Mr. Brown, the white missionary, respects the Igbo traditions. He makes an effort to learn about the Igbo culture and becomes friendly with some of the clan leaders. He also encourages Igbo people of all ages to get an education. Mr. Brown tells Okonkwo that Nwoye, who has taken the name Isaac, is attending a teaching college. Nevertheless, Okonkwo is unhappy about the changes in Umuofia.
After Mr. Brown becomes ill and is forced to return to his homeland, Reverend James Smith becomes the new head of the Christian church. But Reverend Smith is nothing like Mr. Brown; he is intolerant of clan customs and is very strict.
Violence arises after Enoch, an overzealous convert to Christianity, unmasks an egwugwu. In retaliation, the egwugwu burn Enoch’s compound and then destroy the Christian church because the missionaries have caused the Igbo people many problems.
When the District Commissioner returns to Umuofia, he learns about the destruction of the church and asks six leaders of the village, including Okonkwo, to meet with him. The men are jailed until they pay a fine of two hundred and fifty bags of cowries. The people of Umuofia collect the money and pay the fine, and the men are set free.
The next day at a meeting for clansmen, five court messengers who intend to stop the gathering approach the group. Suddenly, Okonkwo jumps forward and beheads the man in charge of the messengers with his machete. When none of the other clansmen attempt to stop the messengers who escape, Okonkwo realizes that they will never go to war and that Umuofia will surrender. Everything has fallen apart for Okonkwo; he commits suicide by hanging himself.
The novel deals with the rise and fall of Okonkwo , a man from the village of Unuofia. Okonkwo was not born a great man, but he achieved success by his hard work. His father was a lazy man who preferred playing the flute to tending the soil. Okonkwo was opposed to his father‟s way of life, and always feared failure. In order to prove his ability, he had overthrown the greatest wrestler in nine villages, set himself up with three wives, two barns filled with yams and a reputation for being a hard worker. The reader learns that he was also one of the egwugwu–the masked spirits of the ancestors. His importance is proved when he is sent as an emissary to Mbaino in order to negotiate for hostages, and he returns successfully with a boy, Ikemefuna and a virgin.
Okonkwo has his faults, one of them being his impatience of less successful men and secondly his pride over his own status. His stern exterior conceals a love for Ikemefuna, who lives with him; an anxiety over his son Nwoye, who seems to take after his father; and an adoration for his daughter Ezinma. His fiery temperament leads to beating his second wife during the Week of Peace. He even shoots at her with his gun, but luckily he misses. This shows his short temper and a tendency to act on impulse, a tendency that backfires on him later on in the novel. The boy, Ikemefuna, is ordered to death by the Oracle of the Hills and Caves. Though Okonkwo is upset, he shows his fearlessness and impartiality by slaying the boy himself. His final fault against his tribe is when he unintentionally shoots a boy and kills him; for this he is banished from the village for seven years and has to live in his mother‟s village of Mbanta. This is a great disappointment for him although he is consoled and encouraged by his uncle, Uchendu.
The reader now hears of the arrival of the Christian missionaries, who take over the village of Mbanta, as well as Umuofia, set up a church and proceed to convert the tribesmen to Christianity. At first, they face much resistence, but gradually many of the tribesmen including Okonkwo‟s own son, Nwoye, are converted and follow the path of Christ. After his period of exile, Okonkwo returns to Umuofia with his family and finds it totally changed. The missionaries have done a lot for the village. Umuofia is prospering economically, but Okonkwo is firm in his refusal to charge his religion.
The missionary Mr. Brown is overzealous in his methods. A Christian named Enoch enters a meeting of the tribe in which the egwugwu is present, and he unmasks one of them. This causes great anger, and the villagers make a decision to destroy the church, which they eventually do. This action incites the wrath of the District Commissioner, who invites Okonkwo along with five other men and overpowers and imprisons them. These elders are humiliated in the prison. On their return, another meeting is held. The commissioner sends some men to stop the proceedings, and Okonkwo, in a fit of fury, beheads one of them. The tribe is disturbed and they let the other men escape. Finding no more support from his tribesmen, Okonkwo hangs himself. His world has fallen apart.
His tribesmen even refuse to cut him down and bury him since taking one‟s own life is a violation of the earth goddess, and his men would not bury such a man. His friend Obierika‟s words describe the tragedy most powerfully “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.”
Okonkwo‟s suicide is symbolic of the self-destruction of the tribe, for he was a symbol of the power and pride that the tribe had and with its demise, the tribe‟s moral center and structure gave way to a more dominant one. With his death, the old way of life is gone forever.
The major theme of the novel is that British colonization and the conversion to Christianity of tribal peoples has destroyed an intricate and traditional age-old way of life in Africa. The administrative apparatus that the British imposed on the cultures of Africa were thought to be just as well as civilizing although in reality they had the opposite effect of being cruel and inhumane practices that subjugated large native populations to the British. In conjunction with the colonizing practices, Western missionaries endeavored to move native peoples away from the superstitious practices that they perceived as primitive and inhumane and convert them to Christianity.
Another important theme that is explored in this book is the fallibility of a man like Okonkwo, who is ambitious and hardworking who believes strongly in his traditions. He wishes to achieve the highest title in his village but ultimately his rash and impetuous behavior leads to his fall. The reader also sees how Okonkwo refuses to break away from his traditional and religious values, which results in his own death. He refuses to conform to the forces of domination and therefore, one feels respect and admiration for such a strong individual.
One of the minor themes that Achebe addresses in this book is the complex and subtle rites and traditions that make up Igbo culture. Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart in response to representations of Africans as primitive or as “noble savages” by European writers. In his novel, Achebe explodes these Western constructions by presenting a society that is as complex and dynamic as any culture in Western society. His characters are also complex beings rather than stereotypes. It is in fact the white colonialists and missionaries who appear to be one-dimensional.
Along with the major theme of the destruction of African culture due to colonization, the readers also see how orthodox traditions and customs rule the people of the society. Absolute loyalty and obedience to the tribal religion is inculcated into the minds of the people from their childhood. Strict adherence to the laws, as well as gender roles create a community that is extremely close knit, but once this bond is broken, tribal ways give way easily and fall apart. This breakdown of society is seen as tragic as people suffer and communities become divisive.
The title of the book as well as the epigram sets the tone of the novel quite accurately. It comes from a W.B. Yeat‟s poem called “The Second Coming.” Yeats was a late 19th century Irish poet, essayist, and dramatist.
The actual verse that Achebe uses as his epigram is:
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.
Chaos and disruption pervade good portions of the novel as well as a sense of life being diminished and changing in ways that cannot be controlled. Throughout the novel, the mood is usually somber and tragic although there are moments of great celebration and joy during village ceremonies such as weddings and the Week of Peace. The villagers have strong faith and deep beliefs and do not allow any kind of laxness with their customs. Yet during the festival seasons or during the wrestling contests, the people lose some of their inhibitions and enjoy themselves.
The novel focuses on the downfall of Okonkwo and often conveys a sense of loss and tragedy. When the reader reads about the egwugwu, the marked representatives of the ancestral spirits, the mood conveyed is extremely dramatic and even frightening.
For many writers, the theme of a novel is the driving force of the book during its creation. Even if the author doesn’t consciously identify an intended theme, the creative process is directed by at least one controlling idea — a concept or principle or belief or purpose significant to the author. The theme — often several themes — guides the author by controlling where the story goes, what the characters do, what mood is portrayed, what style evolves, and what emotional effects the story will create in the reader.
Igbo Society Complexity
From Achebe’s own statements, we know that one of his themes is the complexity of Igbo society before the arrival of the Europeans. To support this theme, he includes detailed descriptions of the justice codes and the trial process, the social and family rituals, the marriage customs, food production and preparation processes, the process of shared leadership for the community, religious beliefs and practices, and the opportunities for virtually every man to climb the clan’s ladder of success through his own efforts. The book may have been written more simply as a study of Okonkwo’s deterioration in character in an increasingly unsympathetic and incompatible environment, but consider what would have been lost had Achebe not emphasized the theme of the complex and dynamic qualities of the Igbo in Umuofia.
Clash of Cultures
Against Achebe’s theme of Igbo cultural complexity is his theme of the clash of cultures. This collision of cultures occurs at the individual and societal levels, and the cultural misunderstanding cuts both ways: Just as the uncompromising Reverend Smith views Africans as “heathens,” the Igbo initially criticize the Christians and the missionaries as “foolish.” For Achebe, the Africans’ misperceptions of themselves and of Europeans need realignment as much as do the misperceptions of Africans by the West. Writing as an African who had been “Europeanized,” Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart as “an act of atonement with [his] past, the ritual return and homage of a prodigal son.” By his own act, he encourages other Africans, especially ones with Western educations, to realize that they may misperceive their native culture.
Related to the theme of cultural clash is the issue of how much the flexibility or the rigidity of the characters (and by implication, of the British and Igbo) contribute to their destiny. Because of Okonkwo’s inflexible nature, he seems destined for self-destruction, even before the arrival of the European colonizers. The arrival of a new culture only hastens Okonkwo’s tragic fate.
Two other characters contrast with Okonkwo in this regard: Mr. Brown, the first missionary, and Obierika, Okonkwo’s good friend. Whereas Okonkwo is an unyielding man of action, the other two are more open and adaptable men of thought. Mr. Brown wins converts by first respecting the traditions and beliefs of the Igbo and subsequently allowing some accommodation in the conversion process. Like Brown, Obierika is also a reasonable and thinking person. He does not advocate the use of force to counter the colonizers and the opposition. Rather, he has an open mind about changing values and foreign culture: “Who knows what may happen tomorrow?” he comments about the arrival of foreigners. Obierika’s receptive and adaptable nature may be more representative of the spirit of Umuofia than Okonkwo’s unquestioning rigidity.
For example, consider Umuofia’s initial lack of resistance to the establishment of a new religion in its midst. With all its deep roots in tribal heritage, the community hardly takes a stand against the intruders — against new laws as well as new religion. What accounts for this lack of community opposition? Was Igbo society more receptive and adaptable than it appeared to be? The lack of strong initial resistance may also come from the fact that the Igbo society does not foster strong central leadership. This quality encourages individual initiative toward recognition and achievement but also limits timely decision-making and the authority-backed actions needed on short notice to maintain its integrity and welfare. Whatever the reason — perhaps a combination of these reasons — the British culture and its code of behavior, ambitious for its goals of native “enlightenment” as well as of British self-enrichment, begin to encroach upon the existing Igbo culture and its corresponding code of behavior.
A factor that hastens the decline of the traditional Igbo society is their custom of marginalizing some of their people — allowing the existence of an outcast group and keeping women subservient in their household and community involvement, treating them as property, and accepting physical abuse of them somewhat lightly. When representatives of a foreign culture (beginning with Christian missionaries) enter Igbo territory and accept these marginalized people — including the twins — at their full human value, the Igbo’s traditional shared leadership finds itself unable to control its whole population. The lack of a clear, sustaining center of authority in Igbo society may be the quality that decided Achebe to draw his title from the Yeats poem, “The Second Coming.” The key phrase of the poems reads, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.”
Underlying the aforementioned cultural themes is a theme of fate, or destiny. This theme is also played at the individual and societal levels. In the story, readers are frequently reminded about this theme in references to chi, the individual’s personal god as well as his ultimate capability and destiny. Okonkwo, at his best, feels that his chi supports his ambition: “When a man says yes, his chi says yes also” (Chapter 4). At his worst, Okonkwo feels that his chi has let him down: His chi “was not made for great things. A man could not rise beyond the destiny of his chi. . . . Here was a man whose chi said nay despite his own affirmation” (Chapter 14).
At the societal level, the Igbos’ lack of a unifying self-image and centralized leadership as well as their weakness in the treatment of some of their own people — both previously discussed — suggest the inevitable fate of becoming victim to colonization by a power eager to exploit its resources.
In addition to the three themes discussed in this essay, the thoughtful reader will probably be able to identify other themes in the novel: for example, the universality of human motives and emotions across cultures and time, and the need for balance between individual needs and community needs.
Use of English
Choosing a Language
Achebe maintains the opposite view. In a 1966 essay reprinted in his book Morning Yet on Creation Day, he says that, by using English, he presents “a new voice coming out of Africa, speaking of African experience in a world-wide language.” He recommends that the African writer use English “in a way that brings out his message best without altering the language to the extent that its value as a medium of international exchange will be lost. The writer should aim at fashioning out an English which is at once universal and able to carry his peculiar experience.” Achebe accomplishes this goal by innovatively introducing Igbo language, proverbs, metaphors, speech rhythms, and ideas into a novel written in English.
Achebe agrees, however, with many of his fellow African writers on one point: The African writer must write for a social purpose. In contrast to Western writers and artists who create art for art’s sake, many African writers create works with one mission in mind — to reestablish their own national culture in the postcolonial era. In a 1964 statement, also published in Morning Yet on Creation Day, Achebe comments that
African people did not hear of culture for the first time from Europeans. . . . their societies were not mindless, but frequently had a philosophy of great depth and value and beauty, . . . they had poetry, and above all, they had dignity. It is this dignity that African people all but lost during the colonial period, and it is this that they must now regain.
To further his aim of disseminating African works to a non-African audience, Achebe became the founding editor for a series on African literature — the African Writers Series — for the publishing firm Heinemann.
The Use of English
Achebe presents the complexities and depths of an African culture to readers of other cultures as well as to readers of his own culture. By using English — in which he has been proficient since childhood — he reaches many more readers and has a much greater literary impact than he would by writing in a language such as Igbo. Writers who write in their native language must eventually allow their works to be translated, often into English, so readers outside the culture can learn about it.
Yet by using English, Achebe faces a problem. How can he present the African heritage and culture in a language that can never describe it adequately? Indeed, one of the primary tasks of Things Fall Apart is to confront this lack of understanding between the Igbo culture and the colonialist culture. In the novel, the Igbo ask how the white man can call Igbo customs bad when he does not even speak the Igbo language. An understanding of Igbo culture can only be possible when the outsider can relate to the Igbo language and terminology.
Achebe solves this problem by incorporating elements of the Igbo language into his novel. By incorporating Igbo words, rhythms, language, and concepts into an English text about his culture, Achebe goes a long way to bridge a cultural divide.
The Igbo vocabulary is merged into the text almost seamlessly so the reader understands the meaning of most Igbo words by their context. Can any attentive reader of Things Fall Apart remain unfamiliar with words and concepts represented by chi, egwugwu, ogbanje, and obi? Such Igbo terms as chi and ogbanje are essentially untranslatable, but by using them in the context of his story, Achebe helps the non-Igbo reader identify with and relate to this complex Igbo culture.
Chi, for example, represents a significant, complex Igbo concept that Achebe repeatedly refers to by illustrating the concept in various contexts throughout the story. Achebe translates chi as personal god when he first mentions Unoka’s bad fortune. As the book progresses, it gradually picks up other nuances. As discussed in the Analysis section for Chapter 3, the chi concept is more complex than a personal deity or even fate, another frequently used synonym. Chi suggests elements of the Hindu concept of karma, the concept of the soul in some Christian denominations, and the concept of individuality in some mystical philosophies. The understanding of chi and its significance in Igbo culture grows as one progresses through the book.
Another example of Achebe’s incorporation of Igbo elements is his frequent reference to traditional Igbo proverbs and tales. These particular elements give Things Fall Apart an authentic African voice. The Igbo culture is fundamentally an oral one — that is, “Among the Igbo, the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten” (Chapter1). To provide an authentic feel for Igbo culture would be impossible without also allowing the proverbs to play a significant role in the novel. And despite the foreign origin of these proverbs and tales, the Western reader can relate very well to many of them. They are woven smoothly into their context and require only occasional explanation or elaboration. These proverbs and tales are, in fact, quite similar in spirit to Western sayings and fables.
Modern-day readers of this novel not only relate easily to traditional proverbs and tales but also sympathize with the problems of Okonkwo, Nwoye, and other characters. Achebe has skillfully developed his characters, and even though they live in a different era and a very different culture, one can readily understand their motivations and their feelings because they are universal and timeless.
Speech patterns and rhythms are occasionally used to represent moments of high emotion and tension. Consider the sound of the drums in the night in Chapter 13 (go-di-di-go-go-di-go); the call repeated several times to unite a gathering followed by its group response, first described in Chapter 2 (Umuofia kwenu. . .Yaa!); the agonized call of the priestess seeking Ezinma in Chapter 11 (Agbala do-o-o-o!); the repetitious pattern of questions and answers in the isa-ifi marriage ritual in Chapter14; the long narrated tale of Tortoise in Chapter 11; and the excerpts from songs in several chapters.
Achebe adds another twist in his creative use of language by incorporating a few examples of Pidgin English. Pidgin is a simplified form of language used for communicating between groups of people who normally speak different languages. Achebe uses only a few Pidgin words or phrases — tie-tie (to tie); kotma (a crude form of court messenger); and Yes, sah — just enough to suggest that a form of Pidgin English was being established. As colonialists, the British were adept at installing Pidgin English in their new colonies. Unfortunately, Pidgin sometimes takes on characteristics of master-servant communication; it can sound patronizing on the one hand, and subservient on the other. Furthermore, using the simplified language can become an easy excuse for not learning the standard languages for which it substitutes.
Achebe’s use of Igbo language, speech patterns, proverbs, and richly drawn characters creates an authentic African story that effectively bridges the cultural and historical gap between the reader and the Igbo. Things Fall Apart is a groundbreaking work for many reasons, but particularly because Achebe’s controlled use of the Igbo language in an English novel extends the boundaries of what is considered English fiction. Achebe’s introduction of new forms and language into a traditional (Western) narrative structure to communicate unique African experiences forever changed the definition of world literature.
Pronunciation of Igbo Names and Words
Like Chinese, the Igbo language is a tonal one; that is, differences in the actual voice pitch and the rise or fall of a word or phrase can produce different meanings. In Chapter 16, for example, Achebe describes how the missionary’s translator, though an Igbo, can not pronounce the Mbanto Igbo dialect: “Instead of saying ‘myself’ he always said ‘my buttocks.’” (The form k means strength while k means buttocks.)
Igbo names usually represent meanings — often entire ideas. Some names reflect the qualities that a parent wishes to bestow on a child; for example, Ikemefuna means my power should not be dispersed. Other names reflect the time, area, or other circumstances to which a child is born; for example, Okoye means man born on Oye Day, the second day of the Igbo week. And Igbo parents also give names to honor someone or something else; for instance, Nneka means mother is supreme.
Prior to Nigerian independence in 1960, the spelling of Igbo words was not standardized. Thus the word Igbo is written as Ibo, the pre-1960 spelling throughout Things Fall Apart. The new spellings reflect a more accurate understanding and pronunciation of Igbo words. The List of Characters includes a pronunciation that uses equivalent English syllables for most of the main characters’ names.
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