The Author and His/Her Times: Things Fall Apart was published in 1958 and was written by Chinua Achebe, who was born in Nigeria on November 16, 1930 and died on March 21, 2013. His family was a part of the Igbo tribe, where Chinua was the fifth of six children. Chinua Achebe grew up in the Igbo town of Ogidi, Nigeria. Although Chinua Achebe was raised as a Christian, he still remained curious about the traditional Nigerian faiths. At the age of fourteen, Chinua was selected to attend Government College, which is a highly selective school in Umuahia. He attended school there from 1944 to 1947 and upon graduation, accepted a scholarship to study medicine at the University College in Ibadan. Although, after one year, Chinua decided to study English literature instead, thus forfeiting his scholarship. After graduating in 1953, Chinua Achebe took a position as talks producer for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation. Chinua Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart because he was tired of reading white men’s accounts about how Africans were socially backward and wanted to convey a deeper understanding of African culture.
Form, Structure and Plot: Written in chronological order, Things Fall Apart is two hundred and nine pages long with twenty-five chapters. Although the book doesn’t tell the reader exactly how much time is covered, one can assume that the story takes place for over ten years. An example of a flashback in this novel would be when it talks about how Okonkwo’s father was a lazy man with high amounts of debt. It explains why Okonkwo works hard to overcome the shame of having a father with no social standing. When Okonkwo kills Ikemefuna out of fear that he will be seen as a coward, this foreshadows, when much later in the novel, Okonkwo kills the court messenger. This fear was born of his pride, which led him to kill these two men and later kill himself. The novel has a simple plot beginning with the author describing how Okonkwo became well known throughout the nine villages by defeating Amalinze the Cat in a wrestling match. The story then explains how Okonkwo built up his yam farm and upheld it through numerous natural disasters. Ikemefuna is given to Okonkwo to be looked after for three years. During the Week of Peace, he commits a crime against the Earth by beating his wife. Three years after being given Ikemefuna to take care of, the clan leaders inform Okonkwo of their decision to kill the boy. Although he doesn’t have to, Okonkwo partakes in killing Ikemefuna and is then haunted by his guilt. While attending, a man named Ezeudu’s funeral, Okonkwo accidentally shoots and kills Ezeudu’s sixteen-year-old son. As a punishment for this crime, Okonkwo and his family must flee to his motherland and can only return after several years. Obierika informs Okonkwo that Nwoye was seen among the christian converts in Umuofia, and after questioning his son about his whereabouts, Okonkwo disowns Nwoye. After returning to Umuofia, Okonkwo passively watches the coming and going of the christian missionaries unable to do anything. When a man named Enoch unmasks an egwugwu, the leaders of Umuofia and Okonkwo destroy the missionaries church in retaliation. Okonkwo and five other clan leaders are invited by the District Commissioner to discuss the destruction of the church, where they are then imprisoned and beaten until the clan agrees to provide two hundred bags of cowries to release the imprisoned men. Angered by this, Okonkwo kills a messenger sent by the District Commissioner and after realizing that Umuofia will not fight back against the missionaries, he kills himself. In the beginning of this novel, Umuofia is practicing their traditional beliefs and they are united as one clan but nearing the end of the story, many tribe members have converted to christianity and the clan itself has become broken and separated.
Point of View: Things Fall Apart is written in third person omniscient but the main character is Okonkwo. The novel is in the past tense and is a recent perspective. There are a few shifts in point of view during the story such as when Ekwefi follows Chielo, the priestess, who has taken Ezinma to the god Agbala in the caves. The effect the author achieves with the point of view is being able to show how the other characters in the story feel or think about the situation around them. In choosing this point of view, Chinua Achebe seems to want the readers to know more about the way the environment and events are perceived by the diverse characters in the story.
Character: Okonkwo is a static and round character who is revealed through his harsh actions towards those around him and is Things Fall Apart’s protagonist. There are many different characters throughout the story, with some minor and some major ones. The role of the minor characters was to carry the story along and either help or discourage the central characters. Some major characters in this story are Okonkwo, Ezinma, Ekwefi, Nwoye and Mr. Brown. Okonkwo is between 28-40 years old throughout the novel. He’s aggressive, stubborn and determined to succeed in the clan unlike his father, Unoka. Throughout the story, Okonkwo makes decisions based off of the fear of being seen as weak. “Dazed with fear, Okonkwo drew his machete and cut him (Ikemefuna) down. He was afraid of being thought weak.” (page 61). At this point in the story, the readers are shown again that Okonkwo cannot stand being seen as weak. During the entirety of the book, Okonkwo struggles to uphold his social standing in the clan and nearing the end, he continuously fights against the missionaries. Nwoye, however, is first introduced in the story as a kind-hearted, caring child who became a brave young man by the book’s end. When Ikemefuna is put under Okonkwo’s care, Nwoye takes an immediate liking to him and is greatly upset with his father when Ikemefuna is killed. Nwoye became afraid of his father after he killed Ikemefuna and kept away from him. “He called his son, Nwoye, to sit with him in his obi. But the boy was afraid of him and slipped out of the hut as soon as he noticed him dozing.” (page 63). Ezinma was a beautiful, hard-working, and understanding young girl. Her father favored her and often wished she was a boy because of how strong and capable she was. She is fierce and often asks to do things only men are supposed to do. “ “‘Yes,’ he answered. ‘Will you go?’ ‘Yes.’ And after a pause she said: ‘Can I bring your chair for you?’ ‘No that is a boy’s job.’” (page 44). Okonkwo’s second wife, Ekwefi, is a brave loving woman who is also quite stubborn. After losing many children during her pregnancies, Ezinma was finally the only one to survive. Ekwefi and her daughter share a stronger bond than most mothers and daughters. Ezinma was often allowed to do forbidden things with her mother in Ekwefi’s bedroom such as eating eggs. While trying to bear a healthy child, Ekwefi grew bitter, but once Ezinma survived, her motherly love returned to her as she cared for her daughter. “By the time Onwumbiko died Ekwefi had become a very bitter woman…At last Ezinma was born, and although ailing she seemed determined to live. At first Ekwefi accepted her, as she had accepted others-with listless resignation. But when she lived on to her fourth, fifth and sixth years, love returned once more to her mother.” (page 79). Later in the novel, Mr. Brown is introduced as the first white christian missionary to arrive in Umuofia. He was a understanding and accommodating man who respected and was willing to listen to the people of Umuofia. Instead of trying to destroy the Igbo culture, Mr. Brown tries continuously to understand it. “And so Mr. Brown came to be respected even by the clan, because he trod softly on its faith…One of the great men in that village was called Akunna and he had given one of his sons to be taught the white man’s knowledge in Mr. Brown’s school. Whenever Mr. Brown went to that village he spent long hours with Akunna in his obi talking through an interpreter about religion. Neither of them succeeded in converting the other but they learned more about their different beliefs.” (pages 178-179)
Setting: This novel takes place in a Umuofia, a village in Nigeria around the mid-1800s. The environment of this story is described as many different places such as the forest near the village being called the “Evil Forest” and “the cold harmattan wind blowing down from the north.” In this story, Chinua Achebe uses the setting to convey how life was like in Umuofia, Nigeria in that time period. The atmosphere that is created by the setting is a sense of calmness and relief as well as tough and dry.
Diction: Things Fall Apart is written formally because of the proper and advanced use of the language in this novel, such as “His priestess stood by the sacred fire which she built in the heart of the cave and proclaimed the will of the god. The fire did not burn with a flame. The glowing logs only served to light up vaguely the dark figure of the priestess.” (page 16-17). Imagery is common throughout the novel, such as when Okonkwo’s wives are telling their children stories of how things came to be. Throughout the story Okonkwo was referred to as “The Roaring Flame”. “Okonkwo was popularly called ‘The Roaring Flame.’ As he looked into the log fire he recalled the name. He was a flaming fire.” (page 153). Some irony in this novel would be that Okonkwo’s eldest son, Nwoye, was not the man his father wanted him to be and left to join the Christians while Ezinma would’ve been perfect to take over Okonkwo’s role but she is a woman and could not. The language used in this novel is straight-forward which indicates that Chinua Achebe was well educated. Dialogue is used fairly often but is rarely different from the narrative voice. The manner of speaking in the dialogue differentiates from character to character based on their social standing in the clan.
Concrete Detail/Imagery: Imagery can be found in numerous places throughout the novel such as when Okonkwo’s wives tell their children stories or when they are decorating the compound huts for the New Yam Festival. When Ekwefi tells Ezinma the story of how the tortoise had come to have such a bumpy shell, it serves as a lesson to the children about the consequences of selfish and rude behavior. In the story, the tortoise is selfish and uses the bird’s generosity against them and feasts on all of the good food prepared for them by the sky people. In retaliation, each bird takes back the feather that they leant to him as they depart, leaving the tortoise in the sky with no means of safely getting down. “The birds gathered round to eat what was left and to peck at the bones he had thrown all about the floor… But before they left each took back the feather he had leant to Tortoise. And there he stood in his hard shell full of food and wine but without any wings to fly home.” (pages 98-99). In preparation for the New Yam Festival, “Okonkwo’s wives had scrubbed the walls and the huts with red earth until they reflected light. They had then drawn patterns on them in white, yellow and dark green.” (page 37). By using this imagery, the author informs the reader of how important the festival is for the people of Umuofia and through the specific choice of words the reader can clearly picture the events playing out in the novel.
Symbolism: Things Fall Apart has many different symbolic meanings throughout the story such as fire and the locusts. Fire represents Okonkwo’s unpredictable and destructive personality as well as his masculinity and anger. Although Okonkwo often tries to prove his masculinity, he ends up destroying the lives of the people around him. “And then the storm burst. Okonkwo, who had been walking about aimlessly in his compound in suppressed anger, suddenly found an outlet. ‘Who killed this banana tree?’ he asked… As a matter of fact the tree was very much alive. Okonkwo’s second wife had merely cut a few leaves off it to wrap some food, and she said so. Without further argument Okonkwo gave her a sound beating and left her and her only daughter weeping… His anger thus satisfied, Okonkwo decided to go out hunting… And so when he called Ikemefuna to fetch his gun, the wife who had just been beaten murmured something about guns that never shot. Unfortunately for her, Okonkwo heard it and ran madly into his room for the loaded gun, ran out again and aimed at her as she clambered over the dwarf wall of the barn.” (page 38-39). The locusts, however, symbolize the white missionaries descending upon the people of Umuofia. The villagers believed that the locusts would bring good to their community, but they also has some troublesome encounters as well. The arrival of the locusts is described as sudden and takes the people off guard, which is extremely similar to how the missionaries arrived. “And then the locusts came… They came in the cold harmattan season after the harvests had been gathered, and ate up all the wild grass in the fields.” (page 54).
Figurative Language(Tropes): There are many uses of figurative language throughout the novel including metaphors, similes, personification and allusions. The title itself is an allusion to the poem “The Second Coming” written by the Irish poet, William Butler Yeats. An example of personification would be when yams were described as demanding the hard worker of the farmer. “Yam, the king of crops, was a very exacting king. For three or four moons it demanded hard work and constant attention from cock-crow till the chickens went back to roost.” (page 33). There were multiple similes in the story such as “The earth burned like hot coals and roasted all the yams that had been sown.” (page 23). The simile uses the comparison of hot coals to the earth to show the reader how hot and miserable it is at that time. “He (Okonkwo) knew that he was a fierce fighter, but that year had been enough to break the heart of a lion.” (page 24). In this metaphor, it explains that although Okonkwo was a strong, capable man, the hardships of the year were enough to break his spirit and confidence, but still he prevailed. The figurative language in this novel is used to hold the author’s thoughts and deeper meanings behind common phrases.
Ironic Devices: There are many examples of irony throughout Things Fall Apart which are mostly used to signify the opposite of what the author means to say. In the beginning of the novel, Okonkwo’s son, Nwoye, seems to be following in his Okonkwo’s footsteps as he helps out with the farm but nearing the end of the novel, Nwoye leaves behind his father and his inheritance of the farm to convert to Christianity, which is a form of situational irony. An example of a hyperbole in the novel is “ ‘The market of Umuike is a wonderful place,’ said the young man who had been sent by Obierika to buy the giant goat. ‘There are so many people on it that if you threw up a grain of sand it would not find a way to fall to the earth again.’” (page 113).
Tone: The tone of this novel is ironic and formal because of the multiple uses of irony throughout the novel and how formally written the novel is. The tone of the narrator also carries a bit of annoyance for Okonkwo as he complains about his hardships. This can be seen through the plot of the novel when the author expresses his feelings through the words of another character. “You think you are the greatest sufferer in the world? Do you know that men are sometimes banished for life? Do you know that men sometimes lose all their yams and even their children?” (Page 135). The author expresses his annoyance at Okonkwo for wallowing in self pity through the words of Okonkwo’s uncle, Uchendu.
Theme: The central theme in Things Fall Apart is Okonkwo and the clan’s struggle between the changing world around them and their traditions. A secondary theme in this story is the clash of the people of Umuofia’s culture and the culture of the white missionaries. The most commonly used motif throughout the novel is the concept of chi, which is an individual’s personal god. Okonkwo’s fate in the end of the novel can be seen as the result of his troublesome chi. “Clearly his personal god or chi was not made for great things. A man could not rise beyond the destiny of his chi.” The author’s intention was to show the reader that even a man of great willpower and strength cannot outrun or change his own destiny.
Significance of the Title: The title of this novel is significant because it is an allusion to the poem “The Second Coming” written by the Irish poet, William Butler Yeats. The message Chinua Achebe conveys with this title is that nothing ever stays exactly the same, things will change and things will fall apart. For the reader, the title’s meaning doesn’t change from before or after reading the novel. The title still contains the message of everything will fall apart eventually.
Memorable Quotes: “How do you think we can fight when our own brothers have turned against us? The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We are 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.” (Obierika; Chapter 20, Page 176). In this quote, the author sums up how the white missionaries were able to gain control in the Ibo community, where the people of Umuofia are now against their own clansmen due to the missionaries actions. Throughout the story, Okonkwo’s actions are a result of his fear of failure and being seen as weak, which lead to many unfortunate events. “Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and weakness. It was deeper and more intimate that the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic… Okonkwo’s fear was greater than these. It was not external but lay deep within himself.” (Narrator; Chapter 2, Page 13). “At the most one could say that his chi or personal god was good. But the Ibo people have a proverb that when a man says yes his chi says yes also. Okonkwo said yes very strongly; so his chi agreed.” (Narrator; Chapter 4, Page 27). The significance of this quote is that it tells the reader that although Okonkwo blames others for his mistakes and misfortunes, he is still responsible for his own undoing. “With a father like Unoka, Okonkwo did not have the start in life which many young men had. He neither inherited a barn nor a title, nor even a young wife. But in spite of these disadvantages, he had begun even in his father’s lifetime to lay the foundations of a prosperous future. It was slow and painful. But he threw himself into it like one possessed. And indeed he was possessed by the fear of his father’s contemptible life and shameful death.” (Narrator; chapter 3, Page 18). This quote shows just how hard Okonkwo worked to overcome the disgrace and fear of his father’s failures, which eventually led to his own demise. “ ‘I do not know how to thank you.’ ‘I can tell you,’ said Obierika. ‘Kill one of your sons for me.’ ‘That will not be enough,’ said Okonkwo. ‘Then kill yourself,’ said Obierika.” (Okonkwo and Obierika; Chapter 15, Page 142). This passage foreshadows the end of the novel in which Okonkwo actually does kill himself.
Research/Literary Criticism: I read the article “Reading As A Woman: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart And Feminist Criticism” by Linda Strong-Leek. From this article I realized that throughout the novel, the mistreatment of women is looked over quite often. I also noticed after reading this article that the author writes in a way to keep the readers feeling pity for Okonkwo even as he beats his wives for unnecessary reasons. The only time any of the other characters, other than Okonkwo’s wives, show concern for the mistreated women is when Okonkwo beats his wife during the Week of Peace.
Additional Comments: I thoroughly enjoyed this novel although I still have some lingering questions about what happened to Okonkwo’s wives and children after he died or what happened specifically to Ezinma or Nwoye. After reading this novel, I definitely have a different outlook on African culture and expect that the morals of this story will stay in my mind for a long time.