Chinua Achebe was born in the colony of Niger in 1930, to Ibo parents who were Christian converts. He attended British-style schools in Nigeria, including University College, Ibadeen, and graduated from London University in 1953.
Achebe’s first novel, Things Fall Apart, is a classic of African literature. Among all the colonial governments in Africa, the British in Nigeria fostered first education in its territory. As a result, Nigerian writers preceded those in other areas of Africa. Things Fall Apart is noted as the first African novel. Achebe, a master of his craft, also wrote No Longer at Ease (1960), Arrow of God (1964), A Man of the People (1966), and Anthills of the Savannah (1987). Achebe also published poetry, short stories, and essays.
In Things Fall Apart and in his later novels, Achebe wanted to counter demeaning and incorrect stereotypes of his people and Eurocentric presentations of the confrontation between the Ibo of Nigeria and the British intruders. In his novels, Achebe admits, he strives for artistic excellence but also wants to give a message. Just as the oral tradition of the Ibo people served their society by sustaining its values, so the modern Ibo, writing in English, should serve Ibo society.
In Things Fall Apart, Achebe combines the Ibo oral tradition’s narrative style with the Western world’s traditional novel form. In novel form Achebe narrates an African tale in African style. The novel’s narrative voice could be Achebe’s or it could be the voice of a village elder. In either case, the voice is connected to the world of the novel. Though the voice is objective, it is also a part of the scene depicted.
To achieve an African voice, Achebe uses plain, short, declarative sentences. Also, throughout the novel, characters narrate or listen to traditional stories from the society’s past and stories that illustrate and teach the culture’s values. The novel opens with the retelling of Okonkwo’s exploits in a traditional wrestling match, the ritual by which young men proved themselves worthy of a high place in their clan.
Achebe weaves Ibo proverbs into the novel’s dialogue, to clarify a point, to teach a lesson, and, usually, to provide humor. Also, many Ibo words are used in the text without translation. Some of these can be understood by the reader through context, but others remain mysterious and create a distance between the non-Ibo reader and the Ibo world of Things Fall Apart. Taken together, sentence structure, Umuofian stories, proverbs, and language create a memorable colloquial narrative voice.
The novel’s structure, on the other hand, is formal. There are twenty-five chapters: thirteen in book 1, six in book 2, and six in book 3. The pivotal chapter about Okonkwo’s accidental shooting of a young boy and his subsequent banishment is at the book’s center, in chapter 13. Achebe establishes the nature of the Umuofian society and Okonkwo’s character in book 1. In book 2 tension heightens as the outsiders appear. In book 3 the conflict comes to a head when Okonkwo kills the clerk and his people retreat before the power of the new government. The novel’s last page has the required unexpected yet inevitable ending. The novel is a very orderly work.
To return to character, Things Fall Apart presents Okonkwo as a tragic hero who struggles against internal and external forces and meets a tragic end. Obereika calls his fallen friend a “great man.” The hero is a complex man with both strengths and weaknesses. At the novel’s start Okonkwo’s deep shame about his father’s failure motivates him to become a respected man, an exemplar of all that is valued in his society. His accomplishments feed his pride and cause his rigidity. His pride, rigidity, and short temper lead to sins against the gods of his people and criticism from his chi. Finally, Okonkwo is banned from his fatherland for seven years and, when he returns home, kills in anger. Okonkwo then takes his own life, the greatest sin against the gods of his people. His is a tragic end.
The plot line of Okonkwo’s struggle and fall reveals not only his complex character but also the strong social fabric of the Umuofian people. Like Okonkwo’s character, this society is complex, having both strengths and weaknesses. Its traditions create a stable community in which each individual finds meaning. The oral storytelling and rituals for planting, harvesting, and human passage sustain an orderly society. Some of the harsher customs, such as killing the innocent Ikemefuna, exiling Okonkwo for an accidental killing, and banishing some persons to live their entire lives as outcasts, raise doubts about the ultimate wisdom of Umuofian customs. Some, like Nwoye and Obereika, question what was always done and suggest that change is necessary. Others, like Okonkwo, stand fast in defense of the tradition. When the newcomers come with a new religion and laws, the fabric of Umuofian society weakens.
The newcomers also have strengths and weaknesses. They offer a gentler religion and different laws. Their excessive zeal and righteousness, however, provoke the anger of the people the newcomers want to win over. Finally, the Umuofian people and the newcomers share a common weakness. Few attempt to learn each other’s language, customs, or beliefs. Conflict is inevitable. The situation and characters that Achebe draws in his novel are fraught with complexity. It is this complexity, as well as Achebe’s masterful writing style, that make Things Fall Apart a classic novel.