Study Guide

Things Fall Apart

by Chinua Achebe

Things Fall Apart Essay - Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe

Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe

Introduction

Things Fall Apart Chinua Achebe

(Full name Albert Chinualumogu Achebe) Nigerian novelist, essayist, poet, short story writer, and children's writer.

The following entry presents criticism on Achebe's Things Fall Apart (1958). For further information on his life and works, see CLC Volumes 1, 3, 5, 7, 11, 26, and 127.

Things Fall Apart (1958) is one of the most widely read and studied African novels ever written. Critics have viewed the work as Achebe's answer to the limited and often inaccurate presentation of Nigerian life and customs found in literature written by powers of the colonial era. Achebe does not paint an idyllic picture of pre-colonial Africa, but instead shows Igbo society with all its flaws as well as virtues. The novel's title is taken from W. B. Yeats's poem “The Second Coming.”

Plot and Major Characters

Things Fall Apart traces life in the Igbo village of Umuofia, Nigeria, just before and after its initial contact with European colonists and their Christian religion. The novel focuses on Okonkwo, an ambitious and inflexible clan member trying to overcome the legacy of his weak father. The clan does not judge men on their father's faults, and Okonkwo's status is based on his own achievements. He is a great wrestler, a brave warrior, and a respected member of the clan who endeavors to uphold its traditions and customs. He lives for the veneration of his ancestors and their ways. Okonkwo's impetuousness and rigidness, however, often pit him against the laws of the clan, as when he beats his wife during the Week of Peace. The first part of the novel traces Okonkwo's successes and failures within the clan. In the second part he is finally exiled when he shoots at his wife and accidentally hits a clansman. According to clan law, his property is destroyed, and he must leave his father's land for seven years. He flees to his mother's homeland, which is just beginning to experience contact with Christian missionaries. Okonkwo is anxious to return to Umuofia, but finds upon his return—the third part of the novel—that life has also begun to change there as well. The Christian missionaries have made inroads into the culture of the clan through its disenfranchised members. Shortly after his return, Okonkwo's own son leaves for the mission school, disgusted by his father's participation in the death of a boy that his family had taken in and treated as their own. Okonkwo eventually stands up to the missionaries in an attempt to protect his culture, but when he kills a British messenger, Okonkwo realizes that he stands alone, and kills himself. Ironically, suicide is considered the ultimate disgrace by the clan, and his people are unable to bury him.

Major Themes

The main theme of Things Fall Apart focuses on the clash between traditional Igbo society and the culture and religion of the colonists. Achebe wrote the novel in English but incorporated into the prose a rhythm that conveyed a sense of African oral storytelling. He also used traditional African images including the harmattan (an African dust-laden wind) and palm oil, as well as Igbo proverbs. In an effort to show the clash between the two cultures, Achebe presented traditional Christian symbols and then described the clan's contrasting reactions to them. For instance, in Christianity, locusts are a symbol of destruction and ruin, but the Umuofians rejoice at their coming because they are a source of food. The arrival of the locusts comes directly before the arrival of the missionaries in the novel. Transition is another major theme of the novel and is expressed through the changing nature of Igbo society. Several references are made throughout the narrative to faded traditions in the clan, emphasizing the changing nature of its laws and customs. Colonization is a time of great transition in Umuofia and the novel focuses on Okonkwo's rigidity in the face of this change. Other themes include duality, the nature of religious belief, and individualism versus community.

Critical Reception

Reviewers have praised Achebe's neutral narration and have described Things Fall Apart as a realistic novel. Much of the critical discussion about Things Fall Apart concentrates on the socio-political aspects of the novel, including the friction between the members of Igbo society as they are confronted with the intrusive and overpowering presence of Western government and beliefs. Ernest N. Emenyonu commented that, “Things Fall Apart is indeed a classic study of cross-cultural misunderstanding and the consequences to the rest of humanity, when a belligerent culture or civilization, out of sheer arrogance and ethnocentrism, takes it upon itself to invade another culture, another civilization.” One of the issues that critics have continued to discuss is whether Okonkwo serves as an embodiment of the values of Umuofia or stands in conflict with them. This discussion often centers around the question of Okonkwo's culpability in the killing of the boy, Ikemefuna. Many critics have argued that Okonkwo was wrong and went against the clan when he became involved in killing the boy. Other reviewers have asserted that he was merely fulfilling the command of the Oracle of the Hills and Caves. Several critics have compared Things Fall Apart to a Greek tragedy and Okonkwo to a tragic hero. Aron Aji and Kirstin Lynne Ellsworth have stated, “As numerous critics have observed, Okonkwo is at once an allegorical everyman figure embodying the existential paradoxes of the Igbo culture in transition, and a great tragic hero in the tradition of Oedipus, Antigone, and Lear.” Some critics have complimented Achebe's choice to write in the language of the colonizers, lauding his artful use of the English language. Several reviewers have also noted his use of African images and proverbs to convey African culture and oral storytelling. Arlene A. Elder has asserted, “Achebe's use of proverbial language enhances the richness of Things Fall Apart, and the author points out that ‘[a]mong the Igbo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten.’”

Principal Works

Things Fall Apart (novel) 1958

No Longer at Ease (novel) 1960

The Sacrificial Egg and Other Stories (short stories) 1962

Arrow of God (novel) 1964

Chike and the River (juvenilia) 1966

A Man of the People (novel) 1966

Christmas in Biafra and Other Poems (poetry) 1973

Morning Yet on Creation Day (essays) 1975

The Trouble with Nigeria (essays) 1983

Anthills of the Savannah (novel) 1987

The Voter (novel) 1994

Another Africa (poetry and essays) 1997

Conversations with Chinua Achebe (interviews) 1997

Home and Exile (novel) 2000

Criticism

Jeffrey Meyers (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: “Culture and History in Things Fall Apart,” in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. 11, No. 1, 1969, pp. 25–32.

[In the following essay, Meyers discusses Achebe's presentation of both the positive and negative elements of tribal society in Things Fall Apart.]

The novels of Chinua Achebe, the best of the new generation of West Africans writing in English,1 begin with the coming of the white man to the bush and end in contemporary Lagos, and show the process of moral and cultural disintegration that results from colonialism. The novels reveal the changing perspectives of each succeeding generation, which have also been described by...

(The entire section is 2958 words.)

Solomon O. Iyasere (essay date Spring 1974)

SOURCE: “Narrative Techniques in Things Fall Apart,” in New Letters, Vol. 40, No. 3, Spring, 1974, pp. 73–93.

[In the following essay, Iyasere analyzes the complexity of the narrative technique in Things Fall Apart.]

No West African fiction in English has received as much critical attention as Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe's first and most impressive novel. In defending its importance, most critics link its value solely to its theme, which they take to be the disintegration of an almost Edenic traditional society as a result of its contact and conflict with Western practices and beliefs. These enthusiastic critics, such as Gleason and Killam, are...

(The entire section is 7089 words.)

Richard Priebe (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: “Fate and Divine Justice in Things Fall Apart,” in Neo-African Literature and Culture: Essays in Memory of Janheinz Jahn, edited by Bernth Lindfors and Ulla Schild, Institut für Ethnologie und Afrika-Studien, 1976, pp. 159–66.

[In the following essay, Priebe discusses Achebe's use of proverbs in Things Fall Apart to portray the role of divine justice in Igbo society.]

Perhaps the least controversial statement one could make in the field of African literature is that Chinua Achebe is a didactic writer. By his own statements and through his work, Achebe clearly shows his belief in the role of the artist as teacher. The pejoration of the word...

(The entire section is 4202 words.)

B. Eugene McCarthy (essay date Spring 1985)

SOURCE: “Rhythm and Narrative Method in Achebe's Things Fall Apart,” in Novel, Vol. 18, No. 3, Spring, 1985, pp. 243–56.

[In the following essay, McCarthy explores Achebe's use of the English language in Things Fall Apart to simulate the oral quality of African storytelling.]

Before the publication of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart in 1958 public awareness in the West of fiction from Africa was confined chiefly to white writers such as Doris Lessing, Alan Paton, or Nadine Gordimer. Thus Achebe's first novel, written in English, though he is himself a Nigerian of the Igbo people, was a notable event. More noteworthy was the fact that it was...

(The entire section is 7320 words.)

Damian U. Opata (essay date Spring 1987)

SOURCE: “Eternal Sacred Order versus Conventional Wisdom: A Consideration of Moral Culpability in the Killing of Ikemefuna in Things Fall Apart,” in Research in African Literatures, Vol. 18, No. 1, Spring, 1987, pp. 71–79.

[In the following essay, Opata argues that the character Okonkwo was not morally culpable when he killed Ikemefuna in Things Fall Apart because he was following the sacred order of the oracle.]

As the man who had cleared his throat drew up and raised his matchet, Okonkwo looked away. He heard the blow. The pot fell and broke in the sand. He heard Ikemefuna cry, “My father, they have killed me!” as he ran...

(The entire section is 4297 words.)

Arlene A. Elder (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “The Paradoxical Characterization of Okonkwo,” in Approaches to Teaching Achebe's “Things Fall Apart,” edited by Bernth Lindfors, Modern Language Association of America, 1991, pp. 58–64.

[In the following essay, Elder analyzes Okonkwo's character in terms of his relationship to Igbo society in Things Fall Apart.]

Why does Okonkwo end tragically? This question haunts every reader of Things Fall Apart, for we sense that a satisfactory answer would explain not only Chinua Achebe's complex protagonist but also the writer's larger concern about the destruction of traditional African society during the period of colonization. Students used to typical...

(The entire section is 2934 words.)

Aron Aji and Kirstin Lynne Ellsworth (essay date October–February 1992–1993)

SOURCE: “Ezinma: The Ogbanje Child in Achebe's Things Fall Apart,” in College Literature, Vol. 19–20, No. 3–1, October–February, 1992–1993, pp. 170–75.

[In the following essay, Aji and Ellsworth examine how the character Ezinma operates on both a cultural and a literary level in Things Fall Apart.]

Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart (1959) is commonly read as a testimony of the cultural confrontation during the period of British colonialism.1 For the non-African it is an obvious beginner's text to discover the West African, specifically Igbo, culture. The book is at once a cultural resource, a historical novel, a morality tale, and...

(The entire section is 2890 words.)

Biodun Jeyifo (essay date Fall 1993)

SOURCE: “Okonkwo and His Mother: Things Fall Apart and Issues of Gender in the Constitution of African Postcolonial Discourse,” in Callaloo, Vol. 16, No. 4, Fall, 1993, pp. 847–59.

[In the following essay, Jeyifo explores issues of gender in Things Fall Apart.]

In the oral tradition, we often do not know whether the storyteller who thought up a particular story was a man or a woman. Of course when one examines the recorded texts, one might wonder whether a myth or story doesn't serve particular interests in a given society.

(Mineke Schipper)

The Chielo-Ezinma...

(The entire section is 6744 words.)

Ato Quayson (essay date Winter 1994)

SOURCE: “Realism, Criticism, and the Disguises of Both: A Reading of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart with an Evaluation of the Criticism Relating to It,” in Research in African Literatures, Vol. 25, No. 4, Winter, 1994, pp. 117–36.

[In the following essay, Quayson discusses the different critical perspectives portrayed in Things Fall Apart.]

It is only when we go to the riverside that we can gauge the size of the water pot.

—Ewe Proverb

No matter how well the hen dances, it can not please the hawk.

—Akan Proverb

...

(The entire section is 9413 words.)

Clayton G. MacKenzie (essay date Summer 1996)

SOURCE: “The Metamorphosis of Piety in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart,” in Research in African Literatures, Vol. 27, No. 2, Summer, 1996, pp. 128–38.

[In the following essay, MacKenzie traces the shift in belief of the African people in Things Fall Apart and asserts that the shift results from changing social and economic conditions.]

Matters of religion are thematically central to Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God. Both novels reflect revisions in the nature of traditional worship, and both attest to the demise of traditional mores in the face of an aggressive and alien proselytizing religion. The disparities between the two...

(The entire section is 6013 words.)

Susan VanZanten Gallagher (essay date 12 March 1997)

SOURCE: “Linguistic Power: Encounter with Chinua Achebe,” in Christian Century, Vol. 114, No. 9, March 12, 1997, pp. 260–61.

[In the following essay, Gallagher discusses Achebe's decision to write Things Fall Apart in English.]

While studying English literature at the University of Ibadan, Chinua Achebe was appalled by the “superficial picture” of Nigeria that he found in many novels and resolved to write something that viewed his country “from the inside.” The stunning result was Things Fall Apart, a novel that demonstrates the linguistic and social sophistication of precolonial African societies.

First published in 1958,...

(The entire section is 947 words.)

David Hoegberg (essay date Winter 1999)

SOURCE: “Principle and Practice: The Logic of Cultural Violence in Achebe's Things Fall Apart,” in College Literature, Vol. 26, No. 1, Winter, 1999, pp. 69–79.

[In the following essay, Hoegberg considers the disparity between principle and practice among the characters in Things Fall Apart and how this disparity eventually leads to alienation and violence.]

The phrase “cultural violence” need not refer only to violence between people of different cultures. It can also refer to violence that is encouraged by the beliefs and traditions of a given culture and practiced upon its own members. “Cultural violence” used in this sense would include...

(The entire section is 5450 words.)

Kwadwo Osei-Nyame (essay date Summer 1999)

SOURCE: “Chinua Achebe Writing Culture: Representations of Gender and Tradition in Things Fall Apart,” in Research in African Literatures, Vol. 30, No. 2, Summer, 1999, pp. 148–64.

[In the following essay, Osei-Nyame analyzes the complexity of the relationships and the varying forms of consciousness within the Igbo community as portrayed by Achebe in Things Fall Apart.]

Wherever something stands, there something else will stand.

—Igbo saying

While Achebe's early novels have been popularly received for their representation of an early African nationalist tradition that repudiates...

(The entire section is 7764 words.)

Christopher Wise (essay date Fall 1999)

SOURCE: “Excavating the New Republic: Post-Colonial Subjectivity in Achebe's Things Fall Apart,” in Callaloo, Vol. 22, No. 4, Fall, 1999, pp. 1054–70.

[In the following essay, Wise explores the universality of the plight of the Igbo people as they face the destruction of their pre-colonial culture in Things Fall Apart.]

“[I]t may be productive [today] to think in terms of a genuine transformation of being which takes place when the individual subject shifts from purely individual relations to that very different dynamic which is that of groups, collectives and communities … The transformation of being … is something that can...

(The entire section is 9023 words.)

Patrick C. Nnoromele (essay date Spring 2000)

SOURCE: “The Plight of a Hero in Achebe's Things Fall Apart,” in College Literature, Vol. 27, No. 2, Spring, 2000, pp. 146–56.

[In the following essay, Nnoromele addresses the question of why the character Okonkwo fails at the end of Things Fall Apart and asserts that Achebe acted as a neutral narrator throughout the novel.]

Although Things Fall Apart remains the most widely read African novel, the failure of its hero continues to generate haunting questions in the minds of some of its readers, especially among those who seem to identify with the hero's tragedy. Central to this discomfort is the question: why did Achebe choose as his hero an...

(The entire section is 5073 words.)

Emeka Nwabueze (essay date Summer 2000)

SOURCE: “Theoretical Construction and Constructive Theorizing on the Execution of Ikemefuna in Achebe's Things Fall Apart: A Study in Critical Dualism,” in Research in African Literatures, Vol. 31, No. 2, Summer, 2000, pp. 163–73.

[In the following essay, Nwabueze analyzes the episode in Things Fall Apart in which the character Okonkwo participates in the killing of Ikemefuna and asserts that this episode has been misinterpreted by many critics.]

Wherever Something Stands,
Something Else stands beside it.

—Igbo Proverb

The use of proverbial lore is a prominent conversational feature in the Igboland of Chinua...

(The entire section is 5206 words.)

Emmanuel Edame Egar (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: “The Rhetorical Implications of the Opening and Closing of the Novel, Things Fall Apart,” in The Rhetorical Implications of Chinua Achebe's “Things Fall Apart,” University Press of America, 2000, pp. 59–68.

[In the following essay, Egar provides an analysis of the opening and closing passages of Things Fall Apart.]

Edward P. J. Corbett, in his Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student (1971), sees rhetoric as the basis of an author's engagement with his reader, those elements or strategies through which the reader is brought to accept the world which the author has created. Herbert Read, in Art and Society (1956), states that in...

(The entire section is 3911 words.)