Nigerian author Chinua Achebe (1930-2013) grew up in a community divided between two cultures, African and European. Although he and his family lived in the village of Ogidi, surrounded by the Ibo (pronounced Ee-bo) culture and the traditions of their ancestors, Achebe’s parents were Christians and embraced many elements of Western culture. Achebe remembers that the Christians in his community looked down upon the people who maintained their African religion and culture, and vice versa. Achebe’s parents intended that he live a Western lifestyle; they named him Albert and sent him to Western-style schools. However, when Achebe went away to college and began to understand the violent past and difficult relationship between Africa and Europe, he changed his name to Chinua Achebe and dedicated himself to his African heritage.
In the village school and in college, Achebe studied European works of fiction that described Africa as a primitive land full of savage people with no religion and no culture. The ignorant depiction of his home and his people caused Achebe great distress. One novel that made a strong impression on him was Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, published in 1902 and still one of the most frequently taught books in high schools and colleges today. Conrad’s narrator refers to Africa as a place of darkness and describes colonized Africans in terms that make them seem weak, ignorant, or savage. This Western view of Africa differed vastly from Achebe’s own experience of Africa’s rich culture, including the Ibo culture in which he grew up.
In addition to misrepresenting Africans as ignorant savages, most European writers assumed that all countries in Africa and all Africans are very much the same. In fact, as Achebe knew from his own experience and studies, Africans have immensely diverse languages, traditions, values, and beliefs. It seemed unfair to Achebe that books like Heart of Darkness, which misrepresented Africa and African culture, could be required reading for students, while the African perspective was nowhere to be found. Achebe’s mother and older sister told stories and folk tales to the family, but he had no experience of African literature or of Africans as writers.
Achebe also found it distressing that many Africans began to believe the Western stereotypes of African culture were true and, as a result, were turning away from their cultures to become more Western. Consequently, in 1959 he published Things Fall Apart as a response to the negative stereotype of Africa as the “heart of darkness.” Achebe notes, “The nationalist movement after the Second World War brought about a mental revolution which began to reconcile us to ourselves. We saw suddenly that we had a story to tell. ” In particular, Achebe’s novel challenged Joseph Conrad’s previously uncontested place in English literature, and from that point on the two works were often taught side by side.
Things Fall Apart takes place in the mid-to-late 1800s and essentially tells two stories. The first is the story of Okonkwo, a successful Ibo farmer and respected leader in his village despite his violent temper and unforgiving mindset. When he accidentally causes the death of one of his clansmen, Okonkwo becomes an outcast in his society for a period of seven years, during which time great changes take place in his homeland. The second story concerns Okonkwo’s return to his village, where he confronts severe challenges to his beliefs and way of life when white men bring their religion and politics to his village as part of the colonization of Nigeria.
Achebe’s ability to communicate the tragedy of Okonkwo’s experience to Western readers, in spite of Okonkwo’s decidedly unsympathetic character, marks one of the novel’s greatest achievements. The book is also one of the very first to present an in-depth portrait of Ibo culture and village life from an African, not a Western, point of view. Finally, Achebe’s work successfully depicts the more general conflicts experienced by individuals, families, and communities when different cultures and religions clash, making Things Fall Apart a valuable text widely studied in courses on literature, history, African studies, and anthropology. Most significantly, Achebe has said that he wrote Things Fall Apart “to help [his] society regain belief in itself” in the wake of colonialism. In his own words, the publication of Things Fall Apart marked “the first time we were seeing ourselves, as autonomous individuals, rather than half-people, or as Conrad would say, ‘rudimentary souls.’ ”
When Achebe first sent the manuscript of Things Fall Apart to publishers, many rejected it, claiming that fiction by African writers had no market potential. Today, the novel remains the most widely read work of fiction in the modern African literary canon, has sold over twelve million copies around the world, has never gone out of print, and has been translated into fifty languages, making Achebe the most translated African writer of all time. His work has made an indelible impression on subsequent generations of writers as well. As fellow Nigerian novelist and Achebe’s protégé Chimimanda Adichie observed in a 2006 interview, “reading [Achebe] emboldened me, gave me permission to write about the things I knew well.” Following Achebe’s death in March 2013, many obituaries hailed him as the “father of African literature,” a title he frequently, humbly rejected throughout his life. According to The Economist, Achebe preferred to see his role in literature in terms of his favorite proverb: “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Explain the family structure, social structure, religious beliefs, and cultural traditions of the Ibo people.
2. Describe how Okonkwo’s experiences throughout the book transform him.
3. Identify two or three of Okonkwo’s strengths and weaknesses of character, and explain how these traits shape his actions in the story.
4. Contrast Ibo and Christian cultural and religious beliefs, and explain how the differences between them contribute to conflict.
5. Contrast the attitudes and behaviors of the people of Umuofia, Okonkwo’s fatherland, and Mbanta, his motherland.
6. Describe the philosophies of Mr. Brown, Reverend James Smith, and the District Commissioner in regard to working with Africans.
7. Discuss the significance of the book’s title, Things Fall Apart.