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.
This eNotes lesson plan is designed so that it may be used in numerous ways to accommodate ESL students and to differentiate instruction in the classroom.
Student Lesson Guide
• The Lesson Guide is organized for studying the book in chapters. Lesson Guide pages may be assigned individually and completed at a student’s own pace.
• Lesson Guide pages may be used as pre-reading activities to preview for students the vocabulary words they will encounter in reading each chapter of the book and to acquaint them generally with its content.
• Before Lesson Guide pages are assigned, questions may be selected from them to use as short quizzes to assess reading comprehension.
(The entire section is 481 words.)
1. Explain how Okonkwo represents two or three specific values of Ibo culture, using examples from the text to support your points. When Okonkwo dies, do you think the traits and values he represents symbolically die with him? Why or why not?
2. What are Okonkwo’s greatest strengths? What are his greatest weaknesses? How do these traits work for or against him throughout the novel?
3. How do parent-child relationships shape the personalities of Okonkwo, Nwoye, and Ezinma?
4. Discuss two or three significant factors in the culture clash between the Ibo and the white missionaries and colonialists. How do they contribute to the downfall of Okonkwo and the Ibo villages?...
(The entire section is 374 words.)
cowries: the shells used as currency in West Africa up until the mid-nineteenth century
haggard: worn out and thin in appearance
harmattan: a dry, dusty West African trade wind
improvident: not thinking about or planning for the future
kola nuts: the large, segmented seeds of an evergreen tree symbolic of hospitality in Ibo culture
plaintive: expressing extreme sadness
1. What event made Okonkwo famous in the nine Ibo villages when he was only eighteen?
Okonkwo defeated a celebrated wrestler, Amalinze the Cat, who had never been defeated in seven years, bringing honor to Okonkwo’s...
(The entire section is 292 words.)
amiss: in a mistaken way; wrongly
capricious: acting on the impulse of the moment, unpredictable
discerned: detected something with the eyes or through senses other than sight
gnashed: snapped or ground teeth together violently
imperious: commanding, domineering
incipient: beginning to become apparent or beginning to come into being, emerging
interim: an interval, an in-between time
oracle: a person through whom a god is believed to speak
orator: a skillful, powerful public speaker
strong medicine: the ability to summon extraordinary strength by performing rituals (in context)
ultimatum: a final demand, usually followed...
(The entire section is 459 words.)
kite: a black-winged bird of prey
1. According to the oracle, why do Unoka’s crops fail year after year?
Although Unoka makes sacrifices to the gods of the land of the yam, he has a reputation for weakness and laziness. The oracle points out that while other men work hard to clear land to plant their fields, Unoka keeps planting in the same exhausted fields year after year, rather than do the work to clear new fields.
2. Describe Okonkwo’s relationship with Nwakibie. How does Okonkwo convince Nwakibie to give him seed yams to start a farm?
Okonkwo works for Nwakibie, a rich man and successful...
(The entire section is 384 words.)
arduous: difficult to accomplish; requiring a lot of hard work
atone: to make amends for wrongdoing
brusqueness: the quality of being blunt or harsh in behavior or speech
dogged: having or showing tenacity and grim persistence
exacting: demanding, requiring careful attention
repentant: feeling sorry for doing something wrong and wanting to be forgiven
valediction: the act of saying goodbye
1. Explain the meaning of the Ibo proverb, “When a man says yes his chi says yes also.” How does it relate to a man’s will?
A man’s chi is his personal god, responsible for his...
(The entire section is 463 words.)
pottage: a thick soup made from vegetables
prowess: extraordinary ability
1. What is the purpose of the Feast of the New Yam? How do the people of the village observe this celebration?
The Feast of the New Yam is held yearly before the yam harvest begins. To ensure a good crop, the feast honors the goddess Ani as well as the ancestors of the clan. The villagers celebrate the new year by preparing feasts with the remaining yams from the old year’s harvest, inviting friends and extended family members to join in the feasting and cleaning all the cooking utensils to remove all traces of the previous year’s yams....
(The entire section is 300 words.)
disembodied: freed from a body
pitch: to discard something by throwing or tossing
1. How does the narrator describe the drummers and the effect of the drumming on the people of the community?
The narrator’s descriptions suggest that the drummers have a god-like quality about them, and their music has the power to unite and inspire the whole community. The three men played so passionately that the narrator claims they “were possessed by the spirit of the drums”; only later, when they stopped playing to rest, did the drummers become “ordinary human beings again.” As the music of the drums “rose to a frenzy,” the...
(The entire section is 414 words.)
copiously: in a manner that suggests a large quantity or a great scale
effeminate: having feminine or delicate qualities not typical for a man
elusive: difficult to grasp, understand, or define
emissary: the representative or agent of someone else, similar to a messenger
espied: caught sight of something
feign: to pretend
harbingers: the people or events that foreshadow what is to come
1. How has Ikemefuna made a positive impact on Nwoye? Why does this change particularly please Okonkwo?
Ikemefuna “kindled a new fire” in Nwoye to leave behind the comfort of his mother’s hut and...
(The entire section is 538 words.)
dispute: to debate or argue something
indulgently: in a very lenient or permissive manner
1. What are some signs in this chapter that Okonkwo feels guilty about his role in Ikemefuna’s death? How does he respond to his feelings of guilt?
Okonkwo cannot sleep or eat and drinks palm-wine for two days. Try as he might, he can’t stop thinking about Ikemefuna. Okonkwo berates himself for his guilt and weakness: “Okonkwo, you have become a woman indeed.”
2. What is Okonkwo’s opinion of and concern about his children, as expressed to his friend Obierika?
Okonkwo feels that Nwoye is too...
(The entire section is 514 words.)
audacity: an arrogant disregard for normal conventions or rules
defiant: boldly resistant to authority or convention
devoid: lacking a typical, expected attribute
listless: feeling a lack of energy and interest
malevolence: an intense, vicious spite or hatred
manifest: easily recognizable
resignation: the state of being submissive or giving in to something unpleasant
specious: having a deceptive, false attraction
1. What signs or behaviors indicate that Okonkwo is beginning to feel like himself again after killing Ikemefuna?
Okonkwo is able once again to sleep soundly at...
(The entire section is 437 words.)
approbation: an official commendation
esoteric: requiring knowledge that is limited to a small, select group
faggots: small bundles of twigs used to start fires
1. Explain the nature and the origins of the egwugwu. What role do they play in village culture?
Egwugwu are human masqueraders who impersonate the ancestral spirits of Umuofia; they are “the most powerful and the most secret cult in the clan.” There are nine egwugwu, each representing a village of the clan to honor the nine villages of Umuofia which grew out of the nine sons of the first father of the clan.
(The entire section is 352 words.)
cunning: resourceful, crafty
eloquent: marked by expressive, fluent expression
recoiled: shrank from something unpleasant physically or emotionally
saltpeter: a blend of potassium nitrate that at one time was believed to contribute to impotence
vigor: active physical or mental strength
1. Why does the priestess Chielo take Ezinma away from her mother’s hut?
Chielo says that Agbala wants to see Ezinma in his cave.
2. What are the two fears Ekwefi experiences as she follows Chielo?
Ekwefi fears the darkness...
(The entire section is 286 words.)
exacted: demanded or obtained forcibly
imposed: forced something unwelcome or unfamiliar to be accepted or put in place
1. What role does Okonkwo’s family play in Obierika’s daughter’s wedding?
Since Obierika’s wife has to prepare food for the whole village to celebrate the wedding, Okonkwo’s wives and children go early to Obierika’s house to bring food and to help her and her daughter prepare the feast.
2. How does the experience with Chielo and Ezinma initiate a subtle change in Okonkwo’s character? How does his behavior reflect the change?
Though he does not show it openly,...
(The entire section is 186 words.)
delirious: experiencing confused thinking and an inability to concentrate
guttural: an unpleasant sound coming from the throat, almost like a growl
inadvertent: not caused by deliberate planning or intent
tremulous: characterized by trembling, often caused by feeling scared or shy
tumult: a commotion or riot, either of behavior or of voices
1. Describe the events that occur at Ezeudu’s funeral. How do the men behave? Why?
Because Ezeudu was a man of great renown both as a warrior and an elder, the men behave very aggressively in expressing their grief over his loss. They “dashed about in frenzy,...
(The entire section is 349 words.)
affirm: to state positively or to confirm something
coiffure: an elaborate hairstyle
1. Whom do Okonkwo and his family stay with during their exile? How do they help Okonkwo’s family?
Okonkwo and his family stay with Okonkwo’s mother’s family in Mbanta, his “motherland.” Uchendu helps Okonkwo by arranging the necessary sacrifices for him to begin to pay for his crimes, while Uchendu’s five sons provide land and seed yams so that Okonkwo can establish a new farm.
2. How have Okonkwo’s attitudes toward work and toward his “personal chi” changed as a...
(The entire section is 289 words.)
ominous: having a threatening aspect; foreshadowing bad things to come
1. Who visits Okonkwo in the second year of his exile? What does he bring?
Obierika visits from Umuofia. He brings two bags of cowries he earned by selling Okonkwo’s yams.
2. What generational difference does Uchendu lament when he contrasts men of his generation with men of Okonkwo’s generation?
Uchendu says that he knew Obierika’s father back in “the good days when a man had friends in distant clans”; he laments that the current generation “stay[s] at home, afraid of your next-door neighbor.”
(The entire section is 299 words.)
callow: inexperienced and immature
converts: people brought over to one belief or point of view from another
derisive: expressive of scorn or contempt
enthralled: charmed, spellbound
evangelist: a person who preaches the gospel in order to convert others to Christianity
heathen: a person unconverted to Christianity
marrow: the flexible tissue found in the interior of bones
rollicking: exuberantly lively and amusing
1. Who are the first to convert to Christianity when white missionaries set up a church in Umuofia? Which conversion surprises Obierika? Why?
The first to convert...
(The entire section is 460 words.)
degenerate: having sunk to a low and usually corrupt state
fetish: an object believed to have magical power to protect or help its owner
impotent: lacking in power, strength, and vigor
impudent: exhibiting contempt and disregard for others
miscreant: unbelieving and villainous
persevered: persisted in an undertaking despite opposition
1. Why do the leaders of Mbanta give the missionaries land in the Evil Forest to build their church? What do they expect to happen?
The Evil Forest is a place “alive with sinister forces and powers of darkness”; the rulers of Mbanta give the land to the...
(The entire section is 456 words.)
adherents: believers in or advocates especially of a particular idea or church
blaspheme: to speak or show contempt for God
derision: contemptuous ridicule or mockery
emanation: something that comes from a larger, greater source
ostracize: to exclude someone from a group with everyone’s consent
revered: worshipped, respected
1. In addition to Christianity, what have the white men brought to the villages that begins to make the people of Mbanta nervous?
It is rumored that the white man has also set up a government, complete with a place of judgment in Umuofia, which is intended to protect the...
(The entire section is 599 words.)
wherewithal: the money or means needed to achieve a particular purpose
1. How do the names of Okonkwo’s children born while he lives in exile in Mbanta reflect Okonkwo’s attitude toward his time in exile?
Okonkwo names the first child Nneka, or “Mother is Supreme,” out of respect for his motherland and his mother’s kin to show his gratitude toward his mother’s family for taking him in. However, two years later he names an infant son Nwofia, “Begotten in the Wilderness,” which suggests Okonkwo’s frustration and resentment for seven “wasted” years in Mbanta.
2. Why does Okonkwo insist on hosting...
(The entire section is 245 words.)
buoyant: cheerful, gay
irreparable: not able to be repaired
1. How does Okonkwo plan to demonstrate his greatness when he returns to Umuofia after his exile?
Okonkwo plans to rebuild his compound, making it grander than before and adding huts to accommodate two new wives. He also plans to display his wealth by having his sons inducted into the ozo society representing one of the titles in his clan.
2. Why does Okonkwo want his daughters to remain unmarried until the family returns to Umuofia?
Okonkwo believes that returning to Umuofia with two beautiful, marriageable daughters will...
(The entire section is 361 words.)
dispensation: a system of commands and promises that control human affairs
expedient: convenient, although possibly improper or immoral
trod: stepped on or walked over
1. Why do many men and women not mind the presence of the whites in Umuofia?
The whites have built a trading store in Umuofia, and the village has become quite rich by providing costly palm-oil and palm kernels.
2. How does Mr. Brown, the white missionary in Umuofia, prevent his followers from provoking conflict with the rest of Umuofia? What evidence suggests that he has begun to win the respect of even some of the greatest men in...
(The entire section is 587 words.)
accommodation: something supplied for convenience or to satisfy a need
bull-roarer: a wooden instrument historically used for communicating over greatly extended distances
compromise: the settlement of a dispute with concessions made on each side
idolatrous: worshiping idols; treating someone or something as a god
imminent: ready to happen at any moment; hanging over one’s head in a threatening way
1. In what ways does Reverend James Smith differ from Mr. Brown?
Mr. Smith “openly condemned Mr. Brown’s policy of compromise and accommodation” that allowed the clan members who had converted to...
(The entire section is 561 words.)
palavers: long conferences or discussions
1. Why does the destruction of the church make Okonkwo happy again?
Okonkwo takes the destruction of the church as a sign that “the clan which had turned false on him appeared to be making amends.” He feels that the men of Umuofia are acting like warriors again and that they have listened to his counsel.
2. How does the District Commissioner trick Okonkwo and the other village leaders?
The District Commissioner invites the leaders of Umuofia to meet with him in friendship to discuss the previous days’ events. When the six men arrive, the Commissioner...
(The entire section is 270 words.)
sacrilege: an extreme irreverence for a sacred person, place or thing
suing: pleading, begging
1. What does Okonkwo decide to do if the villagers do not fight in retaliation for their humiliation at the District Court? Who does he blame for Umuofia’s weakness?
Okonkwo gets out his war gear and determines that if Umuofia will not go to war, then he will avenge himself. He blames “that coward, Egonwanne” for the village’s weakness, observing that “when he speaks he moves [the] men to impotence.”
2. Whom does Okika blame for the recent unrest in Umuofia? What does Okika tell his clansmen they must...
(The entire section is 258 words.)
pacification: the act of forcibly suppressing or eliminating a group considered to be hostile
1. What does Okonkwo do when he realizes that Umuofia has fallen apart?
Okonkwo hangs himself.
2. Why can’t Obierika and Okonkwo’s other friends bury Okonkwo’s body? What makes Obierika so angry about the manner of Okonkwo’s death?
It is against their custom to bury the body of a suicide because suicide is an abomination in their eyes, “an offense against the Earth.” Obierika confronts the Commissioner saying that Okonkwo was one of the greatest men in Umuofia but will now be buried “like a...
(The entire section is 222 words.)
1. Whom did Okonkwo beat in his legendary wrestling match?
A. Ekwefi Ogbuedi the Rooster
B. Ogbuedi the Snake
C. Isaac the Toad
D. Amalinze the Cat
E. the sacred python
2. What happened to start the conflict between Okonkwo’s village, Umuofia, and the village of Mbaino at the beginning of the book?
A. People from Mbaino murdered a girl from Umuofia.
B. People from Mbaino insulted the elders of Umuofia.
C. Mbaino’s market drew people away from the market at Umuofia.
D. People from Mbaino kidnapped children from Umuofia....
(The entire section is 1236 words.)
1. Identify which traits you see as Okonkwo’s greatest strengths and which you see as his greatest weaknesses. How do these traits affect Okonkwo’s worldview and behavior throughout the novel? Support your essay with evidence from the text.
Two of Okonkwo’s greatest strengths are his tremendous will and work ethic. Early in the novel, the narrator notes that Okonkwo’s “fame rested on solid personal achievements” and that “age was respected among Okonkwo’s people, but achievement was revered.” The narrator is careful to emphasize that Okonkwo has worked hard to earn everything he has, including his excellent reputation. In addition to his feats of physical strength in wrestling and his prowess in...
(The entire section is 4127 words.)