Study Guide

Things Fall Apart

by Chinua Achebe

Things Fall Apart Themes

Themes and Meanings (Critical Guide to British Fiction)

One important function of the novel is educational; indeed, Achebe stated that he would be content if Things Fall Apart did “no more than teach my readers that their past—with all its imperfections—was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God’s behalf delivered them.” In Things Fall Apart, Achebe effectively counters the persistent and self serving European stereotypes of African culture, particularly the notion that traditional African cultures are authoritarian, amoral, and unsophisticated. In refutation of this stereotype, Achebe carefully describes the complexity and fluidity of Igbo culture, disclosing its essential pluralism. Moreover, Achebe shows that the Igbo have a coherent system of values that nevertheless allows for a considerable exercise of individual choice. Although the novel is narrated in the third person, the sympathetic point of view is located within the Igbo culture, and the reader gradually comes to accept this perspective as natural.

Yet Achebe tries to avoid idealizing this historical past. Although sympathetic to it, he demonstrates that it cannot survive unaltered in a modern world. The novel’s title is taken from William Butler Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” and the novel presents a similarly ironic and apocalyptic vision of the failed effort to maintain order and balance. Okonkwo’s unsuccessful struggle with change parallels the Umuofians’ effort to maintain the careful balances between free will and necessity, the needs of the individual and the needs of the community, and the demands of traditional culture and the political reality of colonial rule. Colonialism strains the capacity of Igbo culture to adapt, and it is clear that Okonkwo’s death is a sudden and dramatic paradigm for the gradual but inevitable death of traditional Igbo culture.

Okonkwo’s physical strength, integrity, and courage give him heroic stature, but his pride and individualism contradict the essentially communal nature of Umuofia. He does not understand that Umuofia is a living culture that has always adapted in order to meet new challenges. His effort to deny the reality of history condemns him while making a sad comment on the limitations of human endeavor. The novel dramatizes the situation of modern men and modern societies that are forced to adapt and compromise if they wish to survive. Its central theme, and the central theme of all of Achebe’s novels, is the tragedy of the man or society that refuses or is unable to accommodate change.

Things Fall Apart Themes and Culture

The novel was written in reaction to European assessments of African culture as found in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1902) and Joyce Cary's Mister Johnson (1939) and some critics have seen in it an effort to reverse the European view, presenting Igbo society as enlightened and the European/British colonizers as in the dark. Rather, it is an attempt to present accurately Igbo society and what its people endured in the clash of their culture with that of the British. With so much apparently determined by British occupation and rule, one major theme is that of fate vs. free will. Much of the interest in the book lies in Achebe's subtle handling of these forces as the characters both British and Igbo are in turn manipulated by or appear to steer successfully around forces beyond their control.

Okonkwo can be seen as psychologically determined by his weak father to avoid the appearance of weakness at all costs, hence his killing of Ikemefuna. Yet his own tribesmen have exonerated him from having to take a hand in the killing so that his choice is not externally determined. Misunderstanding and rigidity by chiefly male characters on both sides exacerbate already strained conditions of the colonial system. Achebe is careful to point out elsewhere that the British did not export democracy to the colonies; rather they undermined it and tried to govern the Igbo, who had a form of democracy in place, by a hierarchical, totalitarian system.

The testing of conventional wisdom on both sides by experience is also a common theme that is carried out by Achebe's use of both Christian and Igbo beliefs, proverbs and stories. Thus the fanatical Mr. Smith relies on biblical stories "of sheep and goats," "wheat and tares," and of "slaying the prophets of Baal." Ironically, it is his extremism that in part leads to the burning down of the church. On the other hand, the Igbo allot part of the Evil Forest, a demonic location where twin babies are thrown away, for the building of the church. When the church then prospers and no parishioners are harmed, the Igbo religion is dealt a severe blow. Likewise, the Church...

(The entire section is 866 words.)

Things Fall Apart Advanced Themes

Custom and Tradition
Okonkwo's struggle to live up to what he perceives as "traditional" standards of masculinity, and his failure...

(The entire section is 1127 words.)