How does Achebe express the theme of the complexity of society in Things Fall Apart?

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One reason for its continued success is that Things Fall Apart is both a compelling psychological portrait of one individual, Okonkwo, and a convincingly-drawn vision of a colonized society. Perhaps more things happen to Okonkwo than might befall a single human being in such a situation, but Chinua Achebe makes each and every event seem plausible. The complexity is part and parcel of the social situation into which he was born and in which he was raised. The changes that occur, which roughly parallel his life, are not only characteristic of Nigeria in those years but also deeply connected to those occurring in other countries that formed Britain’s overseas empire.

Because the young Okonkwo lived within traditional Igbo society and indirectly experienced the British colonial influences, he fails to understand how fully it would extend into all social institutions—that is, that colonialism would become hegemonic. The system of indirect rule that the British applied in most of their colonies left the burden of legal action in the hands of the native authorities; one example is the killing of Ikemefuna. The pronouncements of the oracle, the elders’s decisions in carrying out retribution, and Okonkwo’s decisive role in killing the boy all occur outside the purview of the British, who can express their horror at such “barbaric” practices.

As the British kept track of such incidents, however, they continued to build a case for more intrusive involvement in administration and for the accompanying institution of Christian religion as an adjunct to government. Isolated instances of what had formerly been called bravery for the men, who prided themselves in their stature as warriors, instead were taken as evidence of Igbo "savagery" as contrasted with European civilization.

During Okonkwo’s years of exile, the colonial system increasingly intrudes into Umofia. Okonkwo, from his perspective inside the society, cannot understand how or why it happened, but he senses the harm his people will suffer. His own son, acculturated partly through missionary influence, has embraced the new ways, including Christianity. The church building serves as a powerful symbol of the loss of cultural and political autonomy, so it becomes the focus of Okonkwo’s intense, but ultimately futile, rage.

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Chinua Achebe uses the complexities of a changing society as a major, pervasive force in his debut novel Things Fall Apart. This social complexity is manifested through the colonial influence that enters Umuofia and upsets its established norms and values:

“Umuofia had indeed changed during the seven years Okonkwo had been in exile. The church had come and led many astray. Not only the low-born and the outcast but sometimes a worthy man had joined it” (174).

Indeed, Okonkwo is unable and unwilling to adjust to the changes that white settlers have brought to his area, and this causes the majority of the conflict in the novel. Okonkwo laments the changes that have afflicted Umuofia and, in his mind, weakened the “masculine” nature of his clan:

“Perhaps I have been away too long.... But I cannot understand these things you tell me. What is it that has happened to our people? Why have they lost their power to fight?” (175).

Okonkwo resents these changes to Umuofia, and this ultimately leads to his demise. Okonkwo is no longer able to exist in a society that does not value his brutal, masculine values, and he hangs himself. This is how Achebe uses the complexities of society in his novel.

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