The title of Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe derives from a line in a poem by William Butler Yeats, "The Second Coming." The third and fourth lines of the poem are:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world ...
The significance of this has to do with the Christian notion of the "second coming" of Christ. In Christianity, Christ first entered the world in the Incarnation, when he was born of the Virgin Mary. According to the Nicene Creed, "He shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead." Before the second coming of Christ, there is supposed to be a period of chaos and general misfortune.
Achebe is writing about the arrival of British colonialism and accompanying Christian missions causing chaos in Africa as they come into conflict with traditional Igbo culture and religion.
Yeats was an Irish poet who supported the cause of Irish independence and was part of a revival of tradition Celtic beliefs and folk culture, against what he saw as the cultural as well as political imperialism of the English. Thus Achebe's title draws attention to the parallels between the English oppression of Ireland and its oppression of Nigeria.
Okonkwo represents both an agent of the chaos engulfing his village and a victim of it. Probably the best example of the chaos that unfolds with the destruction of the old religious order is when Enoch unmasks an egwugwu. This leads to an anarchic clash among the villagers and Okonkwo's suicide.
The actual title is taken from W.B. Yeats' poem "The Second Coming." The poem refers to the increasing pressure to maintain a stable situation (see poem for details). The novel's title refers to the increasing pressure on the Umuofian culture and inhabitants of the villages represented in the novel to hold onto their way of life as the Christian missionaries infiltrate their world. "The center cannot hold and things fall apart." This line from the poem reflects Okonkwo's grasp on his own life, family and power in his community and it's slow slippage away from him.
Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart is a masterful work of fiction, and one that is made even more compelling once the title's literary allusion is taken into consideration. Things Fall Apart is a reference to a line in "The Second Coming," a classic W.B. Yeats poem. Yeats originally published this poem in 1920, a date of extreme historical significance. World War I had recently come to a close, leaving Europe in a state of unimaginable disarray. Even more importantly, Ireland was fighting a war for independence, as the Irish Republican Army was in the midst of an armed conflict with Great Britain that would last until 1921. As such, it is clear that Yeats was responding directly to the chaotic tone of his time in "The Second Coming." For instance, take a look at the third and fourth lines of the poem:
"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world..."
When Yeats asserts that "things fall apart," he is responding to the traumatic nature of his era, as it surely must have seemed that his previously orderly society was on the brink of utter destruction. Later on in the poem, when Yeats envisions a "rough beast" approaching "Bethlehem to be born," he essentially describes a perverse Christ figure, and the poem accordingly takes an apocalyptic turn. For Yeats, Europe's constant warfare is a sign of the End of Days and the downfall of society.
Knowing these facts, it is interesting that Achebe should name his book after Yeats' poem. At the beginning of the novel, Okonkwo is a prosperous and powerful figure, one who has plenty of land, plenty of wives, and an abundance of social clout. However, once Okonkwo kills Ikemefuna, his essentially adopted son, things take a turn for the worst. Okonkwo is exiled, loses his possessions, and is forced to watch in humiliation as white settlers arrive and convert his people to Christianity. Then, once Okonkwo retaliates by burning down the newly-built Christian church in his village, he is forced to commit suicide, a humiliating end for a member of Igbo society.
It is clear that, like Yeats, Achebe envisions the arrival of white settlers as an apocalypse of sorts, as it irreversibly changes the nature of Igbo society. At the end of the novel, Okonkwo's native traditions, values, and beliefs are dismantled and replaced by white culture. As such, like Yeats, Achebe chronicles the end of an era, an apocalyptic finale brought on by violent struggle.
As a parting note, it is interesting that Achebe should title his novel after a poem written by a white author. Since the arrival of white settlers triggers the dramatic changes of Igbo society, Achebe's decision to reference European literature could be a comment on the presence of white colonization. Just as white men colonize Igbo society in Things Fall Apart, white literature has colonized Achebe's novel, wrestling the title out of his hands and claiming it for its own.
The social structure of his village is what holds Okonkwo together. He had anger and fear of being like his father, so he needed the identity and sense of purpose the village gave him. When the British colonialists and Christian missionaries come and change things, the traditional structure of the village begins to weaken, and Okonkwo's identity weakens as well. He begins to fall apart emotionally.
The title Things Fall Apart is borrowed from a line in W.B. Yeats' poem The Second Coming, which was written in the aftermath of the First World War. The line in the poem "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold" refers to the loss of power, and the loss of faith in existing social and political structures after the war. In Chinua Achebe's novel, these themes are mirrored as a schism forms in a Nigerian village whose inhabitants belong to the Igbo trible and hold strong traditional beliefs. The title sets the stage for the tragic unravelling of the community as told through Okonkwo's narrative. The advent of Christian Missionaries and British colonialists undermine their religious, social and political systems. The protagonist, Okonkwo, embodies the core values of the tribe, and his demise at the end of the novel signals the collapse of his culture.