In Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart, the author writes about a time when tribal traditions clash with change. Achebe develops the main character Okonkwo through the conflict he faces throughout the story:
Readers identify not only with Okonkwo and his personal hardships but also with the Ibo culture and its disintegration.
In the beginning of the novel, Okonkwo is experiencing a great deal of success. He is the champion wrestler and many tribes have heard of his fame.
Okonkwo has vowed to be nothing like his lazy father who borrows money from his neighbors, sits around playing his flute and drinking palm wine all day. Okonkwo despises his father and desires to be nothing like him.
Okonkwo is a hard working man. Through great accomplishments, he has three wives and many children. He has barns full of yams. His yams represent his wealth.
Okonkwo is a great warrior. He has achieved two titles. His skill as a warrior has earned him great respect from all the tribes around him.
Because of Okonkwo's fierceness, he is feared by many. Even Okonkwo's family fears him. He uses his fists to keep his family in line. He is very demanding and controlling. He beats his wives and children to keep them working hard. He is considered to be a harsh husband and father. While his family fears him, Oknokwo is respected by his fellow clansmen for being so strict.
While Okonkwo maintains a hard-work ethic, he is driven by his secret fear of resembling his lazy father. For this reason, Okonkwo takes severe measures to ensure he is considered successful. He has a ferocious appearance. He stomps when he walks. He breathes heavily:
Okonkwo's huge build, topped by bushy eyebrows and a very broad nose, gives him the look of a tornado on the warpath. His whole demeanor reeks of controlled fury; he even breathes heavily, like a dragon ready to explode. He always appears to be wound for fierce action.
While Okonkwo is experiencing success on every hand, he accidentally kills a young man during a funeral service. Okonkwo's gun accidentally explodes and Okonkwo has to face the consequences of his accidental killing of a clansman. Okonkwo is banished for seven years. He moves his family to his mother's homeland.
When Okonkwo returns, his clan has allowed the white man to bring about change through the introduction of a new religion. The white man and his Christianity are causing the clan to change. The new religion questions and points out that certain tribal traditions are considered to be wrong. Okonkwo tries to fight the leaders of the new religion. Sadly, Okonkwo's fellow clansmen will not support him by going to war against the leaders and their new religion.
Ultimately, the fierce Okonkwo gives up and hangs himself. He cannot accept the new changes in his village. He would rather die. Achebe's message is clear. Forcing change can cause devastating results. Achebe explains his purpose for writing Things Fall Apart in another literary work:
In Morning Yet on Creation Day, Achebe explains his desire to show that precolonial Africa was “not one long nightmare of savagery.” (p. 45)
Okonkwo was not a savage. He was a respected warrior who took his own life. Because his fellow clansmen would not support him in ridding the village of unwanted changes, Okonkwo could not bear to live.