Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Things Fall Apart book cover
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What is the theme in the novel Things Fall Apart?  

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Gretchen Mussey eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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One of the primary themes in Achebe's classic novel concerns the clash of cultures. When the white Europeans colonize the region, they begin to convert the villagers of Umuofia as they slowly introduce Igbo society to western culture. More and more villagers convert to Christianity and begin to assimilate into the European culture, which undermines their traditional African ways of life. The village of Umuofia is dramatically transformed and staunch, intolerant traditionalists like Okonkwo rebel against their changing culture. The European colonizers and the Igbo traditionalists oppose each other and misunderstandings between each culture lead to bloodshed. Achebe explores the unfortunate outcomes involved in a culture clash.

Another primary theme explored throughout the novel concerns one's destiny. Various references are made to Okonkwo's chi and whether or not his destiny is positive. Initially, Okonkwo's chi is portrayed as positive and aligns with his determined, hard-working personality. As the novel progresses, Okonkwo makes several terrible decisions and his chi is described as being cursed, which implies that he was doomed from the beginning to die like his father. Okonkwo becomes a tragic hero, whose inflexible, masculine nature leads to his demise. Throughout the novel, Okonkwo loses his titles, is exiled to his motherland, and eventually commits suicide after decapitating a white messenger.

Achebe also explores the theme of the complexities of Igbo culture. As a response to Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness, Achebe describes the complexities of Igbo culture in detail. Achebe illustrates the rich Nigerian traditions, depicts the various rituals of Igbo society, and presents its judicial system as sound, coherent, and fair. Achebe describes various religious ceremonies and the villagers of Umuofia are depicted as intelligent and civilized. Achebe's novel challenges prejudiced beliefs of the time regarding Africans by depicting the Igbo culture as rich, fascinating, and civil.

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djbutler241 eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Things Fall Apart has three primary themes. The first theme is the conflict between evolution and tradition. Many of the villagers are looking forward to new opportunities but are also afraid of the impact that these changes will have. Okonkwo does not want to lose his masculinity by joining the new political and religious movements even though it was what is becoming expected. He also is worried that he will lose some of his social standing because it is based on the usual standards of society. On the other hand, people who had been scorned by society and were viewed as outcasts were eager to accept change and to dismiss traditions because in this new religion they were accepted and had an improved social standing. Finally, Achebe brings to light that without sticking to traditions, their stories and language will be eradicated as English becomes the norm.

The second major theme in the book is the fluctuating view of masculinity. Okonkwo's view of masculinity is different than that which is shared by the majority of the group. He feels that masculinity is best displayed with force and aggression. He actually beats his wives as a way to show that men are superior to women. On the other hand, the rest of the group views women as general equals and they do not believe that by respecting women they appear any less masculine. During Okonkwo's exile, he had a chance to get in touch with his more feminine side since he was living with his mother's ancestors. Instead of coming to appreciate his maternal side, Okonkwo further rejects them because they are not violent or war-driven. He scoffs at the fact that they prefer negotiation over fighting.

The third theme of Things Fall Apart is that language represents cultural disparities. It is believed by many people that Achebe incorporated Igbo words throughout the text as a way to show that the African language is actually too complex to be transcribed in English, which is often considered to be the most important and sophisticated language. It is also worth noting that Achebe wrote the book in English and he clearly meant for it to be read by people other than Nigerians. He probably did this because he wanted to share his message with people all over the world and to broaden peoples' awareness of Nigeria and the complexity of their lives and language. Also, as mentioned previously, Okonkwo fears the loss of their language and identity as English becomes a preferred language. It is believed by some people in the clan that without their native language, their entire identity would be altered.

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