Why did Achebe choose to take the title of his novel from Yeats' poem?
The title of Achebe's novel comes from the third line of W.B. Yeats's poem "The Second Coming." Yeats's poem was written after World War I and depicts the bleak future and violent nature of European society following the first World War. Yeats's poem describes a European society that is spiraling out of control as its political structures crumble, resulting in anarchy. Achebe chose to title his novel after the third line in Yeats's poem because the description parallels the chaotic atmosphere in Nigeria at a time when imperial powers were colonizing the African continent. Similar to Europe, which was devastated, confused, and lost following World War I, the culture and traditional practices of native Africans were diminished by the onset of colonization. The religious theme of Yeats's poem also correlates with how the Christian missionaries gradually influenced Igbo society to reject their traditional beliefs. Along with the social breakdown of Umuofia, the novel's protagonist loses his mental fortitude and strength by committing suicide at the end of the novel. Overall, Achebe's title illustrates the devastating impact of European colonization on African societies, which correlates with Yeats's bleak description of Europe following World War I.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world...
-W.B. Yeats, 'The Second Coming'
In just three words, Nigerian-born writer Chinua Achebe manages to drape his staggering work in an ocean of sadness dealing with the global post-colonial struggle. With this title, Achebe is both mourning the loss of traditional life in the fictional village of Umuofia and accepting its inevitability.
The heart of the village is paralleled by the heart of our novel's protagonist, Okonkwo, whose initial confidence and strength becomes fractured by chaotic waves of European Christianity, leading him ultimately to suicide.
The true tragedy of this novel lies in the fact that the European influence brought more disruption than advancement, loosing its "anarchy" upon the world. And in a sense, the fact that the novel itself takes its name from a European poem seems to be the ultimate defeat; Achebe does not resist colonial influence by titling his work with a relic of African culture, but rather with the same culture that will effectively conquer his people.
An important theme in Achebe's novel Things Fall Apartis concerns the effects of the missionary influence and European influence on the traditional values and ways of the Ibo culture. "The center cannot hold" says the speaker in Yeats' poem, which is indeed the case in the novel, for not only does the structure of the village begin to collapse as a result of the incursion of the Europeans, but the protagonist doubts his very manhood, so much so that he despairs and commits suicide.
"The Second Coming" alludes to the second coming of Christ. In the poem, this second coming of Jesus is seen as a chaotic event that rocks the world. In Things Fall Apart, the missionaries are bringing the church's message of Christ, and it's this very message that begins to tear the tribe apart. It not only pulls away members of the tribe, but it questions and contradicts the very foundations of the tribal belief system.
Historically, Yeats' poem deals with the devastation of World War I. Much of Africa had been colonized during the late 19th and early 20th century. However, with the cost and the effects of WWI, the European nations that had colonized the continent could do little to advance it. Things began to fall apart, which led to a troublesome post-colonial period.