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Things Fall Apart

by Chinua Achebe

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In Things Fall Apart, why does Okonkwo commit suicide and what is the final message of this work? 

Okonkwo was once considered the greatest warrior alive, but he cannot stop the European Christian white men who have come in to take control and change his village traditions. Okonkwo finally gives up hope and hangs himself, even though it is a disgrace to commit suicide in his tribe.

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Published in 1958, Things Fall Apart is a novel by Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe. It details life in southeast Nigeria prior to and in the aftermath of the arrival of white European colonists in the late 1800s. The lead character, Okonkwo, is a local Igbo wrestling champion and farmer. He's extremely impulsive, brash, and inflexible. He fears being considered anything less than an alpha male. He abhors compromise, and is too proud to accept any of the new customs brought to his land by the settlers.

In third section of the novel, tensions rise between Okonkwo's tribe and the colonists over a series of conflicts. Things reach a boiling point when British court messengers humiliate and attack some of the local tribe members. In response, Okonkwo takes up arms and declares war against the colonists. In a fit of fury, he beheads one of the messengers. He believes that others in his tribe will stand alongside him in his crusade. Unfortunately, they don't; he is alone. Desperate and fearful, two emotions he doesn't want others to see in him, he hangs himself in his home before he can be hauled off to court for trial and punishment.

The text makes several statements on the nature of colonization and the society the colonizers sought to target. The colonists are almost a force of nature, sweeping in with new means, methods, politics, technologies, religion, and language. The natives are proud, strong, rich in their culture and history, and traditional. But the colonists see the natives as savage and in need of leadership. While the natives are often depicted as resistant to change, they're more afraid of standing up to their aggressors than defending their values. These perceived weaknesses made them more susceptible to outside influence. Change was inevitable.

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This is a solid discussion question because there is no single correct answer. Readers are not told exactly what motivated Okonkwo to kill himself, so it is left up to individual readers to come up with a plausible explanation.

Okonkwo has had some fairly rough patches in his life. He believes that his father is a disgrace, he's helped murder his adopted son, and he's been banished from his community for seven years. Despite those things, he is quite revered as a great man in his culture. He is warrior of a man and wealthy as well. Consequently, he is generally well respected, and he's grown accustomed to getting his way about a lot of things. Okonkwo doesn't believe that his people should stand by and let the Christians in, but his people refuse to go to war. At this point, he's not getting his way, and he thinks his people are growing weak. He's been losing hope, and the final meeting makes him lose the final bit of hope that he had to hold out against all of the changes he doesn't want to happen. With no hope left, Okonkwo decides that death is better than living hopeless. This a fairly common explanation for why he commits suicide.

Another possibility is that Okonkwo's suicide is his final act of pride. Rules are important to him as well as tradition. He is a very consistent character in that way, and he is not willing to live the life that the Christians want him to take on. Rather than live in a world that is so against what he stands for, Okonkwo chooses to die on his own terms instead of submitting to the white man's emphasis on tolerance and compassion.

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In Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo was once considered the greatest warrior alive. Things change and he commits suicide by the end of the story. It is a disgrace to commit suicide in his tribe. For all his life, Okonkwo feared dying like his father without honors at his burial. Although Okonkwo had lived his life as a hard-working man who was a great leader and warrior in his tribe, Okonkwo dies in a disgraceful manner.

Achebe's message throughout the novel is that change can be devastating. Truly, the novel "depicts conflicts and tensions within Igbo society as well as changes introduced by colonial rule and Christianity."

Struggling to achieve success in the traditional world, Okonkwo, the protagonist, is a talented but inflexible Igbo. He fears becoming like his lazy father who dies with no titles and without honor. Despite his hard work and determination to receive all the titles he can achieve, Okonkwo cannot stop the changes that are happening in his village. He cannot get his tribal men to fight the European Christian white men who have come in to take control and change his village traditions. The District Commissioner who represents the white Europeans comes in to civilize Okonkwo and his tribal people. Ironically, the District Commissioner makes things worse: 

He believes he is bringing peace and civilization to the Igbo people, but in fact he has systematically destroyed many aspects of Igbo life

With a feeling of hopelessness, Okonkwo gives up and hangs himself. He commits suicide because he cannot deal with the changes that the Christian white men are making in his village. While the white man from Europe came in to civilize the Igbo tribe, he did not succeed. Indeed, the story of Okonkwo affirms that Europe did not introduce civilization to savages.

Okonkwo lost his life because the Christian white man came in and forced his way of life on a people who had already established their own way of living:

[Okonkwo's] traditional world has been destroyed, and Okonkwo does not want to live in a new world.

Hanging himself in a tree, Okonkwo ends his conflict once and for all. The irony of it all is that Okonkwo worked hard and achieved many titles and honors in order to be buried with dignity. In the end, he commits suicide which is an abomination in his Igbo society. He dies in disgrace much like his father.    

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