Things Fall Apart has experienced a huge success. Since it was published in 1958, the book has sold more than two million copies in over thirty languages. Critics attribute its success not only to the book’s message, but also to Achebe’s talents as a writer. Achebe believes that stories should serve a purpose; they should deliver a meaningful message to the people who hear or read them.
When Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart, his intent was to explain the beginnings of the turmoil Africans have been experiencing over the past century. He wanted to describe the integrity of precolonial Nigeria, detail the effects of colonialism on tribal societies, and reveal the kinds of immoral treatment that people in modern society are often made to suffer. Critics agree that he accomplished all of these purposes. They feel that he writes honestly about tribal life and the colonial legacy. They also believe that Achebe delivers another important message: man will always face change, and he who can accommodate change will survive.
While some readers will view Okonkwo’s deterioration and demise as a tragic result of his going against the will of the gods, others see the new “world order” as inevitable. Okonkwo’s acts do not bring the tribe to an end; it is the tribe’s lack of adaptability that destroys it. These opposing interpretations strengthen the impact of the book. In The Growth of the African Novel, Eustace Palmer states that
while deploring the imperialists’ brutality and condescension, [Achebe] seems to suggest that change is inevitable and wise men . . . reconcile themselves to accommodating change. It is the diehards . . . who resist and are destroyed in the process.
Achebe successfully communicates his message through skillful writing. From the time critics first read his book, they have concurred that Achebe’s craftsmanship earns him a place among the best writers in the world. An example of his craftsmanship is Achebe’s ability to convey the essence of traditional Nigeria while borrowing from the conventions of the European novel. He was the first Nigerian writer to adapt African oral tradition to novel form. In doing so, “he created a new novel that possesses its own autonomy and transcends the limits set by both his African and European teachers,” as Kofi Awoonor observes in The Breast of the Earth. The borrowed European elements Achebe contrasts are communal life over the individual character and the beauty and detail of traditional tribal life over brief references to background. His descriptions of day-to-day life and special ceremonial customs provide a “powerful presentation of the beauty, strength, and validity of traditional life and values,” as Palmer observes.
Literary experts also point out Achebe’s ability to combine language forms, maintain thematic unity, and shape conflict in Things Fall Apart. His use of Ibo proverbs in conjunction with the English language places the reader in Africa with the Ibo tribe. Adrian A. Roscoe explains in his book Mother Is Gold: A Study of West African Literature, “Proverbs are cherished by Achebe’s people as tribal heirlooms, the treasure boxes of their cultural heritage.” In addition, the combination of languages helps reiterate the theme of tradition versus change. Roscoe goes on to say,
Through [proverbs] traditions are received and handed on; and when they disappear or fall into disuse . . . it is a sign that a particular tradition, or indeed a whole way of life, is passing away.
The death of the language then, a powerful cultural tradition, signifies the ultimate discord in the novel—the fall of one culture to another. G. D. Kil-lam observes in The Novels of Chinua Achebe that “the conflict in the novel, vested in Okonkwo, derives from the series of crushing blows which are levelled at traditional values by an alien and more powerful culture causing, in the end, the traditional society to fall apart.” Achebe’s mastery of content and his talent as a writer contribute to his worldwide success with this novel as well as his other novels, articles, poems, and essays. As Killam concludes, his writing conveys that “the spirit of man and the belief in the possibility of triumph endures.”