At a Glance

  • Chinua Achebe drew the title for Things Fall Apart from the William Butler Yeats poem "The Second Coming." In the poem, the forces of modernization and industrialization have destroyed society, bringing about an apocalyptic Second Coming with a "rough beast" slouching toward Bethlehem to be born. Achebe's allusion to the poem underscores the Europeanization that destroys traditional Igbo culture.
  • Structurally, Things Fall Apart is broken into three parts. Part I chronicles Okonkwo's life in Umuofia prior to his exile, Part II details the seven years of Okonkwo's exile in Mbanta, and Part III returns to Umuofia, where Christians and British imperialists have encroached upon the village. Okonkwo returns home to find the village changed in ways he cannot accept.
  • Okonkwo's tragic flaw is his pride. As the son of a lazy debtor, Okonkwo constantly feels the need to prove himself, both in battle and in life. He builds a successful farm, takes three wives and two titles, and becomes a respected leader in his village; but his great success makes him arrogant, and when his life begins to fall apart Okonkwo is unprepared for it, having never experienced failure before.


Literary Techniques

Achebe uses the traditions, narrative and otherwise, of two cultures in a highly allusive work that fully exploits their proverbs, tales, religious rituals, and customs. Narrative structure is only apparently simple in this novel. Okonkwo's life is evaluated in the light of both Igbo and Christian traditional values — values that often intersect. His fear of being thought of as weak causes him to negate the importance Igbo culture places on peaceful settlement of conflict and diplomacy. When telling stories to his children, he tells only tales of violence and bloodshed. Indeed, as critics have pointed out, his rigidity makes him resemble Old Testament figures from the Bible more than New. The sacrifice of Isaac is evoked both in his actual murder of Ikemefuna and his psychic murder of his own son Nwoye, who takes the name Isaac upon his conversion. (His accidental killing of a third male child causes his banishment.) The more rigid British characters, such as Mr. Smith and the District Commander then appear like his white counterparts. Achebe is able at the same time to use Christian values to expose what is arbitrary and cruel about the Igbo religion, such as the existence of the pariah osu, and the throwing away of twins, and the Igbo custom and belief to expose the absurdities and contradictions in the Christian/ European perspective. The efforts of the missionaries in Mbanta (the place where Okonkwo is exiled) to explain the trinity right after telling the crowd that there is only one God are met with hilarious rejoinders.

References to the white prelates as albinos and officials wearing beige shorts as "ashy buttocks" have even led some critics to see the book as a reversal of Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1902) — the novel is presenting the white man as other and absurd, a sort of horror. Yet the existence of even one sympathetic Christian cleric in Mr. Brown seems to undercut this reading. Achebe is aware that the interplay between the two cultures has gone too far to be reversed, and the most optimistic moments in the book are those that point to the...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


Umuofia (oo-moh-FEE-uh). Area in southeastern Nigeria, comprising nine villages, where the Umuofia clan live. “Umuofia” is the Igbo word for “people of the forest.” The word “village” is a loose translation of a complicated concept in Igbo society and is used in Things Fall Apart to represent both the nine villages and the larger area; thus, the village of Umuofia comprises nine villages. In Umuofia at the end of the nineteenth century, homes are mud huts set in compounds. Each of the villages is advised by a male elder, and the nine elders meet to make decisions for the clan. The center of village life is the market. Okonkwo is known throughout Umuofia for his strength and his success in warfare, unlike his father, who also came from Umuofia. He is not an elder and has no official status as a leader, but he is relied upon as a man of action and he hopes one day to become a leader. In his father’s village, a male-dominated society, Okonkwo knows his place, and the place of his wives and his children. For him, social order is bound up in tradition and home.

When Okonkwo returns to Umuofia after seven years in exile, he finds that the Christian missionaries have made several changes. New buildings—a church, a courthouse—have appeared in the village, representing new ideas and rules. For Okonkwo, the physical changes in the village symbolize the erosion of the Igbo culture—the things that are falling apart.

Okonkwo’s compound

Okonkwo’s compound. The home of Okonkwo and his immediate family. Okonkwo has a hut for himself and one for each of his three wives, a barn, and several yam fields, all enclosed in a red mud wall. None of this was inherited from his father, Unoka, who never prospered. Okonkwo has built up his wealth and his property through his own hard work and the work of his family. When it is determined that Okonkwo must be banished from Umuofia, men storm his compound dressed as they would for a war. They burn Okonkwo’s buildings, kill his animals, and tear down his red walls. They do not do this out of anger or hatred (in fact, Okonkwo’s closest friend is one of them), but simply because a man’s land is inseparable from him, and to purify the village they must remove every trace of the offender. Okonkwo understands and accepts his punishment.


Mbanta (m-BON-tuh). Okonkwo’s mother’s village, just beyond Mbaino, where Okonkwo spends his seven years of exile. In his motherland, he is immediately accepted, and his relatives give him land and fields to begin a new life. As Uchendu the elder explains, “A man belongs to his fatherland when things are good and life is sweet. But when there is sorrow and bitterness he finds refuge in his motherland.”


Mbaino (m-BI-no). Village bordering on Umuofia. Umuofia and Mbaino are traditional enemies. When a woman from Umuofia is murdered at the market in Mbaino, Umuofia threatens a war of vengeance. Rather than face a war with the stronger Umuofia, Mbaino sends a young man (Ikemefuna) and a young virgin girl as payment. Throughout the story, Mbaino is referred to as a place where the people are weaker and less just, and the crops are poorer than in Umofia.


Abame (ah-BAH-may). Neighboring village where the white man on an iron horse is killed. After the people of Abame kill the white man, they are attacked by European soldiers. Many of the Abame clan are killed, and the rest are scattered. Crops and fish die. It is the end of the clan, for without their land the clan cannot endure.

*Great River (Niger River)

*Great River (Niger River). West Africa’s biggest river, rising in Guinea and flowing generally east before turning southward to flow through Nigeria. For Umofia, the Great River represents all that is far away and mysterious, since any travel over large distances would be by water. The missionaries establish their base at Umaru, on the Great River, because they are people who are not of the land and who will not stay in one place. They do not value land or land ownership, because they look to Heaven rather than to Earth.

Ideas for Group Discussions

Achebe's Things Fall Apart is a ground-breaking novel, specifically African in vision, yet universal in themes and scope. The fictional time for the novel is around 1920, and although his locations are fictional, they are based on his actual experiences of life in an African village. Provocative areas for group discussion lie in comparisons of Igbo life and values to the European Christian culture that sought to supplant them, comparison of the African "hero" Okonkwo to predecessors in Western literature — he has been compared in his stature and flawed nature to the heroes of Greek tragedy, and the question of the problem of colonialism. Comparisons to his literary predecessor Joseph Conrad, and the question of whether Conrad was racist in his portrayal of Africa, especially when his novel is set against Achebe's fuller picture, will also stimulate debate. The charge some critics aim at Achebe — that his portrayals of Europeans make him a Conrad in reverse, may be evaluated.

The political situation in present day Nigeria is so alarming that many of Achebe's writings, this one included, have appeared prophetic. Bringing the values expressed in Achebe's novel to bear on the behavior of the present regime, and the West's reaction to it, may also be useful.

1. Okonkwo kills three people in the course of the novel. Look carefully at each of these episodes. Is he to be exonerated for any of the deaths? Is the killing of Ikemefuna premeditated, spontaneous, or done in obeisance to the Earth goddess? Do you believe Okonkwo's participation was necessary? The act has been compared to the biblical sacrifice of Isaac; do you see any parallels?

2. Mr. Smith can be called a fanatic compared to the more circumspect Mr. Brown; some have compared Smith's narrow views to the rigidity of Okonkwo. Does such a comparison hold up?

3. Look carefully at Chapter 11 where Ekwefi and Okonkwo keep an all night vigil over their...

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Social Concerns

As the title, taken from W. B. Yeats's poem "The Second Coming," implies, the chief social concern of Things Fall Apart is the undermining of traditional Igbo society as it is dominated and misunderstood by British colonizers bringing with them the Anglican Christian religion. Although the hero, Okonkwo, is a deeply flawed man, cruel to his wives and children, whose major tragic flaw is his fear of failure and an accompanying inflexibility, his ill-fated progress through the novel is as much the result of errors in judgment and inflexibility on the side of the British as his own. Consequently, rather than presenting Igbo society as a pristine one, and the British as totally evil, Achebe acknowledges faults on both sides and therefore creates a credible view of his own Igbo society.

While the Igbo have practices that are rigid and cruel, such as that of invariably throwing away twins and occasionally killing innocent hostages — the death of Ikemefuna inflicted in part by Okonkwo's own hand is the subject of much critical debate — they also have clan meetings to resolve disputes and a fair-minded flexibility in their encounters with the British and their religion. Furthermore, when the Igbo openness and flexibility are greeted by double crossing, as when the tribal elders are imprisoned, brutalized, and humiliated after they seek to make peace after the burning down of a church, the reader is encouraged to be sympathetic.

No matter what social forces are seen to be at play at any given moment in the novel, individual responsibility is never discounted. Things get worse when Mr. Brown, the flexible Anglican preacher, is supplanted by Mr. Smith, a fanatic. Likewise, the decision to kill Ikemefuma, prompted supposedly by Oracle of the Hills and the Caves, has severe repercussions, especially for Okonkwo. The fanaticism of Enoch, a Christian convert who unmasks an egugwu (a sacred impersonator of an ancestral spirit) is likewise condemned as it leads to the burning down of the church. Furthermore, the novel authenticates the spirituality of both Christian and Igbo religions, as transgressions of either belief by the fanatics of the other lead to dire consequences.

Literary Precedents

Achebe wrote his first and most famous novel partly in response to two works by European writers whom he had found wanting in their view of Africa: Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Joyce Cary's Mister Johnson (1951). To quote his own famous essay on Conrad, "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness," the European sets "Africa up as a foil to Europe, as a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar, in comparison with which Europe's own state of spiritual grace will be manifest." Africa's "triumphant bestiality" mocks European "intelligence and refinement"; it is projected as "the other world." Metaphors of silence and frenzy characterize Africa as a whole, and the people are...

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Related Titles

As this is Achebe's first novel, there really are not any earlier related titles. No Longer at Ease (1960) can be considered a sequel, as it tells the story of Okonkwo's grandson, who by being educated in England rises to a good position as a colonial civil servant only to meet his downfall when he takes a bribe. The book is narrated as a flashback, and is less about the hero's moral culpability as it is about his being caught in the complex web of circumstances and contradictions which colonialism has woven since the time of his grandfather. Like his grandfather, Obi Okonkwo has serious flaws, yet unlike his grandfather, his flaw is basically his indecisiveness, which ironically prompts him to leave the twenty pounds in...

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Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

Tribal Society
Things Fall Apart was published in 1958 just prior to Nigerian independence, but it depicts pre-colonial Africa....

(The entire section is 1247 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Things Fall Apart chronicles the double tragedies of the deaths of Okonkwo, a revered warrior, and the Ibo, the...

(The entire section is 1076 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

1800s: Prior to colonization, common language and geography differentiated African societies. Six types of societies existed:...

(The entire section is 268 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

How does the displacement from one's culture affect a person psychologically? Explain possible reactions a person might have and the steps...

(The entire section is 313 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

One of Chinua Achebe's more recent novels, Anthills of the Savannah, was published in 1988 by Anchor Books. It tells the story of...

(The entire section is 225 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1996.

Chinua.Achebe, Morning Yet on...

(The entire section is 708 words.)


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Carroll, David. Chinua Achebe. New York: Twayne, 1970. A general introduction to Achebe’s first four novels.

Gikandi, Simon. Reading Chinua Achebe: Language and Ideology in Fiction. Portsmouth, N.H.: J. Currey, 1991. Study of the interplay of the creative process and the political situation in Achebe’s five novels. Devotes a chapter to Things Fall Apart, analyzing writing, culture, and dominance.

Lindfors, Bernth, ed. Approaches to Teaching “Things Fall Apart.” New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1991. Suitable for students and teachers. Contains Chinua Achebe’s only essay on the novel, as well as articles of literary and cultural analysis and an excellent bibliographical essay.

Wren, Robert M. Achebe’s World: the Historical and Cultural Context of the Novels of Chinua Achebe. Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1980. Study of the historical and cultural setting of Achebe’s novels. Compares Achebe’s presentation of the Ibo world with archaeological and sociological research.