Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

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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.

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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 preservation of human values and productive lives despite the trauma of change. That Nwoye gains a productive life that he could not have had with his father is a blessing, as is the saving of his sister from the plight of the changeling.

The manipulation of proverbs, both Igbo and biblical, and the testing of them against experience is also a common technique. Mr. Smith fails because, unlike Mr. Brown, he wants to make Christianity more selective. "Narrow is the way and few the number," he argues, doubtless buttressed by scripture, and he is appalled by the pockets of ignorance of common doctrines. Sometimes, the experience the proverb is meant to contain is too large and unfathomable, and the proverb...

(The entire section is 6,018 words.)