Things Fall Apart Analysis
- The title of Things Fall Apart comes from the William Butler Yeats poem “The Second Coming,” in which modernization has destroyed society. This allusion underscores the British imperialism that destroys traditional Igbo culture.
- Things Fall Apart is broken into three parts: the first explores Okonkwo’s pre-exile life, the second describes his time in exile, and the third finds him struggling to understand the changes Umuofia has undergone.
- Okonkwo’s tragic flaw is his pride. Due to his father’s failures, Okonkwo feels compelled to prove himself, but his successes make him arrogant, and he is unequipped to deal with failure and disappointment.
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 Okonkwo’s 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 throwing away of twins—and to use the customs and beliefs of the Igbo 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 seems pasted on, as if the character is clutching at straws, as when Obierika tries to rationalize his throwing away of his twin children: “The Earth had decreed that they were an offense on the land and must be destroyed,” and “If one finger brought oil it soiled the others.”
A corollary to his concern with truths of two intersecting cultures is Achebe’s problematic (at least for Western, more scientifically minded cultures) substantiation of spiritual realities. The Ekwefi/Ezinma story is often cited in evidence of this aspect of his work. For not only are the Christians seen to err when they blatantly disregard Igbo beliefs, the spiritual is validated in both cultures and, among other things, provides a long view for lives and struggles of the characters. Okonkwo and Ekwefi secure their daughter’s chances for life...
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and avert the fate of theogbanje by careful vigilance and ritual, not by denying its reality or thwarting the belief irreverently.
Indeed, the hubris that denies belief and tradition appears to be the chief tragic flaw on both sides. At times the narrator will enter the point of view of Okonkwo in order to expose it ironically, as in the following passage:
Nwoye knew that it was right to be masculine and to be violent, but somehow he still preferred the stories that his mother used to tell . . . stories of the tortoise and his wily ways . . . of the quarrel between Earth and Sky long ago.
The stories of the new faith, stories that Okonkwo has no use for along with the Igbo ones, draw Nwoye to it. This is but one of the opportunities for irony that Achebe makes use of throughout the book.
The novel follows a more or less sequential narrative line, although it is sometimes disrupted by flashbacks, as when the courtship of Ekwefi and Okonkwo is remembered after their vigil over Ezinma. Later novels, especially Anthills of the Savannah, exploit distortions of chronological sequence even more fully.
Other hallmarks of Achebe’s style are his ability to intersperse Igbo and pidgin expressions where appropriate for sketching characters and to adapt English to the rhythm of his African language. His numerous translations of Igbo proverbs reflect this ability, and as he uses them, he builds a serious respect for a culture little understood previously by Westerners.