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Things Fall Apart

by Chinua Achebe

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Social Concerns

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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 Ikemefuna, 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 egwugwu (a sacred representative 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.

Historical Background

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A distinctive culture known as Igbo (or Ibo) evolved in West Africa about 5,000 years ago. In the traditional worldview, the Creator God Chukwu was a remote masculine force who taught the people to survive through the cultivation of yams. The yam stood as an indicator of wealth and a type of currency. The masculine Chukwu was balanced by the Earth goddess Ani, or Mother Nature. The feminine Ani was closer to humankind than Chukwu, for she functioned as the goddess of fertility and the judge of morality.

These great masculine and feminine creative forces were augmented by localized deities, spirits, and oracles that were institutionalized by various Igbo communities. Each oracle spoke through a priest or priestess and served as a medium through which the divine was understood. The Igbo further personified the power of God in the concept of the chi. The chi was the personalized god force or invisible power of fate that guided each individual through life. It was the finely tuned chi that simultaneously controlled a person’s fortunes yet allowed the individual freedom to work creatively toward success or failure.

Political organizations and beliefs differed among the various groups of Igbo people. Historically, many Igbo villages were representative democracies bound to a group of villages by the decisions of a general assembly. The local life of each village was shaped by age-grade associations, title-making societies, work associations, religious fraternities, and secret societies. Men and women attempted to achieve prestige and status by accumulating wealth, which was used to purchase titles. Titleholding leaders influenced the village assembly, came to decisions through consensus, made new laws, and administered justice.

Early on, the Igbo people developed relationships with European traders and missionaries. In 1472, the Portuguese arrived in Igboland in an attempt to discover a sea route to India; in 1508, the Portuguese transported the first West African slaves to the West Indies. The slave trade flourished for three centuries; however, the Igbo also traded copper rods, iron bars, and cowrie shells with the Portuguese and the Dutch over the next two centuries. The slave trade was abolished in 1807, and the Igbo began to trade palm oil with the British. The Anglican Church Missionary Society established a mission in Onitsha in 1857; later, the Roman Catholic Holy Ghost Fathers and Society of African Missions set up stations east and west of the Niger River.

Friendly relations with Britain crumbled after 1875. Although Igboland had functioned as a British trade colony for decades, it was not formally declared a British Protectorate until 1900. In order to “pacify” Eastern Nigeria, the British destroyed much of Igboland and launched extensive military expeditions in 1914. Despite resistance, by 1928, Igbo men were forced to pay taxes and British colonialism took hold.

During the colonial era, British officials sought to govern hundreds of decentralized Igbo villages clustered in various political constructs through a system of indirect rule. Igbo institutions were replaced with a native court system that was administered by appointed warrant chiefs, district officers, court clerks, and messengers who held no traditional status in the village. The Igbo resisted the corruption of the native court system, the destruction of indigenous political life, and increased taxation. The resistance culminated in the Women’s War of 1929–1930. Women throughout Nigeria demanded social reforms, respect for Igbo customs, and women’s rights. In the final analysis, their action forced the British to restructure Eastern Nigeria to comply more closely with traditional village organization.

In 1952, a regional government was set up that paved the way for independence. After decades of resistance, Nigeria finally gained independence from Britain in 1960. However, the new nation contained many ethnic groups, including the Hausa and the Yoruba people. The eastern region of Nigeria was inhabited by the Igbo. This area, which was later known as Biafra, unsuccessfully sought independence from Nigeria during the devastating civil war of 1966–1969.

Things Fall Apart depicts the tensions within traditional Igbo society at the end of the nineteenth century and the cataclysmic changes introduced by colonialism and Christianity in the twentieth century. Chinua Achebe writes in English; however, in order to recreate the cultural milieu of the Igbo people, he “Africanizes” the language of the novel. Specific Igbo words and complicated names are used freely. Profound philosophical concepts such as chi and ogbanje are explained in the text or glossary and are fundamental to the story. The use of idioms and proverbs also clarifies the conflict, expresses different points of view, and instructs the characters as well as the reader. Things Fall Apart has been translated into thirty languages and has sold 8 million copies. The novel is internationally acclaimed, has become a classic of African literature, and has served as a seminal text for postcolonial literature around the world.

Historical Context

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Tribal Society

Things Fall Apart was published in 1958, just prior to Nigerian independence, but it depicts precolonial Africa. Achebe felt it was important to portray Nigerians as they really were—not just provide a shallow description of them, as other authors had. The story takes place in the typical tribal village of Umuofia, where the inhabitants (whom Achebe calls the Ibo, but who are also known as the Igbo) practice rituals common to their native traditions.

The Igbo worshipped gods who protected, advised, and chastised them and who were represented by priests and priestesses within the clan. For example, in the novel, the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves grants knowledge and wisdom to those who are brave enough to consult him. No one has ever seen the Oracle except his priestess, who is an Igbo woman who has special powers of her own. Not only did the gods advise the Igbo on community matters, but also they guided individuals. Each person had a personal god, or chi, that directed his or her actions. A strong chi meant a strong person; a person with a weak chi was pitied. Each man kept a separate hut, or shrine, where he stored the symbols of his personal god and his ancestral spirits.

A hunting and gathering society, the Igbo existed on vegetables, with yams as the primary crop. Yams were so important to them that the Igbo celebrated each new year with the Feast of the New Yam. This festival thanked Ani, the earth goddess and source of all fertility. The Igbo prepared for days for the festival, and the celebration itself lasted for two days. Yams also played a part in determining a man’s status in the tribe—the more yams a man had, the higher his status. Trade with other villages was facilitated by small seashells called cowries, which were used as a form of currency.

Within the village, people were grouped according to families, with the eldest man in the family having the most power. On matters affecting the whole village, an assembly of adult men debated courses of action, and men could influence these assemblies by purchasing “titles” from the tribal elders. This system encouraged hard work and the spread of wealth. People who transgressed against the laws and customs of the village had to confront the egwugwu, an assembly of tribesmen masked as spirits, who would settle disputes and hand out punishment. Individual villages also attained various degrees of political status. In the novel, other tribes respect and fear Umuofia. They believe that Umuofia’s magic is powerful and that the village’s war-medicine, or agadi-nwayi, is particularly potent. Neighboring clans always try to settle disputes peacefully with Umuofia to avoid having to war with them.

Christianity and Colonization

While Christianity spread across North and South Africa as early as the late fifteenth century, Christianity took its strongest hold when the majority of the missionaries arrived in the late 1800s. After centuries of taking slaves out of Africa, Britain had outlawed the slave trade and now saw the continent as ripe for colonization. Missionaries sent to convert the local population were often the first settlers.

At first, Africans were mistrustful of European Christians and took advantage of the education the missionaries provided without converting. Individuals who had no power under the current tribal order, however, soon converted; in the novel, the missionaries who come to Umuofia convert only the weaker tribesmen, or efulefu. Missionaries would convince these tribesmen that their tribe worshipped false gods and that its false gods did not have the ability to punish them if they chose to join the mission. When the mission and its converts accepted even the outcasts of the clan, the missionaries’ ranks grew. Eventually, some of the more important tribesmen would convert. As the mission expanded, the clan divided, discontent simmered, and conflicts arose.

English Bureaucrats and Colonization

After the arrival of the British, when conflicts came up between villages, the white government would intervene instead of allowing villagers to settle them themselves. In the novel, a white District Commissioner brings with him court messengers whose duty it is to bring in people who break the white man’s law. The messengers, called “Ashy-Buttocks” for the ash-colored shorts they wear, are hated for their high-handed attitudes. These messengers and interpreters were often African Christian converts who looked down on tribesmen who still followed traditional customs. If violence involved any white missionaries or bureaucrats, British soldiers would often slaughter whole villages instead of seeking and punishing guilty individuals. The British passed an ordinance in 1912 that legalized this practice, and during an uprising in 1915, British troops killed more than forty natives in retaliation for one dead and one wounded British soldier.

One of the most important results of Europe’s colonization of Africa was the division of Africa into at least fifty nation-states. Rather than being a part of a society determined by common language and livelihood, Africans lived according to political boundaries. The divisions often split ethnic groups, leading to tension and sometimes violence. The cohesiveness of the traditional society was gone.

Nigerian Independence

British colonial rule in Nigeria lasted only fifty-seven years, from 1903 to 1960. Although Nigerians had long called for self-rule, it was not until the end of World War II that England began heeding these calls. The Richards Constitution of 1946 was the first attempt to grant some native rule by bringing the diverse peoples of Nigeria under one representative government. The three regions (northern, southern, and western) were brought under the administration of one legislative council composed of twenty-eight Nigerians and seventeen British officers. Regional councils, however, guaranteed some independence from the national council and forged a link between local authorities, such as tribal chiefs, and the national government. There were three major tribes (the Hausa, the Yoruba, and the Igbo) and more than eight smaller ones living in Nigeria. This diversity complicated the creation of a unified Nigeria. Between 1946 and 1960, the country went through several different constitutions, each one attempting to balance power between the regional and the national bodies of government.

On October 1, 1960, Nigeria attained full status as a sovereign state and a member of the British Commonwealth. But under the Constitution of 1960, the Queen of England was still the head of state. She remained the commander-in-chief of Nigeria’s armed forces, and the Nigerian navy operated as part of Britain’s Royal Navy. Nigerians felt frustrated by the implication that they were the subjects of a monarch living over 4,000 miles away. In 1963, five years after the publication of Achebe’s novel, a new constitution would replace the British monarch with a Nigerian president as head of state in Nigeria.

Literary Traditions

Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart just before Nigeria received its independence. He intended the book for audiences outside Africa; he wanted to paint a true picture of precolonial Africa for those people who had no direct knowledge of traditional African societies. As a result of the Nigerians’ acquisition of independence, the Nigerian educational system sought to encourage a national pride through the study of Nigerian heritage. The educational system required Achebe’s book in high schools throughout the English-speaking countries in Africa. The book was well received. Chinua Achebe has been recognized as “the most original African novelist writing in English,” according to Charles Larson in The Emergence of African Fiction. Critics throughout the world have praised Things Fall Apart as the first African English-language classic.

Compare and Contrast

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1800s: Prior to colonization, common language and geography differentiated African societies. Six types of societies existed: hunting and gathering societies, cattle-herding societies, forest dwellers, fishermen, grain-raising societies, and city (urban) societies. The geographic area in which people lived determined their lifestyle.

Colonial Africa: Africa was divided into more than fifty nation-states, with no regard for maintaining groups sharing common language and livelihood.

Today: Societies are no longer as clear-cut. People have more opportunities for education, better jobs, and improved means of communication and transportation. They marry individuals from other societies. As a result, the societies have become mixed, but ethnic conflicts still lead to violence.

1800s: While religion varied from society to society, most Africans shared some common beliefs and practices. They believed in a supreme creator god or spirit. Other lesser gods revealed themselves as and worked through community ancestors.

Colonial Africa: Missionaries arrived and introduced Christianity. Many tribesmen converted to the new religion.

Today: While more than an estimated twenty-five percent of Africa is Christian, traditional African religion is still practiced, as is Islam. Islam is a monotheistic religion related to the Jewish and Christian traditions.

1800s: Prior to colonization, Africans had their own identities and cultures and were not concerned with participating in the modern world.

Colonial Africa: After colonization, African children were taught European history and literature so that they might compete in the modern world, while their own heritage was ignored.

Today: Africans continue to seek the independence they began to achieve in the 1950s and 1960s. There is, however, a renewed interest in cultural heritage, and traditional customs are being taught to African children.

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