Things Fall Apart Historical and Social Context
by Chinua Achebe

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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.

Historical Background

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. Title holding leaders influenced the village assembly, came to decisions through consensus, made new laws, and administered justice.

Early on, the Igbo people developed relationships with...

(The entire section is 2,657 words.)