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Things Fall Apart

by Chinua Achebe

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Places Discussed

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Umuofia (oo-moh-FEE-uh) is an 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 and a courthouse, for example—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 is 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 be 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) is 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) is a village bordering on Umuofia. Umuofia and Mbaino are traditional enemies. When a young 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) is a 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...

(This entire section contains 732 words.)

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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)

The Great River (Niger River) is West Africa’s largest river, rising in Guinea and flowing generally east before turning southward to flow through Nigeria. For Umuofia, 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.

Literary Style

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Things Fall Apart chronicles the double tragedies of the deaths of Okonkwo, a revered warrior, and the Igbo, the tribe to which Okonkwo belongs. In literature, tragedy often describes the downfall of a great individual that is caused by a flaw in the person’s character. Okonkwo’s personal flaw is his unreasonable anger, and his tragedy occurs when the tribe bans him for accidentally killing a young tribesman and he returns to find a tribe that has changed beyond recognition. The Igbo’s public demise results from the destruction of one culture by another, but their tragedy is caused by their turning away from their tribal gods.


Things Fall Apart is set in Umuofia, a tribal village in the country of Nigeria, in Africa. It is the late 1800s, when English bureaucrats and missionaries are first arriving in the area. There is a long history of conflict between European colonists and the Africans they try to convert and subjugate. But by placing the novel at the beginning of this period, Achebe can accentuate the clash of cultures that are just coming into contact. It also sets up a greater contrast between the time Okonkwo leaves the tribe and the time he returns, when his village is almost unrecognizable to him because of the changes brought by the English.


In Things Fall Apart, the Igbo thrive in Umuofia, practicing ancient rituals and customs. When the white man arrives, however, he ignores the Igbo’s values and tries to enforce his own beliefs, laws, and religious practices. Some of the weaker tribesmen join the white man’s ranks, leaving gaps in the clan’s united front. First, the deserters are impressed with the wealth the white man brings into Umuofia. Second, they find in the white man’s religion an acceptance and brotherhood that has never been afforded them due to their lower status in the tribe. As men leave the tribe to become members of the white man’s mission, the rift in the tribe widens. Social and psychological conflict abounds as brothers turn their backs on one another and fathers and sons become strangers.


Achebe develops Things Fall Apart through a third-person narrative—using he and she for exposition—rather than having the characters tell it themselves. Often speaking in the past tense, he also narrates the story with little use of character dialogue. The resulting story reads like an oral tale that has been passed down through generations of storytellers.


While the characters in Things Fall Apart have little dialogue, the reader still has a clear image of them and is able to understand their motives. Achebe accomplishes this through his combination of the English language with Igbo vocabulary and proverbs. When the characters do talk, they share the rich proverbs that are “the palm-oil with which words are eaten.” Achebe uses the proverbs not only to illustrate his characters but also to paint pictures of the society he is depicting, to reveal themes, and to develop conflict. Vivid images result, giving the reader a clear representation of people and events.

Point of View

Critics praise Achebe for his adept shifts in point of view in Things Fall Apart. Achebe begins the story from Okonkwo’s point of view. Okonkwo’s story helps the reader understand the Igbo’s daily customs and rituals as well as celebrations for the main events in life: birth, marriage, and death. As the story progresses, however, it becomes more the clan’s story than Okonkwo’s personal story. The reader follows the clan’s life, gradual disintegration, and death. The novel becomes one of situation rather than character; the reader begins to feel a certain sympathy for the tribe instead of the individual. The final shift occurs when Achebe ends the story from the District Commissioner’s viewpoint. While some critics feel that Achebes ending lectures the reader, others believe that it strengthens the conclusion. Some even view it as a form of functionalism, an African tradition of cultural instruction.

Plot and Structure

Divided into three parts, Things Fall Apart comprises many substories. Yet Achebe holds the various stories together through his use of proverbs, traditional oral tales, and leitmotifs, or recurring images or phrases. Igbo proverbs occur throughout the book, providing a unity to the surface progression of the story. For example, “when a man says yes, his chi says yes” is the proverb the tribe applies to Okonkwo’s success, on the one hand; but it is also the proverb Okonkwo himself applies to his failure.

Traditional oral tales always contain a tale within the tale. Nwoye’s mother is an expert at telling these tales, which embed morals in stories. The stories Achebe tells throughout Things Fall Apart are themselves tales within the tale. Leitmotifs are the association of a repeated theme with a particular idea. Achebe connects masculinity with land, yams, titles, and wives. He repeatedly associates this view of masculinity with a certain stagnancy in Umuofia. While a traditional Western plot may not be evident in Things Fall Apart, a definite structure with an African flavor lends itself to the overall unity of the story.


Achebe uses foil—a type of contrast—to strengthen his primary characters in Things Fall Apart, illuminating their differences. The following pairs of characters serve as foils for each other: Okonkwo and Obierika, Ikemefuna and Nwoye, and Mr. Brown and the Reverend Smith.

Okonkwo rarely thinks; he is a man of action. He follows the tribe’s customs almost blindly and values its opinion of him over his own good sense. Obierika, on the other hand, ponders the things that happen to Okonkwo and his tribe. Obierika often makes his own decisions and wonders about the tribe’s wisdom in some of its actions.

Ikemefuna exemplifies the rising young tribesman. A masculine youth, full of energy and personality, Ikemefuna participates in the manly activities expected of him. In contrast, Nwoye appears lazy and effeminate. He prefers listening to his mother’s stories over making plans for war. He detests the sight of blood and abhors violence of any kind.

Mr. Brown speaks gently and restrains the overzealous members of his mission from overwhelming the clan. He seeks to win the people over by offering education and sincere faith. The Reverend Smith is the fire-and-brimstone preacher who replaces Mr. Brown. He sees the world in black and white; either something is evil, or it is good. He thrives on his converts’ zeal and encourages them to do whatever it takes to gain supporters for his cause.


Key Ideas and Commentary


Historical and Social Context