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Things Fall Apart

by Chinua Achebe

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So you’re going to teach Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Whether it’s your first time or hundredth time, Things Fall Apart has been a mainstay of English classrooms for decades. While it has its challenging spots—necessary historical context and a potentially unfamiliar cultural landscape—teaching this text to your class will be rewarding for you and your students. Studying Things Fall Apart will give them unique insight into Igbo culture, and themes surrounding tradition versus change and the impact of imperialism. This guide highlights some of the most salient aspects of the text before you begin teaching.

Facts at a Glance 

  • Publication Date: 1958
  • Recommended Grade Level: 9-12
  • Approximate Word Count: 50,000
  • Author: Chinua Achebe
  • Country of Origin: Nigeria
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Literary Period: Modernism, Realism
  • Conflict: Person vs. Person, Person vs. Society, Person vs. Supernatural, Person vs. Self
  • Narration: Third-Person Omniscient
  • Setting: Umuofia and Mbanta, Nigeria, Late 19th Century
  • Dominant Literary Devices: Prose, Realism, Folktales
  • Mood: Mournful, Uncertain

Texts that Go Well with Things Fall Apart

Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, centers around the Nigerian Civil War. Also known as the Biafran War, the conflict erupted when the state of Biafra—comprised of Igbo communities—attempted to secede from Nigeria in 1967. Aided by British military forces, Nigeria ultimately suppressed the Biafran state after three devastating years. Adichie’s novel explores the war from the perspective of five characters whose lives are torn apart by the conflict. Half of a Yellow Sun is an excellent companion text for Things Fall Apart in that it portrays a later stage of Nigerian and Igbo history from the vantage point of a contemporary author.

Heart of Darkness (1902) is a novella by Joseph Conrad. It is perhaps the most iconic text about the European colonization of Africa. The novel describes merchant seaman Charles Marlow’s experience working for a Belgian ivory trading company operating in the Congo. As Marlow travels up the Congo River, he becomes increasingly obsessed with Mr. Kurtz, an ivory trader gone rogue. Achebe took issue with Conrad’s racist and one-dimensional portrayal of Africans in the novel, and his criticisms of it have altered the scholarly discourse surrounding Conrad’s novel. Things Fall Apart shows the complexity and depth of African lives ignored by texts like Heart of Darkness.

No Longer at Ease (1960) and Arrow of God (1964), by Chinua Achebe, are the two immediate successors to Things Fall Apart in Achebe’s body of work. No Longer at Ease features Obi, Okonkwo’s grandson. A civil servant, Obi navigates complexity and corruption in Nigeria’s government during the 1950s and 1960s. Arrow of God takes place in the 1920s. The protagonist, the chief priest in his Igbo village, sends his son to learn how and why the Christian missionaries are becoming so powerful. These novels pair well with Things Fall Apart in that both continue to explore the effects of colonialism in Nigeria and the dynamics of culture and family. 

“The Second Coming” (1920) is a poem by W. B. Yeats. Composed in response to World War I and the Easter Uprising in Ireland, the poem describes a world in anarchy and chaos. The speaker draws on biblical imagery in a grim meditation on imminent calamity. This poem offers key context to Things Fall Apart in that Achebe alludes to the poem in the title and within the novel. The novel’s plot reflects the turbulence of Yeats’s poem: Okonkwo deals with the chaos and burgeoning anarchy in Umuofia as imperial and missionary forces encroach on his homeland.

Weep Not, Child (1964), by Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, is a novel published during the blossoming of African literature that followed Things Fall Apart. Like Achebe’s novel, Weep Not, Child is critical of British colonial rule in Africa. The novel occurs during the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya and follows a young boy, Njoroge, who is working toward his education. Weep Not, Child offers students a broader context in studying British colonialism in Africa, adding a Kenyan perspective to accompany Achebe’s Nigerian perspective.

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Key Plot Points