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Things Fall Apart

by Chinua Achebe

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Achebe's Things Fall Apart is a ground-breaking novel, specifically African in vision, yet universal in themes and scope. The fictional time for the novel is around 1920, and although his locations are fictional, they are based on his actual experiences of life in an African village. Provocative areas for group discussion lie in comparisons of Igbo life and values to the European Christian culture that sought to supplant them, comparison of the African "hero" Okonkwo to predecessors in Western literature — he has been compared in his stature and flawed nature to the heroes of Greek tragedy, and the question of the problem of colonialism. Comparisons to his literary predecessor Joseph Conrad, and the question of whether Conrad was racist in his portrayal of Africa, especially when his novel is set against Achebe's fuller picture, will also stimulate debate. The charge some critics aim at Achebe — that his portrayals of Europeans make him a Conrad in reverse, may be evaluated.

The political situation in present day Nigeria is so alarming that many of Achebe's writings, this one included, have appeared prophetic. Bringing the values expressed in Achebe's novel to bear on the behavior of the present regime, and the West's reaction to it, may also be useful.

1. Okonkwo kills three people in the course of the novel. Look carefully at each of these episodes. Is he to be exonerated for any of the deaths? Is the killing of Ikemefuna premeditated, spontaneous, or done in obeisance to the Earth goddess? Do you believe Okonkwo's participation was necessary? The act has been compared to the biblical sacrifice of Isaac; do you see any parallels?

2. Mr. Smith can be called a fanatic compared to the more circumspect Mr. Brown; some have compared Smith's narrow views to the rigidity of Okonkwo. Does such a comparison hold up?

3. Look carefully at Chapter 11 where Ekwefi and Okonkwo keep an all night vigil over their only daughter, Ezinma, and at the flashback in Chapter 12. How does this chapter qualify your view of Okonkwo? Is this a break in his character, or are there other places in the novel that work in a similar way?

4. Evaluate the relationship between Okonkwo and his son, Nwoye. Is Okonkwo's view of the masculine idiosyncratic or does he reflect the mores of his culture?

5. Umuofia benefits materially when the British and the Christians gain a foothold there. What is the author's attitude to this gain?

6. Evaluate the Igbo judicial system and compare it to that of the British.

7. How ingrained are Igbo customs? Are they sometimes changed?

8. Evaluate the position of women in Igbo society. Is the predominant deity a god or a goddess? Is storytelling primarily a male or a female activity? How does Okonkwo treat his three wives? Which wife suffers the most at his hands?

9. Compare Okonkwo to his father Unoka. How is the father used to explain the son's shortcomings? What shortcomings and strengths does the father have?

10. How does Achebe use proverbs, both Igbo and Christian, to comment on or assess the actions of the characters?

11. What appears to be the author's attitude about the Igbo custom of throwing away twins? How does this custom figure in the sacrifice of Ikemefuna? Note especially Nwoye's reaction.

12. Who is Okonkwo's favorite child? Why?

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