Illustration of a person holding their head next to a noose and a detached head

Things Fall Apart

by Chinua Achebe

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Teaching Approaches

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Understanding Okonkwo and His World View: The narrative of Things Fall Apart follows the events of Okonkwo’s life. He rejects his father’s way of life, builds his own reputation, and supports his family. Okonkwo’s perspective is often conservative and uncompromising. He can also be seen as a noble, courageous, and passionate character who cares for his culture and village. However, his inability to adapt and understand others brings about his tragic downfall in the novel. Studying Okonkwo’s character will offer students an opportunity to discuss important themes surrounding tradition and transgression as well as fate versus free will.  

  • For discussion: How does Okonkwo’s character develop over the course of the novel? How do his attitudes toward himself, his family, and his community shift? What does he learn over the course of his life, if anything?
  • For discussion: What are Okonkwo’s beliefs? What are his primary motivations? What are his primary fears?
  • For discussion: In the eyes of his community, what mistakes does Okonkwo make? How does beating his wife during the week of peace, killing Ikemefuna, and the accidental killing at the village funeral affect Okonkwo’s life?
  • For discussion: In what ways is Okonkwo in control of his life? In what ways is he affected by forces outside of his control? Are his tragic experiences the result of fate or free will?

Comparing and Contrasting Igbo and English Cultures: Things Fall Apart provides a glimpse into Igbo culture before and after the arrival of Christian missionaries. The narrator offers a view into the daily life, familial relationships, superstitions, and ceremonial practices of both the Igbo and the English. In doing so, it allows students to appreciate the diversity of both cultures as well as the similarities that exist between the two, despite their insurmountable differences. Such an analysis also sheds light on the conflict that escalated between the two cultures as Britain’s imperial agenda subsumed Nigeria.

  • For discussion: How do individuals in Igbo and English cultures earn respect and develop a favorable reputation within their communities?
  • For discussion: Who are the first converts from Igbo society to Christianity? How do both the Igbo and the English ostracize and revere certain members of their respective societies?
  • For discussion: Describe the role of the egwugwu in Umuofia. How does the Mother of the Spirits respond when an egwugwu is unmasked? How does this event reflect the attitudes of the Umuofia clan?
  • For discussion: Compare and contrast the religious practices of the Igbo and the Christians. How do their conceptions of God—or the gods—compare? How does nature factor in to each of their beliefs?
  • For discussion: How do the church and colonial government change Umuofia and the clan’s behavior? How do the conversion tactics of the two different missionaries (Mr. Brown and, later, Mr. Smith) differ?
  • For discussion: How do the Igbo and English cultures assess crime and deal out punishments? To what extent are punishments in each culture justified?
  • For discussion: Does the arrival of the English missionaries have a positive or negative effect on Igbo culture? How and why?

Analyzing Parent-Child Relationships: Okonkwo’s disgust for his father is evident from the outset of the novel. Over the course of the novel, the narrator details Okonkwo’s shifting and judgmental attitudes toward Ikemefuna and his favored children, Nwoye and Ezinma. This motif is developed elsewhere in the novel as well through the death of Ekwefi’s previous children, the marital traditions of the village, and the Igbo’s superstitious view of twins. Analyzing these familial relationships will shed light on Okonkwo’s character as well as topics surroundings Igbo traditions and values.

  • For discussion: Describe the role of family in Igbo culture. What do Okonkwo, his wives, and his children do to take care of each other? What role does each family member play? 
  • For discussion: How do Ikemefuna’s attitudes toward his adopted family develop in the story? How do Okonkwo’s and Nwoye’s attitudes toward Ikemefuna develop their characters?
  • For discussion: How do Okonkwo’s relationships with his children differ from his wives’ relationship to his children? 
  • For discussion: How do relationships within Okonkwo’s family compare to the standards of familial relationships in Igbo culture? Would fellow villagers think of Okonkwo as a good or a bad father? Why?
  • For discussion: Okonkwo rejects his father’s sensitivity and softness, considering them “feminine” traits. When would it be helpful for Okonkwo to act more like his father? How does Okonkwo’s rejection of his father and “feminine” behavior create problems? 
  • For discussion: How would you describe Nwoye and Okonkwo’s relationship? In what ways do Okonkwo and Nwoye differ?

Gender Dynamics in Igbo Culture: Nearly every aspect of life in Umuofia is determined by one’s gender, from the crops one grows to the familial role one plays. Okonkwo carries particularly strict and censorious views on gender. For Okonkwo, the traits he views as masculine—such as ambition, violence, decisiveness, and physical strength–are good, whereas more feminine traits are bad. He has no patience for things he sees as womanly, such as sympathy, compassion, fables, or sensitivity. Examining the novel’s depiction of gender dynamics will encourage fruitful discussions about the various attitudes towards gender at play in the novel: those of Okonkwo, other characters, Igbo culture more broadly, and the narrator. 

  • For discussion: How does Okonkwo determine what is masculine and what is feminine? Do his views develop over the course of the story?
  • For discussion: To what extent do Okonkwo’s attitudes about gender reflect those of Igbo culture in general? To what extent do those attitudes reflect Okonkwo’s personal psychology and history?
  • For discussion: What views toward gender does the Ibgo culture appear to hold? How do they compare with gender expectations you are familiar with in your own life?
  • For discussion: How does Ekwefi show strength when Okonkwo is weak? How does her characterization refute Okonkwo’s idea of femininity as weakness?
  • For discussion: In what ways are women idealized and given power in Igbo society? How do these ideals compare with the actual role and treatment of women in Ibgo society?
  • For discussion: To what extent do Okonkwo’s views about his own masculinity contribute to the tragedies in the novel? To what extent do these views determine his fate?

The Role of Nature in Human Societies: The Igbo culture is intimately entwined with its natural environment: the forests of Nigeria. For example, the “Evil Forest” is a god-like entity, and the earth goddess is both respected and feared. Natural elements, such as sunshine and rainfall, dictate the prosperity of the people. Meanwhile, the Christian missionaries believe humans to have a very different relationship with nature. In their view, humans are made in the image of God, and one’s righteousness in the eyes of God determines their prosperity. Examining the Igbo conception of nature provides a window into the Igbo worldview and how the characters interact with the novel’s setting. This approach may shed more light on the significant cultural differences between the Igbo and the British.

  • For discussion: How do the Igbo interact with nature? Describe how nature influences their religious systems and their superstitions.
  • For discussion: Compare and contrast how the Igbo and English cultures view the relationship between humanity and nature. How are they different or similar?
  • For discussion: Find examples of Igbo proverbs that include references to nature and animals. Why do you think nature plays a large role in how the Igbo relate proverbs, which are a key element of their communication? 
  • For discussion: How do folktales in Things Fall Apart explain elements of nature? What do the personifications of animals in folktales reveal about Igbo culture?

Additional Discussion Questions:

  • How does the epigraph from Yeats develop themes in the novel?
  • Why does Okonkwo end his own life? Is this a brave or cowardly choice? How is suicide viewed in Igbo culture? How does Okonkwo’s friend, Obierika, react to his suicide and burial?

Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching

Necessary Historical Context: Things Fall Apart requires necessary historical knowledge that some students may not possess. The novel centers around the history of British imperial activity in Nigeria in the late 19th century. Although students without prior knowledge of this historical period can glean much from the novel, they will also miss a great deal.

  • What to do: Before assigning Things Fall Apart, introduce the historical backdrop of the novel to your students. Discuss the rise of European imperialism in Africa, with a particular focus on Britain’s activities in Nigeria. Equipped with such a broad view, students will be better equipped to grasp the significance of the events in Achebe’s novel.

Cultural Biases: In reading Things Fall Apart, students may need to acknowledge their own cultural biases and lenses. In most English-speaking classrooms, students will find the practices and values of the Igbo culture to be unfamiliar. As a result, students may unwittingly assess the behaviour of Igbo people through their own cultural biases and lenses. To achieve a more honest and objective reading of the text, students may need to acknowledge and suspend their own biases. For example, in engaging with the Gender Dynamics in Igbo Culture teaching approach listed above, students may reflexively interpret Igbo views of gender dynamics in terms of the contemporary views of their own culture. While such a reflex is understandable, students will see more deeply into the text by acknowledging the influence of their own views, which are tinted by their particular cultural upbringing.

  • What to do: Before or during your discussion of Things Fall Apart, encourage students to identify elements of Igbo culture depicted in the text—values, customs, modes of speech—that seem unfamiliar. Prompt discussion around why such elements are unfamiliar, encouraging students to consider which of their own views contrast with the elements they have identified. Ask students whether they see the elements of Igbo culture differently if they try to set aside their own views and engage with Igbo culture on its own terms.

Content Notice: This text depicts racism, violence, misogyny, domestic abuse, and suicide, which may be distressing to some students.

Alternative Approaches to Teaching Things Fall Apart

While the main ideas, character development, and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving this text, the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the novel.

  • Focus on fear as a motif in the text. Fear is pervasive in Things Fall Apart, from Okonkwo’s fear of being similar to his father to the mutual fear the Igbo and English have toward each other. How do different characters manage their fear in the story? How is fear used as a means of control and intimidation?
  • Focus on Igbo proverbs, language, and cadence. Though Things Fall Apart is written in English, the cadence and dialogue of the novel capture the rhythms of the Igbo language. Igbo proverbs feature prominently, and Igbo vocabulary and songs are present in the story. How does this use of language develop atmosphere and tone in the story? How does this use of language develop the reader’s understanding of Igbo culture?
  • Focus on symbols. Yams, fire, ash, and bicycles all function as prominent symbols in the story. Similarly, the Igbo religious system is based upon personification of the natural elements. How do these examples of figurative language develop themes in the story?
  • Focus on folktales. Many folktales and fables appear in Things Fall Apart. What do these anecdotes reveal about Ibgo culture? How do they compare and contrast with the folktales and fables that students are familiar with?

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