Themes and Meanings
One important function of the novel is educational; indeed, Achebe stated that he would be content if Things Fall Apart did “no more than teach my readers that their past—with all its imperfections—was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God’s behalf delivered them.” In Things Fall Apart, Achebe effectively counters the persistent and self serving European stereotypes of African culture, particularly the notion that traditional African cultures are authoritarian, amoral, and unsophisticated. In refutation of this stereotype, Achebe carefully describes the complexity and fluidity of Igbo culture, disclosing its essential pluralism. Moreover, Achebe shows that the Igbo have a coherent system of values that nevertheless allows for a considerable exercise of individual choice. Although the novel is narrated in the third person, the sympathetic point of view is located within the Igbo culture, and the reader gradually comes to accept this perspective as natural.
Yet Achebe tries to avoid idealizing this historical past. Although sympathetic to it, he demonstrates that it cannot survive unaltered in a modern world. The novel’s title is taken from William Butler Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” and the novel presents a similarly ironic and apocalyptic vision of the failed effort to maintain order and balance. Okonkwo’s unsuccessful struggle with change parallels the Umuofians’ effort to maintain the careful balances between free will and necessity, the needs of the individual and the needs of the community, and the demands of traditional culture and the political reality of colonial rule. Colonialism strains the capacity of Igbo culture to adapt, and it is clear that Okonkwo’s death is a sudden and dramatic paradigm for the gradual but inevitable death of traditional Igbo culture.
Okonkwo’s physical strength, integrity, and courage give him heroic stature, but his pride and individualism contradict the essentially communal nature of Umuofia. He does not understand that Umuofia is a living culture that has always adapted in order to meet new challenges. His effort to deny the reality of history condemns him while making a sad comment on the limitations of human endeavor. The novel dramatizes the situation of modern men and modern societies that are forced to adapt and compromise if they wish to survive. Its central theme, and the central theme of all of Achebe’s novels, is the tragedy of the man or society that refuses or is unable to accommodate change.