Things Fall Apart Themes
The main themes in Things Fall Apart are tradition versus modernity, gender in a patriarchal society, and power and authority.
- Tradition versus modernity: The novel displays the need for a middle path between unquestioned adherence to tradition and unchecked progress.
- Gender in a patriarchal society: Achebe contrasts women’s power in some realms with men’s overarching authority. Okonkwo’s interest in maintaining masculinity at all costs ultimately contributes to his downfall.
- Power and authority: Within its examinations of both imperialism and individual relationships, the novel shows that power untempered by thoughtfulness is a destructive force.
Last Updated on January 3, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1031
Tradition Versus Modernity
For the most part, Chinua Achebe portrays the Igbo way of life as consistent with upholding tradition, whereas he portrays the British way of life as representing modernity. Achebe does not maintain, however, that this is a clear-cut division, and the novel includes changes that occur within Igbo society regardless of any foreign intervention. Achebe considers the advantages and disadvantages of tradition and modernity while examining two opposing approaches to British colonization.
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Two positive elements of the Igbo tradition are respect for nature and an emphasis on collectivity, customs that are closely related to one another. Both of these are important aspects of an agricultural society, and they are developed through numerous rituals in which Umuofia’s people participate several times a year.
Following tradition too closely without analyzing its meaning, however, is shown to result in negative consequences. For example, Okonkwo is forced to overcome his personal and fatherly affection for Ikemefuna and kill him in accordance with the village elders’ decision. In another instance, Obierika surrenders his twin babies, even though he knows that they will die, because of the need to conform to the Earth Goddess’s requirements.
Achebe shows that the desire for improvement is as likely to generate a bad outcome as heedlessly following tradition. This desire motivates some characters to embrace elements of British culture, including Christianity, without anticipating that such accommodations could lead to loss of political autonomy.
Achebe presents this conflict of worldviews through the characters of Okonkwo and his son, Nwoye. The younger man feels constrained by Igbo norms and seeks both practical advancement and spiritual knowledge. His father, however, feels that Nwoye disrespects senior authority and Okonkwo’s own paternal position—both factors that serve as symbolic of the underlying threats to Igbo culture.
Achebe shows variations in the British colonists’ willingness to change with the times. This contrast is most obvious in the two pastors involved in efforts to bring Christianity to the area. Mr. Brown, who learns about local customs from Akunna, desires to coexist with the Igbo people and understand their culture. In contrast, Reverend Smith, who replaces Mr. Brown, condemns African ways as backward and believes that it is necessary to exert pressure to modernize them. Reverend Smith’s aggressive approach and lack of respect for existing traditions results in the unmasking of an egwugwu, which in turn leads to the burning of the white man’s church and the arrest of multiple community leaders—a chain of events that leads to Okonkwo’s suicide. Achebe makes it clear that unchecked modernization can lead to calamity.
Gender in a Patriarchal Society
The importance of gender in Igbo society is tied to questions of power and authority. Igbo people understand that women have tremendous power in specific realms, and men’s fear of that power is shown as a reason for their efforts to dominate women.
Ekwefi, Okonkwo’s second wife, embodies female power as associated with motherhood and support. Her strength and resilience are shown in her devotion to their daughter, Ezinma: Ekwefi, who has lost nine of her ten children, is determined to keep Ezinma healthy and safe.
However, when Ekwefi puts her faith in the priestess Chielo, who represents the dangerous side of female power, Okonkwo grows alarmed that Chielo may be exercising undue influence. While it often seems that Igbo society is totally male-dominated, Chielo’s multiple roles show the complexity of women’s status. In addition to her healing powers, Chielo also has a voice in the war council.
Okonkwo’s strong sense of honor and pride is closely connected with his idea of what it means to be a man. His difficulty in distinguishing true manhood and communal responsibility from rashness and excessive pride contributes to his arrest and ultimate suicide. Okonkwo’s trajectory closely mirrors that of the Greek tragic hero, whose hubris—or inordinate self-confidence—results in his downfall. Complicating matters further, Okonkwo’s pride and sometimes impulsive actions do not obscure the fact that his tragedy was not entirely his own doing: rather, it was set in motion and perpetuated by British imperialism.
Power and Authority
Things Fall Apart is concerned with the tenuous structures of power within human societies. The novel investigates the effects of power on individuals, as illustrated by Okonkwo’s narrative arc; the principles that result in balanced authority; and the impact of British colonialism on Igbo governance.
Okonkwo’s life course is strongly affected by other people’s attitudes toward power and authority, especially their belief that he sometimes abuses his power. Okonkwo is highly conscious of his respected position within Umuofia, but it is sometimes unclear if he is actually concerned with the responsibilities inherent in authority or if he simply desires the associated power.
Okonkwo has intense pride in his achievements and position. In his attainment of power, he has sought to distinguish himself from his father’s financial debt and perceived inadequacies. In doing so, though, Okonkwo has also distanced himself from his father’s kindness and thoughtfulness—both qualities that can check power and ensure the maintenance of ethics within authority.
However, Achebe also leaves open the possibility that prudence and patience may too easily shade into passivity. While Okonkwo’s impulsiveness is contrasted to the actions and attitudes of more level-headed elders such as Nwakibie and Ogbuefi, their inaction may also have enabled the British interventions that ultimately led to the loss of Igbo self-governance.
Achebe examines the impact of British colonists on Igbo politics. The novel includes British characters who overstep the appropriate bounds of existing hierarchies, particularly in the relations between religion and political power. As Reverend Smith moves into Mr. Brown’s place, for example, he staunchly advocates Igbo conversion to Christianity as the only way to bring them into what he deems civilization. Reverend Smith’s rigidity encourages disrespect and zealotry, and Smith’s arrival can be directly linked to the Christian convert Enoch’s sacrilegious unmasking of an egwugwu during a ceremony. The district commissioner’s views and actions—such as advocating “pacification”—are consistent with Reverend Smith’s stance, and the new policies lead to the novel’s tragic end.