Things Fall Apart Themes
by Chinua Achebe

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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.

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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.

Two positive elements of the Igbo tradition are respect for nature and an emphasis on collectivity, customs which 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 is. 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 Igbo people and understand their culture. Reverend Smith, in contrast, 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 which 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...

(The entire section is 1,028 words.)