Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (study notes)

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Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was published in 1958, but is set in 1890s, in Umuofia, Nigeria. Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is seen as the archetypal modern African novel in English, and one of the first African novels written in English to receive global critical acclaim. It is a staple book in schools throughout Africa and widely read and studied in English-speaking countries around the world. The title of the novel comes from William Butler Yeats’s poem ‘The Second Coming’.

The novel depicts the life of Okonkwo, a leader and local wrestling champion in Umuofia—one of a fictional group of nine villages in Nigeria, inhabited by the Igbo people (referred to archaically, and in the novel, as ‘Ibo’). It focuses on his family and personal history, the customs and society of the Igbo, and the influence of British colonialism and Christian missionaries on the Igbo community during the late nineteenth century.

The majority of the story takes place in the village of Umuofia, located west of the actual city of Onitsha, on the east bank of the Niger River in Nigeria. The events of the novel unfold around the 1890s.

The culture depicted, that of the Igbo people, is similar to that of Achebe’s birthplace of Ogidi, where Igbo-speaking people lived together in groups of independent villages ruled by titled elders. The customs described in the novel mirror those of the actual Onitsha people, who lived near Ogidi, and with whom Achebe was familiar.

Within forty years of the arrival of the British, by the time Achebe was born in 1930, the missionaries were well established. Achebe’s father was among the first to be converted in Ogidi, around the turn of the century. Achebe himself was an orphan raised by his grandfather. His grandfather, far from opposing Achebe’s conversion to Christianity, allowed Achebe’s Christian marriage to be celebrated in his compound.

Achebe writes his novels in English because written Standard Igbo was created by combining various dialects, creating a stilted written form.

In a 1994 interview with The Paris Review, Achebe said:

‘The novel form seems to go with the English language. There is a problem with the Igbo language. It suffers from a very serious inheritance, which it received at the beginning of this century from the Anglican mission. They sent out a missionary [scholar] by the name of… Archdeacon Dennis…. He had this notion that the Igbo language—which had very many different dialects—should somehow manufacture a uniform dialect that would be used in writing… Because the missionaries were powerful, what they wanted to do they did. This became the law. But the standard version cannot sing. There’s nothing you can do with it to make it sing. It’s heavy. It’s wooden. It doesn’t go anywhere.’

Achebe’s choice to write in English has caused controversy. While both African and non-African critics agree that Achebe modeled Things Fall Apart on classic European literature, they disagree about whether his novel upholds a Western model, or, in fact, subverts or confronts it.

Achebe has continued to defend his decision:

‘English is something you spend your lifetime acquiring, so it would be foolish not to use it… In the logic of colonisation and decolonisation, it is actually a very powerful weapon in the fight to regain what was yours.’

The protagonist Okonkwo is strong, hard-working, and strives to show no weakness. Although brusque with his three wives, children, and neighbors, he is wealthy, courageous, and powerful among the people of his village. He is a leader of his village, and he has accomplished a position in his society for which he has striven all his life.

Due to the great esteem in which the village holds him, Okonkwo is selected by the elders to be the guardian of Ikemefuna, a boy taken prisoner by the village as a peace settlement between two villages after Ikemefuna’s father killed an Umuofian woman. The boy lives with Okonkwo’s family and Okonkwo grows fond of him. The boy looks up to Okonkwo and considers him a second father. The Oracle of Umuofia eventually pronouces that the boy must be killed. The oldest man in the village warns Okonkwo that he should have nothing to do with the murder because it would be like killing his own child. Rather than seem weak and feminine to the other men of the village, Okonkwo participates in the murder of the boy despite the warning from the old man. In fact, Okonkwo himself strikes the killing blow as Ikemefuna begs his “father” for protection.

Shortly after Ikemefuna’s death, things begin to go wrong for Okonkwo. When he accidentally kills someone at a ritual funeral ceremony when his gun explodes, he and his family are sent into exile for seven years to appease the gods he has offended. While Okonkwo is away, white men begin to arrive in Umuofia with the intent of introducing their religion. As the number of converts increases, the foothold of the white people grows and a new government is introduced. The village is forced to respond to the imposition of the white people’s nascent society—whether by appeasement or through conflict.

Returning from exile, Okonkwo finds his village a changed place because of the presence of the white man. He and other tribal leaders try to reclaim their hold on their native land by destroying a local Christian church. In return, the leader of the white government takes them prisoner and holds them for ransom for a short while, further humiliating and insulting the native leaders. As a result, the people of Umuofia finally gather for what could be a great uprising. Okonkwo, a warrior by nature and adamant about following Umuofian custom and tradition, despises any form of cowardice and advocates for war against the white men. When messengers of the white government try to stop the meeting, Okonkwo kills one of them. He realizes with despair that the people of Umuofia are not going to fight to protect themselves—his society’s response to such a conflict, so long predictable and dictated by tradition, is changing.

When the local leader of the white government comes to Okonkwo’s house to take him to court, he finds that Okonkwo has hanged himself. Among his own people, Okonkwo’s action has ruined his reputation and status, as it is strictly against the custom of the Igbo to commit suicide.

Religion, myth and history

The analysis of cultural history involves myths, religion, totems, superstitions, rituals, festivals, and icons. In Things Fall Apart, the mask, the earth, the legends and the rituals all have significance to the story and the history of the Igbo culture.

According to Baldwin: ‘Religion looms large in the life of primitive man. It is not a one-a-day-a-week affair as it generally is with us. Seven days a week, 365 days a year, primitive peoples eat and work and play and sleep with religion.’

Baldwin continues: ‘Nearly everything in primitive society — hunting, fishing, planting crops , harvesting, head hunting, war, marriage, birth, coming of age, illness, death, building a house, making a canoe or an ax — is associated with ritual or magic or ceremony or some other form of religious activity.’

First there is the use of the mask to draw the spirit of the gods into the body of a person in Achebe’s story. A great crime in Ibo culture was to unmask or disrespect the immortality of an egwugwu, which represents an ancestral spirit, in front of his people. Toward the end of the novel, a warrior converted into a Christian unmasks and kills one of his own ancestral spirits. The clan weeps, for “it seemed as if the very soul of the tribe wept for a great evil that was coming — its own death.”

In the cultural history of Nigeria, complex rituals played a large part in the daily life of the people. Achebe’s story reflects this strict attention to rituals and taboos, and communicates their sanctity and importance to otherwise ignorant colonisers.

Okonkwo upholds his traditions by helping to kill the boy sacrificed to settle a dispute with another tribe, despite his feelings of fatherhood towards the boy. Okonkwo commits the ritual of killing Ikemefuna because “he was afraid of being thought weak.” Yet, after the ritual he could not eat or sleep; “He felt like a drunken giant walking with the limbs of a mosquito.”

The space between an individual identity and their ancestors is narrow. Achebe goes so far as to put the following in his story: “The land of the living was not far removed from the domain of the ancestors. There was coming and going between them, especially at festivals and also when an old man died, because an old man was very close to the ancestors. A man’s life from birth to death was a series of transition rites which brought him nearer and nearer to his ancestors.”[18]

There are several legends and myths told in Things Fall Apart: the earth and the sky; the mosquito and the ear; the tortoise and the birds. According to Rosenberg, “myths symbolize human experience and embody the spiritual values of a culture.”

The values and views of the world spread through mythology is important to the survival of every society’s culture. Myths are instructional as well as entertaining. Purposefully, myths “explain the nature of the universe (creation and fertility myths)… or instruct members of the community in the attitudes and behavior necessary to function successfully in that particular culture (hero myths and epics).”

In Things Fall Apart, the way of the language is much like a myth; “Among the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten.” Proverbs and myths are both ways of portraying a meaning without directly force feeding the words to the listener. Achebe is showing the importance of these stories even within the story he is telling in Things Fall Apart.

Things Fall Apart has been called a modern Greek tragedy. It has the same plot elements as a Greek tragedy, including the use of a tragic hero, the following of the string model, etc.

Okonkwo is a classic tragic hero, even though the story is set in more modern times. He shows multiple hamartia, including hubris (pride) and ate (rashness), and these character traits do lead to his peripeteia, or reversal of fortune, and his downfall at the end of the novel. He is distressed by social changes brought by white men, because he has worked so hard to move up in the traditional society. This position is at risk due to the arrival of a new values system. Those who commit suicide lose their place in the ancestor-worshipping traditional society, to the extent that they may not even be touched to give a proper burial. The irony is that Okonkwo completely loses his standing in both value systems. Okonkwo truly has good intentions, but his need to feel in control and his fear that other men will sense weakness in him drive him to make decisions, whether consciously or subconsciously, that he regrets as he progresses through his life.

This demonstrates how easily African themes, characters, etc. can be translated into terms the coloniser can understand.

Literary significance and reception

Things Fall Apart is a milestone in African literature. It has achieved the status of the archetypal modern African novel in English, and is read in Nigeria and throughout Africa. Of all of Achebe’s works, Things Fall Apart is the one read most often, and has generated the most critical response, examination, and literary criticism. It is studied widely in Europe and North America, where it has spawned numerous secondary and tertiary analytical works. It has achieved similar status and repute in India and Australia. Considered Achebe’s magnum opus, it has sold more than 8 million copies worldwide. Time Magazine included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005. The novel has been translated into more than fifty languages, and is often used in literature, world history, and African studies courses across the world.

Achebe is now considered to be the essential novelist on African identity, nationalism, and decolonisation, undoubtedly as a result of his worldwide acclaim. His level of global distribution could not be achieved if the text was written in an indigenous language.

Achebe’s main focus has been cultural ambiguity and contestation. The complexity of novels such as Things Fall Apart depends on Achebe’s ability to bring competing cultural systems and their languages to the same level of representation, dialogue, and contestation.

Reviewers have praised Achebe’s neutral narration and have described Things Fall Apart as a realistic novel. Much of the critical discussion about Things Fall Apart concentrates on the socio-political aspects of the novel, including the friction between the members of Igbo society as they confront the intrusive and overpowering presence of Western government and beliefs.

Ernest N. Emenyonu commented that “Things Fall Apart is indeed a classic study of cross-cultural misunderstanding and the consequences to the rest of humanity, when a belligerent culture or civilization, out of sheer arrogance and ethnocentrism, takes it upon itself to invade another culture, another civilization.”

Achebe’s writing about African society, in telling from an African point of view the story of the colonization of the Igbo, tends to extinguish the misconception that African culture had been savage and primitive.

In Things Fall Apart, western culture is portrayed as being “arrogant and ethnocentric,” insisting that the African culture needed a leader. As it had no kings or chiefs, Umofian culture was vulnerable to invasion by western civilization.

It is felt that the repression of the Igbo language at the end of the novel contributes greatly to the destruction of the culture. Although Achebe favors the African culture of the pre-western society, the author attributes its destruction to the “weaknesses within the native structure.” Achebe portrays the culture as having a religion, a government, a system of money, and an artistic tradition, as well as a judicial system.

Influence

The achievement of Things Fall Apart set the foreground for numerous African novelists. Because of Things Fall Apart, novelists after Achebe have been able to find an eloquent and effective mode for the expression of the particular social, historical, and cultural situation of modern Africa.

Before Things Fall Apart was published, Europeans had written most novels about Africa, and they largely portrayed Africans as savages who needed to be enlightened by Europeans.

Achebe broke apart this view by portraying Igbo society in a sympathetic light, which allows the reader to examine the effects of European colonialism from a different perspective. He commented, “The popularity of Things Fall Apart in my own society can be explained simply… this was the first time we were seeing ourselves, as autonomous individuals, rather than half-people, or as Conrad would say, ‘rudimentary souls’.

The language of the novel has not only intrigued critics but has also been a major factor in the emergence of the modern African novel. Because Achebe wrote in English, portrayed Igbo life from the point of view of an African man, and used the language of his people, he was able to greatly influence African novelists, who viewed him as a guide.

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