Things Fall Apart (African Trilogy, Book 1) by Chinua Achebe
20 Word Gist
Okonkwo distances himself from his father’s laziness, fills his life with yams, wives, and kola nuts: no room for compromise.
The first time I read Things Fall Apart in high school with a teacher I resented, I also resented reading this book. It seemed pointless. The misogyny was prominent, and I didn’t see the point of all of references to yams. During my rereading, a friend said the only thing she remembered was the main character being incredibly happy when his friend came over and shared a kola nut. Also, while researching African literature for my World Literature and Composition course, I came across the TED Talk “Telling Stories from Africa” by writer, poet Chris Albani, who says during the talk, “If you want to know about Africa, read our literature — and not just “Things Fall Apart,” because that would be like saying, “I’ve read ‘Gone with the Wind’ and so I know everything about America.”
Yet any novel’s effect diminishes over time, and so I began the novel looking for what I must have missed the first time. After all, in college, I read Achebe’s essay response to Heart of Darkness, and I admired his arguments. Things Fall Apart must be good writing, and not just because it tells an African narrative about colonialism from within the culture and through its perspective.
But can I take this book as it presents itself without too much of my own cultural perspective and judgment?
He was tall and huge, and his bushy eyebrows and wide nose gave him a very severe look. He breathed heavily, and it was said that, when he slept, his wives and children in their houses could hear him breathe.
The novel announces its scope early on. The main character Okonkwo will menace the novel; even in scenes where he is absent, the reader will feel his presence. And soon after meeting Okonkwo, Achebe suggests this might be a cautionary tale against short-sightedness, but unlike other stories in the genre, the question isn’t whether the reader will heed the warnings. The question is will Okonkwo regard the warnings and adapt or whether he will stubbornly resist the warnings.
Okonkwo’s fear was greater than these. It was not external but lay deep within himself. It was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father.
The Ibo society is a meritocracy, and Okonkwo is able to distance himself from his father’s lazy reputation through his wrestling skills – “He was called the Cat because his back would never touch the earth” – and hard work farming yams. Soon, he has three wives, piles of yams, kola nuts to share, a daughter he wishes were a son, and a son whom he fears takes after his father. He has a title, prestige, and respect from the other tribesmen. He also has a triumvirate of fatal flaws: fear, anger, and short-sightedness.
When reading any tragedy, and by its title, Things Fall Apart could be nothing but, it’s worth seeing how each misstep undoes the main character. There are at least three stumbles that lead to his fall. First, anger. He breaks “the peace and was punished…by Ezenzi, the priest of the earth goddess” by beating his youngest wife. For a year, the village “talked of nothing else but the nso-ani which Okonkwo had committed. It was the first time for many years that a man had broken the sacred peace.” This is a significant first for Okonkwo, and it foreshadows the part he’ll play in his own demise.
His fear of becoming his father and his chi and fate may explain why his gun unexplainably goes off during the ceremonial burial of Ezeudu, and the shot kills a young boy. I’d like to think his martial nature, which he keeps separate from his father’s flute playing reputation, is overwhelmed by the dancing and drums that “reach a fever-heat.” This murder is the second of his falls. Worse than breaking the peace, he and his family must return to his mother’s land for seven years.
But it was like beginning life anew without the vigor and enthusiasm of youth, like learning to become left-handed in old age.
While in exile, the white missionaries come, and both Okonkwo’s rejection of art and his inability to adapt bring his ultimate fall. Stories of the white men precede their arrival, and despite the warnings, and despite the fact Okonkwo’s son forsakes his family for the new religion, Okonkwo reacts violently and passionately. When he is unable to inspire his clansmen to kill the missionaries, he hangs himself. The tragedy is poetic and dignified in that he remains the Cat whose back never touches the earth.
By rereading the novel, I’m better equipped to compare its themes to others in literature, and during the rereading, I noticed several connections I missed during my first reading.
That was the kind of story that Nwoye loved. But he now knew that they were for foolish women and children.
It was the poetry of the new religion, something felt in the marrow.
First, Okonkwo’s rejection of his father is also a rejection of music, art, fantasy, and poetry. The first chapter establishes that connection through Unoka’s passion for song and playing the flute, and his son’s, Nwoye’s, love of stories. Music and poetry offer people an escape or a way to cope, and Okonkwo refuses to acknowledge or accept the value in this. He iterates that such things are womanly or childish, and therefore weak. I wonder to what extent the book argues that art is a salve to adversity or a way of understanding and salvation. If only Okonkwo could have been less practical and more flexible, and perhaps more imaginative, perhaps he could have survived.
Second, while the culture is clearly a patriarchy, women are respected. The earth goddess is “the ultimate judge of morality and conduct.” Also while in exile, characters describe the motherland as a refuge, saying, “Our mother is there to protect you. She is buried there. And that is why we say that mother is supreme.” The culture, too, resembles a meritocracy:
- Among these people a man was judged according to his worth and not according to the worth of his father.
- Age was respected among his people, but achievement was revered. As the elders said, if a child washed his hands he could eat with kings.
- But the Ibo people have a proverb that when a man says yes his chi says yes also.
Third, the novel contains many lyrical passages to describe the jungle setting: “a vibrant silence made more intense by the universal trill of a million forest insects”; the characters: “He grew rapidly like a yam tendril in the rainy season, and was full of the sap of life”; and comparisons that might have become saccharine are pungent: “The rainbow began to appear, and sometimes two rainbows, like a mother and her daughter, the one young and beautiful, and the other an old and faint shadow.”
The humor sneaks in at expected times, like when Okonkwo thanks his friend for handling his affairs while in exile:
“I do not know how to thank you.”
“I can tell you,” said Obierika.
“Kill one of your sons for me.”
“That will not be enough,” said Okonkwo.
“Then kill yourself,” said Obierika.
“Forgive me,” said Okonkwo, smiling. “I shall not talk about thanking you any more.
Were I to teach…
Where Things Fall Apart falls into curriculum should determine the focus of study. The novel might easily be read in tandem with Heart of Darkness or The Jungle Book, but it might also be contrasted to , a contemporary novel from Nigeria that addresses similar themes of identify, love, and familial bonds. Perhaps students would struggle with the same problems as I struggled with in high school, and teachers should find ways to help students to understand Okonkwo as he lives, thrives, and falls within his own story. Whatever the context, I would begin the novel with the following quotation, and ask students to consider to what extent it holds true for this novel, and then all stories:
“There is no story that is not true.”