Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is a story of pride, faith and ultimately life. After reading Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novel Heart of Darkness, Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart as a response to Conrad’s portrayal of Africa as a primitive and culture-less continent, full of primordial humans that exist only to foil Europe’s plans. To respond to this depiction of Africa, Achebe chose to make his vocabulary political while also addressing previous instances of colonialism in Africa.
The novel primarily follows the journey of Okonkwo of Umuofia, a fictional village in Nigeria. Okonkwo is a tall strong clan leader, both physically and mentally. He is focused on his goals and has managed to achieve what would be considered a successful life within his tribe, the Igbo. Influenced by his lethargic father Unoka, he vowed to never become like him and make a respectable life for himself. He has a large compound, three wives and kids with all of them. He makes enough income to sustain all of them but as a result is harsh with everyone, causing most tribesmen to be intimidated by him. His eldest son Nwoye is considered by him to be weak and lazy; traits he is determined to correct by beating him relentlessly. Ikemefuna is Okonkwo’s adoptive son from a neighbouring village. In his eyes, Ikemefuna is the perfect son. Ikemefuna develops a close relationship with Nwoye and lives in the hut of Okonkwo’s first wife, a sign that he values him more than his other children. Although Okonkwo is very fond of Ikemefuna, he refuses to show any type of affection towards him since he believes that showing affection would make him weaker.
The story also focuses on the Igbo perspective of life, showing the influence that the white missionaries and colonialists have over the village members, and Okonkwo’s pure hatred for them. Achebe uses traditional Igbo vocabulary that is integral to understanding how much influence the colonialists have over their village. Achebe also incorporates evangelical and Igbo proverbs into the text, showing his faith in Christianity which he later abandoned for his traditional beliefs. In the beginning, dialogue and descriptions feature Igbo words and ideologies, like their perception of time revolving around ‘market days’ comprising their weeks, which are around three to four days long. Characters and the narrator begin to use vocabulary common in the western world as the story progresses, with an extreme such as Nwoye changing his name to Isaac and following the teachings of the white missionaries. Achebe’s writing style is direct and describes plainly what is happening, featuring truncated sentences and little descriptive language. This style allows for the harshest of moments in the novel to become even more shocking, such as in chapter 7 when Okonkwo has been told by the village oracle that Ikemefuna must die. The clan elders said Okonkwo must have nothing to do with the killing because it would be like killing his own son, but Okonkwo’s fear of appearing weak drove him to be part of the horrific event. While allegedly walking him home to his village, a man strikes Ikemefuna with his matchet from behind, failing to kill him, after which Ikemefuna cries out to his adoptive father, running towards him for safety. Okonkwo slices him down to not show weakness. His fear of what he considers to be ‘feminine’ traits are his greatest flaw.
After accidentally killing another tribesman’s son by his gun exploding, Okonkwo and his family are exiled to his motherland, a nearby village called Mbanta, for seven years. After coming back to Umuofia however, he realises that the colonialists have begun to have a strong presence in the area, having already converted a few members of their tribe. After beating his son for the last time, Nwoye leaves his family behind to learn the teaching of Mr. Brown, one of the missionaries; this enrages Okonkwo. Further adding to his rage, during a ceremony one of the converts unmasks a village elder who is possessed by an ancestral spirit. In response to this disrespect, the clansmen burn down the church the missionaries had built. The colonialists then break their promise to treat the Umuofian people with respect and instead ‘humiliate’ them by whipping them and shaving their heads.
The clansmen have finally had enough and declare war against the white men. During a meeting in the village square to advocate for war, the colonialists attempt to intervene. Okonkwo, blinded by rage beheads one of the white messengers, causing the rest of them to flee and alert their authorities. Seeing that his fellow clansmen will not join him in his revolt against the white man’s intrusion he returns to his home. The white authorities then visit his home later that day to take him to trial in their colonial court, but instead they finds Okonkwo hanging from a tree. By committing suicide, he himself has broken the Igbo teachings and has destroyed his reputation. He watched as quite literally things fell apart around him. The gradual disintegration of his tribe’s traditions and beliefs drove him to see it fit to not live at all, rather than live in a world without the traditional ways of the Igbo.
To recapitulate, Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is the tale of the fall of a village, but most importantly, the fall of a man. Okonkwo’s fall from grace is a long one and takes years for him to reach rock bottom. Plagued by his dissatisfaction with his son, his depression and shock of killing Ikemefuna and eventually his clansmen’s inaptitude to revolt with him. This story is to show that although most of us expect our journey in life to be a steady one that takes us upwards to where we want to be, you cannot control it; and it may even lead you to an early death as in Okonkwo’s case. Life is the liminal experience between two states, birth and death. It teaches us invaluable lessons that mean nothing in the grand scheme of things, lets us grow and evolve into the person we want to be, and allows for us to take unmentionable secrets to the grave. Although we are at the helm of our unpredictable lives, one thing yearns for us—death.