Published in 1958, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart has been highly influential in giving voice to African writers in the English-speaking world and reshaping the portrayal of Africans in English literature. Centred around the life of Umuofia, a fictional clan in Nigeria, Achebe’s novel describes the rich tribal traditions, customs and lifestyles that fall apart upon European colonisation.
Achebe constructs a multifaceted recount of pre-colonial history, depicting both its strengths and imperfections. The novel therefore counters the Anglo-centric novels depicting Africans as savages, and examines the effects of European colonialism on Igbo society from an African perspective.
The protagonist Okonkwo, a fiercely loyal and diligent man, strives to secure title and success in his village by countering his late father’s failures and idleness. Despite winning admiration for his farming and wrestling talents, Okonkwo finds himself guarding his reputation and masculinity at the cost of empathy, and even at the cost of his adopted son’s life. Outward compassion becomes to Okonkwo detrimental and intolerable, as he vigorously defends his native religion and spiritual obligations without the hesitancy and doubt that others begin to have. After being exiled for seven years due to his inadvertent killing of a boy, Okonkwo returns to witness his village transformed by the effects of colonisation. European missionaries have brought Christianity to Umuofia, gaining converts and destabilising the native system of religion. A new central government has also been introduced where criminal cases are judged with a rigid code of justice rather than the native code of peace. Many protesters are condemned to brutal treatment and imprisonment.
Okonkwo is enraged by these changes and particularly by Umuofia’s complacency. After multiple failures to regain his people’s support and build resistance against the colonisers, Okonkwo takes his own life and submits to being buried “like a dog”. Thus, his lifelong efforts to secure status are destroyed.
The novel ends with the District Commissioner’s plan to write his racist and insular book, intended as a guide for other European colonisers. As the title of this book constitutes the last words of the story, Achebe alludes to the power of British to drown out the voices of the native people with their own and distort the cultures of Africans with their Anglo-centric perspectives.
In "Things Fall Apart," Chinua Achebe carefully utilises a variety of symbols to convey the complexities of the Igbo culture and the encroaching influence of Western colonisation.
Music, particularly the sound of drums, forms a crucial symbol in the novel. More than just an instrument, drums are perceived as the voices of spirits and gods, and their rhythm and resonance set the mood of the village, acting as a barometer of the community's emotional state. The beats echo the heartbeat of the Igbo society, mirroring its joys, sorrows, and anxieties.
The yam, a staple food of the Igbo people, serves as a potent symbol of wealth and pride. It's not just a crop, but a currency that validates one's social status. The yam is deeply intertwined with the Earth Goddess, a significant deity in Igbo society, symbolizing the profound relationship the Igbo people have with their land. The cultivation of yams is more than an agricultural activity; it is a spiritual exercise that binds them to their ancestral soil.
Achebe introduces the symbol of locusts, initially eliciting joy and interest among the villagers due to their nutritional value. However, the locusts' destructive potential foreshadows the arrival of the White colonizers who, like the locusts, exploit and feast on the resources of the village. Their arrival, so heavy that it breaks branches, symbolizes the eventual fracturing of the Igbo culture.
Fire, another powerful symbol in the novel, is often associated with Okonkwo's suppressed emotions, particularly his fury. Like fire, Okonkwo's anger is destructive, consuming his relationships and eventually leading to his downfall. The comparison of Okonkwo to fire reflects his volatile nature and the danger of uncontrolled emotion.
The Egwugwu, or masked spirits, symbolize the enigmatic nature of the gods and spirits in the Igbo culture. Their appearance in rituals and ceremonies underscores their significance in the community's folklore. They embody the mystery, reverence, and fear associated with the supernatural in the Igbo worldview.
Finally, folk tales serve as vital symbols representing the traditions, customs, and morals of the Igbo people. They encapsulate the collective wisdom of the community, providing guidance and reinforcing shared values. These stories form the cultural glue that holds the Igbo people together, driving their ambitions and dictating their actions. Passed down through generations, these tales act as the threads that weave the cultural fabric of the Igbo society.
Community bears equal importance to family in the Igbo life. Fellow clansmen are referred to as “brothers” and a man’s achievement brings honour not only to himself, but the whole village. Accordingly, Igbo society strives to maintain bonds between its people, preferring to settle disputes with a code of peace rather than “blam[ing]” one side and “prais[ing]” the other. In addition, festivals are celebrated by the whole village with activities to foster communal connections, including wrestling matches and great feasts. Thus, the sense of community permeates the lives of the people, rendering division among clansmen the greatest crime committed against Umuofia by the British. Whilst maltreating a clansman has long been condemned with severe penalties, colonialism forces Umuofia’s elders to ostracise and “root …out” disloyal brothers to save their tribe. The impacts of such inconceivable decisions are accentuated by the weeping of the gods, which illustrates the profound brokenness of Umuofia and the irreversible injuries inflicted upon the people by colonisation.
Achebe portrays Igbo society as one with deeply entrenched gender roles and stereotypes. Whilst masculinity is associated with prowess and physical strength, femininity is connected with gentleness and subservience. Accordingly, men are encouraged to partake in wrestling and village wars, whereas women are encouraged to master household tasks and attract suitable marriage partners. This gender distinction becomes problematic particularly for Okonkwo, as he fiercely guards his masculinity through habitual violence and misogyny. He frequently beats his wives and condemns Nwoye’s cowardliness while always fighting against any outward compassion. Indeed, he fears nothing but the label of “agbala”, even violating the gods’ will to prove his manliness. Whilst Okonkwo’s distorted view of gender divorces him from his peace-loving community, his overwhelming concern for the clansmen’s manliness becomes Umuofia’s sole source of hope upon colonisation. Recognising that the men have “unaccountably become soft, like women”, Okonkwo insists on aggressive revenge against the British, which helps regain the clan’s identity temporarily. However, as Okonkwo realises that his efforts are futile against the clan’s disunity and the forces of colonisation, he proves his courage for the last time by taking his own life rather than dying at the hands of the enemy. Thus, whilst he expires and his status is destroyed, Okonkwo’s manly spirit survives in his friends’ consciousness.
Spirituality is inseparable from the lives of the Igbo people. The villagers are in constant communion with the spirits, evident in their consultations with the Oracle of the Caves, their sacrifices to the Earth goddess, and their habit of prayer. Their beliefs greatly influence their thoughts, decisions, and actions, as they seek daily to do the gods’ will and maintain harmony in the village. Whilst religion is essential to the village’s life and identity, many villagers begin to have doubts about their ancient code of morality and question the gods’ requests. The cries of the “twins in the bush” become haunting symbols of the sufferings of innocents, the cracks in the local religion that eventually cause the Igbo culture to fall apart. Nwoye represents this plight of his people as he, upon leaving his family to join the Christians, replaces his native name with the English name “Isaac”. Thus, he symbolically forgoes his Igbo identity and assists in the dismantling of Umuofia’s religion.
Whilst Achebe recognises the benefits of colonialism to the local people, he foregrounds its enduring consequences on Umuofia’s identity. After the arrival of the British, palm oil and kernel become valuable commodities for Umuofia but cease to sustain the life and unity of the people. Once the centre of family meals and village feasts, these foods now serve to increase the people’s reliance on the British due to the economic growth that they facilitate. Accompanying this is the growth in schools, churches, and courts which encourage more youth to leave their families and become workers for the colonisers. With clansmen abandoning their culture and traditional responsibilities, the unity of Umuofia is threatened and tension brews between the indigenous elders and the British. Soon, scenes of festivity and goodwill are replaced by scenes of perpetual conflict, where men no longer carry drinking horns to their friends’ homes but roam the village grounds with machetes and guns. As Okonkwo struggles to recognise his village upon his return, Achebe conveys how Umuofia has been made foreign and alien to its own people by Western influences.
Fate vs. agency
From the outset, Achebe portrays Okonkwo’s achievements as the fruits of diligence and determination. Since his youth, Okonkwo has detested his father’s failures and resolved to prove his worth through his wrestling, prowess, and prosperity. He epitomises the successes possible through personal will, which leads many villagers to claim that “Okonkwo said yes very strongly, so his chi agreed”. Conversely, Achebe depicts most tragedies as the results of fate. Ekwefi attributes the successive deaths of her infants to her bad chi as she believes herself punished with an ogbanje; similarly, Ikemefuna’s death is seen as a mark of his ill fortune. Accordingly, the people place great importance on their relationship with their chi and the natural gods, carefully observing the spirits’ will to ensure peace and health for their families. Notwithstanding, Achebe emphasises the pivotal role of resilience in the fight against the uncontrollable events of life. Okonkwo’s unexpected exile fails to dampen his will to succeed, as he continues to toil in his motherland to grow yams for his family. His unswerving tenacity becomes crucial as he faces the impacts of colonisation in Umuofia and witnesses the people’s diminishing courage. Whilst others have deserted the clan or lost the will to fight, Okonkwo insists on revenge and single-handedly beheads a court messenger. Whilst Okonkwo fails to defeat the British and in the end takes his own life, his death can be seen as a silent and purposeful protest against colonialism as he refuses to live a comfortable life under the white man’s rule.
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‘Things Fall Apart’ is a postcolonial text because it gives a voice to the voiceless. Discuss.
- Briefly introduce Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’ as a postcolonial narrative and establish that the novel presents a multitude of perspectives, providing a voice to the voiceless.
- Contention: Achebe achieves this by presenting the impact of colonialism on the Igbo society, exploring the concept of understanding versus violence, and depicting diverse reactions to the invasion.
- Summarise your three arguments
Body Paragraph 1: Impact of Colonialism on Igbo Society
Topic Sentence: Achebe criticizes the invasive nature of the missionary regime, which led to divisions within the Igbo society and threatened their cultural identity.
- Evidence 1: Use Okonkwo's conversation with Obierika to illustrate the cunning approach of the British ("quietly and peaceably came with his religion.")
- Evidence 2: Use the metaphor of the white man carrying a knife to represent the threat to Igbo unity ("knife on the things that held [them] together.")
- Evidence 3: Examine Okonkwo's suicide as a symbol of individual and societal disintegration ("[driven] to kill himself" and “buried like a dog...").
Concluding Sentence: Relate the experiences of Okonkwo to Achebe's idea that cultural and personal identity are intertwined and both suffer due to colonialism.
Body Paragraph 2: Understanding versus Violence
Topic Sentence: Achebe suggests that violence is not a solution to colonialism, but understanding can potentially mitigate the clash of cultures.
- Evidence 1: Discuss Mr. Brown's respectful approach towards the Igbo faith ("trod softly on [the clan’s] faith.")
- Evidence 2: Explore the discourse between Mr. Brown and Akunna to demonstrate the importance of mutual understanding ("neither of them succeeded in converting the other but they learned more about their different beliefs.")
- Evidence 3: Analyze the violent reaction of Abame clan to demonstrate the consequences of fear and ignorance ("everybody was killed").
Concluding Sentence: Reiterate Achebe's stance that understanding is the only viable solution to coexistence amidst cultural differences.
Body Paragraph 3: Diverse Reactions to Colonial Invasion
Topic Sentence: Achebe presents a variety of reactions to the missionary regime, acknowledging that not all Nigerians found oppression in colonial rule.
- Evidence 1: Explain Nwoye's discontent with certain Igbo traditions and his embrace of Christianity (“like the snapping of a tightened bow,” “twins were put in earthenware pots and thrown away in the forest.")
- Evidence 2: Discuss how Christianity offered solace to Nwoye ("found the answer to ‘a vague and persistent question that haunted his young soul.")
- Evidence 3: Discuss the acceptance of 'osu' by the Church, highlighting the critique of Igbo culture ("two osu to shave ‘off their, and soon they were the strongest adherents of the new faith.")
Concluding Sentence: Reinforce Achebe's idea that some oppressed voices within the Igbo society found liberation in the new faith.
- Recapitulate Achebe's multi-narrative approach to highlight multiple perspectives.
- Summarise Achebe’s criticisms of colonialism, the possibility of understanding as a middle ground, and the depiction of diverse responses to colonial rule.
- Emphasize Achebe’s intention to compel readers to approach the text with an open mind and form their own conclusions.
Written by Vy Vu (past student) and William Liu (senior tutor)