Things Fall Apart (1958)

Things Fall Apart is Achebe's debut novel and it occupies a special place in his body of works as his most prominent and recognised work.

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Things Fall Apart
Things Fall Apart
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Quick Facts

TitleThings Fall Apart
AuthorChinua Achebe
GenreHistorical fiction, tragedy
ThemesColonialism, tradition vs. change, fate and free will, masculinity, family, religion, cultural disintegration, ambition
CharactersOkonkwo, Nwoye, Ezinma, Ikemefuna, Ekwefi, Obierika, Mr. Brown, Reverend James Smith, The District Commissioner
SettingLate 19th century, pre-colonial Nigeria, in the nine Igbo villages of Umuofia
LanguageEnglish
PublisherWilliam Heinemann Ltd
Publication date1958
A quick rundown of Things Fall Apart.
Chinua Achebe
Chinua Achebe

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, tells the tragic story of Okonkwo, a proud and fierce Igbo warrior, who struggles to maintain his cultural identity and traditional values in the face of British colonialism and Christian missionary work in 19th-century Nigeria. As Okonkwo’s world begins to fall apart, he faces personal losses, cultural erosion, and the disintegration of his community. The story culminates in Okonkwo’s resistance to colonial rule and his eventual suicide.

The novel, which was published in 1958 (two years before Nigeria’s independence), is a seminal work of African literature, as it offers a nuanced portrayal of pre-colonial African society and its collision with European imperialism. It was Achebe’s response to colonial narratives like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness that often depicted African societies as primitive and unsophisticated. He presented a complex, structured Igbo society in Things Fall Apart to challenge these stereotypes and reclaim the narrative of African history.

The novel vividly portrays traditional Igbo life: its social structures, religious beliefs, and cultural practices. It is equally revealing of the impact of colonialism on the well-realised Umuofia village and its neighbouring villages. The novel is even made more unique by Achebe’s seamless integration of Igbo proverbs and folktales into the English narrative to create a unique literary voice that captures the essence of Igbo oral tradition.

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Things Fall Apart is Achebe’s debut novel and it occupies a special place in his body of works as his most prominent and recognised work. It is considered a landmark of postcolonial literature and has been translated into numerous languages. It was followed by other notable works like No Longer at Ease and Arrow of God.

Another front cover of Things Fall Apart
Another front cover of Things Fall Apart

Plot Summary

Things Fall Apart is narrated from a third-person omniscient perspective to allow the reader to understand both the Igbo worldview and the motivations of the colonisers. This narrative choice enables Achebe to present a balanced, albeit critical, view of the clash between traditional African culture and the encroaching influence of British colonialism and Christianity.

The novel is structured in three parts, to reflect Okonkwo’s rise, fall, and tragic end. This structure effectively parallels the broader theme of cultural disintegration and adds to the work’s tragic arc.

The story begins with the introduction of Okonkwo and the traditional Igbo society of Umuofia. It describes Okonkwo as a respected warrior and leader in Umuofia. We learn of his fame as a wrestler and his rise from poverty to become one of the most influential men in his clan. He takes multiple wives and fathers several children.

Okonkwo’s background is revealed through flashbacks. His father, Unoka, was considered lazy and irresponsible. He had died in debt and shame. This drives Okonkwo’s fierce determination to succeed and his hatred of weakness.

The daily life and customs of the Igbo people are portrayed through various events. We see the importance of yams as a man’s crop, the complexities of their justice system, and their religious beliefs centred around various gods and ancestors.

Okonkwo takes in a young boy named Ikemefuna, who is given to Umuofia village by Mbaino village as part of a peace settlement. A woman from Umuofia was murdered while visiting the market in Mbaino. To avoid war between the two villages, Mbaino agrees to compensate Umuofia with a young boy (Ikemefuna) and a young virgin girl. Ikemefuna lives with Okonkwo’s family for three years and becomes close to them, especially to Nwoye, Okonkwo’s eldest son.

Despite his outer strength, we see Okonkwo’s inner conflicts. He loves Ikemefuna but refuses to show affection. For him, his show of affection is a sign of weakness. He is often harsh with his wives and children, driven by his fear of resembling his father.

The village elders decide that Ikemefuna must be killed. Okonkwo is warned not to take part in the boy’s death, but fearing being thought weak, he delivers the fatal blow himself. This act deeply affects both Okonkwo and Nwoye.

During the funeral of a clan elder, Okonkwo’s gun accidentally explodes and kills the dead man’s son. Although it was an accident, it is considered a crime against the earth goddess, and Okonkwo is sentenced to seven years of exile in his mother’s homeland, Mbanta. This period of humiliation and powerlessness strips him of his hard-earned status and forces him to confront his own identity outside the familiar confines of Umuofia.

At Mbanta, he is welcomed by his maternal uncle, Uchendu, who provides him with land to farm and build a compound. He starts life anew in Mbanta with his family. During this time, Okonkwo struggles with depression and a sense of lost purpose. Uchendu offers Okonkwo wise counsel. He reminds him of the importance of motherland and urges him not to lose hope. This advice provides a contrasting perspective to Okonkwo’s rigid views on masculinity and success.

Meanwhile, significant changes begin to occur back in Umuofia and the surrounding areas. Christian missionaries arrive in the region, including Mbanta. They establish a church and begin to convert some of the Igbo people, particularly those who feel marginalised by traditional society.

Nwoye, Okonkwo’s eldest son, is drawn to the new religion. He finds in Christianity answers to questions that have long troubled him, like the fate of twins left to die in the forest. Eventually, Nwoye converts to Christianity and leaves his family. His conversion causes Okonkwo great shame and anger. It indicates a rejection of everything Okonkwo has fought to uphold.

The missionaries’ influence grows, which brings about the tension between the converts and those who maintain traditional beliefs. In Mbanta, the missionaries are allowed to build their church in the Evil Forest. When the Christians survive what was supposed to be certain death, more people are drawn to the new faith.

As Okonkwo’s period of exile nears its end, he begins to plan his grand return to Umuofia. He hopes to regain his lost status and is eager to find out how his clan has fared in his absence.

Upon his return, Okonkwo finds Umuofia irrevocably changed by the presence of British colonisers and Christian missionaries. The once-familiar social fabric of Umuofia is fraying, and Okonkwo struggles to adapt to this new reality. The Christian church has gained more converts, some of whom are prominent members of the clan.

Tensions escalate when a convert unmasks an egwugwu (a masked spirit representing the clan’s ancestors) during a traditional ceremony, a grave sacrilege in Igbo culture. In retaliation, the egwugwu destroy the Christian church.

The District Commissioner responds by arresting several village leaders, including Okonkwo, under the pretense of holding a peace talk. The leaders are humiliated, imprisoned, and only released after the village pays a fine.

Enraged by this treatment, Okonkwo advocates for war against the white men. He is emboldened when a large group of villagers gather, seemingly in support of his call to action. However, when court messengers arrive to stop the meeting, the crowd’s lack of resistance devastates Okonkwo.

Realising that his clan is not willing to fight and that the old ways are irretrievably lost, Okonkwo takes drastic action. He kills one of the court messengers with his machete, but when no one else moves to support him, he understands that his people will not go to war.

Overwhelmed by the realisation that his world has irreversibly changed and unable to adapt to this new reality, Okonkwo commits suicide by hanging himself. This act, considered an abomination in Igbo culture, means that his clansmen cannot touch his body.

The novel ends on a somber and ironic note. The District Commissioner, who knows nothing of Okonkwo or his significance, views this event merely as an interesting paragraph in the book he plans to write about the region. This reduces Okonkwo’s entire life and the complex cultural clash to a mere colonial anecdote.

Setting

The setting of Things Fall Apart is a cluster of fictional nine Igbo villages collectively known as Umuofia, located in what is now southeastern Nigeria.

The time period of this story is the pre-colonial era, just on the cusp of European intervention. The Igbo society portrayed is one that has existed for generations, with its own complex systems of government, justice, religion, and social order. Yet, it stands on the brink of irreversible change as the first waves of colonialism begin to reach its shores.

Umuofia itself is a microcosm of traditional Igbo society. The nine villages that comprise it are bound together by shared customs, beliefs, and a common market that rotates every four days. This market serves not only as a center of trade but also as a hub of social interaction, information exchange, and cultural continuity.

Within the villages, life is organized around compounds – collections of huts where a man lives with his wives and children. The spatial arrangement of these compounds, with the man’s obi (hut) at the entrance, reflects the patriarchal structure of Igbo society. The village square, where meetings are held and important decisions are made, embodies the democratic nature of Igbo governance.

Agricultural cycles play a crucial role in the life of Umuofia. The cultivation of yams, considered the king of crops, dictates much of the yearly calendar. The New Yam Festival, which marks the beginning of the harvest season, is a time of great celebration.

Achebe’s portrayal of Umuofia is not that of an idyllic paradise. It is a society with its own internal tensions, inequalities, and harsh customs. However, it is also a society with a rich cultural heritage, complex social structures, and a deep sense of identity — all of which come under threat as the story progresses and the forces of colonialism begin to make their presence felt.

Umuofia
A pictorial representation of the fictional Umuofia community.

Other places mentioned in the text, apart from Umuofia, are Mbaino and Mbanta. Their inclusion in the novel shows that Umuofia does not exist in isolation but is part of a wider network of Igbo communities.

Mbaino is introduced early in the novel as a neighbouring village to Umuofia. Its significance stems from a tragic incident where a woman from Umuofia is killed in Mbaino’s marketplace. This event sets in motion a chain of consequences that profoundly affect the story’s trajectory. To avert war, Mbaino offers Umuofia two young people as compensation: Ikemefuna, a young boy, and a virgin girl. This incident brings Ikemefuna into Okonkwo’s household and his fate becomes a crucial element in Okonkwo’s personal story.

Mbanta, on the other hand, represents a significant shift in the novel’s setting. It is the maternal homeland of Okonkwo, where he and his family are exiled for seven years after he accidentally kills a clansman. This change in location is not merely geographical; it marks a turning point in the narrative and in Okonkwo’s life.

Mbanta is described as smaller and less warlike than Umuofia. It is here that we meet Okonkwo’s uncle Uchendu, whose wisdom provides a counterpoint to Okonkwo’s rigid worldview. More significantly, it is in Mbanta that we first encounter the Christian missionaries, foreshadowing the cultural conflict that will dominate the latter part of the novel.

Characters

In this section, we shall focus on the characters in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Some of the characters in Things Fall Apart are Okonkwo, Nwoye, Ikemefuna, Ezinma, Obierika, Unoka, Uchendu, Mr. Brown, Reverend James Smith, and the District Commissioner.

Okonkwo

Okonkwo is the tragic protagonist of Things Fall Apart. His journey from a respected leader to a broken outcast is a microcosm for the larger cultural upheaval depicted in the novel. At the core of Okonkwo’s character is his overwhelming fear of weakness. This fear stems from his childhood shame over his father, Unoka, who was considered lazy and irresponsible. Okonkwo’s entire life becomes a reaction against his father’s perceived failings. He strives to embody the masculine ideals of his culture — strength, courage, and success.

Okonkwo’s positive qualities are numerous. He is hardworking. He rose from poverty to become one of the greatest men of his clan. His physical prowess, which is demonstrated in wrestling and warfare, earns him respect. He is also loyal to his community and its traditions, and often takes a leading role in village affairs.

Okonkwo
An illustration of Okonkwo.

However, these same qualities that bring Okonkwo success also contribute to his downfall. His fear of appearing weak leads him to act rashly and violently, even against the advice of elders and the dictates of the gods. He is often harsh with his wives and children, particularly his eldest son Nwoye, whom he sees as weak. His rigid adherence to traditional masculinity makes him unable to express affection or adapt to changing circumstances.

Okonkwo’s tragic flaw is his inability to accept change or show flexibility. This is most evident in his reaction to the arrival of the white missionaries and colonial government. While others in his clan advocate for caution or adaptation, Okonkwo can only see resistance as the way forward.

Achebe presents Okonkwo with sympathy but without glossing over his flaws. He is a man caught between his personal ambitions, societal expectations, and the sweeping tide of historical change. His inability to reconcile these forces ultimately leads to his downfall.

Nwoye

Nwoye is Okonkwo’s eldest son. He is a counterpoint to his father and represents the younger generation’s response to cultural change in Things Fall Apart.

Nwoye is a sensitive and introspective boy who struggles to meet his father’s expectations of masculinity. He is more aligned with his grandfather Unoka’s gentler nature. This is a source of constant tension between father and son.

Nwoye has a very questioning spirit. He is troubled by certain aspects of Igbo culture: the abandonment of twins in the forest and the killing of Ikemefuna, whom he had come to see as a brother. These incidents plant seeds of doubt in Nwoye about the righteousness of his society’s traditions.

The arrival of Christian missionaries marks a turning point in Nwoye’s life. He finds himself drawn to the new religion. He is attracted by its message of love and acceptance. The hymns of the missionaries provide answers to questions that have long troubled him.

His decision to leave his family and join the church is an act of rebellion against his father and the old ways.

Ikemefuna

Ikemefuna is introduced early in the Things Fall Apart. He comes to Umuofia as part of a peace settlement when his home village of Mbaino kills a woman from Umuofia. He is given to Okonkwo’s household, where he is to stay until the elders decide his fate.

Ikemefuna spends three years in Okonkwo’s compound. During this time, he becomes an integral part of the family. He becomes like an older brother to Nwoye. He helps bring Nwoye out of his shell and teaches him traditionally masculine skills that please Okonkwo.

He also wins Okonkwo’s affection, though Okonkwo struggles to show it openly. In Achebe’s words, Ikemefuna “had grown very fond of Okonkwo, and he could hardly imagine that Okonkwo was not his real father.”

When the village elders decide that Ikemefuna must be killed to appease the gods, Okonkwo is warned not to take part in the boy’s death. However, fearing that he will be thought weak, Okonkwo delivers the fatal blow himself.

Ikemefuna’s death traumatises Nwoye, and further pushes him away from his father and traditional Igbo culture. In a similar vein, it haunts Okonkwo, despite his attempts to suppress his feelings.

Ezinma

Ezinma is Okonkwo’s favourite daughter. She is often referred to as Okonkwo’s “boy-girl,” because she embodies both masculine and feminine traits.

She is the only child with whom Okonkwo shows a softer side. Okonkwo often wishes that Ezinma had been born a boy.

She is identified as an ogbanje (a child believed to die and return to its mother repeatedly) because of her illness. She is taken by the priestess Chielo to the cave of Agbala for recovery from her seeming spiritual affliction.

Ezinma grows from a precocious child into a young woman who remains loyal to her father even during his exile. Her eventual betrothal near the end of the Things Fall Apart provides a glimpse into Igbo marriage customs and the role of women in perpetuating familial and cultural ties.

Obierika

Obierika is another important character in Things Fall Apart. He is Okonkwo’s best friend.

He is a foil to Okonkwo. Unlike Okonkwo, who is driven by fear of weakness and a rigid adherence to tradition, Obierika is more thoughtful, measured, and open to questioning certain aspects of their culture.

Obierika is the novel’s moral centre. For instance, he refuses to participate in Ikemefuna’s killing. He questions the wisdom of their gods in demanding such a sacrifice.

Despite their differences, Obierika remains a steadfast friend to Okonkwo. He looks after Okonkwo’s affairs during his exile and even visits him in Mbanta.

He tries to mediate between Okonkwo’s resistance and the reality of colonial power. At the end of the novel, he helps to take down his friend’s body.

Unoka

Unoka is Okonkwo’s father. He is described as a lover of music and festivities. He is skilled at playing the flute. He is lazy and irresponsible. He shows more interest in playing music and drinking palm wine than in traditional masculine pursuits like farming and accumulating titles. Consequently, he has poor harvests, and goes around consulting Oracle as to why he has such measly harvests. The Oracle attributes his poor output to his laziness, and that it has nothing to do with spiritual cause.

He is also a chronic debtor. He is known for borrowing money and failing to repay his debts. He is a symbol of failure in a society that values material success.

He is the antithesis of everything Okonkwo strives to be. His laziness and attendant failure is the driving force for Okonkwo’s relentless pursuit of success and status.

Despite his flaws, Unoka is portrayed as a gentle and affable character. He contrasts sharply with his son’s harsh demeanour.

Uchendu

Uchendu is Okonkwo’s maternal uncle. He is another significant character in Things Fall Apart who appears during Okonkwo’s exile in Mbanta.

He is portrayed as a wise elder, respected in his community for his age and experience. His words carry weight and offer profound insights into Igbo culture and human nature.

He welcomes Okonkwo and his family during their exile. He provides them with land and support. This demonstrates the importance of maternal kinship in Igbo culture.

He also provides words of comfort and support to Okonkwo about the importance of motherland, when the latter is depressed by his stay in Mbanta, away from his famed reputation in Umuofia. He reminds Okonkwo that “A man belongs to his fatherland when things are good and life is sweet. But when there is sorrow and bitterness, he finds refuge in his motherland.”

When the missionaries arrive in Mbanta, Uchendu advocates for a measured response. He suggests that the missionaries are allowed to settle in the Evil Forest. His approach contrasts with Okonkwo’s desire for violent resistance.

Mr. Brown

Mr. Brown is the first Christian missionary to arrive in Umuofia. He represents the initial phase of colonial and religious influence in Igbo society. He is patient and tolerant in his approach to spreading Christianity. He takes time to understand Igbo culture and beliefs rather than dismissing them outright. He engages in discussions with clan elders like Akunna.

He establishes schools and a hospital in bid to attract people to his faith.

Reverend James Smith

Reverend James Smith is man who succeeded Mr. Brown as the missionary in Umuofia. He is more aggressive and uncompromising in his approach to the gospel of colonial Christianity. He embodies the cultural arrogance and religious intolerance that characterised much of the colonial experience.

Reverend Smith sees the world in absolutes. He has an unwavering belief in the superiority of Christianity, and shows little interest in understanding Igbo culture and beliefs. He sees them as heathen practices that must be eradicated.

His aggressiveness emboldens new converts like Enoch to become more confrontational and to do things sacrilegious to their heathen cultural practices. An instance of such is the unmasking of an egwugwu, a sacrilegious act that sparks serious conflict. His approach, therefore, creates the internal divisions within the Igbo community.

District Commissioner

The District Commissioner appears towards the end of Things Fall Apart. He exudes the colonial administrative power in its most impersonal and bureaucratic form. He believes in the superiority of British civilization and the righteousness of the colonial mission. His presence at the end of the novel symbolises the finality of colonial takeover in Umuofia.

He views the Igbo people and their customs with a cold, anthropological interest rather than genuine understanding or empathy. He has a reductionist view of the Igbo culture. His planned book, The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger, says this much. It is coming from the position of wanting to misrepresent and oversimplify the cultures and experiences of the Igbo whom the author has fitted into preconceived notions of “primitive” societies.

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