Things Fall Apart is considered one of the great novels of the 20th century and a landmark in post-colonial literature. A short, simply-told novel; it is the complexity hidden within that marks Achebe as a great writer.
Things Fall Apart is the story of Okonkwo, a man famous throughout his Nigerian region’s nine villages for his achievements. When barely an adult he was already a great wrestler. Even now he is still considered young, yet is already a wealthy farmer with three wives, two titles and has shown prowess in two inter-tribal wars. Okonkwo has collected five heads in battle and is known to drink palm wine out of his first head on special occasions.
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 out-houses could hear him breathe. When he walked, his heels hardly touched the ground and he seemed to walk on springs, as if he was going to pounce on somebody. And he did pounce on people quite often. He had a slight stammer and whenever he was angry and could not get his words out quickly enough, he would use his fists. He had no patience with unsuccessful men. He had had no patience with his father.
Okonkwo’s father, Unoka, was a very different man. Unoka was lazy, improvident and a drinker. He was always in debt to everyone, yet always seemed able to borrow more. Unoka once consulted an oracle to discover why his crops were so poor. He was told in clear terms that it was because of his poor work ethic.
In many ways, Okonkwo’s character is a strong reaction to his father’s. Okonkwo fears weakness and failure, he hates idleness and gentleness. Though not necessarily cruel, he is short-tempered and his family suffer when they fail to live up to his standards. Nwoye, Okonkwo’s twelve-year-old eldest son, can find himself being beaten if he ever shows signs of laziness.
Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness. It was deeper and more intimate than the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of the forest, and the forces of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw. 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. […] And so Okonkwo was rule by one passion – to hate everything that his father Unoka had loved. One of those things was gentleness and another was idleness.
Okonkwo’s current wealth is due to his strength of character. Inheriting nothing from his father, Okonkwo turned to sharecropping. It was a hard life with little profit and the year he began was a poor one where many other farmers lost their crops. But Okonkwo’s sharp rise out of poverty earns him tremendous respect. Others know it was not due to luck, that Okonkwo is a self-made man who deserves his success but the harshness he shows to the less fortunate makes them wince.
But even Okonkwo is not entirely made of stone. When the traditions and beliefs of his people call for harsh action to be taken, Okonkwo can find his heart softening if not his deeds. But he is not one to turn against tradition even when his own rash actions mean traditional justice must be acted against him.
Unknown to Okonkwo there are bigger challenges on the horizon. The arrival of Christian missionaries and a colonial government will tear apart families and communities that do not know how to respond either to the external threat or to the internal weaknesses they exploit.
Today, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe is probably the most famous work of African literature, certainly for the English-literate portion of the world. First published in 1958, more than 12 million copies have been printed in more than 50 languages, it is a staple of high school and university literature classes and opened the door to Nigerian and African literature.
A short novel of around 150 pages told in 25 short chapters, Things Falls Apart hides a lot of thought and complexity in its simply-told story – a characteristic of the best writing. The plot is engaging and the flawed hero earns our respect for the traits that made him a self-made success, our censure for his moments of brutal insensitivity and our sympathy as a man who can’t comprehend how his world is changing beyond his control.
Between the story of Okonkwo and his environment, Achebe intersperses the novel with chapters and passages that immerse the reader in Igbo culture. There are the aspects that show a common past with all human civilisations and culture, one centred on tradition and customs; early religion and superstition; polygamy, arranged marriage and patriarchy. In the first part of the novel, the reader is shown Igbo festivals, weddings, funerals, wrestling matches and how disputes are resolved and justice delivered. Most of all, Achebe gives the reader an appreciation of these peoples’ language; their style of conversation and especially, their use of idioms, proverbs and storytelling in expressing their point of view. He shows the reader the richness of pre-colonial Nigeria in the late nineteenth-century. In this sense, Things Fall Apart is a rebuttal to Western takes on Africa such as Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
Instead, Achebe shows the impact of the infiltration of the West from an African point of view. It is this clash of cultures aspect of Things Fall Apart that Achebe really delivers a complexity, despite the brevity, that I admired so much. Things Fall Apart emphasises the large gap between the two cultures. The Igbo live in small groups with no overall leadership; their religion in polytheistic and localised; disputes are settled and peace kept by the judgement of the community’s elders. The colonisers, on the other hand, brandish a centralised government, a monotheistic religion and courts which blindly uphold written laws. The colonisers make little attempt to understand the Igbo culture. They just assume it to be primitive and inferior which allows them to impose their values and attempt to transform the society with impunity.
‘What has happened to that piece of land in dispute?’ asked Okonkwo.
‘The white man’s court has decided that it should belong to Nnama’s family, who had given much money to the white man’s messengers and interpreter.’
‘Does the white man understand our custom about land?’
‘How can he when he does not even speak our tongue? But he says that our customs are bad; and our own brothers who have taken up his religion also say that our customs are bad. How do you think we can fight when our own brothers have turned against us? The white man is very clever. He can quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.’
That being said, Achebe is not telling us a black-and-white morality tale of the evils of colonialism. While he undoubtedly shows the large negative impact of the colonisers, he also points to its positives such as the delivery of medicine, technology and education. More than that, Achebe emphasises the flaws of Igbo culture that made it so vulnerable to infiltration from the outside. As it has elsewhere, Christianity with Jesus as a saviour, has particular appeal for those made outcasts, perhaps unjustly, by the indigenous culture, attracting converts. Whatever its flaws, Christian morality and secular justice has the impact of exposing failures of traditional methods, causing division between those who want to question and change tradition from within and those who react defensively to protect it at all costs.
Obierika was a man who thought about things. When the will of the goddess had been done, he sat down in his obi and mourned his friend’s calamity. Why should a man suffer so grievously for an offence he had committed inadvertently? But although he thought for a long time he found no answer. He was merely led into greater complexities. He remembered his wife’s twin children, whom he had thrown away. What crime had they committed? The Earth had decreed they were an offence on the land and must be destroyed. And if the clan did not exact punishment for an offence against the great goddess, her wrath was loosed on all the land and not just on the offender. As the elders said, if one finger brought oil it soiled the others.
Achebe’s influences and the context in which he was writing can perhaps partly explain these aspects of Things Fall Apart. In the Introduction to this Penguin Modern Classics edition, fellow Nigerian writer Biyi Bandele mentions the influence on Achebe and his work from having a Christian father and a heathen uncle. That Achebe was part of a Nigerian generation of educated elite, expected to lead the nation following the end of colonialism, but with considerable difficulties to overcome for colonialisms legacy. In these terms, Achebe is a forerunner to other post-colonial writers such as Salman Rushdie. Published in 1958, two years before Nigerian Independence, the atmosphere of optimism and despair in the pre-colonial setting of the novel mirrors similar anxieties of the time of publishing.
Achebe grew up in a home where they sang hymns and read the Bible night and day. But he would often sneak across to his ‘heathen’ uncle’s compound and partake in pagan festivals of rice and stew. To his delight, he found in the food no flavour of idolatry. The converts to the new creed looked down on the non-Christians in the village, calling them ‘the people of nothing’. But Achebe did not suffer from an identity crisis over the two cultures contesting for his devotion. He lived at the crossroads of culture and although, as he grew up, he knew to reject, ‘all that rubbish [about] the evil forces and irrational passions prowling through Africa’s heart of darkness’, he felt also that the crossroads did have a certain potency, ‘because a man might perish there wrestling with multi-headed spirits, but he might also be lucky and return to his people with the boon of prophetic vision.From the Introduction
Post-colonial literature emerged after the fall of European global power following the Second World War. It became a powerful genre in literature; voices and stories previously unheard became popular and celebrated. Hopefully it will continue to be as there is still much more to be said, but writers with lived experience of colonialism are a dying breed and new writers given more focus to the ‘post’ rather than the ‘colonial’ of the genre.
Things Fall Apart is rightly viewed as one of the great novels of this genre and one of the best of the 20th century. I am glad to finally have read it. Two more of Achebe’s novels – Arrow of God and No Longer at Ease – form an ‘African Trilogy’, though not one of continuing the story of Things Fall Apart with the same characters, or even published in chronological order. I have already read and enjoyed these too and will post me reviews shortly.
Reader, beware: Things Fall Apart is savage and tender, it blisters with wit and radiates with the inner glow of hard-earned compassion. It is disillusioned but passionately engaged, solemn while being exuberant; it is polemical but wise. There is not a shred of the congealed violence of cheap sentimentality: Achebe’s characters do not seek our permission to be human, they do not apologise for being complex (or for being African, or for being human, or for being so extraordinarily alive).From the Introduction