The author reviews a modern classic – Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe – that is a scathing critique of the European colonization of the life and culture of one of the indigenous communities of Africa, successfully overwriting the idea of Native Africans being “the white man’s burden”.
Things Fall Apart, the first novel by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, presents an insightful and moving account of the life and culture of the Igbo people in Africa, as well as its disintegration with the arrival of European colonizers. First published in 1958, it is also one of the first African novels to be written in English and has gone on to inspire generations of African writers to find their voice. Before Things Fall Apart, the bulk of the literature on Africa was written from a Western perspective, primarily by European authors, which tended to denigrate African culture as being wholly primitive and barbarian. Native Africans, in such books, were portrayed as being “the white man’s burden”, in desperate need of modern progress and enlightenment reason to save them.
In such a literary landscape, Achebe’s novel came as a breath of fresh air with its distinctly decolonial underpinnings. The African natives, for a change, are characterized as autonomous rational agents, and we get a meticulous look into their unique traditional customs, which represent modes of making meaning completely alien to the Western mind. Achebe also includes a vast number of Igbo words weaved into the fabric of his English, mostly decipherable from context, which do well to offer up a linguistic window into the Igbo culture. They also remind the reader of the crucial role played by language in matters of colonial contestation, as we see towards the end of the novel how this local language gets gradually superseded by the English that the Christian missionaries bring with them.
Plot Synopsis of Things Fall Apart
Okonkwo is famous in the village of Umuofia for his physical prowess, which he displayed by beating the strongest man in the village Amalinze the Cat when he was only eighteen. He is thirty-eight at the beginning of the novel, commanding influence both inside and outside his household through a mixture of fear and respect. He has little love for people he deems weak or lazy – like his father Unoka, who accrued a ton of debt by poorly managing his household and spent his days playing music instead of slaving away to recoup his losses. Unlike his father, Okonkwo has worked hard to pay off his debts and accumulate quite a bit of wealth and is respected as one of the leaders of his village.
One day, when the residents of the neighbouring village Mbaino kill a woman from Umuofia, the town crier gathers all the villagers to discuss the penalty to be paid for the murder. As part of the peace settlement, Mbaino hands over a virgin girl and a young boy named Ikemefuna, the latter coming to live with Okonkwo. Over the years, Ikemefuna gets quite close to Okonkwo and his son Nwoye, leading a peaceful life until the day comes when the village oracle announces that Ikemefuna must be killed. His death deeply affects Okonkwo, who begins to have nightmares and, one day, ends up accidentally killing the village elder’s son at a funeral ceremony. As punishment, he is exiled from his village Umuofia for seven years.
In the period that Okonkwo is away, we learn of white men who have started appearing in the Igbo villages, spreading Christianity. These European missionaries gradually converted more and more Igbo people, eventually setting up schools and even a government. Okonkwo is visibly disturbed by this development, even as his son Nwoye is increasingly swayed by this new religion, being attracted especially by the hymns, and one day leaves home to join the Christians. When Okonkwo returns following his exile, he finds Umuofia visibly changed. Following an act of violence, where one of the converts deeply offends the local Igbo customs, Okonkwo joins a few other villagers to destroy the local church.
The white man’s government seeks to punish the perpetrators, and Okonkwo is beaten and humiliated, his head being shaved off by those among the natives who now work for the Christians. With his wounded pride, Okonkwo gathers villagers to declare war on the white men, but their meeting is interrupted when a few messengers arrive with orders to break up the gathering. An enraged Okonkwo ends up beheading one of the men, but the others are allowed to escape when the villagers don’t fight alongside him, and the crowd dissipates. Okonkwo realizes with growing despair that the arrival of the white man has fundamentally altered the unity of the Igbo people, the villagers no longer acting as one against a common threat. Distraught and broken, he hangs himself.
An Authentic Portrayal of African Life and Traditions in Things Fall Apart
The Nigerian Nobel Prize-winning novelist Wole Soyinka noted that Things Fall Apart was the first English novel “which spoke from the interior of the African character, rather than portraying the African as an exotic, as the white man would see him”. Achebe’s plot progresses at a languid pace for the most part, the book being filled with detailed descriptions of various African rituals and customs. An authentic perspective, however, doesn’t simply mean an exclusively sympathetic one, even though Things Fall Apart was one of the first literary works where African people were viewed with sympathy and deserved dignity. Achebe is careful enough to balance it by rightfully critiquing such aspects of the Igbo people that are condemnable, as well as highlighting the long-forming cracks within their society, which were taken advantage of by the Europeans upon their arrival.
One of the characteristic flaws that Achebe highlights is the rigid patriarchal mindset that permeates all of Igbo society, embodied especially by the protagonist Okonkwo. We see him berating and thrashing his wives on multiple occasions, and his short temper – fueled by masculine pride – often becomes the cause of his woes. We also get a rich depiction of the pre-colonial culture, especially reflected through their language and customs. The Igbo people heavily use proverbs and often communicate in riddles, with a saying that goes, “Proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten”. Achebe’s novel thus reveals a highly developed oral culture, where communication has been fine-tuned into an art, as opposed to the predominant colonial portrayals of Africans as backward savages.
The Onset of Colonization
With great patience and attention to detail, Things Fall Apart narrates the reality of European colonizers arriving to undo all that the Africans had built together across centuries. The title of the book derives from Irish poet William Butler Yeats’ The Second Coming¸ which refers to the cyclical movement of history alternating between periods of order and anarchy: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”. Through its protagonist Okonkwo’s eyes, the novel depicts the sense of discontentment that prevails when one’s familiar life world is rendered unrecognizable. Crucially, the colonizers didn’t use brute force to effect a military takeover of Umuofia, for that would’ve risked uniting the Igbos together in resistance and proved difficult to sustain in the long run.
Rather, we see the missionaries devoted to winning over the hearts and minds of the natives so that they willfully turn over to the side of the colonizers. This can be seen most clearly with Okonkwo’s son Nwoye, who is affected not so much by the teachings as by the gospel music. Unlike words, music can affect our unconscious in powerful ways, reaching deep into our souls to resonate with our desires. Gradually, the Christians built schools, set up a government, and began convincing the locals that unless they participated, other natives from neighbouring villages would do so and soon rule over them. By setting up a hierarchical power structure, and getting the natives to compete for its control, the colonizers managed to completely split open Igbo society at its seams.
Why You Should Read Things Fall Apart
Chinua Achebe’s novel remains a classic gut-wrenching read and a seminal text to this day precisely because of how well it captures the process of colonizing the African mind. The most effective way to enslave a people, after all, is not through forceful coercion but rather through the enslavement of their minds. That is, it’s only when the subjugated willfully adopt the mentality of slaves that their enslavement is completed, and Achebe’s novel was the first to narrativize this aspect of European colonization. Its rich and detailed accounts of the Igbo people and their pre-colonial culture remain striking indictments of Western ethnocentrism. Achebe also followed up Things Fall Apart with two sequels, No Longer at Ease (1960) and Arrow of God (1964), which continue the theme of the Igbo people struggling against colonialism taking over their lives.