Things Fall Apart

Things Fall Apart



Things Fall Apart

Chinua Achebe
A critical paper by

Leigh Fabens


Unlike the tragic protagonist of Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe survived the clash of cultures that characterized so much of 20th century African history. Things Fall Apart was published in 1958, sixty years after the colonial period in which it was set and two years before Nigerian independence was achieved. The outcome of the clash between native and British powers was already known; Achebe’s readers would know who won and who lost. But few Western readers would know much about Igbo history and culture. Ordinarily, history is written by the winners, and they get it wrong more often than not. Achebe takes a parting shot at the presumptions of winners’ histories in the last lines of the novel, when the District Commissioner thinks about the book he will write. He has already chosen a title: “The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.” 

In the context of the 1890’s, “Pacification” was ironically premature, but Achebe does not need to enlighten his readers on that score. He concentrates on exposing the irony in “Primitive Tribes,” without making the mistake of glorifying the victims or presenting Ibo society as purely rational and good. He was inspired to write, according to his own account, in order to correct the imbalances found in most Western writing about Africa; he was specifically critical of novels by Joseph Conrad and Joyce Cary. He writes from the perspective of an insider with the advantage of an outsider’s education, and Things Fall Apart is rooted in both Igbo and Western traditions.

The title, a quote from Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” (Achebe uses four lines from the poem for an epigraph) is more than a simple allusion to the literature of the West. Yeats was a champion of Irish, as opposed to British, culture, and the poem itself is loaded with allusions to Christianity and the literature of the Bible. In the novel the ethnic Igbo will be threatened by both British secular power and Christian missionaries. The title announces the narrative direction of the book: it will open at the peak of Okonkwo’s strength and spiral downward from there.

Achebe sets the pattern in the first chapter, beginning with an account of Okonkwo’s strength and consequent fame. In the mode of a storyteller, in a style evocative of an oral tradition characterized by direct statements and intensifying repetition, the narrator describes a wrestling match in which Okonkwo threw a champion fighter, a man undefeated for seven years. “His fame rested on solid personal achievements:” his physical strength, wealth, titles, and wives - the traditional Igbo measures of success.

But Achebe begins to reveal Okonkwo’s vulnerability right away. He has a short temper and a stammer; “whenever he was angry and could not get his words out quickly enough, he would use his fists.” He had no patience with his father, and was in fact dominated by the fear that he would fail as his father did or appear to be as weak as he was. The father is described in detail, in a passage which also serves as an introduction to Igbo customs and speech patterns. We read that “among the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten.” Throughout the novel the narrator will instruct the reader, sometimes in the tone of an anthropologist explaining the culture of a particular tribe to an audience of interested foreigners.

At the end of the opening chapter the fate of the boy Ikemefuna is foreshadowed; it will be the first of three deaths in which Okonkwo is implicated. The stories of these killings are gravitational centers for subplots that cluster around the events, and each marks a step down toward the tragic conclusion of the novel. The Ikemefuna story supports descriptions of Igbo village life, their rules governing crimes and punishments, and stories about Okonkwo’s family relationships.

 Ikemefuna was delivered to Umuofia, Okonkwo’s village, in retribution for a killing he had nothing to do with. He and a young girl were offered as compensation for the life of a Umuofian woman; the gift was intended to avoid a war between the villages. The narrator describes the village meeting, where an orator made the case for revenge in a ceremonial performance, and he gives an account of Ikemefuna’s arrival and his assignment to Okonkwo’s household, but he does not attempt to explain or to justify the system which gave rise to this solution.

Achebe uses Ikemefuna’s three years in Umuofia to provide the reader with background information about life in an Igbo village. It is an agricultural society, and appeasement of the earth goddess is imperative. Okonkwo is punished for beating one of his wives during the week preceding planting when all villagers are obligated to keep peace with one another, regardless of provocation. A village elder calls upon Okonkwo to announce his punishment. “The evil you have done can ruin the whole clan,” he says; it is a warning of what is to come when the social structure is threatened from outside pressure and inner disintegration, when things start to fall apart.

The wife beating also illustrates the brutal side of Okonkwo’s character – brutal not because wife beating was forbidden but because it was governed by certain constraints, like the Week of Peace before the planting season. Okonkwo was dangerously quick tempered; in another instance he shot a gun – and missed – at his second wife, when he overheard her remark about his lack of prowess as a hunter. Okonkwo and his gun – another warning.

Finally, the Ikemefuna story establishes Okonkwo’s relationship with his son Nwoye, who grows very close to the older boy. Achebe weaves an intricate circle: Okonkwo, who feared repeating his own father’s failures, is disappointed with Nwoye’s apparent weakness, and compares him unfavorably with Ikemefuna. After Ikemefuna has been in the village for three years, the oracle orders him killed; this is left unexplained in the text. Despite an explicit warning from a tribal elder, Okonkwo participates in the sacrifice of Ikemefuna because he does not want to appear weak. Nwoye fears his father to begin with, and when he realizes that Okonkwo was responsible for killing his friend, that fear becomes the dominant fact of his life; the sins and neuroses of the fathers are visited upon the sons, generation after generation. Furthermore, Nwoye’s discovery of the facts of Ikemefuna’s murder is linked in time to his awareness of the fate of twins left in the forest to die. Achebe does not attempt to gloss over the fact that real twins were abandoned by the Igbo tribe, but Nwoye’s association of these deaths with the death of his friend marks the two as emotional twins.

The story of the second death occupies a long segment in the middle of the novel. It is a story of the community, and it begins with a conversation between Okonkwo and his friend Obierika. Obierika represents an alternative; he was “a man who thought about things,” in contrast to Okonkwo, a man of action who acted reflexively and often violently. Without directly accusing his friend of acting wrongly, Obierika tells Okonkwo what he would have done about Ikemefuna. Even if the oracle had decreed that his son should be killed he would not have participated in his killing, he says. He suggested a third way out: “I would have stayed at home. . . . I would neither dispute it nor be the one to do it.”

Obierika, the man who thinks about things, also questions the tribal rules about resource management. He is the only one to voice doubts regarding the traditional methods for tapping palm trees in Umuofia, where a man’s status affects the way he harvests his palms. The conversation is short, but it calls attention to the difference between Okonkwo, who says “the law of the land [which is to say the tribe] must be obeyed” and Obierika, who suspects there is a better way. The clash of cultures in this novel is not a simplistic rift between the native Africans and the British colonists, between old and new, between the so-called primitive and civilized worlds. Things are beginning to change from within the Igbo culture; the falling apart is not caused by outside pressure alone.

This middle section, which revolves around the second of three significant deaths, includes an encyclopedic amount of information about the way the Igbo lived in the 1890’s. From birth to death, rites of passage are woven into the story. Obierika’s daughter is married. The festivities, and the work required to mount them, are described in detail. Okonkwo’s favorite daughter, the one he wishes had been a boy, is afflicted by what the modern reader will assume is malaria; the chapter opens with a seemingly inconsequential mention of a mosquito bothering Okonkwo in his sleep. Okonkwo treats her with a folk remedy and she recovers, but the reader is informed of her mother’s bad luck: nine of her ten children have died. Igbo superstition about infant mortality is dramatized in a passage about exorcising the evil spirit of an ogbanje, a changeling child.

Achebe prepares us for an event at the novel’s climax by describing the role of the egwugwu, making it plain that these masked figures are men of the village representing ancestral spirits.

“Okonkwo’s wives, and perhaps other women as well, might have noticed that the second egwugwu had the springy walk of Okonkwo. And they might also have noticed that Okonkwo was not among the titled men and elders who sat behind the row of egwugwu. But if they thought these things they kept them within themselves.”

In this passage the egwugwu are seen to function as a sort of Igbo Supreme Court. They mediate cases brought before them, and their costumed disguise connotes an authority removed from the personalities and personal frictions of daily life in the village. The narrator’s overt comment about recognizing the springy walk of Okonkwo points to the double consciousness that supports the egwugwu. The people regard them simultaneously as both supernatural and real, and the masks are essential to maintenance of this belief in their dual nature. In the scene Achebe is preparing us for, the unmasking of an egwugwu precipitates a crisis.

A tribal elder dies, and his elaborate funeral is the stage for the second death involving Okonkwo. It was Ezeudu who had warned about the planned murder of Ikemefuna, and Okonkwo remembers his words when he hears the name of the dead: “that boy calls you father. Do not bear a hand in his death.” The funeral rite is conducted in a manner befitting a warrior: a public performance in which men danced, egwugwu represented the icons of death, and drums, guns, and cannon were sounded. The entire village participate. What happens is entirely unprecedented: Okonkwo’s gun explodes, killing the sixteen-year-old son of the dead man.

According to the law of the clan, Okonkwo had committed a crime against the earth goddess; seven years in exile was the prescribed punishment. The narrator explains that it was a “female” crime because it was inadvertent; in the same tone he tells us that the men who set fire to Okonkwo’s houses, and destroyed his animals and his barn “had no hatred in their hearts against [him].” They were merely acting as messengers of the earth goddess, merely cleansing the land he had polluted with the blood of a clansman. Everyone knew what had to be done.

Only Obierika questioned – in private - the justice of severe punishment for an inadvertent act. Again, he is the voice of the alternative; he is the one to ask why the clan does things this way. Then he thinks about his wife’s twin children. He had thrown them away, although they had not committed a crime against the earth goddess. Obierika cannot answer his own questions, but he asks. His friendship for Okonkwo survives the seven years of exile: he sustains the man and his family by saving his yams and his money.

A point of irony, not mentioned in the text, is that the gun which exploded must have come from trade. I don’t believe the African states had the technology to produce the guns and cannons in evidence at the funeral, but I can’t be sure and I did not look it up. In any case, guns and cannon were not traditional weapons like the machetes the men carried. In the frenzy of the ceremony, one egwugwu had to be restrained from swinging his machete and endangering the other mourners. Okonkwo’s gun – wherever it came from – was ultimately an instrument of self-destruction.

Achebe uses the duration of Okonkwo’s seven year exile to allow for the incursion of Christian missionaries and of British colonial power. Obierika reports these developments to his friend when he visits; Okonkwo will not be surprised when he returns home. Achebe’s readers will have their own preconceptions of missionary activity and the history of 19th century imperialism; what he presents to us is the inside view. Aside from the strangeness, what are they wary of?

This “abominable religion” threatened kinship bonds, by teaching that “a man can now leave his father and his brothers. He can curse the gods of his fathers and his ancestors, like a hunter’s dog that suddenly goes mad and turns on his master.” We have already learned something about the system of rules that governed relationships in Igbo society. It isn’t necessary to judge their morality – by any standards – or to assess their effectiveness, and the narrative presents the information flatly, without comment, either defensive or critical. The important fact is that the new religion upset an old system.

I have pointed to cracks in that system. Inherent weaknesses were exposed by Obierika’s questions. The requirements of the earth goddess and the dictates of the oracle were sometimes inexplicable, even to those who were part of the culture. Okonkwo’s own behavior threatened the stability of the clan – remember the wife beating, when he was warned that his actions would hurt the clan by endangering their crops. There were disaffected members like Okonkwo’s son Nwoye and like Enoch, the zealous convert who ripped the mask off the egwugwu, and there were unhappy women whose children had been destroyed.

Achebe differentiates between the Christian religion and secular power. The weak, the disaffected, and the marginalized – characters like Nwoye –  were the first to turn to the new religion. The missionaries provided an outlet, an alternative for these weaker members of the society to turn to. In the old system, so tightly knit, there was no alternative power. Mr. Brown, the first missionary, was flexible, rational, and willing to live with certain aspects of the native religion; he was not a serious threat. Real trouble began with the arrival of the doctrinaire Mr. Smith, who “saw things as black and white,” a loaded metaphor in this context.

Mr. Smith encouraged the zealots, and his rigidity provoked confrontation. Enoch hides out with him after he unmasks the egwugwu, the crime Achebe prepared us for. As the narrator reports it, the clansmen believed that Enoch killed an ancestral spirit by unmasking it. What he did was to expose the double consciousness that had to be maintained, and not because the villagers did not know the egwugwu were mortal men in masks. Achebe reinforces this point a few pages later, when the narrator identifies the masked man who tells Mr. Smith why they have come to destroy his church.

The double consciousness was a kind of community contract, an agreement that the institution of the egwugwu – with all the functions it entailed – depended on maintaining the rationally impossible belief that they were both supernatural and real, ancestral spirits and men of the village. Enoch destroyed the community contract when he pulled the mask off the egwugwu.

From that point in the story, the downward spiral accelerates. Okonkwo and five other men are ambushed and humiliated by the District Commissioner. A meeting of the tribe is forbidden by the British authorities, and Okonkwo kills the messenger with his machete. His clansmen do not join him; they are frightened, and he hears them asking why he did it.

Okonkwo’s suicide is not described. We see him wipe his machete in the sand and walk away, and in the next chapter he is hanging from a tree. His friend Obierika explains to the District Commissioner that suicide is against their custom, an abomination and an offense against the earth; Okonkwo’s own friends and clansmen cannot touch him. The Commissioner orders his men to cut him down, and thinks about the interesting story it will make.



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Things Fall Apart


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