Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe

I dare say that Chinua Achebe presented African literature to the world with the publication of “Things Fall Apart” in 1959. Sure missionaries, colonialists, and adventurers brought home accounts of Africa á la “How I Found Livingstone” by Stanley and the fictional “The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger” which concludes “Things Fall Apart”, but all of them have an external point of view. With “Things Fall Apart” Africa was introduced with an African voice.

I stand by the paragraph above, and at the same time, I cannot help thinking, that it is aggrandizing hogwash. “Things Fall Apart” is but one book by one man and not the all-encompassing authority on all the people of an entire continent. However, when Africa is involved, many of us in the Western world tend to generalize.

Achebe’s novel takes place in an Ibo village in present-day Nigeria. The main character is Okonkwo, a proud man, who has forged his own fortune and esteem. Nevertheless, Okonkwo’s story is not the most significant for me. He is an example and through him, I catch a glimpse of the culture, heritage, and daily life of a family in an Ibo village. Achebe’s narrative style is neither too detailed, too scholarly, nor too foreign to hit its mark. The result is a detailed picture and a sense of cultural richness that cannot be bound by pages.

The theme that I enjoyed most is that of fatherhood. Okonkwo’s own father was something of a free loader, and Okonkwo’s life mission is the remedy this. He achieves renown and respect through wrestling and is known as a brave warrior. He achieves titles in his community, and as such is one of the village elders/fathers, who have an important – even ritual importance in the decision of the village.

Okonkwo is a father himself to numerous children, but three stand out. The first, Ikemefuna, is not his biological son, but bounty from another village. However, Ikemefuna is the perfect son in many ways, and his death is detrimental to Okonkwo falling apart. Nwoye is Okonkwo’s firstborn son, but a disappointment in many ways. Okonkwo says that Nwoye resembles his grandfather. Nwoye is disinherited, when he abandons the Ibo ways and traditions and adheres to Christianity. Finally, there is Ezinma, Okonkwo’s daughter. He wishes that she were born a son throughout the novel and finds in her somewhat of a kindred spirit.

The only major theme is the introduction of the European missionaries and the fall of Ibo society. One of the first encounters with European missionaries is the retelling of a story from another village. The story is tragic and violent, but at the same time is includes an almost comical image of the missionary’s iron horse, being tethered to a tree. If Stanley had included this image, I am sure it was be an example of primitivism of the Ibo people, but in Achebe’s version, it points out an Ibo way of approached a completely alien situation.

The societal collapse is so vivid and so understandable when you follow the story, that “Things Fall Apart” should be required reading for many students in many subjects around the world.

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