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Things Fall Apart

Context
“For those of us climbing to the top of the food chain, there can be no mercy. There is but one rule:
Hunt or be Hunted.” - Frank Underwood

This quote from the English political drama, House of Cards, aptly determines the rather masculine
ambition of Things Fall Apart’s main protagonist, Okonkwo and his unquenchable thirst for power.

Things Fall Apart, published in 1958, was the first novel of the Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe.
Achebe’s novel was in response to the traditional view of the European writers who had always depicted
Africa and Africans as savages who needed an upliftment from the Europeans. Things Fall Apart was
pathbreaking in more ways than one. Prior to this, most novels on Africans in English were written by
Europeans. Achebe always maintained, “Igbo people say, if you want to see it well, you must not stand
in one place”; and it is this pioneering novel by him that broke away from that singular perception and
presented a human view of the Africans through complex characters truer to real life. It was not just the
view that was revolutionary but the writing in itself. The language that was used by Achebe to describe
the African culture provides vivid and rich images of the African civilization.
The historical context of the story and in which it was written make for an interesting contrast. Chinua
Achebe was born in 1930, around 80 years after the first missionaries arrived in Igboland. His father
had converted to Christianity under the influence of the white missionaries, and eventually became an
evangelist for the Church, but the rest of Achebe’s family adhered to the Igbo culture. So, Achebe spent
his childhood as he puts it ‘at the crossroads of culture’. By the age of 8, he could read in both Igbo
and in English. He read Shakespeare and missionary textbooks in school & sat in Igbo storytelling
sessions by the night. Despite this, Achebe did not suffer from an identity crisis over the two cultures
contesting from his devotion. In his words, he wrote Things Fall Apart to “Retell the Story of my
Encounter Within a way Acceptable to me”.

Plot
Things Fall Apart is set in the late 19th century of the now Nigeria. The plot begins by describing the
strength and valour of the protagonist, Okonkwo who is a respected warrior of the Umuofia clan. The
book opens with one of the most well-known lines:
Okonkwo was well-known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid
personal achievements.

The tone for the reader is set right at the start of the novel about Okonkwo’s self-made character,
welcoming the readers in his world of desires and personal ambitions.
Things Fall Apart

Essentially, the novel chronicles three phases of Okonkwo’s life:


1. Youth in Umuofia
2. Seven-year exile in his motherland, Mbanta
3. Return to his fatherland

Through these three phases, the writer tries to explore the ideas of masculinity, customs, traditions,
power, fear of failure and of weakness. It goes on to uncover how outside pressures of colonialism and
interior pressures of the main character crumble Okonkwo’s world.

Okonkwo’s Character Analysis


Okonkwo is a complex character to understand owing to the multiple layers that are omnipresent in his
personality, some of which are detailed below:
1. Fear of failure: Okonkwo had a deep-seated fear of failing and becoming what his father was,
who he utterly despised as being a good-for-nothing person and considered his traits, like
gentleness and idleness, to be “feminine”
2. Masculinity: Okonkwo was the extreme example of an inherently masculine society and
abhorred all ‘softer’ emotions which he dubbed as belonging to the weaker sex. An extremely
proud person, Okonkwo was an extremely skilled warrior and only grew yarn – “a male crop”.
He constantly reprimanded his son, Nwoye for being sympathetic, naïve and sensitive – traits
which he considered suitable to women
3. Desire for Respect and Achievement: In continuation with the aforementioned point of his
loathing of his father, he had a strong desire for earning respect in the village. He wanted to
have achieved a lot in his lifetime, and strived to attain as many titles as possible and become
one of the most influential clan leaders
4. Internal vs. External Locus of Control: When Okonkwo is banished on a 7-year exile, he
laments that his chi has been unlucky in this manner for him, just when he was but a few years
away from the pinnacle of his success. This hypocrisy shows his prideful nature, where he
exhibits an internal locus of control when all is well, and an external locus of control when the
winds of fortune start blowing in a different direction
5. Emotional Repression: Okonkwo refuses to accept the softer aspects of his personality and
exhibits only emotions of anger and violence, which he considers to be fit for external display.
His beating of Nwoye and the execution of Ikemefuna are all direct results of his emotional
repression
6. Highly accepting of traditions: Okonkwo does not question the traditions and rules that have
been set by society, and follows them blindly, even going so far as to execute Ikemefuna who
he was very fond of. His uncle in his motherland also reprimanded him for not knowing the
Things Fall Apart

reason that he came to his motherland when banished, and this again shows that he had never
questioned why such traditions actually exist, and merely followed them
7. Impulsive: Okonkwo prefers action to thinking. As a result, he sometimes does things in
momentary anger that many of us would never dream of doing. A perfect scene to illustrate this
would be after the beating of his wife Ekwefi during Peace Week, which was an abhorrent
violation of the traditions that Okonkwo holds so dear

Why did Okonkwo commit suicide?


Chinua Achebe deliberately left this angle of the book open-ended and open to interpretations. But we
have nevertheless posited our own observations in an attempt at the same:
1. The Three Transgressions: The three transgressions that Okonkwo commits – Ekwefi’s
beating during Peace Week, Ikemefuna’s execution and the accidental death of Ezeudu’s son,
trigger the domino effect that lead to the decadence of Okonkwo’s character and the eventual
‘falling apart’ of the Umuofians
2. Loss of Relevance: The major reason, however, for Okonkwo’s suicide is his apparent loss of
relevance in the newly converted Umuofian clan that has lost its thirst for violence and
vengeance. When his killing of the messenger invokes no support from his kinsmen, it drives
home the point that all that masculinity, emotional repression, Ikemefuna’s death, all were for
nought. The village no longer valued what he had worked so hard for. This realisation must
have come as such a shock that he decided to commit suicide, despite the fact that he would not
be buried in a respectful manner. That probably didn’t even matter then anyway

Underlying Themes
The major underlying themes in the novel are:
1. Community and Culture: The Igbo people had a strong reverence for their culture and
traditions. They were a close-knit society together in all marriages, festivals and funerals. Their
concept of community was so strong that it sometimes, overshadowed the concept of
individuality. More importantly, a person’s decisions were not his own but were decided based
on the rules and norms set by the society which were rigid enough to do away with any space
left for individuality and subjectivity, preferences of a person. Two salient aspects of their
culture, namely casteism and their desire to stay intact no matter the consequences, could be
probable reasons for their ultimate downfall as firstly, the outcasts were the first to take to
Christianity and secondly, their refusal to go against their kinsmen who had taken to
Christianity led them to not take arms against the invaders
2. Ideological clashes: Due to difference in the ideologies and ways of life, the neighboring
communities were always at loggerheads which led them to frequent, violent clashes. Also, the
conflict between the natives and the British was also out in the open when both the parties failed
Things Fall Apart

to understand and embrace the differences between their communities and ended up
stereotyping each other. When natives felt that the British were stupid, the British termed the
natives as ‘barbaric’. While these were apparent external conflicts, the internal ones were far
more destructive, like Okonkwo’s outright rejection of everything that reminded him of his
father, be it the femininity of women in his family or gentleness of his son Nwoye. A similar
conflict brewed inside Nwoye as well which eventually found solace in Christianity
3. Conflict of societal role with internal beliefs: Okonkwo was in a continuous battle between
what his internal self exhorted him to do and what was expected of him by the society. Any
deviation from the role that society had accorded to him was unacceptable to Okonkwo and it
is this friction that was frequently causing unrest. For instance, to fulfill his goal to reach the
positions of power and thus, to save himself from being perceived as weak, Okonkwo killed his
adopted son, Ikemefuna even though he had gotten very fond of him. This act caused him grief
and even that he tried his best to suppress because his expected role in the society didn’t allow
him to mourn for enemy’s son
4. Toxic Masculinity: The idea of masculinity is ill-interpreted in different contextual settings
throughout the novel. Okonkwo’s desire not to be like his father who was in possession of all
qualities that the Umuofians would describe as ‘feminine’, is seen shaping up much of his
violent and aggressive character. Such an interpretation is manifested through two sub-themes
– emotional repression and gender inequality. In the words of Achebe, “Okonkwo never
showed any emotion openly, unless it be the emotion of anger. To show affection was a sign of
weakness; the only thing worth demonstrating was strength” and it is this thought process that
very aptly describes the kind of toxic masculinity that was prevalent in the Umuofian tribe. In
such a toxic society, women are constantly beaten up, treated inferiorly and shamed. However,
we do find exclusions of this ubiquitous masculinity in the form of Obierika who stands for the
then-version of a feminist. He not only refuses to mete out unnecessary violence on women but
is also considerate and pragmatic. He questions the purpose of killing Ikemefuna and exhorts
Okonkwo to not take part in the killing of his ‘own’ son. Drawing a parallel to Hindu
mythology, Obierika exemplifies the perfect juxtaposition of Shiv and Parvati – whose union
stands for the merging of both feminine and masculine qualities to render the ideal human.
5. Effects of Colonization: Putting into the context of the novel, the colonization of the tribes of
the lower Niger brought economic prosperity to the region but at the expense of the culture,
individuality and tradition of the incumbent tribes. The English refused to acknowledge the
parallel existence of the beliefs of Christianity and that of the Igbos. To them, the thought that
there could be multiple Gods was blasphemous. This has a striking resemblance to the world
of today where religious wars are raged on the basis of religious extremism and intolerance.
However, one particular instance between Brown and an Igbo man goes on to show that in fact,
multiple religions can peacefully coexist and more so, gain from a healthy discourse about each
Things Fall Apart

other’s beliefs. The ill-effects of colonization particularly, the European Colonization, failed to
see human beings as humans and wrought destruction to the whole of Africa because of their
misplaced sense of superiority. In the words of Achebe, “Igbo people say, if you want to see it
well, you must not stand in one place” and it is here where Achebe drives home the ignominy
of the rather one-sided view of the Africans that was prevalent in literature at that point and
written primarily by the English. However, the one good thing that came out of the British
colonization of Igboland was the equal treatment of all. The outcasts who had been treated as
untouchables and not even allowed to cut their hair were accepted with open hands into
Christianity. This goes on to show that no religion/tradition is perfect and there is a need to
adopt the best practices of each one.
6. Ambition without Purpose: Throughout the novel until the very end, we see Okonkwo in an
endless pursuit of fulfilling his personal ambitions without a larger purpose of the tribe’s
welfare. This personal ambition of his is however, rather external than internal and it is quite a
surprise to see that he is able to sustain this external drive, arising from contempt and disdain
for his father, all throughout his life. Okonkwo’s desire to exactly what his father was not was
the driving factor behind his unquenchable thirst for power and his personal ambitions are
highlighted throughout the novel

Comparison with All My Sons


In both the stories, there was an inherent motivation in the protagonist to gain respect/admiration from
their society, and they started from scratch to earn name/fame. Joe Keller was also poor when he started
his life. He wanted his family to earn a place in the society. Similarly, Okonkwo was quite embarrassed
by the bad legacy of his father Unoka. He thus, puts his heart and sinew towards ensuring that he is in
no aspect similar to his father. Another similarity is in the ending of the story. Both protagonists commit
suicide once they realized that the purpose of their life no longer makes sense. They were not able to
accept it.
The major contrast is in the reason of their suicide. Keller committed suicide once he realized his family
(who were the major motivation of his life) were no longer on his side. On the other hand, Okonkwo
committed suicide because he realized that his personal ambition no longer held any relevance and his
purpose in life of becoming the supreme leader of the clan had become futile. He realized that other
people no longer believed in the idea of their native tribe and their customs.

Questions to ponder
The analysis of the novel ‘Things Fall Apart’ helped us understand salient points about ambition, the
interdependence of leaders and his/her followers as well as the importance of convergence between
your ideals and the role society expects you to play.
Things Fall Apart

A commentary raised in class was that with the inherent evils rooted in the Igbo traditions like casteism,
toxic masculinity etc., their doom was sealed and Christianity only sought to fast-track that change.
However, it is pertinent to note that no religion is perfect and even Christianity had its own flaws.
However, that does not mean that the two religions could not have co-existed. The problem with the
European way of colonization was that the English refused to acknowledge the parallel existence of the
beliefs of Christianity and that of the Igbos. To them, the thought that there could be multiple Gods was
blasphemous. This has a striking resemblance to the world of today where religious wars are raged on
the basis of religious extremism and intolerance. However, one particular instance between Brown and
an Igbo man goes on to show that in fact, multiple religions can peacefully coexist and more so, gain
from a healthy discourse about each other’s beliefs.

In essence, we would like to leave the audience with the following questions to ponder about:

1. What does a leader transgress into when he loses relevance? Is a leader’s identity driven by his
followers?
2. What can you do when the very reason that made you the person you are today or that made
you take up the cause, deserts you all of a sudden?
3. Could Okonkwo had changed the situation if he had shown more perseverance?
4. How should a leader balance the conflict between role expectations and his self-conscience?