© 2021 by M. Keith Booker

Things Fall Apart, Achebe’s first novel, was published in 1958, becoming the inaugural text in the Heinemann African Writers Series and one of the founding texts of modern African literature. It is almost certainly the African novel that is most often read by Western readers and most often taught in British and American classrooms. Not only is it a staple of college courses in African literature, but it is also widely taught in courses in world literature. It is also frequently taught in courses on African culture, society, and history as an introduction to the workings of a precolonial African community. As a result, Achebe’s book is very frequently the first African novel to be encountered by its Western readers, and rightfully so. Not only is the book one of the earliest important African novels, but it exemplifies a great number of the fundamental issues that typically face Western readers of African novels. For most readers the most memorable part of the book is its vivid evocation of Igbo society at the time of the first major incursions of British colonialism into the Igbo lands at the beginning of the twentieth century. Achebe has made it clear that his principal purpose in the book was to provide African readers with a realistic depiction of their precolonial past, free of the distortions and stereotypes imposed upon that past in European accounts. It also details (as the title of the novel indicates) the destruction of traditional Igbo society due to the incursions of their British colonial conquerors.

It is also valuable, when contemplating Things Fall Apart, to be aware that it is the first volume of a trilogy, which also includes the novels No Longer at Ease (1960) and Arrow of God (1964). In fact, the novels we now know as Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease were initially conceived as a single novel, narrating the colonial history of the Igbos in Nigeria. Thus, while Things Fall Apart tells the story of the initial impact of British colonization in traditional Igbo society, No Longer at Ease takes this narrative later into the colonial period, describing the tensions in a 1950s Nigerian society moving toward independence from British rule. Arrow of God, set in the 1920s, describes a colonial Nigeria in which many Igbo villagers continue to adhere to relatively traditional Igbo religious and cultural practices, but are very much aware that British control of Nigeria is firm and that they must learn to deal with the consequences of this alien rule. That the three novels of the trilogy do not appear in chronological order can be taken as a challenge to the Western notion of linear history. Margaret Turner, for example, argues that “Chinua Achebe’s trilogy, Things Fall Apart, Arrow of God, and No Longer at Ease, refutes Western standards of literature and Western ideology, in this case Hegel’s universal and homogeneous state, by showing that both constitute aspects of the new colonialism” (32).

It might also be noted that Achebe’s fourth novel, A Man of the People (1966), essentially continues this historical narrative into the postcolonial period, conducting a critique of postcolonial corruption, though in this case in an unnamed African country, rather than specifically in Nigeria. The formally intricate Anthills of the Savannah (1987) is an even more abstract and allegorical tale; set in the fictional West African country of Kangan, it details political corruption and repression in the country in a dystopian vein that mixes Western and African storytelling styles, though it ends on a hopeful note. Achebe’s five novels can be seen as constituting a single historical narrative, while also suggesting that historical narratives can be constructed and interpreted in a variety of ways.

Things Fall Apart itself can be divided into three basic segments set in different stages of the colonization of the Igbo lands of Nigeria. The initial section, spanning the first thirteen chapters, is largely concerned with provided readers of the vivid picture of the traditional way of life enjoyed by the inhabitants of an Igbo village before the incursion of the British. Focusing on the village of Iguedo, one of the eight confederated villages collectively known as Umuofia, this section of the book provides an account of the daily social, economic, political, family, and spiritual lives of the villagers, seen largely through an account of the character and activities of the protagonist, Okonkwo. As this part of the book ends, Okonkwo’s old rusty gun explodes during the funeral ceremonies for Ezeulu, a prominent villager, killing the sixteen-year-old son of the deceased man. As a result of this event, Okonkwo and his family are exiled for seven years to the village of Mbanta, the traditional home of the family of Okonkwo’s mother. The second part of the book concerns this exile, during which both the British colonial administration and Christian missionaries make significant headway in displacing the traditional way of life in Umuofia. In chapter 20, Okonkwo returns to Umuofia, beginning the third and final part of the novel, in which he helps to lead a futile and ill-fated attempt to resist this cultural destruction, leading to his death by suicide.

In the first section of Things Fall Apart, the villagers of Umuofia live in a well-ordered society, with intricate social customs that are clearly designed to work for the benefit of the community as a whole. In contrast to colonialist notions that Africans lived in primitive savagery before Europeans brought “civilization,” the villagers in Achebe’s book live in a society

“in which life is rounded and intricate and sensitively in correspondence with a range of human impulses. It admits both the aristocratic and the democratic principles. It is a life lived by a dignified clan of equals who meet together in an Athenian way” (Walsh 49).

Achebe’s reminders that precolonial African societies functioned in such sophisticated ways are, of course, valuable to both African and Western readers. On the other hand, the detailed depiction of the workings of Igbo society in Things Fall Apart makes the book particularly prone to the kind of Western anthropological readings that have sometimes prevented African novels from receiving serious critical attention as literature rather than simply as documentation of African cultural practices.[1] However, Things Fall Apart is a rich and complex novel that provides far more than an anthropological account of life in a traditional Igbo village. Moreover, even the account of Igbo life in the first part of the book is constructed in a highly literary fashion, as Achebe manages to provide an amazing number of details about traditional Igbo life in an extremely subtle and inobtrusive way that never interferes with the ongoing narrative. Indeed, most readers of the book are probably unaware that they have been given as many details about the customs and practices of Umuofia as they actually have.

For example, we learn in the very first paragraph of Things Fall Apart that Okonkwo, the protagonist, is a well-known figure in Umuofia because of his many personal achievements, beginning, at age eighteen, when he won a wrestling match against Amalinze the Cat, a famous champion. Wrestling matches are mentioned at several other points in the book as well, gradually making it clear that these matches have an important social function in the Igbo society of Umuofia. Yet at no point does Achebe’s narrator deliver anything like an extended discourse on wrestling as a social institution. In a similarly subtle way, Achebe provides numerous details regarding Igbo religion and cosmology, the domestic lives of Igbo families, and the political culture of Umuofia, all integrated within the narrative and without lengthy discursive passages.

The various details about Igbo village life and culture that we receive in the first part of the book are almost always provided as an integral part of the ongoing narration. For example, chapter 2 begins as the men of Umuofia are summoned to a group meeting by the town crier. We then learn that this meeting has been called in response to the recent killing of a woman from Umuofia in the neighboring village of Mbaino. The subsequent response to this crisis—the Umuofians follow the “normal course of action” in such situations—allows Achebe to tell us a great deal about the workings of the society of Umuofia, which turn out to be quite orderly and to proceed in accordance with well-established rules. Moreover, while the infuriated villagers of Umuofia regard the killing as an abomination and as an affront to their entire society, the response is designed to avoid an all-out conflict between Mbaino and Umuofia, seeking not revenge but justice. As a result of the subsequently negotiated peaceful solution, a young virgin from Mbaino is sent to Umuofia as a replacement wife to the dead woman’s husband. Meanwhile, as further retribution for the killing, Ikemefuna, a fifteen-year-old boy from Mbaino, is also sent to Umuofia, apparently to bear the brunt of the punishment for the crime. However, even here the clan of Umuofia responds slowly and carefully, waiting for a clear direction from Agbala, the Oracle of the Hills and Caves, before deciding the boy’s punishment.

In the meantime, Ikemefuna lives with Okonkwo for three years and becomes like a member of the family, growing especially close to Okonkwo’s eldest son, Nwoye. Ultimately, the oracle decrees that Ikemefuna must be killed as a sacrifice to atone for the crime, thus restoring the natural order of things. Indeed, there is a great deal of emphasis in Things Fall Apart on the tendency of the Igbo citizens of Umuofia to seek order and balance in all of their dealings, a characteristic that makes the subsequent destruction of this balance by the impact of British colonialism and Christian evangelism all the more damaging and traumatic. Meanwhile, Achebe uses the story of Ikemefuna not only to provide a number of details about Igbo law and cosmology but also to further the plot of the novel and the characterization of the protagonist. Okonkwo, as a leader of Umuofia, knows that he must abide by this decision that the boy be killed. However, always anxious to demonstrate his strength and courage, Okonkwo does far more than simply accept the fact that Ikemefuna must die. Although warned by the elder Ogbuefi Ezeudu not to participate in the killing, Okonkwo, “afraid of being thought weak,”  himself strikes the fatal blow, cutting the boy down with his machete (61). Ironically, Okonkwo, in seeking strictly to meet his society’s standards of admirable conduct, performs a deed that is considered to be reprehensible by many in that society, including his good friend Obierika, who is horrified by Okonkwo’s participation in Ikemefuna’s killing, even though he himself regards that killing to be justified. “If the Oracle said that my son should be killed,” Obierika tells Okonkwo, “I would neither dispute it nor be the one to do it” (67).

The episode of the killing of Ikemefuna is a pivotal one in Things Fall Apart for a number of reasons. For one thing, this sacrifice dramatizes aspects of Igbo society that seem harsh, cruel, or even savage by modern European standards and thus illustrates Achebe’s determination to provide a realistic description of traditional Igbo society and his refusal to romanticize that society in order to impress a Western audience. As Oladele Taiwo puts it, “Besides the strengths in tribal society he gives the weaknesses. We therefore have a true and complete picture in which the whole background is fully realised” (112). It is important to recognize, however, that the killing of Ikemefuna, however startling by Western standards, does not necessarily demonstrate a weakness in Igbo society. This act has, from the Igbo point of view, a genuine justification. Michael Valdez Moses thus notes that the ritualistic killing of Ikemefuna (who had nothing to do with the original crime) “is cruel and violates liberal norms of justice” but points out that this sacrifice “does serve to prevent a war between the two clans and therefore helps to ensure the long-term security of both villages.” This action, for Moses, “suggests not the absence of ethical standards among the Igbo people, but the existence of a strict premodern morality that values the welfare of the clan and tribe above that of the individual” (115). In this way, the episode serves not only to provide a striking illustration of Okonkwo’s personality, but to make an important point about the differences between Igbo social values (which place the good of the community above that of any single individual) and Western liberal standards of individualism.

On the other hand, Things Fall Apart makes it clear that the Igbo society of Umuofia is, in fact, much more individualistic than are many of the traditional societies of Africa. This individualism is figured in a number of ways, most obviously in the consistent focus on Okonkwo as the book’s single central protagonist. Okonkwo himself is a proud and individualistic man, so much so that many in the clan are disturbed by his singleminded determination and by his brusqueness in dealing with others. Indeed, Okonkwo’s excessive individualism is no doubt a key to his ultimate downfall in the book, a motif that, by extension, potentially suggests that the individualism of the Igbos made their society more susceptible to Western intrusions and thus contributed to the quick downfall of their traditional ways once the British arrived in the area.

The lengthiest digression from the main narrative of Things Fall Apart probably occurs in chapter 11 when Okonkwo’s second wife, Ekwefi tells the story of “The Tortoise and the Birds” to her daughter, Ezinma. This episode combines with other references to storytelling in the text to indicate the importance of oral narrative as an element of daily Igbo life. However, even this story is not really as much of a digression as it first appears, because the implications of this particular story resonate with and reinforce the rest of the narrative. For one thing, the self-centered Tortoise can obviously be read as an allegorization of Okonkwo, the downfall of the Tortoise in the story anticipating the eventual downfall of Okonkwo. At the same time, the allegory of this parable is quite complex, and the Tortoise also functions, among other things, as an emblem of the rapacious European intruders who come to the Igbolands, destroying the traditional societies there.

Indeed, the formal strategies employed by Things Fall Apart are so complex and sophisticated that they do recall the works of Western modernism, though the aesthetics of the novel are basically realistic, supplemented by elements derived from Igbo oral narrative traditions. As a result of this complexity, Western critics are in danger of falling into old habits of formalist reading and thereby of failing to do justice to the important social and political content of Achebe’s book. Indeed, such readings, by circumscribing Achebe’s book within European aesthetic traditions, are in danger of perpetuating precisely the colonialist gestures that the book is designed to oppose. Things Fall Apart thus provides an excellent example of the special problems that must be faced by Western readers in approaching the African novel; it illustrates particularly well Achebe’s warning that the European critic of African literature “must cultivate the habit of humility appropriate to his limited experience of the African world and be purged of the superiority and arrogance which history so insidiously makes him heir to” (Morning 8).

Readers and critics of Achebe’s novel must not only pay close and careful attention to both the style and the content of the book, but also to the intricate relationships between them. The content of the first part of the book is striking for its depiction of the workings of traditional Igbo society. Meanwhile, the style and structure of the entire book are striking for the way in which they incorporate elements of Igbo oral cultural traditions. Any number of critics have remarked the sophisticated extent to which Achebe has been able to weave traditional oral forms into his written text, asin his deft use of the trickster tale of the Tortoise and the Birds. Indeed, Iyasere notes that much of the complexity of Achebe’s narrative technique arises from his effective use of strategies derived from Igbo oral culture. Similarly, JanMohamed, while emphasizing the fundamental differences between oral and written, or chirographic, cultures, concludes that Things Fall Apart manages to achieve an impressive combination of the two modes and to remain “delicately poised at the transition from the epic (oral) to the novel (chirographic)” (Manichean 34).

The very existence of Achebe’s text as a written, bound book places it in dialogue with the Western novelistic tradition, even as it draws heavily upon Igbo oral traditions for its style and content. Moreover, it is important to note that Achebe wrote the book in direct reaction to the demeaning and objectionable depictions of Africans in European novels such as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Joyce Cary’s Mr. Johnson. Innes extensively discusses the way in which Achebe not only responds to Cary’s stereotypical vision of Africans, but also shows that Cary’s “African” figure Mr. Johnson is a purely European creation many of whose characteristics (such as his individual isolation and lack of contact with family or relatives) are almost unimaginable from an African point of view (Innes 21-41). In keeping with the book’s integration of style with content, of atmosphere with narrative, and of written with oral forms, Things Fall Apart is itself a complex cultural hybrid that is a product not simply of the Igbo cultural traditions it so vividly portrays, but of the encounter between those traditions and the culture of the West.

On the other hand, Achebe’s book is in some ways a striking demonstration of Frantz Fanon’s observation that “the colonial world is a Manichean world” (Fanon 41). In the book, European and African societies come together in a mode of radical difference. The resulting encounter between the two cultures (in an atmosphere of almost total mutual lack of understanding) leads to cataclysmic results for Africa, which is no match for Europe in terms of military and economic power. Of course, depictions of Africans and African society as strange and incomprehensible to Westerners can be found in any number of examples of European Africanist discourse, including literary works like Heart of Darkness. One of the most valuable aspects of Things Fall Apart, for Western readers at least, is its presentation of the estrangement between European and African cultural traditions from an African perspective, thus reminding us that there are two sides to this story of encounter between alien cultures. Achebe presents Igbo society in a way that makes its workings seem perfectly natural and comprehensible, carefully weaving not just Igbo customs, but even Igbo words into his narrative in a way that makes them accessible to Western readers. Meanwhile, the Europeans of Achebe’s book are depicted as peculiar, incomprehensible, and even vaguely ridiculous—as when a white missionary has his translator speak to the people of the village Mbanta in Igbo, not realizing that the translator speaks a different dialect from the audience, causing his words to seem strange (and sometimes comical). The translator thus continually says “my buttocks” whenever he means to say “myself” (144). Meanwhile, among the people of Umuofia, leprosy is politely referred to as “the white skin,” leading one villager jokingly to compare the newly arrived white Europeans to lepers (74).[2] Such reversals from the norm of British literature (in which the British are depicted as normally and Africans or Indians as deviations, comically struggling with the English language or English customs) make a powerful statement about the importance of point of view in confrontations between foreign cultures and thoroughly undermine the Western tendency to think of our values as absolute and universal.

On the other hand, Things Fall Apart establishes numerous points of contact between European and African cultures, and Achebe is careful to avoid depicting African society as totally foreign to Western sensibilities. For example, any number of critics have observed the parallels between Achebe’s story of Okonkwo and ancient Greece tragedy. Moses notes the “strikingly Homeric quality” of the book and compares Okonkwo to Homer’s Achilles (110). Okonkwo also sometimes resembles Oedipus, as when he is banished from Umuofia for the accidental killing of a fellow clansman, thus recalling Oedipus’s punishment for the inadvertent murder of his own father. In this vein, Rhonda Cobham argues that Achebe has chosen to present “those aspects of Igbo traditional society that best coincide with Western-Christian social values,” thereby establishing a worldview that is not limited to the precolonial past but that speaks to the postcolonial present as well (98). As Achebe himself has put it, a point that is “fundamental and essential to the appreciation of African issues by Americans” is that “Africans are people in the same way that Americans, Europeans, Asians, and others are people” (“Teaching” 21).

The crucial issue in this regard is, of course, the book’s characterization, and Achebe does an excellent job of presenting characters whose humanity Western readers can recognize, though it is also true, as Florence Stratton points out, that the complex characters of the book tend to be male, while the female characters are depicted in vague and superficial ways (29). Okonkwo’s wives have virtually no identities outside their domestic roles. For example, his first wife is not even identified by name in the book, but is simply referred to as “Nwoye’s mother.” His daughter Ezinma is probably the strongest female character, yet she is repeatedly presented as being so because she has a number of masculine characteristics. Moreover, she essentially disappears late in the narrative, having determined to pursue a conventional role as wife and mother.

The ultra-masculine Okonkwo, meanwhile, dominates the text, though it is also the case that Achebe’s clearly presents Okonkwo’s rejection of all thing that he regards as “feminine” as extreme and destructive. In the initial section of the book, we are introduced not only to a number of general aspects of life in Umuofia, but to the background and characteristics of Okonkwo, whose excessive quest for masculine strength is clearly motivated by his shame at the perceived feminine weakness of his father, Unoka, a talented musician whose irresponsibility and aversion to hard work had left him poor and in debt, eventually to die as an outcast. In contrast, Okonkwo has worked extremely hard to overcome this legacy, rising from his humble beginnings to a position of prominence in his village. This section also provides a number of details about Okonkwo’s family life. We learn, for example, that he has three wives and eight children. We also learn something of the texture of the everyday life in Okonkwo’s household, which consists of a compound that includes Okonkwo’s own private hut and separate huts for each wife and her children.

We are told that Okonkwo rules this household “with a heavy hand,” and the first part of Things Fall Apart presents not only fairly extensive descriptions of his sometimes harsh treatment of his wives and children, but also detailed background on the causes behind his rather authoritarian personality (13). Okonkwo’s major motivation (and the principal reason for his domineering behavior) is his determination to succeed where Unoka (whom he regards as cowardly and effeminate) failed. Okonkwo thus goes out of his way to behave in what he considers to be a staunchly masculine manner and to demonstrate his strength in every way possible. This strength, however, arises from a kind of weakness. “His whole life,” the narrator tells us, “was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and weakness. … It was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father” (13).

Much of the description of Igbo society in Achebe’s book focuses on the presentation of the crucial role played in that society by communal activities such as the Week of Peace and the Feast of the New Yam, making it clear that Okonkwo’s extreme individualism and self-reliance are something of an aberration in this society. And many of the book’s more dramatic scenes (such as the killing of Ikemefuna or Okonkwo’s exile from Umuofia after the accidental killing of the son of Ezeudu in the midst of the communal ritual of the latter’s funeral) are built around confrontations between the good of the community and what Westerners would regard as the “rights” of individuals. But this aspect of Achebe’s book is built into the text in more profound ways as well. For example, C. L. Innes notes that the narrative voice of the text is itself a sort of amalgam of traditional Igbo voices, in contrast to modern Western expectations that the narrator of a story will be a distinct individual (32).

The characterization of Okonkwo is a crucial part of the book’s central focus on the relationship between the individual and the community in Igbo society. Among other things, it is clear that Okonkwo can, to a certain extent, function as an allegorical stand-in for traditional Igbo society as a whole. Any number of critics have noted this aspect of the book, as when Walsh sees Okonkwo’s downfall as a marker of the destruction of traditional Igbo society “because of the way in which the fundamental predicament of the society is lived through his life” (52). JanMohamed, working from a perspective specifically influenced by Jameson’s work, follows Walsh in suggesting that Achebe makes “his heroes the embodiments of the fundamental structures and values of their cultures” (Manichean 161). On the other hand, the relationship between Okonkwo and his society is complex and problematic. It comes as no surprise, then, that the implications of the relationship between Okonkwo and his society have been the object of considerable critical disagreement. Eustace Palmer, for one, agrees that Okonkwo is “the personification of his society’s values.” Thus, “if he is plagued by a fear of failure and of weakness it is because his society puts such a premium on success” (Palmer 53). For Palmer, then, Okonkwo’s ultimate tragedy results from weaknesses that are the direct result of flaws in Igbo society itself. For other critics, Okonkwo’s fall results not from the characteristics of Igbo society, but from the destruction of this society by British colonialism. Killam thus agrees that Okonkwo consolidates “the values most admired by Ibo peoples,” but concludes that his fall occurs because colonialism disrupts these values and not from shortcomings in the values themselves (16).

Killam’s reading is clearly more consonant with the overall theme of Things Fall Apart than is Palmer’s. For one thing, Palmer (though himself an African) obviously reads the text from a purely Western, individualistic perspective. From this point of view, which privileges strong individuals who are willing to oppose conventional opinion, it is clearly a flaw for an individual to embody the mainstream values of his culture. On the other hand, Killam’s reading does not fully acknowledge the extent to which Okonkwo, through his excessive determination to be strong and “masculine,” already seems headed for trouble even before Umuofia is aware of the British presence. Several times he breaks fundamental rules of his society and then must be punished, culminating in his banishment from Umuofia at the end of the first part of the book, though it is also the case that his most common mistakes occur when he follows the rules of his society too literally and too strictly, as when he strikes the fatal blow in the slaying of Ikemefuna. Many critics thus argue that Okonkwo’s fall occurs not because he embodies the values of his society, but precisely because he deviates from his society’s norms of conduct. Biodun Jeyifo, for example, argues that Okonkwo is “doomed because of his rigid, superficial understanding—really misrecognition—of his culture” (Jeyifo 58). Similarly, Carroll believes that Okonkwo’s successes are largely achieved through an inflexible focus on his goals, a focus that eventually sets him at odds with a society “remarkable for its flexibility” (41). Finally, critics such as Ravenscroft and Ojinmah note that the Igbo society depicted by Achebe is characterized by a careful balancing of opposing values (particularly of masculine and feminine principles), while Okonkwo focuses strictly on the masculine side of this personality and thus fails to achieve this balance (Ravenscroft 13; Ojinmah 15–16).

Such gendered readings of Okonkwo’s characteristics are central to many critical discussions of Things Fall Apart. For example, much of JanMohamed’s discussion of Okonkwo’s typicality focuses on the way Okonkwo “becomes an emblem of the masculine values of Igbo culture.” But JanMohamed emphasizes that the culture itself balances masculine with feminine values. Thus, Okonkwo’s rejection of the feminine aspects of his culture makes him seem “rigid, harsh, and unfeeling in his pursuit of virility” (Manichean 164). Innes, meanwhile, grants that Okonkwo’s tendency to categorize various activities as either masculine or feminine is typical of traditional Igbo society, but again pointing out that Okonkwo has less respect for feminine values than does his society as a whole (25–26). Several feminist critics, however, have pointed out that the society itself, at least as depicted by Achebe, is heavily oriented toward a respect for masculinity. While some value is placed on feminine virtues and activities, the values labeled by the society as masculine are consistently valued more highly than those labeled as feminine. In addition, the power structure of Igbo society, while decentered and in many ways democratic, is entirely dominated by males. Okonkwo’s domination of his household thus becomes a sort of microcosm of the domination of the society as a whole by patriarchal figures.

It is certainly the case that the political leaders of Umuofia in Things Fall Apart are all male, though it is also true that women such as Chielo, the priestess of Agbala, sometimes occupy important ceremonial and social positions. Still, the male political leaders of Umuofia are often shown exercising power directly over women, just as Okonkwo exerts power over his wives. In one of the book’s key demonstrations of the workings of justice in Umuofia, the village elders meet to adjudicate a marital dispute in which the woman Mgbafo has fled the household of her husband, Uzowulu, because he has repeatedly beaten her (sometimes severely) for nine years. The legal proceedings are restricted to males, and no women (including Mgbafo) are allowed inside the hut where they occur. Indeed, we are told that no woman has ever participated in such proceedings and that women know better than even to ask questions about them (88). In the proceedings, Uzowulu presents his case, asking that Mgbafo be ordered to return to him. Then, Mgbafo’s brother argues that she should be allowed to remain with him and her other brothers apart from her abusive husband. The elders (some of whom seem to regard the case as too trivial to be worthy of their attention) order Uzowulu to offer a pot of wine to Mgbafo’s brothers in restitution. They then order the brothers to return Mgbafo to her husband. They even refuse even to cast blame on the abusive husband, though the latter occurs not so much because they regard him as blameless as because they see their role as one of restoring the peace rather than casting blame.

One might also argue that Achebe’s masculination of Igbo society represents an anticolonial gesture that reverses the colonialist tendency to feminize colonial societies and colonial subjects. Stratton acknowledges this possible interpretation, noting that the narratives of colonialist writers such as Cary, Conrad, H. Rider Haggard do indeed tend to feminize Africans in their fictional depictions of them. On the other hand, Stratton believes that Achebe may undermine colonialist racial stereotypes only at the expense of perpetuating gender stereotypes (37). One could, of course, argue that Achebe is simply being realistic in his depiction of Igbo power relations, but Stratton is probably correct that he could have done more to question these relations in terms of gender. After all, Achebe does an excellent job of deconstructing the hierarchical relationship between the races in colonial Africa, and Stratton is probably justified in suggesting that, while Achebe effectively dismantles “racial romances” such as Cary’s Mr. Johnson, he does little to prevent his book from becoming a sort of “gender romance” (36). Indeed, Achebe’s book sometimes suggests that one of the negative effects of colonialism was its disruption of the clear hierarchy of gender relations in Umuofia. For example, when the men of the village discuss the strange customs of some of their neighbors, Okonkwo mentions that some tribes are so peculiar that they consider children the property of their mothers rather than their fathers, as in any properly patriarchal society. His friend Machi responds that such a practice would be as inconceivable as a situation in which “the woman lies on top of the man when they are making the children.” Obierika then directly links this reversal of gender roles to the arrival of Europeans, who have lately been rumored to have been seen in the area. He suggests that such a sexual inversion would be “like the story of white men who, they say, are white like this piece of chalk” (74).[3]

It may also be significant in this regard that Okonkwo, when exiled from Umuofia in Part Two of Things Fall Apart, is sent to the home of his mother’s family as punishment. And it is precisely while he is in this locale, which for Okonkwo has clearly feminine resonances, that European culture makes its first significant intrusions into traditional Igbo life. Indeed, in Okonkwo’s absence, Umuofia becomes a stronghold of Christian missionary activity, as well as a focal point of British colonial control. In this part of the book, the inroads made by Christian missionaries into traditional Igbo society increasingly contribute to the breakdown in traditional values that Okonkwo has long defended and cherished. To make matters worse, one of the converts won by the missionaries in this section of the book is Okonkwo’s own son Nwoye, whom Okonkwo thus comes to regard as degenerate and effeminate—that is, as a throwback to his grandfather Unoka. Thus, in another potential reversal of colonialist stereotypes, European Christianity is linked to femininity, while traditional Igbo beliefs are figured as masculine.          

In one sense, this part of the book, in which Okonkwo must endure seven years of separation from his beloved Umuofia, ends on a high note. As Okonkwo prepares to return home, he hosts an elaborate feast to thank his kinsmen in Mbanta for their kindness during his years of exile there. This communal event presents traditional Igbo society at its best, but it is undermined by the reader’s recognition that this way of life is already being eroded by the incursions of Christianity and Western individualism. One of the elders of the clan thus ends the feast on a sad note, thanking Okonkwo for his hospitality, but gloomily acknowledging that the younger generations of Igbos are already losing their appreciation for the traditional bonds of kinship:

“You do not know what it is to speak with one voice. And what is the result? An abominable religion has settled among you. 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. I fear for you; I fear for the clan” (167).

The obvious accuracy of this somber prediction adds a tragic irony to Okonkwo’s attempts in the final part of the book to rebuild his life in Umuofia and to regain his status as a leader of the community there. For the traditional life of the community itself is already doomed, and in this part of the book the Christian missionaries are joined by soldiers and bureaucrats as British colonial rule begins to be firmly established in Nigeria. This process culminates in Okonkwo’s impulsive killing of a messenger sent by the British in order to break up a meeting of the leaders of Umuofia, who are trying to decide upon a response to the recent detention and abuse of several elders of the community, including Okonkwo himself, by the British District Commissioner. The Commissioner then arrives with soldiers to arrest Okonkwo, only to find that the latter (in a final, radical violation of Igbo tradition, which forbid suicide) has hanged himself. Okonkwo, in a final example of the breakdown of Igbo communal life as a result of British colonialism, dies alone—and in a manner so repugnant to his fellow villagers that they are not allowed by tradition to bury him. That task must fall to the British, as does the task of recording Okonkwo’s story. The Commissioner concludes that Okonkwo’s story should make interesting reading, and thus might be worthy of a chapter, or at least a paragraph in the book he himself is writing. This book, The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger, serves as an emblem of the Africanist discourse Achebe seeks to overcome with Things Fall Apart, which itself tells the story of Okonkwo in an alternative African voice.

Achebe’s novel stands as a direct refutation of Africanist discourse like the commissioner’s Pacification report and makes it clear that the coming of European colonialism to Africa brought not civilization, but chaos and destruction. The depiction of the British colonial administration in the third part of Things Fall Apart combines with the portrayal of the missionary Smith (far more strident and uncompromising than his predecessor Brown) to make Achebe’s book both a vivid evocation of traditional Igbo life and a sharp critique of the European colonialism that shattered this life. Ernest Emenyonu calls attention to the latter aspect of Achebe’s project when he argues that, “no matter how couched in proverbs, images and innuendoes, the intense virulence of Achebe’s indictment of colonial diplomatic tactlessness and absurd human high-handedness cannot be lost on the perceptive reader” (83–84). Again, however, this critical side of Achebe’s project is achieved through a variety of complex strategies and goes well beyond mere diatribes or simple description of the damage done by British colonialism to Igbo society. By situating itself in opposition to the depiction of relationships between Africa and Europe that appears in European texts such as Heart of Darkness or Mr. Johnson, Things Fall Apart opens a complex literary dialogue that challenges not only the content of such texts, but fundamental rationalist, individualist, and historicist assumptions upon which those texts are constructed.

Still, Achebe’s treatment of the impact of the twin forces of colonialism and Christianity on Igbo society is far from simplistic. Just as he points out certain negative aspects of traditional Igbo society (such as the killing of twins and the treatment of certain members of the community—the osu—as total outcasts), so too does he suggest potentially positive developments related to the cessation of these negative practices due to the coming of Christianity and European civilization. Ultimately, however, Things Fall Apart demonstrates that even the negative aspects of Igbo society were part of an organic whole and that the disruptions brought about by the removal of these aspects led to a collapse of the entire social structure. The book thus raises a number of profound questions not only about the nature and function of literature, but about the nature of human societies and human cultural practices and the extent to which different aspects of a given society are interwoven in complex and interdependent ways. In this sense, it not only looks back to the past but points toward the future, making an important contribution to the development of a viable postcolonial Nigerian cultural identity that moves beyond the legacy of the colonial past.


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Achebe, Chinua. “Teaching Things Fall Apart.” Approaches to Teaching Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart.”  Ed. Bernth Lindfors. New York: Modern Language Association, 1991. 20-24.

Amadiume, Ifi. Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in an African Society.  London: Zed, 1987.

Carroll, David. Chinua Achebe: Novelist, Poet, Critic. 2nd Ed. London: Macmillan, 1990.

Cobham, Rhonda. “Making Men and History: Achebe and the Politics of Revisionism.”  Approaches to Teaching Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart.” Ed. Bernth Lindfors. New York: Modern Language Association, 1991. 91-100.

Emenyonu, Ernest N. “Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart: A Classic Study in Diplomatic Tactlessness.” Chinua Achebe: A Celebration.  Ed. Kirsten Holst Petersen and Anna Rutherford. Oxford: Heinemann, 1990. 83-88.

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JanMohamed, Abdul. “Sophisticated Primitivism: The Syncretism of Oral and Literate Modes in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.”  Ariel 15.4 (1984): 19-39.

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Palmer, Eustace. An Introduction to the African Novel. New York: Africana, 1972.

Quayson, Ato. “Realism, Criticism, and the Disguises of Both: A Reading of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart with an Evaluation of the Criticism Relating to It.” Research in African Literatures 25.4 (1994): 117-36.

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Walsh, William. A Manifold Voice: Studies in Commonwealth Literature. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1970.


[1] Ato Quayson thus argues that much of the published criticism on Things Fall Apart is typical of criticism of African literature as a whole in that it treats the text as a transparent and direct representation of reality without paying sufficient attention to the book’s aesthetic dimensions, especially as those dimensions relate to African oral traditions.

[2] A similar motif occurs in Ferdinand Oyono’s Francophone African novel Houseboy, in which the Catholic missionary Father Vandermayer attempts to deliver his sermons in the Ndjem language, but with such poor pronunciation that virtually all of his words “had obscene meanings,” resulting in sermons “full of obscenities” (9, 35).

[3] It should be noted, though, that Achebe’s presentation of traditional Igbo society as entirely male-centered may not be entirely realistic.  See, for example, Ifi Amadiume for a discussion of the ways that society placed far more weight on feminine values than Achebe indicates.