Nigerian-born Chinua Achebe’s iconic novel Things Fall Apart (1958) seeks to provide depth and complexity to African culture and its native customs. Whereas many prior portrayals of African systems in literature focused primarily on the colonialized African culture from the view of the imperialist nation, i.e., Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Achebe writes from within the African society and not without. Achebe’s narrative focuses on the story of its protagonist Okonkwo, his son Nwoye, and his surrogate son Ikemefuna. Achebe focuses on humanizing these characters and restoring the dignity of African culture he feels was lost through the “burden imposed on us by the customary denigration of Africa in the popular imagination of the West” (qtd. in Rhoads, 1993, p. 62). In normalizing the African society for the modern American reader, Achebe portrays the native Igbos as having societal structures and values not so very different from our own: “democratic institutions, tolerance of other cultures, a balance of male and female principles … a viable system of morality … an effective system of justice, striking and memorable poetry,” etc. (Rhoads, 1993, p. 61).
At the same time, Achebe explores the dissonance between the traditional Igbo culture and the rising societal changes introduced by Western influence. He uses Okonkwo to symbolize the old ways of Igbo tradition and its resistance to change. Okonkwo’s death becomes a metaphor for the end of the old ways and the birth of a new social consciousness (made culturally relevant by the time period in which Achebe writes, i.e., 1958, when Nigeria was on the cusp of gaining independence from Britain). Through the characterization of Okonkwo and his strengths—physical ability and values of hard work and discipline—and flaws—use of physical violence and extreme repression of emotion—Achebe explores the theme of the dissonance between tradition and evolutionary cultural change.
Though it was written in 1958, the temporal setting of the narrative in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart occurs in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when British influence first began to spread into Nigeria before and during colonization. The temporal setting is important since it represents a critical juncture in Nigerian society, i.e., the first influence of western values and customs. These customs would bring technological and ideological advances to African society but would also threaten its core values and traditions, exemplified by Okonkwo. Early on in the text, Achebe portrays Okonkwo as emblematic of African societal mores. Achebe opens the novel by describing Okonkwo’s physical valor as a warrior, describing how, at eighteen, Okonkwo bested the acclaimed wrestler Amalinze the Cat, whose “back would never touch the earth” (Achebe, 1958, pg. 1). In the famed wrestling match, Achebe also describes tribal aspects of Nigerian culture: “The drums beat and the flutes sang and the spectators held their breath” (1958, p. 1), adding to the setting details of the communal village atmosphere. Okonkwo is a physically dominating alpha-male character: “He was tall and huge, and his bushy eyebrows and wide nose gave him a very severe look” (1958, p. 1). He epitomizes the physical dominance of Nigerian tribesmen, who rely on their masculine strength to serve as power in a hierarchal society with a defined class structure.
Achebe reveals Okonkwo’s core values through the moral disparity between himself and his late father Unoka, who was “lazy and improvident and was quite incapable of thinking about tomorrow” (Achebe, 1958, p. 1). By contrast, Okonkwo spends much of the narrative proving his principles of hard work and diligence in demonstrating his ethical departure from his late father’s lassitude, as shown from this quote from the text: “During the planting season Okonkwo worked daily on his farms from cock-crow until the chickens went to roost. He was a very strong man and rarely felt fatigue” (Achebe, 1958, p. 5). In striving to be different from Unoka, Okonkwo overcompensates with his own sons, Nwoye, and his surrogate son Ikemefuna, often treating them with severity and enforcing his moral values through harsh discipline and unrealistic expectations of their own masculine alpha-male status. When the twelve-year-old Nwoye fails to works hard enough in Okonkwo’s eyes, Okonkwo “sought to correct him by constant nagging and beating” (Achebe, 1958, p. 5). Growing up, Nwoye’s fractured relationship with his father is furthered by Okonkwo’s inability to show love or affection for fear of being viewed as weak amongst his peers, so he treats Ikemefuna like anyone else and metes out a “heavy hand” (Achebe, 1958, p. 10). Through his strengths and flaws, Okonkwo typifies the traditional masculine values of the Igbo.
One of the narrative’s true revelations about the dissonance between tradition, as exemplified by Okonkwo, and societal change occurs when Okonkwo slaughters his surrogate son Ikemefuna. Igbo tradition is shown through the tribal obedience toward the Oracle of the Hills and Caves, which proclaims that Ikemefuna must be killed. Even though Okonkwo is warned not to participate since the boy looks to him as a father, Okonkwo murders him in cold blood: “Okonkwo drew his machete and cut him down. He was afraid of being thought weak” (Achebe, 1958, p. 22). With this act, he earns the disapproval of Nwoye and Okonkwo’s peers. Already, with the arrival of European Christian missionaries, villagers had begun to envision a departure from traditional Igbo societal values. However, Okonkwo’s staunch commitment to the old ways leads to his tragic suicide at the end, a metaphor for the death of rigid Igbo custom.
After a long period of exile for the accidental killing of a villager during tribal peacetime, Okonkwo returns to find a vastly different culture. Instead of the hierarchal class structure based on physical might and aggression, he finds some villagers have renounced tradition and their tribal titles and converted to Christianity. Moreover, European law has invaded the Igbo culture, and whites have instituted European courts and judicial systems based on British decree. Seeing this, Okonkwo attempts to organize a rebellion, which ultimately fails, as those he counted on for support refuse to back him at the crucial moment. Okonkwo’s subsequent suicide symbolizes the reluctant acceptance of the western ways and the integration of the native structures with the modern.
Through the character of Okonkwo, and his relationships between his sons and his peers, Achebe reveals the dissonance between the traditional Igbo societal mores and the revolutionary technologies, laws, ideologies, and Christian religion introduced by modern British culture. As Okonkwo is unable to reconcile the new ways with the old, he perishes, and so do the structures of tribal life, passed down through generations of Nigerian custom. Okonkwo’s virtues and flaws are emblematic of those of the sometimes-brutal and alpha-male dominated society of which he is a part. The title of Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart, is quite apt since it reveals the inevitable collapse of native tradition in the face of imperialist colonization. In his novel, Achebe reveals the both the dignity and essential humanity of African culture while at the same time displaying its flaws, namely the non-acceptance of diversity and quest for uniformity of character, as shown by Okonkwo’s inability to comprehend or tolerate ethical differences or individual traits in his sons. Achebe hopes for a healthy and modern civilization, one in which all divisions of people—Africans and Europeans, men and women, fathers and sons—can coexist and together strive for a better future.
- Achebe, C. Things Fall Apart. 1958. Retrieved from http://l-adam-mekler.com/things-fall-
apart.pdf. Accessed 1 April 2017.
- Rhoads, D. (1993). Culture in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. African Studies Review,
36(2), 61-72. doi:10.2307/524733.