Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

The novel Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe is a novel that details the experiences of Okonkwo of Umuofia, an area in southeastern Nigeria that consists of a group of nine villages.  The customs and traditions of the Igbo people are devastated by the arrival of British missionaries in the mid-1800s.  The novel was written in the 1950s during Nigeria’s struggle for independence from Britain and incorporates many elements that parallel the historical situation of the time.  The novel focuses on what occurs to Okonkwo and his family when his way of life is threatened.  He is the son of a whimsical flute-playing father, Unoka who died dishonorably and left a large amount of debt to his family.  In response to his father’s shame, Okonkwo is determined to distance himself as much as possible from his heritage.  He becomes a clansman, a father, a husband, and a skilled farmer of yams.  Okonkwo has three wives:  Ekwefi, his second wife and mother to Ezinma is his most favorite.  His son, Nwoye lacks the strength and conviction that Okonkwo possesses and Okonkwo fears Nwoye will become like his father, Unoka.

There is a dispute with a neighboring village and results in the death of the wife of a man from Umuofia.  As a settlement, Umuofia receives a virgin and a young man. This man is named Ikemefuna and he comes to live with Okonkwo and his family. Okonkwo favors Ikemefuna over his own son Nweye, but shows no affection for him, even though Ikemefuna calls him “father”. Ikemefuna lives with Okonkwo’s family for three years. Nweye bonds with him and takes on more masculine traits, for which Okonkwo is very grateful.

Okonkwo begins to lose integrity in Umuofia due to a series of events.  First, during the Week of Peace, Okonkwo believes his third wife, Ojiugo, has been unfaithful and despite its forbiddance, he beats her severely. This action goes directly against the religious beliefs of the village as it is unheard of to beat someone during the Week of Peace. Although he repents, the shock he brings to the community is very damaging because his actions could potentially affect all the fates of all of the village inhabitants. Later, when the Oracle states that Ikemefuna must die, one of the village elders, Ogbuefi Ezeudu, tells Okonkwo that he is not to have a hand in it because the boy calls him “father”. Sadly, however Okonkwo disregards the warning of the Oracle and kills Ikemefuna by his own hand in order to not appear weak amongst the village elders.

Okonkwo becomes very depressed and at that same time, his favorite daughter becomes ill. She is finally cured by the high priestess,who has a relationship with the Oracle, but this episode strikes fear in the heart of Okonkwo.  A short time later, the ewke(a musical instrument) indicate that Ogbuefi Ezeudu has died.  As his funeral, Okonkwo commits another unforgiveable crime when he accidentally shoots and kills Ogbuefi Ezendu’s son with anunreliable gun.

Due to this grave error, Okonkwo must leave the village for seven years as mandated by the earth goddess.  He takes his family to Mbanta, the village of his mother.  His home, animals and the belongings that he left behind in Umuofia are burned to cleanse the village of Okonkwo’s sin.  While Okonkwo is in Mbanta, he receives visits from Obierika, who sells Okonkwo’s yams, brings him currency and tells him of the news of Umuofia and other villages.

One day, white Christian colonists arrive to Mbanta with Mr. Brown as their leader. They inform the villagers that they are worshiping the mistakengods and try to convert the villagers to Christianity.  Mr. Brown does not allow the antagonizing of the Igbo peopleby the Christian missionaries; however, once he dies and is replaced by Reverend James Smith, the treatment of the villagers becomes more antagonizing because the Reverend allows more freedom to the converts.  During the annual ceremony to honor the earth goddess, one of the men, Enoch,unmasks one of the egwugwu, which is as grave an offense as killing an ancestral spirit.  In retaliation, Enoch and Reverend Smith’s homes are burned by the villagers.

The leaders of Umuofia are jailed by the District Commissioner due to the burning of the church and they suffer greatly.  When they are finally released, the clansmen hold a meeting at which five court messengers appear.  When they tell the clansmen to stop their meeting, Okonkwo kills their leader with his machete, thinking that he is starting an uprising.  No one else contributes to Okonkwo’s violence and he realizeshe is alone in wanting to go to war.

The last scene of the book describes the finding of Okonkwo’s body hanging from a tree. Obierika explains to the District Commissioner that according to their tradition, Okonkwo’s body must not be touched by the clansmen due to the grave sin that he has committed with his suicide. In keeping with the tradition, the District Commissioner also does not touch the body, but rather orders it to be cut down.  He cannot do it himself lest the “natives [have] a poor opinion of him” (pg. 147).The Commissioner makes a note to himself that this event will make for an interesting paragraph in his book about Africa. The title of the book will be: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.

The novel presents the Igbo society and the village of Umuofia with a layered metaphor of colonialism.  Even though the book speaks to a profound time in Nigeria’s history, it is not only a representative of a political commentary.  The novel overlaps cultural traditions with universal concepts that are understandable to a wide variety of readers, such as the themes of family honor, respect for traditions and hard work.A central theme in the novel is the notion of displacement.  Okonkwo is a strong man who is trying to maintain the integrity of his culture in the face of even impending colonial rule.  He believes that by clinging to his morals and values in his society, it will be possible to prove he is the antithesis of his father.  Even though he is powerful, his traditions are ultimately undermined due to colonial order.  At the end of the book, the author reminds us that in the eyes of the District Commissioner, the life of Okonkwo is not even worthy of a chapter is his racist text.

Displacement occurs in a number of ways throughout the novel.  Okonkwo is displaced in his own village because his father is a disgrace.  In turn, his son is displaced by Okonkwo due to the fact that he does not display the masculine qualities that Okonkwo prefers.  Okonkwo’s adopted son is displaced from his own family to come live in Umuofia, and is again displaced when he is killed.  Okonkwo’s favorite daughter is displaced twice; first when it is believed that she is an ogbanje and then when Okonkwo repeatedlymentions that he wishes she were a man.  Okonkwo displaces himself in his attempts to appear strong in front of the elders when he beats his wife, and then killsIkemefuna, the son of a clansman and the convert.  Okonkwo is displaced by the white missionaries’ lack of regard for the morals and values that he has fought so hard to preserve.  Lastly, he is displaced by his own people when they do not stand up to the white men with him.  His final act is that of displacement due to the fact that taking one’s own life is a sin in his culture. This dishonorable death displaces his family because they no longer have the ability to burry Okonkwo or grieve for him in an honorable way.

The death of Okonkwo is more dishonorable than his father’s. So in a sense, his zealousness for order, tradition, strength and distance from his father leads to his downfall, and this can be interpreted as a metaphor for colonization.  Okonkwo wants to maintain his village’s tradition and not integrate into the colonial society.  He also desires to separate from his family’s shameful legacy by enthusiastically embracing the cultural traditions of the Igbo people and excelling in all facets of that lifestyle. After the colonization, one could ask the question: Does Okonkwo embrace the old traditions because he fears the new ones?  Or does he do it out of pure stubbornness and the desire to be unlike his father?  Is this new society one to which his father would have taken a liking?  How would his father have reacted to the newcomers? Perhaps Okonkwo’s rigidity can be attributed to both aspects – his own personality and his fear of being like his father.

The novel is complemented by the descriptions of music that the author gives his audience.  Music is everywhere in the novel as it especially denotes distinct situations, circumstances and rituals.  The importance of music in the Igbo culture can be evidenced in stories told in song to children by their mothers and drums that beat to carry news from village to village. Incorporating musical elements throughout the novel gives it a sense of depth that makes it possible for the reader to entertain the illusion that he or she understands what it would be like to live in that society. Ikemefuna uses music to calm himself when he is going to die and Okonkwo uses it to show his strength. This instruments that are referenced in the novel are in many cases symbols of the people who use them.  This layer of the novel is crucial in illustrating highly complex and ancient tradition of the Igbo people that was destroyed by the British colonization.

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