Book Review: Things Fall Apart (1958) By Chinua Achebe
Things Fall Apart is a classic story about the African experience, both before and during colonialism in the village of Umuofia and its surrounding villages. For the greater part of the novel, the story is set in Umuofia, which, at one point, Achebe describes thus: “Umuofia was like a startled animal with ears erect, sniffing the silent, ominous air and not knowing which way to run.”
The story is divided into three parts centered around the protagonist Okonkwo – a brave warrior popularly called the “Roaring Flame”. It also alludes that he has a fiery temper.
In the first part of the book, the story revolves around Okonkwo’s life with his kinsmen in his fatherland, Umuofia. We see the importance of kinship, rituals, superstition, and the organic relationship between man and the harvest season. The Igbo clan to which Okonkwo belongs are in sync with their surroundings; and this oneness with nature is reflected in the language of the people: “Where are the young suckers that will grow when the old banana tree dies?”
Okonkwo is a self-made made who has not had the same advantages as his peers: “Okonkwo did not have the start in life which many young men had. And indeed he was possessed by the fear of his father’s contemptible life and shameful death.” The dread of fear and failure follows him throughout his life. Achebe skillfully shows us that while a man can be accomplished in so many ways and outwardly brave, his “inflexible will” can exact a very high cost. This character flaw in Okonkwo is something he is not willing to acknowledge but blames on his personal god or “chi.” The book is a study about human psychology as much as it is about the introduction of colonialism and adaptability.
In the second part of the story, Okonkwo is banished from his fatherland and seeks refuge in his motherland, Mbanta. “He had been cast out of his clan like a fish onto a dry, sand beach, panting.” Rather than seeing his own actions that lead to the manslaughter he is banished for, he blames it on other factors: “Clearly his personal god or chi was not made for great things.” It is during the years of exile that Okonkwo re-establishes his home and family in his motherland, Mbanta. The significance of women as symbols to uphold is not lost on the reader. Achebe’s writing reveals the variety of roles women have in tribal life; from wives and mothers to high priestesses and medicine women.
Beautiful proverbs dot the pages with significance to kinship and women, like, “An animal rubs its aching flank against a tree, a man asks his kinsman to scratch him.”
When Okonkwo returns to his fatherland, he realises that much has changed. The biggest change is brought by the missionaries and the new religion which teaches them not to worship “false gods, gods of wood and stone.” The book’s title is mentioned in a phrase from this part: “He has put the knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”
In the story’s third part, we see the impact of colonialism in different ways. By doing this, Achebe is avoiding what the contemporary Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie coins, “the danger of a single story.” Achebe’s straightforward writing shows the multiple effects it had on village life. Outcasts or “osu” found more dignity in the new religion because it taught them they were equal. It slowly brought in trade and gave people the opportunity to make money with their crops. So there is no danger of a single story in this novel.
Perhaps the main lesson to take away is that change, good or bad, is a lesson in adaptability. When disruption took place in some form, be it expectations from one’s child, wife or system, Okonkwo showed more inflexibility than resilience. Perhaps things could have worked out differently if he had the thinking of his friend Obierika, “a man who thought about things.” The beauty of this book is that Achebe’s writing is not filled with anger as it is filled with a tinge of bitterness and wisdom.
I highly recommend this read for anyone interested in history, African literature, Nigerian literature, colonialism and anthropology. The book has been a compulsory read for students in high school and O’Levels.