‘Things Fall Apart’ is, in some respects, a reactionary novel written as a political statement to counter certain unfair narratives about Africa popular in Western fiction. In this sense, it is a work very much defined by its historical context, namely the anti-colonialist sentiment rife around the time Achebe was coming of age and the racist nature of the colonialist literature he read while studying at the university.
Chinua Achebe wrote ‘Things Fall Apart’ as a response to skewed portrayals of Africa by European writers. The Nigeria Achebe grew up in was under the throes of a British colonial process that had begun decades before his birth. While growing up, Achebe was exposed to literature by Europeans that attempted to describe Africa and its people, often in a subordinate role within encounters with European adventurers, missionaries, or administrators, whichever the case may be. Two such works, Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness (1902), and Joyce Cary’s ‘Mister Johnson’ (1939), were especially influential in motivating Achebe to write ‘Things Fall Apart.’ Both works represented Africans as brutish, one-dimensional horror figures without any measure of sophistication.
Being initially exposed to exclusively Western literature, Achebe first began identifying with the West, and he saw himself in the civilized, gentlemanly, and adventurous western characters encountering untamed African savages in their supposedly dangerous adventures down the heart of Africa. However, his evolving consciousness allowed him to properly see these representations as they were, as well as better understand his true place within these interactions. The Africa he read in these works ceased to be an enigma or a wild fantastic place, but rather a place as real as his home, as real as the stories and folklores passed down to him. The Africa he knew about was far from what these biased, prejudicial, and agenda-driven Western writers were portraying. There was a passage in ‘The Heart of Darkness‘ featuring a scene where some European adventurers were sailing on a boat down the river Congo, while the native Africans stood by the riverbanks watching them. Referencing his feelings about this passage within the context of his increasing consciousness of biased African portrayal, Achebe noted: “But a time came when I reached the appropriate age and realized that these writers had pulled a fast one on me! I was not on Marlowe’s boat steaming up the Congo in ‘Heart of Darkness‘; rather, I was one of those unattractive beings jumping up and down on the riverbank, making horrid faces… The day I figured this out was when I said no; when I realized that stories are not always innocent; that they can be used to put you in the wrong crowd, in the party of the man who has come to dispossess you.”
Thereafter he was inspired to correct this jaundiced portrayal of Africa and Africans by showing the world the perspective of these Africans- a perspective that makes them far more human and respected.
Achebe began work on ‘Things Fall Apart’ in 1954 during his time as a scriptwriter in the Talks Department at the Nigerian Broadcasting Service. When he traveled to London as an attendee of the British Broadcasting Corporation staff training school in 1956, he took advantage of the opportunity to solicit expert feedback on his now-developed manuscript for the work. This manuscript contained not just the ‘Things Fall Apart’ story as we know it but also a continuation that covered the lives of Okonkwo’s son and grandson.
However, when Achebe returned to Nigeria, he revised and finetuned the novel, cutting out a second and third section from the original manuscript, and deciding that the first part of the book was a complete story deserving of being a standalone novel. Feeling the work complete, Achebe sent the manuscript to a London typing service in 1957 for it to be typed. However, his manuscript was promptly abandoned at a corner of the office, and it took the intervention of Achebe’s boss at the NBS, Angela Beattie, for him to receive a typed copy of his manuscript after months of solicitation.
After some initial rejections, Achebe’s manuscript was finally accepted for publication by Heinemann after a recommendation from an educational adviser, Donald MacRae. ‘Things Fall Apart’ was then published on 17 June 1958 to eventual widespread acclaim. It has since gone on to sell over 20 million copies, becoming a fundamental text in schools around the world. To date it is the best-selling African novel, as well as the most critically acclaimed.
Legacy and Influence
The work’s revolutionary influence on post-colonial African literature has led many to refer to Achebe as the father of African literature. This reputation rests on Achebe’s influence in determining the path that subsequent African novels would follow. Achebe’s work would inspire other African writers like Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Chukwuemeka Ike, and Flora Nwapa, who followed Achebe’s lead in setting their novels at the nexus between old traditional values and western values, exploring the theme of conflict and change. Achebe influenced not only the themes of these novels but also the styles.
His pioneering use of African English, which draws heavily from traditional African proverbs, folk tales, and idioms began to see widespread adoption in the works of African writers. Achebe’s influence was also strong among older writers like Onuora Nzekwu whose formal and anglicized prose gave way to the African vernacular style in his third novel, ‘Highlife for the lizards,’ published in 1965. Another prominent novelist, T.M Aluko also adopted an African English style after reading Achebe.
Where was ‘Things Fall Apart’ set in?
‘Things Fall Apart’ was set in pre-colonial and colonial eastern Nigeria, capturing the twilight of independent African rule and the undisturbed flourishing of their culture, as well as the impact of Western missionaries and imperialists on this culture.
Who influenced Achebe’s writing?
Achebe was motivated to write after reading the work of Joyce Cary, but his style and form takes a radical departure from Western literary tradition, instead drawing more from African oral tradition.
How successful is ‘Things Fall Apart?’
‘Things Fall Apart’ is the best-selling African novel, having sold over 20 million copies to date.
How has ‘Things Fall Apart’ impacted African literature
‘Things Fall Apart’ encouraged the subsequent publication of books that reexamined the interaction between colonialist powers and traditional African societies. It motivated the stylistic use of peculiar African literary forms and infusions.