In ‘Things Fall Apart,’ Achebe offers an account of precolonial Africans that indisputably asserts their humanity and sophistication in the face of uncomplimentary portrayals from racist and prejudiced writers. ‘Things Fall Apart’ captures the effect of the modernizing and disruptive forces of British colonialism upon Africans.
‘Spoiler-Free’ Summary of Things Fall Apart
‘Things Fall Apart‘ follows the illustrious career of Okonkwo, a first-rank native of the community of Umuofia, who rises from nothing to become one of the most successful and prominent individuals in the community. Motivated by the fear of failure and of being seen as weak, Okonkwo navigates Umuofia’s society both as a prime embodiment of his community’s ethos and a cautionary tale of its possible excesses. He brings pride to his village through his excellent wrestling and valiance in war, but this aggressiveness is also directed at negative behaviors such as his abuse of his wives. A misfortune leads to Okonkwo’s banishment to the land of his mother, where he starts life afresh. But the years away from Umuofia caused him to miss vital changes in the lives of his people back home. He comes back home to meet a vastly changed Umuofia; one with a power structure and religious system competing with his values. Facing the loss of power and prestige within this new system, Okonkwo tries and fails to rouse his people to violent resistance.
Things Fall Apart Plot Summary
Spoiler alert: important details of the novel are revealed below.
‘Things Fall Apart’ follows the story of Okonkwo, one of the most influential individuals within Umuofia in the times just before the British made their way into the community. Okonkwo first gained popularity in the village after defeating the erstwhile village champion wrestler, Amalinze the Cat, in a major wrestling contest at the village square two decades back. Now about 40 years old, Okonkwo, who started from nothing within the community, now boasts of a large compound, a huge stack of yams, four wives and the respect of the villagers for his courage, strength, and prowess in war. Okonkwo is motivated by a deep fear of failure, owing to the shame he felt at his father’s poverty and cowardice. Okonkwo’s obsession with not being seen as weak leads him to eschew any expression of emotion that is not annoyance and anger. This turns him into a cruel and insensitive person.
Okonkwo’s status as a leader in his community leads him to come to take care of Ikemefuna, a young boy given over to Umuofia by the neighboring village of Mbaino. Ikemefuna is gifted to the community as a peace offering in a bid to avoid war after someone in Mbaino killed a daughter of Umuofia. Okonkwo soon grows to like Ikemefuna, seeing in him a lot of masculine qualities he desires in his son, Nwoye, but which are absent. As the plot progresses, we see evidence of Okonkwo’s brutality and lack of control. He violates the sanctity of the community’s week of peace when he beats his youngest wife, Ojiugo, and then nearly kills his second wife Ekwefi, after shooting at her with his gun.
Over time, Ezeudu, the oldest man in the village, informs Okonkwo that the Oracle of Agbala had decreed that Ikemefuna was to be killed. He also warns Okonkwo against partaking in the murder because of how fond Ikemefuna was of Okonkwo. Although saddened by the news, Okonkwo partakes in the murder anyway because he was afraid of being thought of as weak if he abstains. Ikemefuna’s death greatly affects Okonkwo and leads him into a bout of depression which he was only able to shake off after discussing the matter with Obiereka, his best friend. Although Obiereka disapproves of Okonkwo’s role in the murder, Okonkwo’s defence that he was only carrying out the wishes of the Oracle and showing strength in a difficult situation reenergizes him and helps him overcome his guilt.
After this incident, a public trial is held in the village commons to decide several cases. The judges are nine individuals selected from the nine villages of Umuofia. They wear masks, embodying their status as the Egwugwu, or spirits of their ancestors. The first case concerns an issue of domestic violence. The brothers of a woman, Mgbafo, had assaulted her husband and taken her away from his house after he beat her. This husband has now come to demand a refund of the bride price he paid to marry her. After hearing from both sides, the Egwugwu decide that the husband should go with palm wine to his in-laws to ask for his wife’s return while also admonishing him to stop beating her.
Soon after, in her role as Priestess of Agbala, Chielo arrives at Okonkwo’s compound in the dead of the night to demand Ezinma. Okonkwo and Ekwefi, Ezinma’s mother, reluctantly allow Chielo to go with Ezinma. However, Ekwefi secretly follows Chielo as she takes Ezinma around the nine villages and then back to her Cave. Unable to enter the cave, Ekwefi waits outside in fear and anxiety, only to discover that Okonkwo was also waiting with her in the dark. At length, Chielo returns Ezinma to Ekwefi’s hut. The first part of the novel climaxes with the burial ceremony of the village’s oldest man, Ezeudu. Ezeudu’s burial was a dramatic affair, owing to his exalted status in the community as a warrior and as one of the only few men who took the highest titles of the land. However, in the excitement of the moment, Okonkwo’s gun accidentally goes off, killing Ezeudu’s sixteen-year-old son. Even though it was accidental, the killing of a clan member is a crime, so Okonkwo and his family had to be exiled from Umuofia for seven years. That night he collected his properties and, together with his family, fled to his mother’s kinsmen in the village of Mbanta. The next morning some of the villagers arrived at Okonkwo’s now deserted compound and razed it to the ground.
The second part of the book covers the period of Okonkwo’s exile in Mbanta. He is warmly welcomed by his maternal uncle, Uchendu, who gives him a plot of land to build a compound for his family. However, Okonkwo becomes depressed. He despairs and blames his god for his misfortunes. During his second year in exile, he is visited by his friend, Obierika. Obierika comes with disturbing news about the White man’s destructive presence within the area. He informs Okonkwo and his kinsmen of the sacking of the nearby village of Abame by British forces after the villagers had killed a White man who had strayed into their community. Okonkwo and Uchendu agree that the people of Abame were foolish to kill someone they knew nothing about.
With time, the missionaries arrive at Mbanta to speak to the villagers about Christianity. Although many villagers, including Okonkwo, show no interest in this new religion, Nwoye appears to be captivated. The villagers were not thrilled by the presence of the missionaries and so gifted them land in the Evil Forest, an area the villagers believed was full of evil spirits of the land, to build their church. They hoped that the spirits would kill off the Christians. When this did not happen, the villagers concluded that the missionaries were protected by powerful magic. This perception of power, together with the appeal of the missionary’s messages, wins them converts among the villagers. When the missionaries establish a school in Umuofia, Nwoye leaves his father’s hut so he can attend it. At long last, the seven years exile period elapses, and Okonkwo is now free to return to Umuofia. He organizes a large feast on the eve of his departure to thank his mother’s kinsmen for hosting him.
Okonkwo returns to Umuofia to find it greatly changed from how it was when he left it. The missionaries had not only managed to convert supposedly worthless members of the society but also men who commanded respect in the village. The White men also came with a new system of government and judicial system. They had a court of law and built a prison where they judged villagers who broke the law. Okonkwo was surprised that the people of Umuofia had not violently resisted and driven them away.
The leader of the missionaries, Mr Brown, is a charismatic and conciliatory figure who attempts to win hearts and minds in Umuofia by genuinely trying to understand their customs and religions and then engaging them from a place of respect and understanding. His non-belligerent nature helps win converts and tempers the anger of more hard-line villagers. However, when he falls ill and is replaced by the non-compromising Reverend James Smith, relations between the Church and the community of Umuofia worsen. Reverend James has no respect or patience for native customs, and under him, the growing Christian community becomes more emboldened and confrontational. When an overzealous convert, Enoch, commits the sacrilege of unmasking an Egwugwu, members of the community retaliate by burning down and destroying Enoch’s compound and the church. This leads the head of colonial authority within the area, the District Commissioner, to imprison six leaders of the village, Okonkwo among them. The prisoners were held under humiliating conditions until the villagers paid a fine of two hundred and fifty bags of cowries.
After his release, Okonkwo joins a meeting of the clansmen, where they discuss ways to respond to the humiliation. While the villagers debate on whether or not to go to war, a couple of court messengers arrive with intentions to stop the meeting. Feeling further insulted, Okonkwo angrily beheads the chief messenger with his machete. Instead of inspiring further violence from his clansmen, Okonkwo’s actions only lead to shock and fear. Okonkwo is convinced that Umuofia would not go to war as they had allowed the other court messengers to escape. Bitterly disappointed, he commits suicide by hanging himself on a tree. Not long after when the District Commissioner arrives with a small force to arrest Okonkwo, the people of Umuofia pled with him to assist them in bringing down Okonkwo’s body as it was taboo to touch the body of a member of the community who had committed suicide. Intrigued by the entire event, the District Commissioner notes that Okonkwo’s story would be worthy of a single paragraph in a book he was working on about the conquest of the tribes of the lower Niger.
Where did the events of ‘Things Fall Apart’ take place?
‘Things Fall Apart’ is set in the fictional African village of Umuofia. It is set before and after the arrival of British missionaries and colonialists in the area that will come to be known as Eastern Nigeria. Umuofia consists of seven villages and has a reputation for military prowess within the vicinity.
How Important is ‘Things Fall Apart?’
‘Things Fall Apart’ is perhaps the most important work in African literature. Its themes paved the way for other African writers to start challenging problematic representations of Africa through fiction. Its original style inspired writers to start incorporating more indigenous forms and styles in their works.
Is the sack of Abame in ‘Things Fall Apart‘ based on a real event?
Chinua Achebe took inspiration in writing about the sack of Abame in ‘Things Fall Apart’ from the actual historical sack of the community of Ahiara in Eastern Nigeria by colonial forces on the 7th of December 1905. Amid anti-British sentiments around the area, Dr Rogers Stewart, a doctor drafted in to help combat malaria in the area, was murdered and decapitated after wandering into Ahiara, prompting a brutal reprisal attack from the British colonial forces which wiped out multiple villages in the area.
Does ‘Things Fall Apart’ have a sequel?
‘No Longer at Ease’ is the sequel to ‘Things Fall Apart.’ Published in 1960, this work continues the story from the perspective of Okonkwo’s grandson, Obi Okonkwo, and is set in the metropolis of Lagos.