Things Fall Apart Themes and Analysis 📖

Chinua Achebe sought to rediscover pride and dignity among Africans by rehabilitating their image damaged by the humiliating effect of racist portrayals. In ‘Things Fall Apart’ he does this with grace and clarity.

Things Fall Apart

Chinua Achebe

In ‘Things Fall Apart,’ Achebe details Western colonialists’ impact on African societies. This impact is outlined in a very simple manner, but within this simplicity, there is a rich and inventive use of language. The plot might move irregularly for large sections of the book, but this pacing represents a deliberate attempt to conform to an essentially African literary tradition and style. ‘Things Fall Apart‘ contains themes that reflect the richness and sophistication of African cultures as well as the debilitating impact of outsiders on this culture.

Themes in Things Fall Apart

The Humanity of African Societies

Achebe was motivated to write ‘Things Fall Apart’ because he wanted to re-tell the story of the Africans who European imperialists and their enablers in the arts had depicted in unfair one-dimensional representations. Achebe creates a fairly sophisticated and self-sufficient society with organized institutions. His aim was not to create a perfect society, but one more true to the facts of the situation. In Umuofia, we see disputes settled between members fairly, as seen in the case between Mgbafo’s brothers and husband before the Egwugwu. The temperaments of people in the community are not uniformly animalistic or primitive as depicted in the works of Joseph Conrad. Rather, there is a wide range of personality types, ranging from the extremely chauvinistic and aggressive Okonkwo to the sentimental and gentle Unoka and Nwoye. In between them, we have the likes of Obiereka and Ogbuefi Ezeudo, who do not lose their sense of sentiment and passion while subscribing to the patriarchal tenets of their society. Within individuals, there is much complexity, as Okonkwo himself isn’t innately evil but rather forced into that way as a result of childhood trauma and pressure to meet the expectations of society. This complexity of the African individual and society marks them out as ordinary, rather than exciting or exotic.

Clash of Cultures

‘Things Fall Apart’ chronicles the great tragedy of the displacement of traditional African societies by encroaching Westerners with imperialist ambitions. The community of Umuofia had ruled itself and observed its customs, and preserved its institutions for years. The worldview every community member learned from birth, all systems and institutions they came to accept without question, were suddenly threatened by the arrival of the white man with his religion and political system. The British came with a fundamentally different value system, power structure, and religion. Disputes were no longer solved the old way, under the overarching goal of maintaining communal cohesion over everything else. The people of Umuofia, who had lived without rulers, now have to deal with colonialists exerting uncommon power and authority over them. With the coming of the Whiteman with his process and sense of justice that took no cognizance of the customs of the people, the people of Umuofia essentially faced the erosion of their traditions and values.

Patriarchy

Umuofia’s society is highly patriarchal, and Okonkwo’s behaviors and motivations are, in part, informed by his society’s gender roles and expectations. Okonkwo measures his success according to the fulfillment of his society’s ideal of masculinity. He strove to be a valiant wrestler and a hard physical laborer on his farm because these activities represent peak male performance and demonstration of physical strength. Okonkwo’s desire for an unquestionably dominant status in his family often motivates his physical violence when he perceives some challenge to his authority from his wives. The patriarchal ordering and gender expectations in the community extend into farming, with Okonkwo focusing on cultivating the supposedly manly yam while leaving other less important crops like cocoyam to his wives to cultivate. Women also have some importance in society. For example, the goddess Ani is one of the most powerful and important deities within the Umuofia religious system. She has a huge influence in day-to-day life as the goddess of fertility and has an entire week devoted to honoring her, within which feminine attributes like peace and tolerance are encouraged. 

Class Struggle

‘Things Fall Apart’ sees the construction of Igbo society in a pristine and undisturbed form, including its class system. As is typical of the Igbos, the Umuofians valued and respected wealth, placing the wealthy firmly at the top of the social hierarchy even though theirs was essentially a democratic system without clear rulers. 

Titles, number of wives, number of yams, and size of one’s compound, as well as the number of huts inside, are some of the physical and symbolic evidence of wealth, and the absence of all these was clear evidence of an individual’s failure in life. The less fortunate are not exactly marginalized or excluded, they are still carried along, and we see evidence of this when public opinion swung against Okonkwo when he tried to shut a fellow villager up in a meeting by implying this individual’s opinions weren’t needed as he has not taken any title. Nevertheless, the people of Umuofia valued wealth and thought of the wealthy as better than the poor. Okonkwo’s father, Unoka, was derided in the village for his poverty, and the existence of the insult of ‘Agbaya’ and the popularity of its usage suggests the presence of societal consequences of poverty in this society. 

Wealth is also not the only marker of status. Within Umuofia’s religious system, there are two classes of people; the freeborn and the Osu. The Osu are descendants of people who have been dedicated to the lifetime service to the gods of the land. This permanently separates them in many ways from the freeborn, and they are thus seen as an inferior stock. With the coming of the Christian missionaries and British overlordship, these marginalized groups were accepted by the church and consequently gained a gradual ascendancy in society, upturning Umuofia’s normal hierarchy.

Within the inclusive tenet of Christianity, the Osu were judged to be equal to all other humans in Christ.  The “poor” and otherwise “worthless” gained a new sense of purpose and importance. The church’s propagation of supposedly “feminine” qualities like love, tolerance, and acceptance stands at variance with traditional patriarchal Umuofia values. Meanwhile, the stock of those who hold uncompromisingly to traditional Umuofia values continues to fall. Powerful villagers, including Okonkwo, were captured and humiliated by the British when they tried to challenge the growing boldness and authority of those elements of the community who had joined the church. The failure of the Umuofians to stamp authority on this group of people who would have been powerless before them before the arrival of the missionaries and colonialists signified a demolishment of traditional Umuofia systems and a transfer of power away from the usual power brokers. Those who still further resist this new state of affairs meet an ignominious end, like Okonkwo, who was forced into suicide. So, throughout the novel, we see the colonialists function as both oppressors and liberators of certain groups within Umuofia’s society. 

Analysis of Key events in Things Fall Apart

  1. Okonkwo throws Amalinze the Cat and establishes himself as a man of talent and strength.
  2. Okonkwo comes to care for Ikemefuna, the gesture marking his status as one of the leading men of the community.
  3. Okonkwo participates in the killing of Ikemefuna, demonstrating his fear of being seen as weak.
  4. Okonkwo is banished from Umuofia after accidentally killing the son of Ezeudo.
  5. Obierika visits Okonkwo in exile and informs him about the arrival of the White men.
  6. Nwoye leaves his father’s hut to join the Christians in Umuofia.
  7. Okonkwo returns from exile with his family to meet a much-changed Umuofia.
  8. Men of Umuofia destroy the church building in retaliation after Enoch commits a sacrilege.
  9. The District Commissioner arrests Okonkwo and other leaders of the clan as punishment for destroying the church and forces the community to pay a fine for their release.
  10. Okonkwo beheads the chief messenger and commits suicide afterward


Style, Tone, and Figurative Language of Things Fall Apart

‘Things Fall Apart’ is divided into three parts, with the first part being much longer and slower-paced than the remaining two parts. The first part employs a circumlocutory narrative technique that shifts between the present and the past. This represents the Igbo rhetorical technique of initially skirting around a subject before directly addressing it.

The progression of the plot is often halted to regale us with bits of Okonkwo’s backstory and information on Umuofia culture. This arrangement lacks the narrative linearity that is typical of classical European fiction.  The structure helps in portraying African culture as comparatively developed, sophisticated, and self-sufficient. The considerable treatment of crops, the festivals attached to them, marriage and funeral ceremonies as well as the convening of the Egwugwu judicial process are not necessarily central to the immediate plot but exist to paint a rich cultural texture around the story.  All these gradually build up a picture of the culture in which Okonkwo inhabits as well as illuminate Okonkwo’s character.

By the second part of the novel, when the White missionaries and colonizers had arrived in the picture, the novel picks up the pace and continues with the plot almost without interruptions.

Things Fall Apart’ is written in a very accessible manner. The sentences are simple enough, and the words are uncomplicated, save for a couple of Igbo words that warrant translations. Achebe’s writing is very effective. The sprinkling of Igbo proverbs all around the work helps to enrich the narrative and dialogues as well as accord them a measure of authenticity. Although written in English, Achebe maintains a strong local cultural flavor in the language. When we read the dialogues or follow the narrative, the English language used does not interfere with the authenticity of the dialogues and narrative because Achebe’s writing transmits as accurately as possible the original Igbo contexts. 

Achebe can induce great emotions through seemingly innocuous actions. For example, before Ikemefuna was killed, as he walked in front of the Umuofians who had been tasked with this job, Achebe chose this time to write about Ikemefuna’s excitement and hope at seeing his mother again. Achebe sets up a powerful moment when Ikemefuna breaks into a childhood song and walks in sync with the rhythm, deciding that if the song ends on his right leg, it will mean his mother was still alive, but that if it ends on his left, his mother would be dead or ill. This mood of great optimism and innocence sets up a stark contrast with the horrific murder that follows. Ikemefuna’s death, just at the point when we are getting to know him far more and relate with his hopes and fears and even root for him, makes the entire scene all the more powerful and emotional. Ikemefuna’s superstitions are only part of a large corpus of myths or other religious injunctions or ancient wisdom preserved through songs, folklores, mythologies, legends, aphorisms, and proverbs, which constitutes an important part of Umuofia culture. Achebe utilizes all these to great effect through the interlaying of these cultural vestiges and artifacts within the narrative to provide a rich texture and foundation.

All these properly secure the novel’s ties to Igbo culture and leave no one in doubt as to its authenticity and status as a legitimate representation of Igbo sensibilities. ‘Things Fall Apart’ utilizes the Third Person’s point of view, but this narrator’s perspective switches between a participating actor and an external observer, a “we” and a “them” at different points in the story. Sometimes the narrator seems to be intimately in the know and involved with the actions and the customs of the people, other times he seems like a detached observer.

Analysis of Key Symbols in Things Fall Apart

Yams

Yam is the primary crop in Umuofia society. Called the king of crops, it is associated with manliness and is an important status symbol. Okonkwo considers yams to be the only crop worth personally growing, leaving the other crops for his wives and children. The number of yams in a man’s barn is a definitive indicator of his level of success in life. Yams symbolize wealth and abundance.


Egwugwu Masks

The Egwugwu masks symbolize the villagers’ ties to the spirit realm, or rather to the land of their ancestors. The scary nature of the designs and carvings on the masks as well as the secrecy and anonymity with which its wearers operate, allows certain individuals to act on behalf of or with the unquestionable authority of the clan’s gods or ancestors.


FAQs

What does Okonkwo’s death symbolize in ‘Things Fall Apart?’

Okonkwo’s death in ‘Things Fall Apart’ symbolizes the futility of the struggle against change as brought about by European colonizers. The moment the British came to their doorstep, the people of Umuofia were fated to lose their independence and way of life.

Why did Chinua Achebe write ‘Things Fall Apart’?

Achebe wrote ‘Things Fall Apart’ mainly to challenge racist and uncomplimentary portrayals of African societies at the point of contact with colonizing Europeans.

Did Chinua Achebe present a perfect traditional African society in ‘Things Fall Apart?’

Although Chinua Achebe sought to challenge racist portrayals of traditional African society with ‘Things Fall Apart,’ he did not go the other extreme by presenting a perfect society. Instead, he presented an African society with all of its strengths and faults, asking not that people idolize or dismiss these societies, but instead view them as essentially human.

Is ‘Things Fall Apart’ popular internationally?

‘Things Fall Apart’ has sold over 20 million copies all over the world, making it one of the most popular African novels of all time. It is used widely in schools across the world.

Israel Njoku
About Israel Njoku
Israel has a Bachelor's degree in Mass Communication. He loves entertainment, pop-culture and the arts and tries to extract themes with wider reaching implications from them through rigorous analysis.
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