Things Fall Apart (1958)
In 1958, Chinua Achebe published Things Fall Apart, which depicts the tragic downfall of a strong African clansman faced with the budding presence of colonialism. Okonkwo, Achebe’s central character, represents a man tied to his clan’s culture; moreover, Okonkwo represents the essence of male vigor within the tribe as he strives to lead the clan with strength and stoicism, persistently avoiding the appearance of weakness. Yet Okonkwo’s strength falters under the weight of an ever-changing Africa when his family and his clan encounter a new way of living through the white man’s Christian religion. The first part of the novel centers on Okonkwo, his family, and the rituals of his tribe. Achebe depicts how Okonkwo’s relationships with his father, Unoka; his son, Nwoye; his daughter, Enzima; and Ikemefuna, a boy who calls Okonkwo father, all define Okonkwo’s identity. Despite his trials in the beginning of the novel, including his exile from the clan, the true test of Okonkwo’s strength comes with the entrance of Mr. Brown, Reverend Smith, and the other white characters. As Christianity begins to spread through the clan, Okonkwo’s eldest son becomes a missionary, conflict arises between the clan and the government of the colonists, and Okonkwo’s desire to lead the clan results in violence as he kills a white man. Yet the tribe does not partake in his violence, and Okonkwo reacts by taking his own life.
His tragic story probes into themes of heroism’s validity, the solidity of tradition, and the relationship between an individual and a society in flux. Lindsay Cobb Heroism in Things Fall Apart In Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe immediately asserts the main character Okonkwo’s status as a heroic figure. Okonkwo’s position as a pillar of strength throughout nine villages and “even beyond” solidifies his laudable identity. However, it is Okonkwo, more than any other character, who aims for self-definition as a hero—a hero defined by personal triumphs and masculinity. This definition problematizes the theme of heroism because Okonkwo’s definition of a hero lacks the substance to prevail in Achebe’s work. In fact, Okonkwo’s pursuit to attain extraordinary status as the leader of a healthy tribe occurs alongside the tribe’s own attempt to retain its strength against the threat of the white man’s government and religion. Okonkwo, indeed, represents the human embodiment of the failing strength of his tribe, Umuofia. As tensions between Umuofia and the white man’s society test Okonkwo’s greatness, his fear of failure and desire to succeed supersede his ability to thrive as a hero. Moreover, Okonkwo’s need to prove his masculinity serves as a catalyst to his inability to understand not only the world of the white man but the needs of his own tribe, thus resulting in his loss of heroism.
Okonkwo’s definition of heroism exists primarily as an exact opposite to his father, Unoka. During his childhood, Okonkwo felt shame over his father’s status as an agbala, a term meaning both “woman” and “man without titles.” Okonkwo, as a result of his father’s idleness and gentleness, did not enter the world with prosperity; he had neither a barn nor a wife to inherit. Thus, even at a young age, he endeavored to build a prosperous future—to achieve a heroic life—by representing everything his father did not. He therefore valued emotional strength and physical strength above all else, and he ruled his lands, wives, and children with a heavy hand. Yet this strength overextends into brutality when Okonkwo kills Ikemefuna, a boy who calls him father—an action that begins to damage Okonkwo’s heroic identity. Ikemefuna came under Okonkwo’s care after Umuofia helped make a settlement with a neighboring tribe, and his presence brought a subtle shift in Okonkwo’s house. Despite the fact that Okonkwo did not show Ikemefuna any outward affection, for to him such affection would denote weakness, he develops great affection for the boy. Nevertheless, when the tribe decides that Ikemefuna must die after three years, Okonkwo’s hardness overshadows his ability to gently love a new son. In order to not seem weak in front of his peers, he kills the boy with his own hand. After Okonkwo’s decision to kill Ikemefuna, his status as the tribe’s hero seems to crumble. First, his close friend Obierika bemoans his action; then, at a tribal meeting, Okonkwo accidentally kills a 16-year-old boy, and for atonement he must leave the clan for seven years. This series of events eventually exposes the message Achebe folds into the relationships between fathers and sons—a message concerning heroism. Okonkwo’s great flaw, then, derives from his obdurate passion for strength and thus heroism. His zeal stems from his own disappointment in his father; moreover, this fervor damages his relationship with, first, his eldest son, Nyowe, and then his own clan. After Okonkwo kills Ikemefuna, Nyowe questions the clan’s practices, and his doubts fuel his decision to follow the new Christian religion. Nyowe’s departure from the clan marks an irrevocable gap between Nyowe and his father. When Okonkwo notices Nyowe’s growing interest in the Christian faith, he reprimands his son through violence and threatens to kill him.
Though Okonkwo does not kill Nyowe, this exchange leads to Nwoye’s permanent departure and Okonkwo’s own perception of his son as degenerate and effeminate. He extends this perception to his own tribe when he feels that they will not stand up against the ever-growing presence of the white man and his religion. This view eventually results in Okonkwo’s separation from the tribe when he kills a court messenger, thus choosing to act alone—to act with his definition of heroism, rather than the clan’s. Yet this act does not result in heroic triumph, and Okonkwo realizes that his reliance on strength and manliness has overreached the best of his intentions. Thus, as he chooses to kill himself, he dies a death which his clansmen cannot sanctify, alone and unheralded like his father, and he loses his potential to be remembered as a hero of Umuofia. Lindsay Cobb Individual and Society in Things Fall Apart From the initial pages of his novel Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe makes it clear that the main character, Okonkwo, represents an individual deeply aligned with his society. Okonkwo’s strength and presumed heroism within the novel derive from his ability to fully accept the clan’s culture and follow faithfully in its traditions. Yet as his society begins to change with the expansion of colonialism in Africa, Okonkwo’s relationship with his society begins to evolve—and eventually fall apart. Achebe’s novel investigates the complex relationship between an individual and his or her society; moreover, it reveals the damaging strains this relationship undergoes when faced with drastic and inevitable changes. Part 1 and part 2 of the novel define Okonkwo as a follower of his clan, Umuofia. Regardless of the painful actions the traditions of the clan require of him, he never wavers in his devotion. In spite of his high regard for Ikemefuna, a young boy sent to live with his family after a clan dispute, he accepts Umuofia’s declaration that Ikemefuna—who calls him father—must die.
Later, after he accidentally murders a member of the clan, Okonkwo dutifully allows Umuofia to burn his home, and he leaves for a seven-year exile in his motherland. Nevertheless, signs of his fierce independence pepper the story. He does not dispute the clan’s decision to kill Ikemefuna, but he goes so far as to kill the boy himself to show his own strength as a clansman. Here, then, Okonkwo tries to set himself apart from the clan as an individual member. His endeavor to prove himself as Umuofia’s strongest member shows itself distinctly in this moment, and it is this endeavor that contributes to his tragic separation from the clan. As the violence mounts between the colonists and Umuofia in part 3, Okonkwo’s frustration with the clan’s lack of action increases. He does not understand why Umuofia does not act aggressively against the changes the colonists wish to impose on their society. Moreover, he wishes the clan to remain dedicated to its traditions and not bend to the potential of change. Thus, he comes to the novel’s final clan meeting with the goal of convincing Umuofia to fight back against the colonists. He declares to his friend Obierika that if the clan does not fight, he will fight alone—and he does. Yet after he kills one of the colonists and realizes that the clan will not follow his actions, Okonkwo forsakes his society and chooses to commit suicide. Though he had chosen to act alone, he cannot stand to live alone—apart from his clan. Umuofia, however, cannot honor his death because suicide represents an abomination and a sin against the gods. Thus, not only does Okonkwo choose to act independently of his society, his society—his clan—must spurn him as well. In this moment, Okonkwo represents an individual deeply disconnected from his society.
Yet Achebe does not conclude the novel with Okonkwo’s death. In the closing paragraph, the narrator explains that the commissioner of the colonists plans to write a book entitled The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger. He first considers writing a chapter concerning Okonkwo, but then he determines that a “reasonable” paragraph will suffice in order to tell Okonkwo’s story, which he witnessed firsthand. Achebe’s choice to end the novel with this information further complicates the relationship between an individual and society in a land beset with change, because this revelation starkly contrasts with Okonkwo’s decision to end his own life. Thus, the novel—which Achebe devotes primarily to the story of Okonkwo—may, in the hands of the colonizers, find itself reduced to one paragraph in the midst of many. Okonkwo loses his individuality and, despite his lifelong dedication to strength and thus fame, becomes a mere paragraph among others in his evolving society. While the commissioner decides to group Okonkwo deep within a community of stories, Okonkwo’s purely individual decisions lead to his tragic death. The novel’s conclusion, therefore, represents an ironic truth concerning Okonkwo’s existence: Though he died putting his individual decisions above those of his community, the commissioner refuses to see his individuality as worthy of an entire novel or even a chapter—just a paragraph. Lindsay Cobb Tradition in Things Fall Apart In his novel Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe tragically illustrates the collision between tradition and change through the story of Okonkwo. Achebe’s main character represents a man devoted to his culture’s tradition. Yet his devotion does not yield to change, and he ultimately succumbs to his own unwillingness to accept the changes his clan faces with the arrival of the white man and Christianity. Achebe further complicates the novel’s perceptions of change and tradition by including characters that mirror and oppose Okonkwo’s attitude, such as Mr. Smith, whose own devotion to his culture exacerbates the hostile situation between the Christians and the clan leaders, including Mr. Brown and Akunna, who show the promise of respectfully discussing each culture’s varying traditions in a move toward peaceful change; and Obierika and Nwoye, who demonstrate the ability to question traditional customs.
Achebe first asserts the dominance of tradition in the clan, Umuofia, by showing how steeped in convention Okonkwo and his family remain. The clan values strength; therefore, Okonkwo becomes the strongest. The clan values manliness; therefore, Okonkwo shuns all effeminate behavior. When the clan’s oracle declares that Ikemefuna, a boy who lived in Okonkwo’s home for years like a son, must die, Okonkwo follows dutifully and even uses his own hand to kill Ikemefuna in order to show his strength and dedication to the clan’s mores. Yet with the death of Ikemefuna also comes the first signs of doubt in Okonkwo’s eldest son, Nwoye. The narrator reveals Nyowe’s doubts following his realization that Ikemefuna—whom he thinks of as a brother— has died according to the traditions of the clan. Nwoye feels something snap within him and doubts the justice of this action. This revelation, then, marks the first example of a clansman questioning the long-held traditions of Umuofia. Another example of questioning occurs after Okonkwo accidentally shoots a member of the clan and thus must leave the clan and go into exile for seven years; according to custom, after he leaves, other clansmen must destroy his homes, land, and animals. In this moment, Okonkwo follows dutifully without questioning the clan’s ways. However, Obierika, Okonkwo’s closest friend and a respected member of the clan, has a head full of questions as he completes these traditional duties.
Obierika’s questions probe the logic and justice of the clan’s traditions; more important, his questions end the first section of Achebe’s novel. These are the final thoughts before the white man and Christianity enter both the novel and Umuofia’s culture. As stories of violence become more prominent in the region, and as Okonkwo’s own son, Nwoye, chooses to follow the Christian missionaries, tensions mount irrevocably between the ever-growing Christian population and the traditional clans. Nevertheless, though the Christians represent change to the clansmen, Achebe also illustrates their own devotion to tradition through the figure of Reverend Smith, the missionaries’ second leader. The narrator describes Smith as a man who only sees the world in black and white, and his actions reflect his unwavering belief in the ways of his own culture and religion. Mr. Smith, much like Okonkwo, refuses to see value in other cultures, other traditions. Both Okonkwo and Mr. Smith starkly contrast the actions of Mr. Brown, the missionaries’ first leader, and Akunna, a great man in one of Umuofia’s neighboring villages. Mr. Brown and Akunna spend hours respectfully discussing their respective religions, and though neither of them convert to a new religion, both men begin to develop a sense of understanding for the other’s beliefs. Okonkwo and Mr. Smith, however, never develop a sense of understanding, and neither man allows his traditional belief system to change.
Moreover, both Mr. Smith and then Okonkwo react to the potential of change with violence. Okonkwo’s ultimate demise occurs when he is so overwrought with aggression and violence that he slays a court messenger in order to protect Umuofia’s sanctity. When he realizes that his clansmen will not follow in violence, Okonkwo decides to take his own life rather than face the changes his clan will inevitably undergo.
Therefore, his obstinate devotion to tradition leads to his shameful death. Perhaps, then, the best solution Achebe includes in the novel comes through the quiet discussions between Mr. Brown and Akunna—two men who do not act in violence or hatred in order to guard their respective traditions, but instead strive to understand. Lindsay Cobb