Chinua Achebe was born November 16, 1930, in Ogidi, in eastern Nigeria, the son of a mission-school teacher, one of the early converts to Christianity in his community. (Unlike Okonkwo in TFA, Achebe’s great-grandfather, who raised his father, had expressed tolerance towards the Christian missionaries and had no objections to his grandson’s conversion.) He was baptized Albert Chinualumogu, in tribute to Prince Albert, but adopted a purely African name when he went to university. Grandfather was an important man in the traditional Igbo culture, so the story of Things Fall Apart is to some extent based on family history.
As one might suspect from his father’s occupation, the family was devoutly Christian, and he was encouraged as a child to feel superior to the “heathen” around him, although as an adult he has questioned whether his neighbours should rather have felt superior to the Christians, as having fallen away from traditional ways. Simon Gikandi points out that Achebe was in fact part of a privileged group within colonial culture, and Achebe to has observed that Christians had access to jobs and education that were denied to others. He was educated at prestigious colonialist schools and graduated from the University of Ibadan in 1953. He then worked in Nigerian radio (he was director of external broadcasting from 1960-67) until the Biafran War, during which he served the Biafran government, primarily as an ambassador to Europe and the United States seeking financial support for the fledgeling state.
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He published his first novel, Things Fall Apart, in 1958, while Nigeria was still under colonial rule, and followed with three more novels in the next eight years: No Longer at Ease in 1960, Arrow of God in 1964, and A Man of the People in 1966. The last-named work, which ends with a military coup in an unnamed African country, was published just as a coup took place in Nigeria, generating particular interest in the novel as a kind of prophetic statement. Following the war, he went through a period of relative silence (producing essays and stories, but no new novels) until Anthills of the Savannahs appeared in 1987.
Achebe gives the following account of the inspiration for his own writing:
When I began going to school and learned to read, I encountered stories of other people and other lands. In one of my essays, I remember the kind of things that fascinated me. Weird things, even, about a wizard who lived in Africa and went to China to find a lamp. . . fascinating to me because they were about things remote, and almost ethereal. Then I grew older and began to read about adventures in which I didn’t know that I was supposed to be on the side of those savages who were encountered by the good white man. I instinctively took sides with the white people. They were fine! They were excellent. They were intelligent. The others were not . . . they were stupid and ugly. That was the way I was introduced to the danger of not having your own stories. There is that great proverb, that until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.
In particular, Achebe was reacting against his reading of Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson, cited in its time as “the best novel published about Africa,” though it focuses on the white colonialist rather than on the indigenous characters, whom Achebe felt were described with condescension at best. He has also written about his distaste for Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, often seen by white critics as sympathetic to Africans but to Achebe expressing a clear sense of white superiority.
Aside from his own writing, Achebe was significant in promoting the work of other African writers, serving as the founding editor of the African Writers Series at Heinemann (two of the first four books in the series were Achebe’s first two novels, and as recently as the 1980s, his works accounted for about a third of all revenue for the Series, which now totals over 300 titles). He helped to found the influential journal Okike in 1971.
Since a 1990 automobile accident, he has been confined to a wheelchair.
Achebe chooses to write in English, although he did not begin to learn the language until he was eight years old. In response to other African writers, who insist on an indigenous language, he replies that English is needed to communicate across the continent, which has more than 200 languages.
General Issues in Things Fall Apart
Henrickson points out that TFA uses language and structures (English, the novel form) that make its world seem familiar to Western readers; but questions whether it really is familiar to us. Western readers tend to plot novel as tragedy, but we lack direct access to the Igbo oral mythology and culture that underlies the experience and that could help us to understand the tragedy, or perhaps recognize that this is generically something else entirely. He would recommend against a “universalizing” reading that looks primarily for connections with established western norms.
On the other hand, we should also avoid the temptation to see the African novel as “exotic.” As Achebe has said, “Africans are people in the same way that Americans, Europeans, Asians and others are people. Africans are not some strange beings with unpronounceable names and impenetrable minds.”
Several critics have warned against using the novel as an anthropological document. For instance, Simon Gikandi argues that Achebe’s is only another representation of Igbo culture (one that David Carroll and others have praised for its vividness and accuracy) rather than some unvarnished “truth” about that culture. (We should remember here that Achebe is reconstructing a historical moment, one that had resulted in profound societal changes by the time of his own birth; he is not a direct witness of unmodified Igbo society.)
The title for Achebe’s novel comes from the following poem by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1939). Although Yeats’s poem is heavily symbolic and will be enhanced by critical analysis, most readers should be able to get some sense of what it is about with very little literary training. What significance might there be in this context for Achebe’s choice of a title?
The Second Coming (1921)
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Finally, note how much of the novel’s action takes place before the white people ever arrive – things are beginning “to fall apart” even before the white man arrives. Does that absolve white culture of the crime of destroying indigenous culture? Be careful here – the Igbo culture is shown to be quite flexible and presumably would have resolved its own contradictions in its own way without the intervention of the Europeans.
Chapter 1: Begins with the fame of Okonkwo’s youth, resting “on solid personal achievements” (7). But there is also the suggestion of his violent character, his impatience, his excessive concern with reputation, and of its origins in his father, Unoka, of a very different temperatment. Okonkwo’s name suggests his prominence – “Oko” refers to a boy child, preferred in Igbo culture, “Nkwo” is the name of the first day of the four-day week, the most auspicious. This is a traditional naming pattern (Ogbaa 64). The conversation between Okoye and Unoka is conducted in proverbs, another traditional pattern of Igbo conversation. Note that Achebe explains this aspect of Igbo culture – what does this suggest about the presumptive audience of the novel?
Keith Booker has warned against the temptation to read TFA “anthropologically,” since too much focus on the depiction of Igbo society can prevent the work from being seen as critically significant. He notes that the integration of proverbs into the narrative is similar to the pattern of African epic – thus it is a stylistic or aesthetic decision, not just an insight into the culture.
Wrestling is an apt identity for Okonkwo right from the beginning; he is destroyed finally when he takes on too strong of an opponent – his own chi (Lindfors 77-78). His experience reflects this Ibo folktale:
Once there was a great wrestler whose back had never known the ground. He wrestled from village to village until he had thrown every man in the world. Then he decided that he must go and wrestle in the land of spirits, and become champion there as well. He went, and beat every spirit that came forward. Some had seven heads, some ten; but he beat them all. His companion who sang his praise on the flute begged him to come away, but he would not. He pleaded with him but his ear was nailed up. Rather than go home he gave a challenge to the spirits to bring out their best and strongest wrestler. So they sent him his personal god, a little, wiry spirit who seized him with one hand and smashed him on the stony earth. (Qtd. from Achebe’s Arrow of God)
Chapter 2: Okonkwo hears the ogene calling all men to a council of war; there is a dispute between Umuofia (= “children of the forest”) and Mbaino, and the latter backs down by paying tribute – two hostages to atone for the death of the Umuofian woman. Thus Ikemefuna comes to live with Okonkwo; we already have it foreshadowed that his story is a sad one. Here we also see Okonkwo’s method of handling his household, “with a heavy hand” causing everyone to live in fear of his temper – what we would call an abusive husband. How can we know that Okonkwo isn’t just typical of a “primitive” culture? We can also get a glimpse of the status of women – the same term refers both to a woman and to a man with no status.
Chapter 3: Finally goes back to give some of Okonkwo’s background. He is a self-made man, of which he should be proud. The story of Unoka tells us about the concept of chi, each man’s personal god – what kind of chi does Okonkwo have? At first sight, it would seem bad – he had to borrow yams to plant a crop, but it was a terrible year, and many broke under the pressure (man who commits suicide (27).
Achebe has explained the Igbo concept of “chi” in an essay: each individual has a chi, a “spirit being” parallel to his physical being. Thus, the concept of “chi” also entails a necessary duality in the world – “wherever something stands, something else will stand beside it.” The importance of “chi” is also demonstrated by the frequency with which it appears as an element in Nigerian names, and in its incorporation into the name of the supreme god, Chukwu (= “Chi Ukwo,” or “Great Chi”).
Chapter 4: More on the self-made man, and a suggestion that Okonkwo is not held in quite so high esteem as his fame would indicate – he behaves rudely at the kindred meeting, so everyone sides with Osugo. Also, Okonkwo breaks the peace by beating his wife, which endangers the entire clan because it violates the tradition and may anger the ancestors. A communal tradition, which Okonkwo does respect – he performs the necessary atonement. But he does not apologize to his neighbors, who believe he disrespects their gods (cf. Coriolanus). There is also a discussion of different traditions in different villages, suggesting that the Igbo ways are not common to all in the culture – i.e., the culture is flexible. This is an important point for their later acceptance of the colonizers.
Chapter 5: Feast of the New Yam – shows Okonkwo’s impatience, unable to join in festivities because he wants to be more active. This disgruntlement causes yet another emotional firestorm, and he beats his wife again – and shoots her! But the feast is also associated with the wrestling contest, and it was through wrestling that Okonkwo gained his fame, and gained the same wife that he almost shot. Okonkwo is totally absorbed in his concept of what it is to be a man – cannot see past it. Ezinma, his daughter, is different from most children because she addresses her mother by her name, and Okonkwo wishes she were a boy because of her strong attributes.
Chapter 6: The wrestling match echoes the initial source of Okonkwo’s prominence, and so suggests the continuity of culture. But it also presents a new kind of wrestling, suggesting change is already underway.
Chapter 7: Here at last the story seems to be about to get underway. The fact of Ikemefuna’s adoption into Okonkwo’s family was established in the first chapter, and alluded to on several occasions afterwards; but only here does the narrative turn into a more “normal” chronological sequence: “For three years Ikemefuna lived in Okonkwo’s household and the elders of Umuofia seemed to have forgotten about him. . .” Ikemefune has a good effect, acting like an older brother, on Nwoye (= “child” of indeterminate sex, born on Oye – the name may suggest he is not “masculine” enough in Okonkwo’s eyes to wear the name “Okoye” -Ogbaa, 65). Okonkwo treats both boys alike, telling them “masculine stories of violence and bloodshed”; however, Nwoye still prefers his mother’s stories. The chapter includes an example of the sort of story that Nwoye loves, the story of the quarrel between Earth and Sky. Why does this myth appear here? Note parallels to Okonkwo’s real-life experience of drought and rain, of the need to soften the heart in the face of suffering, etc. There may be foreshadowing too of Nwoye’s later embracing of redemptive Christianity.
The meeting between Okonkwo and Ogbuefi Ezeudu includes Ezeudu’s refusal of hospitality, suggesting something very serious is afoot – cf. earlier scenes of sharing kola, etc. After three years, the village has decided to kill Ikemefuna, in response to an oracle, and they are telling Okonkwo to stay out of it. This is a central act in the “tragedy” of Okonkwo. What does it tell us about society? Is there something “wrong” with a society that will kill an innocent boy for no apparent reason?
Booker suggests that the gut reaction to seeing Ikemefuna’s death as a cruel and unjust act prevents is from recognizing that Igbo morality is based on the good of the community, not of the individual – the death of this person can prevent war between the villages and thus avert many other deaths. Society is built on different principles than our own – does that make it wrong, or just different?
In the context of Igbo society, Okonkwo is excessively individualistic – too concerned about himself and not enough about the village – so the seeds of his downfall are planted long before the arrival of the white men. (Derek Wright has also argued that Okonkwo is essential “out of step” with the actual values of the village – as for instance when he expresses impatience at the waiting during the New Yam Feast or is unable to control his violent side during the Week of Peace.)
Note the decision to kill Ikemefune occurs in the context of a fortuitous rain of locusts, not in a stressful drought or another calamity. What about Okonkwo’s decision to take part in death? What causes him to do so? Note the emphasis on Ikemefune’s relationship to Okonkwo – earlier in the chapter, the scenes of him sitting in Okonkwo’s obi just like a son, access to Ikemefune’s thoughts of Okonkwo as his real father, his reaction to the first machete blow and Okonkwo’s act of slaying the boy. Note, too, Nwoye’s reaction which relates his feeling the previous harvest season about the discarding of twins in the Evil Forest: “Nowye had felt for the first time a snapping inside him like the one he now felt. . . Then something had given way inside him. It descended on him again, this feeling, when his father walked in. . .” This suggests Nwoye feels differently about his society’s values than does his father.
Chapter 8: Okonkwo’s depression over the killing. What does this tell us about his character? How does it modify our perception of him as cruel? His conversation with Obierika establishes the tragic fatalism, uses proverbs, etc. They also share omens that suggest change is in the air. (“The things that happen these days are very strange.”) Again, changing times are invoked by Obierika’s complaint about the young men’s sloppy tapping of the palm trees; Okonkwo is bound by tradition, relying only on the law, whereas Obierika notes that other clans have other laws – there is a relativism recognizable within Igbo society. Igbo relativism suggests the society has more capacity for change than Okonkwo himself – he is mired in his perception of tradition, while others in society are willing to question things. Obierika is like Nwoye in this regard. Then they discuss the customs of Abame and Aninta. It is in this context that the white men are first introduced into the conversation.
Chapter 9: The threat to Ezinma – her illness and the story of the ogbanje. G.D. Kilam argues that the pilgrimage through the nine villages under the force of the priestess of Ani, the Earth Goddess, reveals the underlying feminine principle that is at least as important to the Igbo society as the surface masculinity: “Powerful as he is, the embodiment of the male principle, Okonkwo is subservient to the female principle and he follows the course of Chielo with his beloved daughter Ezinma with a terror equal to that of his wife, utterly powerless to alter the course of events.” Furthermore, the collapse of Okonkwo’s position in the village results from a series of offences he commits against the (female) earth.
Chapter 10: The egwugwu ritual, and Okonkwo’s presence as one of the ancestral spirits. This is a scene of judgment – the Igbo court system. Evil Forest’s judgment shows the flexibility possible within the system. Uzowulu is at fault in his wife’s running away, because he beat her excessively (parallel to Okonkwo); by offending against moral standards, Uzowulu has forfeited his legal claim to the bride price’s return. On the other hand, this matter is considered a “trifle” by one of the elders – however, Uzowulu is the sort of man who will insist on the egwugwu even for such a trivial matter.
Chapter 11: The story of the tortoise and the feast of the birds is a commentary on the problem of trying to be what you are not, and also on the relativity of custom. Clever Tortoise manufactures a custom to fit his needs. He gets to eat everything because he can manipulate tradition accordingly. What does this suggest about the role of custom? What about the Igbo willingness to bend tradition? This is followed by Okonkwo’s resistance to the demands of the gods when he tries to oppose Ezinma’s “borrowing” by Agbala. Again, the incident shows Okonkwo’s inner self in opposition to his public position of obedience to tradition – he is ready to do battle with the gods and follows his wife and daughter to protect both.
Chapter 12: Oberika’s daughter’s wedding.
Chapter 13: The death of Ezeudu and the funeral rite. “A man’s life from birth to death was a series of transition rites which brought him nearer and nearer to his ancestors.” It is here, in the context of such a transition, and at the mathematical center of the book, that something happens “without parallel in the tradition of Umuofia”: the explosion of Okonkwo’s home-made gun, which kills Ezeudu’s 16-year-old son. This is a crime against the earth goddess, even though it was an accident, and Okonkwo must therefore flee; he is banished for seven years, part of a traditional cleansing. Obierika “was a man who thought about things” and questions the tradition that so punishes a man for what happens accidentally. This leads him also to question the sacrifice of twin children, which he himself had had to do. Part I thus ends with individual banishment and a direct questioning of the demands of tradition.
Chapter 14: Okonkwo goes to live with his mother’s clan in another village. He is suffering from a female ochu. What is the significance of the hyper-masculine Okonkwo being punished for the “female” version of the crime? Chapter also has Okonkwo questioning traditional saying, and almost in despair: “A man could not rise beyond the destiny of his chi. The saying of the elders was not true – that if a man said yea his chi also affirmed. Here was a man whose chi said nay despite his own affirmation.” Okonkwo has the opportunity for re-instruction – he must learn the importance of the mother, of the feminine.
Carroll suggests that Uchendu’s “catechizing” of Okonwo about the significance of the feminine reflects the hero’s essential flaw – his rigid hypermasculinity. Okonkwo is so concerned not to be considered weak like his father that he allows for no flexibility in interpretation of the rules (witness his participation in Ikemefuna’s death, when the law only required his acquiescence) such as can be seen with other Igbo.
Chapter 15: Obierika visits with more news of the white men – the destruction of Abame. Again, a herald that a new day is arriving, coupled with an illustration of the white colonizers’ response to offenses: one white man is killed by the village, so the entire village is massacred by the whites.
According to Robert M. Wren, the incident at Abame in the novel closely corresponds with the historical Ahiara massacre of 1905: a white man, J.F. Stewart, bicycling between villages, was killed by unfriendly villagers, then was taken to neighboring communities by killers who did not even think he was human. A month later, black soldiers under white officers killed many people in the villages where he was held, and locally made guns were confiscated. Again, there is a suggestion of the relativity of customs here: Uchendu says “what is good among one people is an abomination with others.”
Chapter 16: Once again, Okonkwo learns about the whites from Obierika. The missionaries have come to Umuofia; they are becoming increasingly the frame of reference for what goes on in the novel – everything is a discussion of this new thing. The church first attracts those who are efulefu, “worthless men” without titles – not the core of Umuofia society. And Nwoye, Okonkwo’s son, has joined them, as we find when the missionaries come to Mbanta as well. Note different dialects in the speech of the Igbo interpreter (“my buttocks” for “myself”).
Look closely at the reason for Nwoye’s conversion: “It was not the mad logic of the Trinity that captivated him. He did not understand it. It was the poetry of the new religion, something felt in the marrow. The hymn about brothers who sat in darkness and in fear seemed to answer a vague and persistent question that haunted his young soul – the question of the twins crying in the bush and the question of Ikemefuna who was killed.” To what degree does Achebe present the collapse of Igbo society as the result of colonial manipulation, as opposed to its own internal conflicts and stresses?
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