Things Fall Apart Chinua Achebe
(Full name Albert Chinualumogu Achebe) Nigerian novelist, essayist, poet, short story writer, and children's writer.
The following entry presents criticism on Achebe's Things Fall Apart (1958). For further information on his life and works, see CLC Volumes 1, 3, 5, 7, 11, 26, and 127.
Things Fall Apart (1958) is one of the most widely read and studied African novels ever written. Critics have viewed the work as Achebe's answer to the limited and often inaccurate presentation of Nigerian life and customs found in literature written by powers of the colonial era. Achebe does not paint an idyllic picture of pre-colonial Africa, but instead shows Igbo society with all its flaws as well as virtues. The novel's title is taken from W. B. Yeats's poem “The Second Coming.”
Plot and Major Characters
Things Fall Apart traces life in the Igbo village of Umuofia, Nigeria, just before and after its initial contact with European colonists and their Christian religion. The novel focuses on Okonkwo, an ambitious and inflexible clan member trying to overcome the legacy of his weak father. The clan does not judge men on their father's faults, and Okonkwo's status is based on his own achievements. He is a great wrestler, a brave warrior, and a respected member of the clan who endeavors to uphold its traditions and customs. He lives for the veneration of his ancestors and their ways. Okonkwo's impetuousness and rigidness, however, often pit him against the laws of the clan, as when he beats his wife during the Week of Peace. The first part of the novel traces Okonkwo's successes and failures within the clan. In the second part he is finally exiled when he shoots at his wife and accidentally hits a clansman. According to clan law, his property is destroyed, and he must leave his father's land for seven years. He flees to his mother's homeland, which is just beginning to experience contact with Christian missionaries. Okonkwo is anxious to return to Umuofia, but finds upon his return—the third part of the novel—that life has also begun to change there as well. The Christian missionaries have made inroads into the culture of the clan through its disenfranchised members. Shortly after his return, Okonkwo's own son leaves for the mission school, disgusted by his father's participation in the death of a boy that his family had taken in and treated as their own. Okonkwo eventually stands up to the missionaries in an attempt to protect his culture, but when he kills a British messenger, Okonkwo realizes that he stands alone, and kills himself. Ironically, suicide is considered the ultimate disgrace by the clan, and his people are unable to bury him.
The main theme of Things Fall Apart focuses on the clash between traditional Igbo society and the culture and religion of the colonists. Achebe wrote the novel in English but incorporated into the prose a rhythm that conveyed a sense of African oral storytelling. He also used traditional African images including the harmattan (an African dust-laden wind) and palm oil, as well as Igbo proverbs. In an effort to show the clash between the two cultures, Achebe presented traditional Christian symbols and then described the clan's contrasting reactions to them. For instance, in Christianity, locusts are a symbol of destruction and ruin, but the Umuofians rejoice at their coming because they are a source of food. The arrival of the locusts comes directly before the arrival of the missionaries in the novel. Transition is another major theme of the novel and is expressed through the changing nature of Igbo society. Several references are made throughout the narrative to faded traditions in the clan, emphasizing the changing nature of its laws and customs. Colonization is a time of great transition in Umuofia and the novel focuses on Okonkwo's rigidity in the face of this change. Other themes include duality, the nature of religious belief, and individualism versus community.
Reviewers have praised Achebe's neutral narration and have described Things Fall Apart as a realistic novel. Much of the critical discussion about Things Fall Apart concentrates on the socio-political aspects of the novel, including the friction between the members of Igbo society as they are confronted with the intrusive and overpowering presence of Western government and beliefs. Ernest N. Emenyonu commented that, “Things Fall Apart is indeed a classic study of cross-cultural misunderstanding and the consequences to the rest of humanity, when a belligerent culture or civilization, out of sheer arrogance and ethnocentrism, takes it upon itself to invade another culture, another civilization.” One of the issues that critics have continued to discuss is whether Okonkwo serves as an embodiment of the values of Umuofia or stands in conflict with them. This discussion often centers around the question of Okonkwo's culpability in the killing of the boy, Ikemefuna. Many critics have argued that Okonkwo was wrong and went against the clan when he became involved in killing the boy. Other reviewers have asserted that he was merely fulfilling the command of the Oracle of the Hills and Caves. Several critics have compared Things Fall Apart to a Greek tragedy and Okonkwo to a tragic hero. Aron Aji and Kirstin Lynne Ellsworth have stated, “As numerous critics have observed, Okonkwo is at once an allegorical everyman figure embodying the existential paradoxes of the Igbo culture in transition, and a great tragic hero in the tradition of Oedipus, Antigone, and Lear.” Some critics have complimented Achebe's choice to write in the language of the colonizers, lauding his artful use of the English language. Several reviewers have also noted his use of African images and proverbs to convey African culture and oral storytelling. Arlene A. Elder has asserted, “Achebe's use of proverbial language enhances the richness of Things Fall Apart, and the author points out that ‘[a]mong the Igbo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten.’”
Things Fall Apart Essay
Chinua Achebe says in his essay “The Novelist As Teacher,” that he writes novels such as Things Fall Apart to help people better understand that African culture prior to European contact was as rich, varied, and functional as any other culture, including European culture.
“I would be quite satisfied if my novels (especially the ones I set in the past) did more than just teach my readers [Africans] that their past – with all its imperfections – was not one long night of savagery from which the Europeans acting on God's behalf delivered them,” he writes.
In what two ways does Achebe show through Things Fall Apart that the Igbo have a culture that is rich, complex, varied, and functional? Analyze how Achebe shows this to be true.
The Igbo possess cultural traits which strengthen their society. Discuss a couple traits and practices which make the Igbo culture a strong one in Things Fall Apart. Analyze how these cultural practices and traits make the Igbo strong.
The Igbo possess cultural traits which one could argue lessen the strength of their society. Discuss a couple traits and cultural practices which prove destructive to the Igbo in Things Fall Apart. Analyze how these cultural traits and practices diminish the strength of the Igbo.
Consider cultural topics such as: the ceremonies the Igbo have, their religion/system of belief, the way they govern their society, their justice system, the structure of their families, the ways in which they resolve conflicts.Write a four-paragraph essay (introduction, two body paragraphs [one on each cultural topic], conclusion) using specific references to all relevant sections in the book. Your two body paragraphs must deal with any of the cultural topics in bold above or others of your own creation.
Use blue or black ink pen
Use one side of the notebook paper
Leave one-inch margins on right and left sides of paper
Do not write a rough draft.
Take 10-15 minutes to write an outline of your ideas.
Refer to specific portions of the book.
Don’t simply summarize the book. Use your examples to answer the essay question.
Writing an Analysis on Literature
Open your intro with one of the following methods (hooks):
- Summarize your subject very briefly. Include the title, author, and the type of book. This can be done with a what-and-how statement
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of the most well-known novels of the Romantic era. The story is one that has seeped into the popular imagination . . .
- Start with a quotation from the book and then comment upon its importance (think in terms of the focus of your analysis).
- Begin with an explanation of the author’s purpose and how well you think he or she achieves this purpose.
- Open with a few general statements about life that relate to the focus of your analysis.
Chaos often rules on the fringes of society . . . . .
- Begin with a general statement about the type of literature you are analyzing. Then discuss your subject within this context.
The best science fiction always seems believable and logical within the context of the story line. This certainly is true in . . . .
After this hook, transition into your thesis wherein you answer the essay question and set up how you will prove this thesis. (This “how you will prove” part will determine the order and content of your body paragraphs.) -- from Write for College: A Student Handbook (Write Source)
The body paragraphs
Begin with a topic sentence for each body paragraph that acts as a thesis for the entire paragraph. Use a forecast sentence if appropriate and helpful for your reader.
Develop your analysis through the use of specific details (summary of plot points or analysis of characters, etc.) and direct quotations from the text (with page numbers). Direct quotations should be set up with your own writing or incorporated into your own writing. See sample student paper below.
End body paragraphs with a concluding sentence that summarizes your main point.
Tie important points together and make a final statement about your analysis.
Sample student paper
(Thesis, from the intro) Chinua Achebe depicts loyalty and the ability to show respect as the two most praise-worthy among the many diverse qualities presented in his novel Things Fall Apart.
(First part of first body paragraph) It is apparent by his writing that Achebe admires loyalty in a human being. For example, the character Obierika proves himself loyal to his friend Okonkwo when he visits him in exile and sells Okonkwo’s yams for him. This shows that although most of Umuofia had turned its back on Okonkwo, Obierika is still loyal enough to stand by his friend. Achebe shows his admiration for this quality through the tone of his writing. Upon Obierika’s arrival to visit his friend in exile, Achebe writes that “Okonkwo was very happy to receive his friend.” (p. 136) Achebe also writes that all of Okonkwo’s family who are with him in exile – including his wives, children, cousins and their wives – are delighted to know that Obierika has come to visit. This shows that a small visit could mean a lot, and the loyalty it exhibits is obviously a trait that the author shows his admiration for through the tone in his writing. . . . Another example of Achebe’s obvious admiration for loyalty is when Okonkwo’s daughter Ezinma breaks the 28-day rule and leaves her groom’s home when her father is arrested. Knowing the consequences of breaking Umuofian law or custom, young Ezinma still chooses to do so because of her loyalty to the well-being of her father. It is obvious through this example that Achebe admires loyalty because Ezinma’s actions would generally be considered noble and praiseworthy. Although Okonkwo says several times, “I wish she were a boy” (p. 173), Ezinma still breaks the law when her father is in need. Because it is considered ethical to put family as a priority in life, it is obvious that Achebe admires Ezinma’s loyalty to her father. . . . Some of these actions taken by the loyal Obierika, Ezinma, and Mr. Brown show that Achebe considers the quality of loyalty an admirable one.