The post-colonial novel Things Fall Apart, by Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, serves as an analysis of early colonial encounters. The book bears witness to the cultural collision experienced by members of Igbo society upon the arrival of European missionaries.
The collision resulted in a monumental shift wherein Igbo tradition came under imperial threat. Religion, gender and family form a thematic triad in which personal and communal identity is examined through omniscient narration. As reflected in the novel, British imposition deeply challenged this triad and Achebe makes a point of analyzing just how far these traditions were pushed. The narrative relies on omniscient third person narration, which allows the writer to limit bias and provide a sweeping depiction of European influence on the traditions of Igbo society.
Okonkwo’s tragic downfall may extend beyond his unfaltering renunciation of British colonial rule. One could argue that Okonkwo’s character represents the aching hearts of African peoples whose identifies were affected by colonialism. Okonkwo’s decision to end his life speaks to the suppressive nature of colonial rule, a rule so commonly accompanied by violent means or ends.
While the novel introduces readers to elements of Igbo culture, namely agricultural methods, marital structures, religion and gender roles, Things Fall Apart is set in a complex historical period. Understanding the context in which the novel was conceptualized will thoroughly enhance one’s understanding of its themes and its overall premise.
Furthermore, the novel avoids drawing false comparisons between pre and post modern cultures. Achebe recognizes the ways in which Igbo culture changed with European arrival, but he also recognized that the effects of colonization would haunt the memories and traditions of Igbo peoples long after decolonization (Gikandi 1996). While interpretations of colonial ideologies often sketch African cultures as “primitive,” (such as when the District Commissioner decides to name his book “Pacification of the Primitive,”(Achebe 2000: 148) it is important to consider Igbo culture as a culture with its own ideas, values and history. Achebe makes a particularly strong case for recalling African History.
One of the novel’s most striking components may be its exploration of missiology. The reader witnesses a cultural transformation following the introduction of Christianity. Interestingly, Chinua Achebe provides little context in regards to the surprising relationship between Igbo society and the Christian missionaries. Perhaps the most notable representation of this relationship is in Nwoye’s conversion. In chapter sixteen, Achebe writes: “The hymn about brothers who sat in darkness and in fear seemed to answer a vague and persistent question that haunted his young soul” (Achebe, 1962: 104). The question that nagged at Nwoye was that of Ikemefuna’s murder. Here, Achebe appears to argue that the conflicts were not necessarily obvious; some were far more complex in the ways they undermined long believed ideologies.
Although many Igbos converted, (hence rejecting the long believed supremacy of Chukwu) the most devastating effect was, arguably, not the rejection of Igbo traditions, but how that rejection led to the sundering of Igbo society. In chapter eighteen, “the spirit of war was upon them” (Achebe, 1962: 113). Okonkwo felt determined to chase the Christians from his village in order to restore peace but was met with resistance from some of his own peoples. The ideological split shakes the narrative and promotes tension. “It is not our custom to fight for our gods,” says one of Okonkwo’s fellow men, to which Okonkwo replies, “let us not reason like cowards” (Achebe, 1962: 113). Although the dialogue reads as a straightforward dispute, the subtext speaks to a larger issue. Achebe effectively highlights how colonial interference undermined Igbo unity and sense of identity. In saying that “it is not our custom” readers can conclude that some Igbo customs may have arisen out of unspoken habits or assumptions.
A reader might, in this sketch, note the ways in which colonization brought about new ideas. Though the effects these ideas would have on Igboland proved devastating, it is worth being tactful in one’s historiographical approach. It is far easier to look at events in retrospect and understand how those events unfolded, but it is more difficult to understand why they happened the way they did. For instance, nearer to the British Annexation of Igboland, colonial relations begin to break down and the Ekumeku movement attempts to halt British Imperialism, a movement that embodies much of what Okonkwo’s character called for (Ohadike, 1996).
In this sense, Things Fall Apart touches on complex ideals or historical events but withholds much of what the reader would need to contextualize characters actions and comments. For instance, why do some Igbo peoples readily adopt Christian doctrines and not others? The answer to this question is certainly multi-faceted, but a possible answer might be found in considering trade relationships versus the desire to preserve identity. In the nineteenth century, trade posts were established throughout Igboland to support increasing demands for palm oil. The trade proved lucrative and many Igbo communities welcomed British colonists and missionaries into their villages, unaware of the dangers their culture would end up facing (Ohadike, 1996).
Things Fall Apart provides insight into some of Nigeria’s most pivotal moments. Many aspects of traditional Igbo culture are incorporated into the writing and repeated throughout the narrative. The drinking of palm wine, meditations on gender roles and status, the sowing of yams or time spent in the Obi are a few examples. In their reiteration, the reader can conclude that such traditions were long practiced and deeply ingrained in Igbo society. Hence, Things Fall Apart, provides depictions of colonial effects from a multitude of angles and character perspectives. Their ensuing military, religious, economic and gendered responses thoroughly capture Igboculture before and during colonial rule.
Achebe, Chinua. 2000. Things Fall Apart: African Writers Series. Berkshire: Cox & Wyman Ltd.
Gikandi, Simon 1996. “Chinua Achebe and the Invention of African Literature,” in African Writers Series, Things Fall Apart, pp. ix – xix). Berkshire: Cox & Wyman Ltd.
Ohadike, Don 1996. “Igbo Culture and History,” in African Writers Series, Things Fall Apart, pp. ix – xix). Berkshire: Cox & Wyman Ltd.