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Things Fall Apartis a 1958 English-language novel by Nigerianmarker author Chinua Achebe. It is a staple book in schools throughout Africa and widely read and studied in English-speaking countries around the world. It is seen as the archetypal modern African novel in English, and one of the first African novels written in English to receive global critical acclaim. The title of the novel comes from William Butler Yeats's poem "The Second Coming". In 2009, Newsweek ranked Things Fall Apart #14 on its list of Top 100 Books: The Meta-List.

The novel concerns the life of Okonkwo, a leader and local wrestling champion in Umofia—a fictional group of nine villages in Nigeria, inhabited by the Igbo ethnic group. It also focuses on his three wives, his children (mainly his oldest son Nwoye and his favorite daughter Ezinma), and the influences of Britishmarker colonialism and Christian missionaries on his traditional Igbo (archaically "Ibo") community during an unspecified time period in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century.

Things Fall Apart was followed by a sequel, No Longer at Ease (1960), originally written as the second part of a larger work together with Things Fall Apart, and Arrow of God (1964), on a similar subject. Achebe states that his two later novels, A Man of the People (1966) and Anthills of the Savannah (1987), while not featuring Okonkwo's descendants and set in fictional African countries, are spiritual successors to the previous novels in chronicling African history.

Culture

Achebe depicts the Igbo as a people with great social institutions. Their culture is rich and impressively civilized, with traditions and laws that place great emphasis on justice and fairness. The people are ruled not by a king or chief but by a kind of simple democracy, in which all males gather and make decisions by consensus. Ironically, it is the Europeans, who often boast of bringing democratic institutions to the rest of the world, who try to suppress these clan meetings in Umuofia. The Igbo also boast a high degree of social mobility. Men are not judged by the wealth of their fathers, and Achebe emphasizes that high rank is attainable for all freeborn Igbo.

He does not shy from depicting the injustices of Igbo society. No more or less than Victorian England of the same era, the Igbo are deeply patriarchal. They also have a great fear of twins, who are abandoned immediately after birth to a death by exposure. Violence is not unknown to them, although warfare on a European scale is something of which they have no comprehension.

The novel attempts to repair some of the damage done by earlier European depictions of Africans. But this recuperation must necessarily come in the form of memory; by the time Achebe was born, the coming of the white man had already destroyed many aspects of indigenous culture.

Characters

Okonkwo is physically strong and is famous for having thrown the renowned wrestler Amalinze the Cat in a match. The story follows him and his fall from greatness. He has three wives, a mark of wealth and status in the Ibo culture. His father, Unoka, was a laze-about and it is Okonkwo's goal in life to become opposite of what his father was. He is driven by his fear of appearing weak, and is quick to anger. Living in a society where men rule, Okonkwo has a patriarchal attitude towards his family and does not express his love and affection.

Ekwefi is Okonkwo's second wife who has had trouble having children. She loves her only surviving child, daughter Ezinma. She was once the most beautiful woman in the village and was at one time married to another man, but she left this man and came to Okonkwo's obi because she was in love with him.

Ezinma is the sickly daughter of Okonkwo and Ekwefi. She is Okonkwo’s favorite child, even though she is a girl (Okonkwo frequently laments that Ezinma should have been a boy). She is prioritized by her mother, as Ezinma is her only surviving child after many pregnancies. Due to the premature deaths of her siblings and her own poor health as a child, she is considered by many in the village to be an ogbanje, a child who dies and is reborn to the same mother many times. Ezinma becomes sick with a fever that Okonkwo treats with herbal medicine. Later, Ezinma is taken on a mysterious late night journey through the villages by Chielo, the priestess of Agbala. Scared of the results, Ekwefi follows Chielo through the night. Ezinma becomes healthy and eventually grows into a beautiful woman like her mother.

Nwoye is Okonkwo's eldest son. He is not very much like his father and is more interested in the stories his mother tells than in stories of war. Okonkwo worries that Nwoye is taking after his grandfather Unoka, and treats him roughly, which ultimately causes Nwoye to hate him. After the death of Ikemefuna, Nwoye leaves his family to join the church and takes the name "Isaac." He plans to one day come back and save his mother and sisters. Achebe partially based him off of his own father, who joined the church and took the name, "Isaiah".

Ikemefuna is a young man who was taken from another village to prevent war between the two cities. Ikemefuma lived with Okonkwo and his family for three years, becoming a part of the family and even addressing Okonkwo as father. Nwoye looked up to him greatly. He was killed by Okonkwo.

Ogbuefi Ezeudu is among the oldest members in his clan and is therefore considered very wise. He is described as not only a strong figure of authority, but also a superb orator and friend to Okonkwo. Ezeudu is the only person to tell Okonkwo not to take part in the killing of the innocent Ikemefuma, whom Okonkwo considered as a son. Okonkwo ignores his advice and later regrets it.

Obierika is Okonkwo's closest friend. He, too, is a warrior, but is beginning to question their way of life.

Mr. Brown is one of the first missionaries to come to Umuofia. He is more lenient than his successor, Mr. Smith. He is "very firm in restraining his flock" and is able to let the clan be. He discusses the differences of religion with the clan, because he is interested in understanding other cultures.

Reverend James Smith is the successor of Mr. Brown after the latter's retirement. He "condemned openly Mr. Brown's policy of compromise and accommodation", and sees things as "black and white". His lack of wisdom in dealing with tribal customs eventually results in the church's destruction by angry clan leaders.

Uchendu is the oldest living member of Okonkwo's mother's extensive family. He is considered very wise and appreciates the gift of kinsmen.

Unoka is the protagonist's father. The protagonist is Okonkwo. Okonkwo's father, Unoka, is very weak and not like Okonkwo. Unoka is frightened by the sight of blood and is very lazy when it comes to doing anything.

Themes and motifs

Themes throughout the novel include change, loneliness, abandonment, fear, and importance of social relationships. The latter is depicted by Okonkwo's uncle, Uchendu: "We are better than animals because we have kinsmen. An animal rubs its itching flank against a tree, a man asks his kinsman to scratch him."

The following are respected theme statements connected to Things Fall Apart.

  1. Individuals derive strength from the societies they belong to, and societies derive strength from the individuals who belong to them. In Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo builds his fortune and strength with the help of his society's customs. Likewise, Okonkwo's society benefits from his hard work and determination.
  2. In contacts between other cultures, beliefs about superiority or inferiority are invariably wrong-headed and destructive. When new cultures and religions meet, there is likely to be a struggle for dominance.
  3. Each culture’s world view is limited and partial, and each can benefit from understanding the world views of other cultures. For example, the Christians and Okonkwo's people have a limited view of each other, and have a very difficult time understanding and accepting one another's customs and beliefs.
  4. In spite of innumerable opportunities for understanding, people must strive to communicate. For example, Okonkwo and his son, Nwoye, speak the same language, but have a difficult time understanding one another because they are so different.
  5. A social value—such as individual ambition—which is constructive when balanced by other values, can become destructive when overemphasized at the expense of other values. For example, Okonkwo values tradition so highly that he cannot accept change. (It may be more accurate to say he values tradition because of the high cost he has paid to uphold it, i.e. killing Ikemefuna and moving to Mbanta). The Christian teachings render these large sacrifices on his part meaningless. The distress over the loss of tradition, whether driven by his love of the tradition or the meaning of his sacrifices to it, can be seen as the main reasons for his suicide.
  6. There is no such thing as a static culture; change is continual, and flexibility is necessary for successful adaptation. Because Okonkwo cannot accept the change the Christians bring, he cannot adapt."Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe: Introduction." Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Jeffrey W. Hunter. Vol. 152. Gale Cengage, 2002. eNotes.com. 2006. 12 Jan, 2009 <<A href="http://www.enotes.com/contemporary-literary-criticism/things-fall-apart-chinua-achebe" target="_blank">[51752]>
  7. The struggle between change and tradition is constant.
  8. A rigid individual, unable to change with the times or to criticize his or her own beliefs, is liable to be tragically swept aside by history.
  9. Definitions of masculinity vary throughout different societies. In this case, Okonkwo views aggression and action as masculinity.


Literary significance and reception

Things Fall Apart is a milestone in African literature. It has achieved the status of the archetypal modern African novel in English, and is read in Nigeria and throughout Africa. It is studied widely in Europe and North America, where it has spawned numerous tertiary analytical works. It has achieved similar repute in India and Australia. Considered Achebe's magnum opus, it has sold more than 8 million copies worldwide. Time Magazine included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.

Achebe’s writing about African society is intended to extinguish the misconception that African culture had been savage and primitive by telling the story of the colonization of the Igbo from an African point of view. In Things Fall Apart, western culture is portrayed as being “arrogant and ethnocentric," insisting that the African culture needed a leader. As it had no kings or chiefs, Umofian culture was vulnerable to invasion by western civilization. It is felt that the repression of the Igbo language at the end of the novel contributes greatly to the destruction of the culture. Although Achebe favors the African culture of the post-western society, the author attributes its destruction to the “weaknesses within the native structure.” Achebe portrays the culture as having “a religion, a government, a system of money, and an artistic tradition, as well as a judicial system.

Achebe named Things Fall Apart from a line in William Butler Yeats's "The Second Coming," thus tying in the meaning of the poem itself. The missionaries' arrival begins the downfall of traditional Igbo society. This downfall destroys the Igbo way of life, leading to the death of Okonkwo, who was once a hero of the tribe.

Things Fall Apart has been called a modern Greek tragedy. It has the same plot elements as a Greek tragedy, including the use of a tragic hero, the following of the string model, etc. Okonkwo is a classic tragic hero, even if the story is set in more modern times. He shows multiple hamartia, including hubris (pride) and ate (rashness), and these character traits do lead to his peripeteia, or reversal of fortune, and his downfall at the end of the novel. He is distressed by social changes brought by white men, because he has worked so hard to move up in the traditional society. This position is at risk due to the arrival of a new values system. Those who commit suicide lose their place in the ancestor-worshipping traditional society, to the extent thtat they may not even be touched to give a proper burial. The irony is that Okonkwo completely loses his standing in both value systems. Okonkwo truly has good intentions, but his need to feel in control and his fear that other men will sense weakness in him drive him to make decisions, whether consciously or subconsciously, that he regrets as he progresses through his life.

Language

"In order to gain a wider audience—and also to respond directly to those British colonial writers who depicted Africans as ignorant and uncivilized—Achebe chose to write in English rather than his native Ibo," a decision which earned him much criticism from other African authors. Achebe, in response, pointed out that English was his language as well and that he was free to use it as he pleased, "even as a tool against the same British who brought the language to Africa."

Achebe succeeds in capturing the patterns of Ibo speech and the spirit of the language in the dialogue of Things Fall Apart. The entire text is scattered with Ibo words and phrases, as well as traditional folk tales and proverbs, which bring to life the oral culture of the Ibo people. Proverbs play an irreplaceable role in Ibo culture.

The art of story-telling is a dominant aspect of African culture. It ties together components such as religion, social-class, explanation of the unexplainable, and family structure. Stories that explain the unexplainable are often more whimsical than the stories of social class and war. People bonded over stories. It was something for them to share.

Okonkwo, although he never shared emotions, shared stories with his son Nwoye and the child he looked after, Ikemefuna. He told them stories of the land- "masculine stories of violence and bloodshed." The stories that were shared with Nwoye by his mother were whimsical stories that explained everyday occurrences such as why mosquitoes attack the ears or stories of the conflict between the Earth and Sky. Although Nwoye enjoyed the stories of his mother more than the violent ones of his father, he didn't dare admit it as the stories of women were meant for "children and fools."

These stories, as well as the art of language, are very important in the African culture. Proverbs derived from stories indicate intelligence and knowledge. Through the understanding of the underlying meanings of the stories one can demonstrate knowledge. "Among the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten". Through these proverbs and stories the Ibo have built a foundation for their culture. Things such as the Evil Forest as well as customs such as getting rid of twins or using sticks to demonstrate the bride's dowry have all stemmed from stories told.

Gender roles

Gender differentiation is also seen in Igbo classification of crimes. The narrator of Things Fall Apart states that "The crime [of killing Ezeudu's son] was of two kinds, male and female. Okonkwo had committed the female, because it had been inadvertent. He could return to the clan after seven years." Okonkwo fled to the land of his mother, Mbanta, because a man finds refuge with his mother. Uchendu explains this to Okonkwo:
"It is true that a child belongs to his father. But when the father beats his child, it seeks sympathy in its mother's hut. A man belongs to his fatherland when things are good and life is sweet. But when there is sorrow and bitterness, he finds refuge in his motherland. Your mother is there to protect you. She is buried there. And that is why we say that mother is supreme."


References to history

The events of the novel unfold around the 1890s. The majority of the story takes place in the village of Umuofia, located west of the actual Onitshamarker, on the east bank of the Niger River in Nigeria. The culture depicted is similar to that of Achebe's birthplace of Ogidimarker, where Ibo-speaking people lived together in groups of independent villages ruled by titled elders. The customs described in the novel mirror those of the actual Onitsha people, who lived near Ogidi, and with whom Achebe was familiar.

Within forty years of the British arrival, by the time Achebe was born in 1930, the missionaries were well-established. Achebe's father was among the first to be converted in Ogidi, around the turn of the century. Achebe himself was an orphan, so it can safely be said the character of Nwoye, who joins the church because of a conflict with his father, is not meant to represent the author. Achebe was raised by his grandfather. His grandfather, far from opposing Achebe's conversion to Christianity, allowed Achebe's Christian marriage to be celebrated in his compound.

Political structures in the novel

Prior to British colonization, the Ibo people as featured in Things Fall Apart, lived in a patriarchal collective political system. Decisions were not made by a chief or by any individual but were rather decided by a council of male elders. Religious leaders were also called upon to settle debates reflecting the cultural focus of the Igbo people.The Portuguese were the first Europeans to explore and colonize Nigeria. Though the Portuguese are not mentioned by Achebe, the remaining influence of the Portuguese can be seen in many Nigerian surnames. The British entered Nigeria first through trade and then established The Royal Niger Colony in 1886. The success of the colony led to Nigeria becoming a British protectorate in 1901.The arrival of the British slowly began to deteriorate the traditional society. The British government would intervene in tribal disputes rather than allowing the Igbo to settle issues in a traditional manner. The frustration caused by these shifts in power is illustrated by the struggle of the protagonist Okonkwo in the second half of the novel Things Fall Apart.

Film, television, and theatrical adaptations

A dramatic radio program called Okonkwo was made of the novel in April 1961 by the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation. It featured Wole Soyinka in a supporting role.

In 1987, the book was made into a very successful mini series directed by David Orere and broadcast on Nigerian television by the NTA (Nigerian Television Authority).It starred movie veterans like Pete Edochie, Nkem Owoh and Sam Loco.

Footnotes

  1. Washington State University study guide
  2. Kwame Anthony Appiah (1992), "Introduction" to the Everyman's Library edition.
  3. Random House Teacher's Guide
  4. http://www.time.com/time/2005/100books/the_complete_list.html
  5. www.cliffnotes.com. Set in 1880s, in the Nigerian village of Umuofia, before missionaries and other outsiders had arrived, Things Fall Apart tells the story of the struggles, trials, and the eventual destruction of its main character, Okonkwo. His rise to prominence and his eventual fall acts as a metaphor reflecting the plight of the Umuofia native people. Play the story forward until the mid 1950’s, when it was written, and expand it to represent an African culture entirely subordinate to Western influence, and the scope and reach of the book is revealed.
  6. Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. EMC Corporation. 2003.
  7. Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. EMC Corporation. 2003.
  8. Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. EMC Corporation. 2003.
  9. Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: First Anchor Books, 1994.
  10. Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: First Anchor Books, 1994.
  11. Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. EMC Corporation. 2003.
  12. Ezenwa-Ohaeto (1997). Chinua Achebe: A Biography Bloomington: Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-33342-3. P. 81.


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