Author: Chinua Achebe
Publisher: William Heinemann Ltd.
Genre: Historical Fiction, Classic, African Literature
First Publication: 1958
Major Characters: Okonkwo, Ikemefuna, Ezinma, Nwoye
Theme: Tradition vs. Change, Fate vs. Free Will, Masculinity, Religion
Setting: Pre-colonial Nigeria, 1890s
Narrator: Third-person omniscient
Book Summary: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Okonkwo is the greatest wrestler and warrior alive, and his fame spreads throughout West Africa like a bush-fire in the harmattan. But when he accidentally kills a clansman, things begin to fall apart. Then Okonkwo returns from exile to find missionaries and colonial governors have arrived in the village. With his world thrown radically off-balance he can only hurtle towards tragedy.
First published in 1958, Chinua Achebe’s stark, coolly ironic novel reshaped both African and world literature, and has sold over ten million copies in forty-five languages. This arresting parable of a proud but powerless man witnessing the ruin of his people begins Achebe’s landmark trilogy of works chronicling the fate of one African community, continued in Arrow of God and No Longer at Ease.
Book Review: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Things Fall Apart is the kind of book that makes reading so enjoyable. Not only did it have a captivating story to tell, it also had a great deal of meaning hidden within its text, giving me plenty of reasons to come back to this book long after finishing it. This is an insightful novel that makes you think about a variety of themes and morals while simultaneously entertaining and captivating readers with its characters and setting. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is one of those books that I will constantly look back on and think about for years to come, for such was its level of quality on both a narrative scale as well as in terms of its rich subtext.
“The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”
Things Fall Apart tells two concurrent stories that overlap and counterbalance each other throughout the novel. One of the novel’s focuses centers around the protagonist Okonkwo, a fierce warrior who represents traditional African culture. The other focus is on Okonkwo’s tribe, Umuofia, as it undergoes a drastic change in all areas of life once European missionaries enter the fray. The stark divide in ideologies between Okonkwo and Umuofia becomes the focal point of the story and leads to some very contentious moments in the book.
What is one to do when their home has turned against them, when it has done away with your long-held beliefs and values?
What is one to do when they are powerless to stop a seemingly unstoppable force from ravaging their essence?
These are the conflicts present in Things Fall Apart as seen through Okonkwo’s battle against his ever-changing tribe in the midst of a European takeover. What follows is an entertaining yet poignant tale that will not soon be forgotten.
“Age was respected among his people, but achievement was revered. As the elders said, if a child washed his hands he could eat with kings.”
Okonkwo’s story was excellent. I felt firmly attached to this character the whole time reading, always anxious to see what happens next in his journey or where he would find himself at its conclusion. Granted, Okonkwo may not be the nicest character in literature, nor would you be necessarily wrong in assessing him as a bad person. He does some pretty rotten things in the novel, but context means everything, and though he may have done wrong by conventional standards, he did these things with good intentions, as deluded as they may have been.
In my view, Okonkwo is a tragic hero whose actions are taken in the best interests of his family and tribe, never out of any selfish or vain reasons that would usually lend themselves to an unlikable or evil character. He is tremendously flawed, but so are a lot of tragic figures in literature, which makes them all the more interesting to follow. More to that point, his flaws were completely relatable and forgivable since everything that happened to Okonkwo was the result of circumstances beyond his control. Okonkwo was one of the strongest, most well-developed, and fascinating literary characters I have come across.
“The world has no end, and what is good among one people is an abomination with others.”
The brilliance of Things Fall Apart is how objective it manages to be while at the same time establishing an intimate feel throughout the entirety of the novel. That is to say, Chinua Achebe was able to shine a light on the culture of the missionaries as well as the Africans and point out their strengths and weaknesses, all the while engaging the readers in a very personal tale of one tribesman’s struggle to come to terms with this newly imposed way of life.
Achebe never once painted Umuofia and its people as being the “good guys,” or the helpless and innocent victims of colonialism. Likewise, he never made the European missionaries out to be the heartless “bad guys” who sought only to inflict damage and pain unto the Africans. Instead, Achebe balanced these two sides out and demonstrated that nothing is ever merely black and white, and that complexity exists everywhere and cannot be stereotyped or callously assumed. That is the magic behind Things Fall Apart – that it is capable of being many things to many people while maintaining an objective ambiguity about it, thus leaving the interpreting up to the readers rather than having its meanings blatantly shoved down our throats. This diversity of perspective and opinion make books like Things Fall Apart all the more worthwhile a reading experience.
“Eneke the bird says that since men have learned to shoot without missing, he has learned to fly without perching.”
Another aspect of Things Fall Apart that made it great was its historical and cultural significance in the field of literature. Though the events of the novel were purely fictitious, they resembled the real-life events which occurred all throughout Africa during a time when the British were colonizing across the globe. This novel gave many readers, such as myself, an accessible means by which to learn about the infringement of these African cultures and the assimilation which took place thereafter by the British. Beforehand, I was not too knowledgeable on African affairs in the early 20th century, nor was I fully aware of the intentions of the Europeans as they colonized new lands.
However, after reading Things Fall Apart, I came away from it learning a lot about the history and culture of the African people and their plights, as well as about the motivations of the missionaries. Although I would not recommend this book as a substitute for a textbook on the subject, I can say that it conveys a good deal of historical context that would satisfy those hoping to get more involved in African literary studies.
This is a relatively short novel, and its chapters fly by so fast that you will be through with it in no time at all, which may be the only bad thing I can say about this book. Though as short a read as it may have been, its impact was anything but fleeting with a memorable story and a plethora of subtext in which to indulge for a long time to come.