by Chinua Achebe
(Rant/sidetrack: I’ve been meaning to read Things Fall Apart for a while and I actually tried to read it for an assignment in high school. My Unnamed Teacher basically told me I’d read it before and called my a liar when I said I hadn’t. Unnamed Teacher, you are a dick. You played favorites, ridiculed kids, and generally got too involved with students’ lives. I’m pretty sure you advised my girlfriend that she was hanging out with the wrong crowd- referring to me and a couple of friends. And you called me a liar, without basis. You may be smart and successful, but being a good teacher should be more than making sure your students read the right books; you should probably not be using your position of power to play students against each other. Just my opinion, guy.)
The title and epigraph of Things Fall Apart come from the W.B. Yeats poem “The Second Coming,” the epigraph reading:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
I’ve never read the full poem, nor any others by this poet whose name I consistently mispronounce (it apparently rhymes with ‘gates,’ not ‘beets’), and I generally don’t read too much into epigraphs anyway. I also tend confuse epigraphs with epitaphs. But in this case, the epigraph primes you for the whole novel. When I consider the themes of Things Fall Apart, they’re all there, in those four lines.
The story begins by describing Okonkwo, whose ambition and sense of self-worth come from his distaste for his father’s laziness and poverty. As such, Okonkwo strives to become one of the most powerful men in his village of Umuofia. That chip on his shoulder allows him to become a champion wrestler, a successful farmer, and a leader in his community. His demeanor, however, sets him a bit apart from his village; he’s impulsive and quick to anger, and he resists change and scorns compromise. In the end, the attributes that Okonkwo sees as his virtues are revealed as his weaknesses.
It’s hard for me to say whether Okonkwo brings on his own downfall, or whether he’s brought down by forces he can’t control, primarily in the form of British colonization. Perhaps it’s both equally, and I could certainly see Okonkwo’s story playing out the same way regardless of the outside influence. If this was an English essay, I’d probably have to take a stand on the matter, but it’s not. It’s not for me to decide whether one’s personality defects qualify as tragic flaws.
I also wonder what political message, if any, Achebe means to send with the book. Half of the story takes place before Okonkwo’s people encounter the British missionaries, when ‘white men’ referred to lepers and not Europeans. This was probably the more interesting part of the book for me, watching Okonkwo navigate a society that he understands pretty well, though maybe not as well as he thinks. He plays by the rules, for the most part, and experiences successes, but every once in a while he runs afoul of societal norms, and must pay the price.
When the Europeans do arrive, Okonkwo reacts in his Okonkwo-like fashion, but many others take a more conciliatory and inclusive stance. To Okonkwo and those like him, the loss of the clan’s cohesion is the real tragedy, even though the missionaries don’t attempt to coerce the clan into adopting Christianity. Okonkwo sees that his ideals are becoming less relevant all the time, and doesn’t understand how other people don’t see it. He’s lived his whole life by his own code, and it’s served him pretty well so far, so how else is he supposed to deal with these new problems?
So there’s really two ways to frame the story. You could see it as Okonkwo’s story, set during a particularly difficult period of history, or you could see the story of the invasion, colonization, and proselytization of Africa, as seen through the eyes of one man. I think I prefer the former; it seems more interesting, and more universal. Okonkwo is a man who thinks he understands the world better than the world understands itself. Whether you call it confidence, or arrogance, or something else, we can all relate to that feeling. Nobody wants to go to bed understanding their place in the world, only to wake up completely lost.
As for the latter (the novel about the clash between British and Ibo cultures), I think that could be interesting as well, but I don’t really know much of the actual history. In fact, I’d never heard of the Ibo culture before reading Things Fall Apart. Achebe does a good job, I think, of presenting an African perspective on this confrontation, through the eyes of Okonkwo; then again, he also sets Okonkwo apart from the rest of his tribe, which makes it harder for me to see him as representative of Africa or of the Ibo. So I prefer to see colonialism as a backdrop, providing context for our protagonist’s attitudes and actions, and making his story all the more tragic.
Things Fall Apart is a great book. A real think-piece. As I sat here writing this, I realized that Okonkwo is one of the most interesting literary characters I’ve seen in a while. So read it.