Title: Things Fall Apart
Author: Chinua Achebe
Genre: Historical Fiction
Things Fall Apart tells two intertwining stories, both centering on Okonkwo, a “strong man” of an Ibo village in Nigeria. The first, a powerful fable of the immemorial conflict between the individual and society, traces Okonkwo’s fall from grace with the tribal world. The second, as modern as the first is ancient, concerns the clash of cultures and the destruction of Okonkwo’s world with the arrival of aggressive European missionaries.
These perfectly harmonized twin dramas are informed by an awareness capable of encompassing at once the life of nature, human history, and the mysterious compulsions of the soul.
My Biggest Takeaways: Culture, Colonization & Change
A classic novel that helped to pave the way for African literature, Things Fall Apart observes the intricacies of ancient Igbo society and critiques the harsh consequences of Western colonization.
Part of why this book is so revered is that it gives readers a look into the nuances of African life through the eyes of an actual African. Achebe hinted at as much — that historically, Africa’s story has been told by European writers, and that there was a surprising lack of African perspectives on Africa. It’s through the fictional village of Umofia that we see that society is much more unique and complex than an outsider might realize. He puts a lot of care into describing the traditional customs like marriage and “bride prices”, games and festivities, the judicial system/crime & punishment, economics and the monetary system, spirituality and religious practices, class structure and the implications of titles, gender roles, etc. It’s fiction but it reads almost like a history book. And although he certainly could have, Achebe does not romanticize Igbo village life; he’s shows readers the good, the bad, and the absolutely ugly. It’s through the main character, Okonkwo, that we’re given a brutal look at how hypermasculinity endemic to a patriarchal society results in toxic behaviors that impact family dynamics, interpersonal interactions, civil involvement, criminal code, etc. (Sounds kinda like contemporary society, doesn’t it?)
But another reason that Things Fall Apart has been so well-received is that there’s a kind of universal aspect to its story. During and after Okonkwo’s exile from Umofia, things begin to “fall apart,” as outsiders from Europe are introduced into the fold. When Western missionaries decide to settle the lower Niger River Valley, tensions rise as the their new religious, economic, and judicial practices begin to infringe upon the Igbo way of life. The Igbo’s spirituality is dismissed as paganistic, and their values are challenged by the supposed inclusiveness and justness of Western Christianity. Simultaneously, the Europeans’ real mission appears to be less religious and more imperialistic in nature, and they encounter blowback when their zealous usurpation of the Igbo government structure is met with violence. Since nearly every country on earth was either colonized or had outside influence exerted upon it at some point in history, this novel, in addition to being a uniquely African story, rings true for different countries and cultures around the globe.
In these ways, it’s easy to see why this is such an important work of literature. It’s too bad it took me so long to finally read this, but, as the saying goes, “better late than never.”
Rating: ★★★★ (4 stars out of 5)
Did you read this novel? If so, did you enjoy it? What elements of the story resonated with you the most?