Things Fall Apart
|Cover artist||C. W. Barton|
|Publisher||William Heinemann Ltd.|
Things Fall Apart is a novel written by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe in 1958. It is seen as the archetypal modern African novel in English, one of the first to receive global critical acclaim. It is a staple book in schools throughout Africa and is widely read and studied in English-speaking countries around the world. It was first published in 1958 by William Heinemann Ltd in the UK; in 1962, it was also the first work published in Heinemann's African Writers Series. The title of the novel comes from a line in W. B. Yeats' poem "The Second Coming".
The novel follows the life of Okonkwo, a Igbo ("Ibo" in the novel) leader and local wrestling champion in the fictional Nigerian village of Umuofia. The work is split into three parts, the first describing his family and personal history, the customs and society of the Igbo, and the second and third sections introduce the influence of British colonialism and Christian missionaries on the Igbo community.
Things Fall Apart was followed by a sequel, No Longer at Ease (1960), originally written as the second part of a larger work along with Arrow of God (1964). 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, are spiritual successors to the previous novels in chronicling African history.
Set in pre-colonial Nigeria in the 1890s, Things Fall Apart highlights the clash between colonialism and traditional culture. The protagonist Okonkwo is strong, hard-working, and strives to show no weakness. Okonkwo wants to dispel his father Unoka’s tainted legacy of being effeminate (he borrowed and lost money, and neglected his wife and children) and cowardly (he feared the sight of blood). Okonkwo works to build his wealth entirely on his own, as Unoka died a shameful death and left many unpaid debts. Although brusque with his three wives, children, and neighbours, he is wealthy, courageous, and powerful among the people of his village. He is a leader of his village, and he has attained a position in his society for which he has striven all his life. 
Okonkwo is selected by the elders to be the guardian of Ikemefuna, a boy taken by the village as a peace settlement between Umuofia and another village after Ikemefuna's father killed an Umuofian woman. The boy lives with Okonkwo's family and Okonkwo grows fond of him. The boy looks up to Okonkwo and considers him a second father. The Oracle of Umuofia eventually pronounces that the boy must be killed. Ezeudu, the oldest man in the village, warns Okonkwo that he should have nothing to do with the murder because it would be like killing his own child. But to avoid seeming weak and feminine to the other men of the village, Okonkwo participates in the murder of the boy despite the warning from the old man. In fact, Okonkwo himself strikes the killing blow even as Ikemefuna begs his "father" for protection. For many days after killing Ikemefuna, Okonkwo feels guilty and saddened by this.
Shortly after Ikemefuna's death, things begin to go wrong for Okonkwo. During a gun salute at Ezeudu's funeral, Okonkwo's gun explodes and kills Ezeudu's son. He and his family are sent into exile for seven years to appease the gods he has offended. While Okonkwo is away in Mbanta, he learns that white men are living in Umuofia with the intent of introducing their religion, Christianity. As the number of converts increases, the foothold of the white people grows and a new government is introduced. The village is forced to respond with either appeasement or resistance to the imposition of the white people's nascent society.
Returning from exile, Okonkwo finds his village changed by the presence of the white men. He and other tribal leaders try to reclaim their hold on their native land by destroying a local Christian church. In return, the leader of the white government takes them prisoner and holds them for ransom for a short while, further humiliating and insulting the native leaders. As a result, the people of Umuofia finally gather for what could be a great uprising. Okonkwo, a warrior by nature and adamant about following Umuofian custom and tradition, despises any form of cowardice and advocates war against the white men. When messengers of the white government try to stop the meeting, Okonkwo kills one of them. He realizes with despair that the people of Umuofia are not going to fight to protect themselves — his society's response to such a conflict, which for so long had been predictable and dictated by tradition, is changing.
When the local leader of the white government comes to Okonkwo's house to take him to court, he finds that Okonkwo has hanged himself; he ultimately commits suicide rather than be tried in a colonial court. Among his own people, Okonkwo's actions have ruined his reputation and status, as it is strictly against the teachings of the Igbo to commit suicide.
- Okonkwo is the novel's protagonist. He has three wives and eight children, and is a brave and rash Umuofian (Nigerian) warrior and clan leader. Unlike most, he cares more for his daughter Ezinma than his son Nwoye whom he believes is weak. Okonkwo is the son of the gentle and lazy Unoka, a man he resents for his weaknesses. Okonkwo strives to make his way in a culture that traditionally values manliness. As a young man he defeated the village's best wrestler, earning him lasting prestige. He therefore rejects everything for which he believes his father stood: Unoka was idle, poor, profligate, cowardly, gentle, and interested in music and conversation. Okonkwo consciously adopts opposite ideals and becomes productive, wealthy, brave, violent, and opposed to music and anything else that he regards as "soft," such as conversation and emotion. He is stoic to a fault. He is also the hardest-working member of his clan. Okonkwo's life is dominated by fear of failure and of weakness—the fear that he will resemble his father. Ironically, in all his efforts not to end up like his father, he commits suicide, becoming in his culture an abomination to the Earth and rebuked by the tribe as his father was (Unoka died from swelling and was likewise considered an abomination). Okonkwo's suicide represents not only his culture's rejection of him, but his rejection of the changes in his people's culture, as he realizes that the Igbo society that he so valued has been forever altered by the Christian missionaries.
- Ekwefi is Okonkwo's second wife. Although she falls in love with Okonkwo seeing him in a wrestling match, she marries another man because Okonkwo is too poor to pay her bride price at that time. Two years later, she runs away to Okonkwo's compound one night and later marries him. But, she receives severe beatings from Okonkwo just like his other wives but unlike them, she is known to talk back to Okonkwo. She is the only one who would have the audacity to knock on the door of his obi at night. Having met with grave misfortune with the death of her first nine children, she is a devoted mother to Eznima whom she protects and loves dearly. She marches after Chielo, a priestess who demands that Agbala, Oracle of the Hills and Caves wishes to see Eznima through the dark woods and even makes up her mind to enter the cave where Agbala resides and die with her daughter if need be. Okonkwo worries about them and goes to the mouth of the cave himself after waiting for a certain period, to appear masculine.
- Unoka is Okonkwo's father, who lived a life in contrast to typical Igbo masculinity. He loved language and music, the flute in particular. He is lazy and miserly, neglecting to take care of his wives and children and even dies with unpaid debts. Okonkwo spends his life trying not to become a failure like his father Unoka.
- Nwoye is Okonkwo's son, about whom Okonkwo worries, fearing that he will become like Unoka. Similar to Unoka, Nwoye does not subscribe to the traditional Igbo view of masculinity being equated to violence; rather, he prefers the stories of his mother. Nwoye connects to Ikemefuma, who presents an alternative to Okonkwo's rigid masculinity. He is one of the early converts to Christianity and takes on the Christian name Isaac, an act which Okonkwo views as a final betrayal.
- Ikemefuna is a boy from the Mbaino tribe. He is put into the care of Okonkwo in a settlement when a Ikemefuna's father murders the wife of an Umuofian. Ikemefuna is ultimately killed, an act which Okonkwo does not prevent, and even participates in, for fear of seeming unmanly.
- Ezinma is Okonkwo's favorite daughter, and the only child of his wife Ekwefi. Ezinma is very much the antithesis of a normal woman within the culture and Okonkwo routinely remarks that she would've made a much better boy than a girl, even wishing that this was the case of her birth. Ezinma often contradicts and challenges her father, which wins his adoration, affection, and respect. She is very similar to her father, and this is made apparent when she matures into a beautiful young woman who refuses to marry during her family's exile, instead choosing to help her father regain his place of respect within society.
- Obierika is Okonkwo's best friend from Umuofia. He is a strong and powerful man in Umuofia, even though he is much less violent or arrogant than Okonkwo. Obierika often talks Okonkwo out of doing anything rash, and helps Okonkwo when he is on exile from Umuofia.
- Ogbuefi Ezeudu is one of the elders of Umuofia. He is regarded as very wise, and gives Okonkwo good advice. At his funeral, Ezeudu's son is accidentally killed when Okonkwo's gun misfires, sending Okonkwo and his family into exile.
Most of the story takes place in the village of Umuofia, located west of the actual city of Onitsha, on the east bank of the Niger River in Nigeria. The events of the novel unfold in the 1890s. The culture depicted, that of the Igbo people, is similar to that of Achebe's birthplace of Ogidi, where Igbo-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 arrival of the British, 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 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.
Achebe writes his novels in English because written Standard Igbo was created by combining various dialects, creating a stilted written form. In a 1994 interview with The Paris Review, Achebe said, "the novel form seems to go with the English language. There is a problem with the Igbo language. It suffers from a very serious inheritance which it received at the beginning of this century from the Anglican mission. They sent out a missionary by the name of Dennis. Archdeacon Dennis. He was a scholar. He had this notion that the Igbo language—which had very many different dialects—should somehow manufacture a uniform dialect that would be used in writing to avoid all these different dialects. Because the missionaries were powerful, what they wanted to do they did. This became the law. But the standard version cannot sing. There's nothing you can do with it to make it sing. It's heavy. It's wooden. It doesn't go anywhere."
Achebe's choice to write in English has caused controversy. While both African and non-African critics agree that Achebe modeled Things Fall Apart on classic European literature, they disagree about whether his novel upholds a Western model, or, in fact, subverts or confronts it. Achebe has continued to defend his decision: "English is something you spend your lifetime acquiring, so it would be foolish not to use it. Also, in the logic of colonization and decolonization it is actually a very powerful weapon in the fight to regain what was yours. English was the language of colonization itself. It is not simply something you use because you have it anyway."
Achebe is noted for his inclusion of and weaving in of proverbs from Igbo oral culture into his writing. This influence was explicitly referenced by Achebe in Things Fall Apart: "Among the Igbo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten."
Literary significance and reception
Things Fall Apart is a milestone in African literature. It has come to be seen as the archetypal modern African novel in English, and is read in Nigeria and throughout Africa. Of all of Achebe's works, Things Fall Apart is the one read most often, and has generated the most critical response, examination, and literary criticism. It is studied widely in Europe and North America, where it has spawned numerous secondary and tertiary analytical works. It has achieved similar status and repute in India, Australia and Oceania. 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. The novel has been translated into more than fifty languages, and is often used in literature, world history, and African studies courses across the world.
Achebe is now considered to be the essential novelist on African identity, nationalism, and decolonization. Achebe's main focus has been cultural ambiguity and contestation. The complexity of novels such as Things Fall Apart depends on Achebe's ability to bring competing cultural systems and their languages to the same level of representation, dialogue, and contestation.
Reviewers have praised Achebe's neutral narration and have described Things Fall Apart as a realistic novel. Much of the critical discussion about Things Fall Apart concentrates on the socio-political aspects of the novel, including the friction between the members of Igbo society as they confront the intrusive and overpowering presence of Western government and beliefs. Ernest N. Emenyonu commented that "Things Fall Apart is indeed a classic study of cross-cultural misunderstanding and the consequences to the rest of humanity, when a belligerent culture or civilization, out of sheer arrogance and ethnocentrism, takes it upon itself to invade another culture, another civilization."
Achebe's writing about African society, in telling from an African point of view the story of the colonization of the Igbo, tends to extinguish the misconception that African culture had been savage and primitive. 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, Umuofian 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 favours the African culture of the pre-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.
The achievement of Things Fall Apart set the foreground for numerous African novelists. Because of Things Fall Apart, novelists after Achebe have been able to find an eloquent and effective mode for the expression of the particular social, historical, and cultural situation of modern Africa. Before Things Fall Apart was published, Europeans had written most novels about Africa, and they largely portrayed Africans as savages who needed to be enlightened by Europeans. Achebe broke apart this view by portraying Igbo society in a sympathetic light, which allows the reader to examine the effects of European colonialism from a different perspective. He commented, "The popularity of Things Fall Apart in my own society can be explained simply... this was the first time we were seeing ourselves, as autonomous individuals, rather than half-people, or as Conrad would say, 'rudimentary souls'."
The language of the novel has not only intrigued critics but has also been a major factor in the emergence of the modern African novel. Because Achebe wrote in English, portrayed Igbo life from the point of view of an African man, and used the language of his people, he was able to greatly influence African novelists, who viewed him as a mentor.
Achebe's fiction and criticism continue to inspire and influence writers around the world. Hilary Mantel, the Booker Prize-winning novelist in a May 7, 2012 article in Newsweek, "Hilary Mantel's Favorite Historical Fictions", lists Things Fall Apart as one of her five favorite novels in this genre. A whole new generation of African writers – Caine prize winners Binyavanga Wainaina (current director of the Chinua Achebe Center at Bard College) and Helon Habila (Waiting for an Angel  and Measuring Time ); as well as Uzodinma Iweala (Beasts of No Nation ); and Professor Okey Ndibe (Arrows of Rain ) count Chinua Achebe as a significant influence. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the author of the popular and critically acclaimed novels Purple Hibiscus (2003) and Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), commented in a 2006 interview, "Chinua Achebe will always be important to me because his work influenced not so much my style as my writing philosophy: reading him emboldened me, gave me permission to write about the things I knew well."
Film, television, and theatrical adaptations
In 1987, the book was made into a very successful miniseries directed by David Orere and broadcast on Nigerian television by the Nigerian Television Authority. It starred several established film actors, including Pete Edochie, Nkem Owoh and Sam Loco.
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