Chinua Achebe: Things Fall Apart

Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, is a powerful novel based on a conception of humans as self-reflexive beings and a definition of culture as a set of control mechanisms.

Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, is a powerful novel about the social changes that occurred when the white man first arrived on the African continent. In attempting to understand behavior in settings different from those in which the discipline evolved, causes for the failure to articulate the relationship between the individual and social change are explored. The novel is based on a conception of humans as self-reflexive beings and a definition of culture as a set of control mechanisms.

Things Fall Apart, is the story of Okonkwo, an elder, in the Igbo tribe. He is a fairly successful man who earned the respect of the tribal elders. Okonkwo's father was laughed at by the villagers, and was considered a failure. However, this was not true of Okonkwo who lived in a modest home :

Okonkwo's prosperity was visible in his household. He had a large compound enclosed by a thick wall of red earth. His own hut, or obi, stood immediately behind the only gate in the red walls. Each of his three wives had their own hut, which together formed a half moon behind the obi. The barn was built against one end of the red walls, and long stacks of yams stood out prosperously in it. (P. 10)

Unfortunately, the clash of the cultures that occurs when the white man's missionaries come to Africa in an attempt to convert the tribal members, causes Okonkwo to lash out at the white man and results in his banishment from the tribe. Okonkwo had a bad temper which he often displayed:

Okonkwo ruled his household with a heavy hand. His wives, especially the youngest, lived in perpetual fear of his fiery temper, and so did his little children. Perhaps down in his heart Okonwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear of failure and of weakness. (P. 9)

The cracks within Okonkwo's character are not so much external as internal, manifestations of those aspects of his being that have been his greatest strengths: acting without thinking; never showing any emotion besides anger; inflexibility; fear of being perceived as weak and, therefore, womanly. Slowly, these characteristics that have served Okonkwo so well in the past, begin to alter the direction of his life. The first such incident occurs when Okonkwo accidentally breaks the Week of Peace. Angered by his second wife, who has forgotten to prepare a meal for him, Okonkwo beats her mercilessly, forgetting about the time of propitiation for the Goddess of Peace.

The Priestess Ezeani's warning to Okonkwo places the incident in perspective: "You have committed a great evil. ... The evil you have done can ruin the whole clan. . ." Ezeani's remark thus provides an anthropological explanation for Okonkwo's rash act. If a man's anger drives him to forget the collective whole, everyone will pay the price for that transgression if the gods retaliate and bring crop failure. Ironically, Okonkwo has already begun acting as an individual and not as a part of the community.

Homicide, murder, the spilling of blood--nothing could be worse in traditional life, except for prescribed events such as warfare and decrees by an oracle (Ikemefuna's sacrifice). Okonkwo has destroyed the invisible bridge between ritual and family, symbolic act and ties of kinship.

Okownko's fate is sealed at the end of chapeter one. At the funeral for Ezeudu in the final chapter of Part 1, Okonkwo--who in the previous chapter has just been described as "the greatest wrestler and warrior alive"--accidentally shoots Ezeudu's son with his gun. "It was the dead man's sixteen-year-old son, who with his brothers and half-brothers had been dancing the traditional farewell to their father. Okonkwo's gun had exploded and a piece of iron had pierced the boy's heart." Okonkwo's property must be destroyed, his houses burned, his animals killed. The earth must be cleansed.

As soon as the day broke, a large crowd of men from Ezedu's quarter stormed Okwonko's compound, dressed in garbs of war. They set fire to his houses, demolished his red walls and destroyed his barn. It was the justice of the earth goddess, and they were merely his messengers. They had no hatred against Okwonko. His greatest friend, Obierka, was among them. Thye were merely cleansing the land which Okwonko had polluted with the blood of a clansman. (P. 87)

Okonkwo is forced into exile for seven years, because this traditional Iboman, obsessed with his masculinity, has committed a "female crime," since the boy's death was accidental. During his exile (Part 2 of the novel), Okonkwo is listless, almost paralyzed by his inability to do any work beyond providing for his family. Achebe implies that once Okonkwo is away from his fatherland, his character is effaced, almost obliterated. He can no longer act as a man among men. Instead, he is limited to reaction, especially rage, as he hears stories about the coming of the white men. He calls other men fools for not fighting back, for not retaliating against the Europeans, but his ravings are mostly impotent, unheard cries of frustration that Ibomen are no longer men but women, "clucking like old hens." When he learns of Nwoye's decamping to the Christian missionaries, he asks himself, "How then could he have begotten a son like Nwoye, degenerate and effeminate?" Okwonko correctly views the white missions as a threat to his way of life, and community. He is too proud to change just because the missions have more power.

Okonkwo's exile thus establishes a major premise of the novel: a man's character is rooted in the social fabric of his people, his community. If he leaves that community, his own character may change. Worse, if that society itself changes and he does not, the two will become impossibly at odds with one another, which is precisely what happens to Okonkwo after his return to Umuofia at the end of his exile when he returns home. The white men send their a messenger to the village. Okonkwo is still enraged about Nwoye's conversion.

He sprang to his feet as soon as he saw who it was. He confronted the head messenger, trembling with hate, unable to utter a word. The ma was fearless and stood his ground, his four men lined up behind him. . .In a flash Okwonko drew his machet decended twice and the man's head lay beside his uniformed body. (P. 144)

It is Okwonko's inability to recognize change that in the end forces him to commit suicide. It is the white missions inability to recognize that the Africans did not wish to change which adds to his demise. The missions represent the ruthlessness of the white man in Africa. They were told to accept the white's ways, for their own benefit or suffer the consequences. In this light the missions can only be seen as brutal, and anything but true Christians, but rather religious zealots who like Okwonko wish to force their world view upon others.

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