Things Fall Apart is considered the first work of literature written by an African writer, which had received acknowledgement worldwide. It is a post-colonial novel, which is widely read both inside and outside of Africa. The reader gets to follow the life of Okonkwo, who is a farmer, a warrior, and a wrestling champion for his village. The book vividly describes the life of the man, the village’s customs and traditions, its struggles and its triumphs.
The second part of the book describes the influence of the Christian missionaries on the traditions and life in Okonkwo’s village and the neighbouring villages. Although the common perception of the novel is a tragic story of an indigenous culture divided by a malevolent foreign influence (Kamara 1), the actual tragedy is that of one man, who failed to accept change and adapt to it.
Let us first examine the world that fell apart, the world where Okonkwo lived. The author describes it as an idyllic existence. It is not a perfect existence and has its difficulties, but it is stable. African society is portrayed as “how things should be.” However, is this world truly like that? It may not seem that way to a modern reader. The author describes a primitive society full of unjust laws, taboos, and superstitions. It is demonstrated many times throughout the story.
In Okonkwo’s world, it is acceptable to beat and punish women, as long as it is not excessive and is not conducted on religious holidays. Once, the man beats up his youngest wife for the great crime of staying too long at her friend’s place to plait her hair (Achebe 10). Several times in the story, it is mentioned that if children are born as twins, it means they are “cursed” and must perish at birth. Okonkwo’s friend, Obierika, lost two of his children to this insane tradition (Achebe 46).
The village submits to a vast array of superstition propagated by their own religion. The sad tale of Okonkwo’s adopted son, Ikemefuna, serves as a testament to that. The boy was killed because the Oracle said that it had to be done (Achebe 22). The author shows these events as unfortunate and regretful. However, never once he states that they were wrong. The world of Okonkwo is a world dominated by strongmen like himself. The weak and the women have very little to say in it. The main character perceives this as Status Quo, as the order of things. He is used to such traditions. His tragedy begins when his world starts falling apart.
The alleged destruction of Okonkwo’s world begins with the arrival of Christian missionaries. Weak and small in number, they arrive at the village Okonkwo was exiled to, as well as the village where he used to live. It is not a secret that the white people brought a lot of grief to the black population of Africa. Slavers and mercenaries soon followed the missionaries. Millions were enslaved (Kenalemang 3). However, none of this was depicted in the novel.
The only mentions of the atrocities made by the whites were the massacre of the Alabama tribe, which only happened after they killed a white messenger, who came to them in peace. Aside from that, the white influence in the novel was generally described as something good. First, the missionaries deconstructed the greatest superstition of the Ibo people by building a Church on the “evil grounds.” They brought medicine and education, teaching the natives to read and write. They took in the outcasts like the twins, the weak, and the osa. The missionaries made all members equal among each other, no matter the background or gender.
Lastly, the government system was depicted as just and proper – it only punished criminals for murder and vandalism. These are the reasons why Okonkwo’s old ways lost the battle in the story. It did not have the tools to upstage the competition. Okonkwo was unable to accept the change in society. After a few unsuccessful attempts to battle the foreign influence, he kills a messenger, only to hang himself later as if admitting defeat.
While the spreading of Christianity had a lot of say in taking apart Okonkwo’s world, in the end, he had a final word in its dismantlement. The integrity of world order is a relative term – each has a different picture of it. The people of his village may have changed their views and beliefs, but they were his people still. His own son, although converted to Christianity, was going to remain his son (Quayson 120). The only thing Okonkwo had to do was to accept it.
He did not. Instead, he clung to the old views and traditions within a changing world, which looked like it was falling apart. In so doing, Okonkwo contributed to his own demise. With him, his world fell apart. The man deserves pity and sympathy of the readers. He saw a centuries-long order change so drastically before one’s eyes could be a hard thing for anyone to accept.
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor, 1994. Print.
Kamara, Sankara. ‘Things Fall Apart’ and the Case against Imperialism. Web.
Kenalemang, Lame Maatla. Things Fall Apart: An Analysis of Pre and Post-Colonial Igbo Society. Web.
Quayson, Ato. “Realism, Criticism, and the Disguises of Both: A Reading of Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” with an Evaluation of the Criticism Relating to It.” Research in African Literatures 25.4 (1994): 117-136. Print.