Chinua Achebe: Things Fall Apart Study
Read the following poem, which is the source of the title of Achebe`s
novel:William Butler Yeats: "The Second Coming"
Yeats was attracted to the spiritual and occult world and
fashioned for himself an elaborate mythology to explain human experience. "The
Second Coming," written after the catastrophe of World War I and with communism
and fascism rising, is a compelling glimpse of an inhuman world about to be
born. Yeats believed that history in part moved in two thousand-year cycles. The
Christian era, which followed that of the ancient world, was about to give way
to an ominous period represented by the rough, pitiless beast in the poem.
Turning and turning in the widening
The falcon cannot
hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all
conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
some revelation is at hand;
Second Coming (2)
is at hand;
The Second Coming! Hardly
are those words out
When a vast image out of
Spiritus Mundi (3)
Troubles my sight: somewhere in
sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again;
but now I know
That twenty centuries (4)
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast,
its hour come round at last
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
(1) Spiral, making the figure of a cone.
(2) Second Coming refers to the promised return of Christ on Doomsday, the
end of the world; but in Revelation 13 Doomsday is also marked by the appearance
of a monstrous beast.
(4) 2,000 years; the creature has been held back since the birth of Christ.
Yeats imagines that the great heritage of Western European civilization is
collapsing, and that the world will be swept by a tide of savagery from the
"uncivilized" portions of the globe. As you read this novel, try to understand
how Achebe`s work is in part an answer to this poem.General
introduction to the novel:Things Fall Apart
, published in
1958, is the seminal African novel in English. Although there were earlier
examples, notably by Achebe`s fellow
, Amos Tutuola,
none has been so influential, not only on African literature, but on literature
around the world. Its most striking feature is to create a complex and
sympathetic portrait of a traditional village culture in Africa. Achebe is
trying not only to inform the outside world about Ibo cultural traditions, but
to remind his own people of their past and to assert that it had contained much
of value. All too many Africans in his time were ready to accept the European
judgment that Africa had no history or culture worth considering.
He also fiercely resents the stereotype of Africa as an undifferentiated
"primitive" land, the "heart of darkness," as Conrad calls it. Throughout the
novel he shows how African cultures vary among themselves and how they change
over time. Look for instances of these variations as you read.
As a young boy the "African literature" he was taught consisted entirely of
works by Europeans about Africa, such as Conrad`s
Heart of Darkness
and Joyce Cary`s Mister Johnson
, which portrays a comic African who
slavishly adores his white colonist boss, to the point of gladly being shot to
death by him. Achebe has said that it was his indignation at this latter novel
that inspired the writing of Things Fall Apart
. Try to see in what ways
his novel answers Cary`s. He also wrote a famous attack on the racism of Heart
of Darkness which continues to the subject of heated debate.
The language of the novel is simple but dignified. When the characters
speak, they use an elevated diction which is meant to convey the sense of Ibo
speech. This choice of language was a brilliant and innovative stroke, given
that most earlier writers had relegated African characters to pidgin or
inarticulate gibberish. One has the sense of listening to another tongue, one
with a rich and valuable tradition.
In this edition, a glossary of Ibo words and phrases is printed at the end
of the book. Be sure to consult it whenever you encounter a new Ibo word or
Note how Achebe immediately establishes his perspective from inside Umuofia
(which is Ibo for "people of the forest") in the first sentence. The wider world
consists of the group of nine related villages which comprise Umuofia and
certain other villages like Mbaino. What are Okonkwo`s main characteristics as
he is depicted in the first few chapters? List as many as you can, being as
specific as possible. What were the characteristics of his father which affect
him so powerfully?
Kola is a mild stimulant, comparable to tea or coffee, which is served on
most social occasions in this culture. It is also one ingredient after which
is named. Note
how the ritual for sharing kola is described without being explained. Why do you
think Achebe does this? He will continue to introduce Ibo customs in this
fashion throughout the novel.
One becomes influential in this culture by earning titles. As with the
Potlatch Indians of our region and many other peoples, this is an expensive
proposition which involves the dispersing most of one`s painfully accumulated
wealth. What do you think are the social functions of such a system?
One of the most famous lines in the novel is "proverbs are the palm-oil
with which words are eaten." What does this mean? Palm oil is a rich yellow oil
pressed from the fruit of certain palm trees and used both for fuel and cooking.
Look for other proverbs as you read. Cowry shells threaded on strings were
traditionally used as a means of exchange by many African cultures. The
villages` distance from the sea makes them sufficiently rare to serve as money.
Cowries from as far away as Southeast Asia have been found in sub-Saharan
What effect does night have on the people? What do they fear? How do they
deal with their fear of snakes at night? Palm-wine is a naturally fermented
product of the palm-wine tree, a sort of natural beer. What is the cause and
nature of the conflict with Mbaino? Beginning with this chapter, trace how women
are related to the religious beliefs of the people. What is the purpose of the
taking of Ikemefuna? Note how Achebe foreshadows the boy`s doom even as he
In what ways does Okonkwo overcompensate for his father`s weaknesses? In
what ways is he presented as unusual for his culture? What is his attitude
toward women? Why does he dislike his son Nwoye so much?
In this polygamous culture each household is enclosed in a compound. Each
wife lives in a hut with her children, and the husband visits each wife in turn,
though he has his own hut as well. Children are often cared for more or less
communally. What do you think the advantages and disadvantages of this form of
social structure are?
What seems to be Achebe`s attitude toward this culture so far? Is his
depicting it as an ideal one? Can you cite any passages which imply a critical
The priestess of Agbala is introduced at the beginning of this chapter. She
is a very significant figure in this book. What effect does her status have on
your judgment of the roles played by women in the culture? The chi or
personal spirit (rather like the daemon of Socrates) is a recurring theme in the
book. The term "second burial" presumably refers to a custom in which the bones
are disinterred after the flesh has rotted away and ceremonially
How is awareness of rank observed in the drinking of the palm wine? Note
that this chapter contains another proverb about proverbs. How does
share-cropping work? What is the relationship of women to agriculture? Note that
a customary way of committing suicide in this culture is hanging. How does
Okonkwo react to "the worst year in living memory?"
What are Okonkwo`s virtues? What are his faults? What does this proverb
mean, "When a man says yes his chi says yes also"? What is Okonkwo`s
relationship with Ikemefuna like? What is the crime that causes Okonkwo`s to be
reprimanded? What does it tell you about the values of the culture? Note that
according to Ezeani, wife-beating is wrong even at other times. Achebe portrays
this aspect of traditional Nigerian life in a very different fashion from
who we will read later. What evidence is there in this chapter that customs have
changed over time? That customs differ among contemporary cultures? What are the
limits of the power of the village rain-maker? Note Nwoye`s affection for
Ikemefuna. It will be significant later.
What is Okonkwo`s attitude toward feasts? Note that it is women who are
chiefly responsible for decorating the houses. In many African cultures they are
also the chief domestic architects, and the mud walls are shaped by them into
pleasing patterns. Guns were brought into Sub-Saharan Africa early on by Muslim
merchants, but would have been fairly unusual. Briefly summarize the story of
Ikwefi. What kind of a woman is she? What do you think is the significance of
women having to sit with their legs together?
This chapter introduces a much-discussed aspect of Ibo belief. As in most
pre-modern cultures, the majority of children died in early childhood. If a
series of such deaths took place in a family it was believed that the same
wicked spirit was being born and dying over and over again, spitefully grieving
its parents. They tended to be apprehensive about new children until they seemed
to be likely to survive, thus proving themselves not to be feared ogbanje. What
roles does Chielo play in the village?
How has Nwoye begun to "act like a man"? What values does Okonkwo associate
with manliness? How does Nwoye relate to these values? "Foo-foo" is pounded yam,
the traditional staple of the Ibo diet. How does the village react to the coming
of the locusts? Achebe is doubtless stressing the contrast with other cultures
here, familiar to African readers from the Bible, in which locusts are
invariably a terrible plague. Why is Okonkwo asked not to take part in the
killing of Ikemefuna? Why do you suppose they have decided to kill the boy? Why
do you think Achebe does not translate the song that Ikemefuna remembers as he
walks along? A matchet is a large knife (Spanish machete). Why does
Okonkwo act as he does?
Most traditional cultures have considered twins magical or cursed. Twins
are in fact unusually common among the Ibo, and some subgroups value them
highly. However, the people of Ikemefuna do not. Note how the introduction of
this bit of knowledge is introduced on the heels of Ikemefuna`s death. Nwoye
serves as a point of view character to criticize some of the more negative
aspects of Umuofia culture. This incident will have a powerful influence on his
reaction to changes in the culture later.
What is Okonkwo`s attitude toward his daughter Ezinma?" Bride-price is the
converse of dowry. Common in many African cultures, it involves the bridegroom`s
family paying substantial wealth in cash or goods for the privilege of marrying
a young woman. Do you think such a custom would tend to make women more valuable
than a dowry system where the woman`s family must offer the gifts to the
bridegroom`s family? How do you think such a system would affect the women
themselves? Note again the emphasis on differing customs, this time as it
applies to palm-wine tapping.
Young women were considered marriageable in their mid-teens. Why do you
think this attitude arose? It is worth noting that European women commonly
married between 15 and 18 in earlier times. There is nothing uniquely African
about these attitudes.
Note the continued treatment of the theme of the variability of values. How
is the notion of white men first introduced into the story? Why might Africans
suppose that they have no toes? What sorts of attitudes are associated with
white men in this passage?
The story of the mosquito is one of several West African tales which
explain why these insects buzz irritatingly in people`s ears. Why does Ekwefi
prize her daughter Ezinma so highly? In this chapter the notion of the ogbanje
is treated at length. What attitudes toward children does it reflect? Note how
it balances against the "throwing away" of twins. Does Achebe seem to validate
the belief in ogbanje?
The egwugwu ceremony of the Ibo has been much studied. The women
clearly know on some level that these mysterious beings are their men folk in
disguise, yet they are terrified of them. What do you think their attitude
toward the egwugwu is? What seem to be the main functions of the ceremony? How
does Evil Forest refute the argument of Uzowulu that he beat his wife because
she was unfaithful to him? How are problems like this affected by the fact that
whole families are involved in marriage, unlike in American culture where a man
and woman may wed quite independently of their families and even against their
families` wishes? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each
What is the moral of the fable of the tortoise? What values does it
reflect? What does the incident involving the priestess of Agbala reflect about
the values of the culture?
Notice the traditional attitudes of all small villagers toward large
marketplaces like Umuike. How is the importance of family emphasized in the
uri ceremony? Notice that the song sung at the end of the chapter is a
new one. Achebe often reminds us that this is not a frozen, timeless culture,
but a constantly changing one.
Having shown us an engagement ceremony, Achebe now depicts a funeral. We
are being systematically introduced to the major rituals of Ibo life. How does
the one-handed egwugwu praise the dead man? Okonkwo has killed people before
this. What makes this incident so serious, though it would be treated as a mere
accident under our law?
In Part One we were introduced to an intact and functioning culture. It may
have had its faults, and it accommodated deviants like Okonkwo with some
difficulty, but it still worked as an organic whole. It is in Part Two that
things begin to fall apart. Okonkwo`s exile in Mbanta is not only a personal
disaster, but it removes him from his home village at a crucial time so that he
returns to a changed world which can no longer adapt to him.
What is the significance of comparing Okonkwo to a fish out of water? Note
the value placed on premarital chastity in the engagement ceremony. In many
African cultures virginity is not an absolute requirement for marriage but it is
highly desirable and normally greatly enhances the value of the bride-price that
may be paid. Thus families are prone to assert a good deal of authority over
their unmarried daughters to prevent early love affairs. How does Okonkwo`s lack
of understanding of the importance of women reflect on him?
How does the story of the destruction of Abame summarize the experience of
colonization? Movie Indians call a train engine an "iron horse," but the term
here refers to a bicycle. Note that although the people of Abame acted rashly,
they had a good deal of insight into the significance of the arrival of the
whites. Note how the Africans treat the white man`s language as mere noise; a
mirror of how white colonizers treated African languages. What sorts of stories
had Okonkwo heard about white men before? In the final exchange with Okonkwo
Obierika is good-naturedly refusing to accept Okonkwo`s thanks by joking with
The British followed a policy in their colonizing efforts of designating
local "leaders" to administer the lower levels of their empire. In Africa these
were known as "warrant chiefs." But the men they chose were often not the real
leaders, and the British often assumed the existence of an centralized
chieftainship where none existed. Thus the new power structures meshed badly
with the old. Similarly the missionaries have designated as their contact man an
individual who lacks the status to make him respected by his people.
Why do you think Nwoye has become a Christian? Note how Achebe inverts the
traditional dialect humor of Europeans which satirizes the inability of natives
to speak proper English by having the missionary mangle Ibo. What is the first
act of the missionaries which evokes a positive response in some of the Ibo?
Achebe focuses on the doctrine of the Trinity, the notoriously least logical and
most paradoxical basic belief in Christianity. How does this belief undermine
the missionaries` attempts to discredit the traditional religion? Why does the
new religion appeal to Nwoye?
What mutual misunderstandings are evident in this chapter between the
missionaries and the people of the village? How does the granting to the
missionaries of a plot in the Evil Forest backfire? What does the metaphor in
the next to the last sentence of the chapter mean?
The outcaste osu are introduced in this chapter. Why do you suppose
Achebe has not mentioned them earlier? Their plight was indeed a difficult one,
and is treated by Achebe elsewhere. In India the lowest castes were among the
first to convert to faiths which challenged traditional Hinduism; and something
similar seems to happen here.
Note how traditional Umuofian custom can welcome back an erring member once
he has paid for his crime. In many cultures Okonkwo would be treated as a
pariah, but this culture has ways of accommodating such a person without
destroying him, and in fact encouraging him to give of his best. What does the
final speaker say is the main threat posed by Christianity?
Okonkwo`s relationship to the newcomers is exacerbated by the fact that he
has a very great deal at stake in maintaining the old ways. All his hopes and
dreams are rooted in the continuance of the traditional culture. The fact that
he has not been able gradually to accustom himself to the new ways helps to
explain his extreme reaction. The missionaries have brought British colonial
government with them. Missionaries were often viewed as agents of imperialism.
There is a saying common to Native Americans and Africans alike which goes like
this: "Before the white man came, we had the land and they had the Bible. Now we
have the Bible and they have the land."
What clashes in values are created by the functioning of the British
courts? Note the final phrase of Obierika`s last speech, alluding to the title
of the novel.
Why do some of the villagers even those who are not converts to
Christianity welcome the British? The missionaries try to refute what they
consider idolatry with the simplistic argument that the animist gods are only
wooden idols; however the villagers are perfectly aware that the idol is not the
god in a literal sense, any more than the sculpture of Christ on the cross in a
Christian church is God. This sort of oversimplification was a constant theme of
Christian arguments against traditional faiths throughout the world as the
British assumed that the natives were fools pursuing childish beliefs who needed
only a little enlightenment to be converted. Mr. Brown here learns better. It is
worth noting that Achebe, like his fellow Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka, was
raised a Christian; but both rejected the faith and have preferred to affirm
certain aspects of traditional beliefs in their own lives. Note how Akunna
shrewdly senses that the head of the Church is in England rather than in heaven.
Note the recurrence of the phrase "falling apart" in the last sentence of the
How is Rev. Smith different from Brown? What is the result of his black and
What does the District Commissioner say is the motive of the British in
colonizing the Africans?
Once again Okonkwo uses his matchet rashly, bringing disaster on his head.
But he could be viewed as a defiant hero defending his people`s way of life.
What do you think of his act?
Why do you think Okonkwo kills himself? What is your reaction to the final
paragraph of the book? Analyze it.
Achebe went on to write two sequels to Things Fall Apart
descendants of Okonkwo. In The Arrow of God
(1964) he further explores
the failure of the British to understand traditional beliefs and values, and in
No Longer at Ease
(1967) he shows how postcolonial Nigeria became
corrupted by a government which was not the organic creation of its people, but
an alien structure imposed upon them. He has also published several other
novels, a volume of short stories, and many poems and essays, and currently
teaches at Bard College
in New York. Like
many Nigerian authors, he is an exile from his homeland where a military
dictatorship is in power.
Notes by Paul Brians
, Department of
English,Washington State University, Pullman 99164-5020.
Version of January 18, 1996.