Things Fall Apart demonstrates how an Ibo society in pre-colonial Eastern Nigeria which was then in unity before the advent of the white man with every one in the community thinking and speaking alike and held together by common traditional values had that unity suddenly shattered when the Europeans penetrated it. A closely knit and united society thus stands by helplessly as its old social, economic and political structures crumble giving way to the new. Okonkwo, the novel’s hero who shares the condition of being ill fated with his clan stands at the centre of the story, and at the end was the only one left fighting to maintain the original integrity of the traditional society .
Okonkwo had achieved fame as early as 18 through a series of solid personal achievements revolving around military, wrestling, farming prowess and his rapid social ascent through the acquisition of titles.
Though Okonkwo achieved prowess through bravery his life has been dominated by fear, the fear of failure and weakness as typified by his father. As his father had failed woefully in life he had an abiding hatred of that image and feared the possibility of him or his off springs bearing any resemblance to him in any way whatsoever. He therefore kept fearing that the reputation and wealth he has accumulated will pass on to a worthless son as he was beginning to sense developing in Nwoye. He therefore shows much impatience and intolerance towards him as is demonstrated in this threatening denunciation “I will not have a son who cannot hold his head in the gathering of the clan. I will sooner strangle him with my own hands. And if you stand staring at me like that Amadiora will break your head for you”
It was this fear of failure and weakness which became the driving force behind Okonkwo leading him to working assiduously all the time, and uplifting himself thus to the highest rungs of his society. But also because of this he had no patience with less successful men. He also had no time to relax. He had the gratest revulsion for what he saw as womanly tales. Okonkwo thus became a bundle of nerves waiting to explode. Okonkwo’s life thus came to be ruled by the twin passions of fear and anger. These were the two passions which put him in constant conflict with the gods, his ancestors, and the elders of the land.
It was in anger that he beats up his wife,Ojuigo, thus desecrating the week of peace. In anger again, he shoots at Ekwefi, his second wife, and missed committing his first murder by a hair’s breadth. For fear of failure and weakness, he draws his machete and cuts down Ikemefuna in spite of the wise counsel of the oldest man in the village, Ogbuefi Ezeudu: “That boy calls you father. Do not bear a hand in his death.”
This series of violations of the customs and traditions of the clan culminates in Okonkwo’s inadvertently murdering Ezeudu’s sixteen year old son for which he is banished and had to seek refuge in his motherland, Mbanta.
While there in Mbanta, Okonkwo felt cut off from his clan except that his woeful situation was slightly alleviated by his faithful friend, Obierika, visiting him there occasionally bringing him news about developments in his father land. But these only worsened his despair. He is particularly despondent upon hearing from Obierrika that white men have wiped out Abame and that missionaries have come to Umuofia where they have established a church and gained some ardent converts from the clansmen including his own son, Nwoye.
These developments soon reached Mbanta where Okonkwo was in exile and was powerless to react. The missionaries set up a church there . It survives contrary to the expectations of the people that it would not last. Okonkwo expects something to happen, but the people said that it is not in their custom for them to fight for their gods. In utter disgust and sheer disappointment Okonkwo bursts out, “Let us not reason like cowards. If a man comes into my hut and defaecates on the floor, what do I do? Do I shut my eyes? No! I take a stick and break his head. That is what a man does. These people are daily pouring filth over us, and Okeke says we should pretend not to see.”
Even on the eve of his departure at his farewell party, Okonkwo cannot conceal his hatred for the new religion already taking root in their society: “An abominable religion has settled among you. A man can now leave his father and his brothers. He can curse the gods of his father and his ancestors like a hunter’s dog that suddenly goes mad and turns on his master. I fear for you; I fear for the clan.”
Okonkwo returns to Umuofia with great hope and ambition. He plans to demonstrate his wealth by initiating his sons in the ‘Ozo’ society. He is going to purge the society of the madness which the Christians have brought on it. But Okonkwo remained oblivious to the fact that Umuofia had changed during his seven years away in exile and his place was not there waiting for him to return and assume it again. Even titled men like Ugbuefi Ugoma have joined the missionaries. Apart from the church, the white men have also installed a government with courts, judges, and court messengers. Okonkwo in frustration and anger ponders over these changes and comes to a grim conclusion: “Perhaps I have been away too long …I cannot understand these things you tell me. What is it that has happened to our people? Why have they lost the power to fight?”
The thoughtful Obierika is the one who provides the answer as recorded below:
” How do you think we can fight when our brothers have turned against us? The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers over and our clan can no longer stand act like one. He has put a knife on the things that hold us together and we have fallen apart.” But his friend Okonkwo remained blind to the current reality then whilst he prepared rather il-advisedly to reverse the situation singlehandedly on his own, which somehow suggests both arrogance and stupidity, both of which often accompany each other .
This tension between church and clan continues until it comes to a head when Okonkwo tries to rouse the people of Umuofia to action. In his anger brought to a head by the gruesome ordeal they bore from the commissioner’s court, he butchers the leader of the court messengers who were sent to stop an imminent meeting of the entire clan of Umuofia. But he does not get the support of the Umuofians as they let the other messengers go unhurt. Realising the trouble he has been left in, he withdraws to his backyard and hangs himself. Obierika looks at the dangling body at the tree and says to the commissioner: “That man was once the greatest man in Umuofia.”
Things Fall Apart has all its action take place in a rural setting in a village called Umuofia in South eastern Nigeria. It is peopled by an agrarian community who are mostly attached to the land. In Okonkwo’s household, for instance, everyone there is fully engaged in tilling and cultivating the land. The weather itself seems supportive of agriculture in spite of the isolated case of the adverse effect of the torrential rain on his crops that year when Okonkwo took eight hundred seed yams from Nwakibie. This presupposes that it is a geographical area with the right mix of sunshine and rainfall that crops need to thrive.
The people of Umuofia seem to be a united and dignified society held together by customs and traditions. There is an absence of a central authority like chiefs. Rather title holders at all levels direct the society according to the wishes of their gods and ancestors. They believe that there is a god responsible for every aspect of their life and these gods wield considerable power. Agbala, the oracle of the hills and caves foretells the future and makes pronouncements which must be implemented. Ani the god of the land is responsible for the fertility of the land and good yield among other things.
The people’s actions are daily guided by their belief in the sanctity of all these gods and that if any of their edicts is transgressed severe consequences will visit them. Okonkwo’s downfall imputed to his disrespect for the gods and ancestors of the clan demonstrates this link between the people and their gods as well as their ancestors. This explains why in as much as they were quite attached to Ikemefuna they could not do otherwise than to kill him simply because the Oracle of the Hills and Caves had pronounced his death. Other elements of sacrifices or casting away of impure entities are ostracising ‘osus’, abandoning people infected with swellings in the forests and the practice of throwing away twins.
Inspired by the thought that their gods and ancestors want them to live as a closely knit and united society, they regularly come together to celebrate occasions like the Feast of the New Yam, and enjoy sports like wrestling matches between Okonkwo’s villages and their neighbours. They also regularly come together in marriage ceremonies as is the case for the settling of the bride-prize of Obierika’s daughter, Akweke, and the celebration of her’uri’.
This shows that Umuofians do not only come together in moments of happiness but also do so in times distress such as on the occasion of the death of a loved one or important figures as was the case for the performance of the burial rites for Ugbuefi Ezeudu.
The atmosphere here is a mixture of conviviality, violence, sadness and optimism. There is much happiness and cheerfulness in occasions such as the New Yam Festival, the wrestling matches. There is on the other hand violence demonstrated mainly by Okonkwo who beats his wife during the week of peace, shoots at his second wife, Ekwefi, narrowing missing committing his first murder, participating in spite of wiser counsel in the butchering of Ikemefuna and bringing home from the battle front five human heads.
Things Fall Apart has been written in simple words mostly momosyllabic, short and simple sentences which make it so easy and enjoyable to read. Very simple words and short sentences distills Obierika’s conviction in the wisdom the white men displayed in their discreetly penetrating an unsuspecting society,” …The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won over our brothers and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”
Sometimes, a hint of sanctity is added to the simplicity and shortness of the structures and lexicon as is evident in the solemn way in which Obierika impresses on the District Commissioner the depth of Okonkwo’s tragedy going up to tansgressing againsy long-held traditional edicts: “We cannot bury him. Only strangers can. When he has been buried we will then do our duty to him. We shall make sacrifices to cleanse the desecrated land.”
Achebe also practices an economy of not only words but also of phrasing and of narrative as well. Achebe as a good story teller stitches neatly together the various strands of his well-wrought story.
The novel is divided into three parts, the fist part portraying in detail the customs and traditions of the Ibo society and also about how the hero transgressed these customs and is eventually banished from his fatherland, the second part sees Okonkwo among his kinsmen in Mbanta and then the onset of the penetration of the white man into this traditional society and the mounting tension arising between those two forces and in the third where Okonkwo returns to Umuofia with great hopes and ambition but is disappointed to find out that he has lost his place and finally reasserting himself violently for action, commits murder and hangs himself.
Achebe’s portrayal of traditional society is very objective putting its good and dignified aspects along with the ignoble, bad and odious aspects side by side for the reader to judge. He is implicitly calling on us to improve on the good aspects of our societies and cultures and eradicate these evil customs which not only destroy our dignity and self-respect but also retards our progress: “The worst thing that cab happen to a people is the loss of their dignity and self-respect. The writer’s duty is to help them regain it…”
We are also warned against resisting change by every means. Change is a crucial and inevitable part of a fastly revolving world. Society itself is not static. It is dynamic. Nothing can stop it from moving in whatever direction social dynamic dictate that it moves. We learn from Okonkwo’s experience that change can be effected severally rather than singularly, as he faces destruction in his endeavour to bring it about single-handedly.