“No man can understand another whose language he does not speak (and language here does not mean simply words, but a man’s entire world view).” I found this quote by Chinua Achebe while reading about the author of Things Fall Apart. Although it was in response to critics of his work, I liked the quote in relation to his most well-known novel, because in some ways it is the central idea of Things Fall Apart. While reading the book, I was immersed in the worldview of Okonkwo – a strong, but flawed Igbo man who strives to earn respect in his village. Achebe’s use of language makes this a powerful book by portraying an intimate look at Igbo (or Ibo) culture and an unflinching portrait of a man whose contempt for all things feminine leads to his downfall.
I enjoyed learning about Chinua Achebe after reading Things Fall Apart. Finding out about his background made the book feel even more personal. Achebe grew up in Nigeria with both Christianity and traditional Igbo religion. He did well in school and won a scholarship to study medicine at university. However once there, Achebe was so disturbed by literary portrayals of Nigerian characters as either savages or buffoons that he left his studies of medicine to instead become a writer. Achebe was active in politics and in teaching and was also an Igbo High Chief. Although he spent his later years living in the United States, he always held his home culture in love and pride. Achebe’s background and his love for his home is evident throughout the novel.
Things Fall Apart is divided into 3 parts: the first introduces the strong man Okonkwo. By depicting his life in the village of Umuofia “feared by all its neighbors[…]powerful in war and magic”, Achebe creates a portrait of Igbo culture before the arrival of Europeans. The second part surrounds Okonkwo’s life in exile and the third part deals with the fundamental change of their culture with the arrival of white missionaries.
Igbo words, phrases, stories, and traditions are woven throughout the story to relate the reality of village life. Achebe does not try to explain or justify Igbo culture for a Western audience – he just shows how things are in such a straightforward manner – it simply is. The sights and sounds of the village, festivals, religious rites, and daily rituals begin to feel almost familiar, despite being so very different from my own daily life. I appreciated the book’s ability to make me feel “at home” in a place I have never been. This is important because when Christian missionaries start to appear, they immediately felt strange and out of place to me, as they might to someone who had never seen a white man riding a bicycle before. Although because I know how missionary work often hurt despite “good intentions,” I also felt a sense of foreboding.
It would be erroneous to say that the book is only about colonialism, though – the center of the book is Okonkwo, his rise and fall. Okonkwo’s father was lazy and unsuccessful; although he owed debts to nearly everyone, he was loved by most for his loving attitude and his skill with music. However, Okonkwo is ashamed of his father, and in all things strives to be his opposite. Whereas his father never earned a title, Okonkwo is determined to earn as many titles as he can to become a respected leader. There are rigid gender divisions in Umuofia – social and religious roles are limited by sex, certain crimes are described as being of “male nature” or “female nature”, and even crops are divided – Okonkwo will only grow yams “a man’s crop,” not cassava which is for women to grow. Okonkwo is prideful, detests the feminine, insults other men who he does not deem manly enough, and beats his wives at times. Sometimes his neighbors chastise him for being too harsh on others, but they continue to recognize his skill at wrestling and his hard work as a farmer. However, Okonkwo’s fear of being perceived as weak leads him first to participate in the execution of a boy he loved as a son and then to forbid himself from mourning the boy’s death or dealing with his own guilt. Although Okonkwo is highly respected, it is clear his hatred of anything feminine leads to his own suffering and the suffering of those around him. Although Achebe could have portrayed Okonkwo as “bad” due to his violence and refusal to deal with attachment or emotions, he simply shows how Okonkwo’s sexism (and what we would now call toxic masculinity) are part of him – he is a whole person and his flaws exist as part of the whole. Achebe examines Okonkwo without piling judgement on him for his issues with masculinity, yet still demonstrates how destructive those tendencies are. I appreciated the completeness of his characterization – because we know Okonkwo and his worldview intimately, we can see his poor actions without casting him as a villain.
When Okonkwo accidentally kills a man in celebration at a wedding, the inadvertent killing is judged to be a “female crime” – a violation against the earth goddess. For this he and his family are banished for seven years and his home is burned down. He goes to live in the village where his mother was born and although he is well-received there, Okonkwo resents this. He spends his time planning how he can regain renown and return with a flourish to the more war-like Umuofia. This includes telling his daughters not to marry so that he can use their marriages more favorably when they return. By the time he returns, the Umuofia has changed because of the influx of missionaries, and Okonkwo is angry to find out that the other men do not intend to fight them.
The missionaries do not understand the Igbo culture, but they try to change it. Because the first two parts of the book made the Igbo culture feel like a natural way of life to the reader, the attempt to mold it into something else feels like a violation. “Does the white man understand our customs about land?” asks one Igbo man. “How can he when he does not even speak our tongue?” his friend responds. As with Okonkwo himself and his way of life, Achebe does not pile heavy judgement on the missionaries – he continues to simply show things as they are, and the reader is able to feel the tension between the desires of both groups. Although Achebe does not foster hatred toward the missionaries, he does show the catastrophe in Umuofia that results in part from colonialism.
By the end of the book, Okonkwo has spent his life aggressively pursuing status and molding himself to a hyper-masculine version of the ideals of his society, but when his village is changed unrecognizably by colonialism, he is unable to survive. “Okonkwo is paying the penalty for his treatment of women, that all his problems, all the things he did wrong can be seen as offenses against the feminine,” said Achebe. His anger leads him to fight even when it is unwise and ultimately this anger turns inward on himself causing his own destruction and the destruction of everything he worked for.
It would be easy to say Things Fall Apart is about how missionaries caused the collapse of a village’s culture, or about issues of masculinity, but really it is an intimate study of the worldview of two main characters: Okonkwo and his village, Umuofia. Both are flawed, but both are beautiful in their own way. This book is one that continues to unfold with more and more meaning as I continue to think about it, even well after I have finished reading – a trait that is common to all my favorite novels. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys thought-provoking and character driven works.