“Things Fall Apart” is a 1958 novel by the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. Seen as the quintessential novel on the change from pre to post colonial life in Nigeria, the novel was one of the first African novels to receive worldwide recognition. It is now considered a classic and widely taught in schools both inside and outside Africa.
The novel centers around Okonkwo, the head of a warrior clan in the fictional Nigerian village of Umuofia. Okonkwo earned his place in the clan and his reputation in the village by being uncompromising and heavily masculine. Okonowo’s role is challenged by different circumstances, such as the murder of his step-son, the desertion of his oldest son, the illness of his favorite daughter and finally, the arrival of the white man to the country in the form of Christian missionaries who challenge the villagers faith in their gods.
When faced with the changes that colonialism is bringing and the lack of resistance from his people, Okonkwo eventually commits suicide by hanging himself from a tree. The novel has been adapted several times for radio, TV and film, including a 1970 firm starring Princess Elizabeth of Toro.
In Nigeria, there is a warrior clan called ibo, the head of which is named Okonkwo. Okonkwo has three wives and eight children and each wife has her own hut. Okonkwo also has his own hut called an obi. The clan is part of a network of nine connected villages. Okonkwo’s village is called Umuofia. When Okonkwo was a boy he brought pride to his village by beating a well known strong man in a wrestling contest. This recovered Okonkwo’s image, since his father was a known gambler and not a warrior.
One day, the town crier rings the gong, or ogene to gather a meeting of the clansmen. It is announced that the wife of a tribesman was killed in the market. The murderer was from the village of Mbaino. Okonkwo travels to Mbaino to negotiate the trade of one virgin and one young man to his village in payment for the murder. If the village should refuse, the two tribes would go to war and Okonkwo earned his position in the tribe for being very skilled at war and magic. When Okonowo goes into battle, he brings with him five human heads, one of which he drinks palm wine from.
The Mbaino elders agree to Okonkwo’s terms and give him a virgin to give to the man whose wife was murdered. Unsure of what to do with the young man, he is given to Okonkwo to raise. The young man is a 15 year old boy named Ikemefuna.
In the fourth chapter, some of Okonkwo’s back story is given. Since his father was a gambler and not well respected in the village, Okonkwo had to start building his reputation from scratch. He began by asking a wealthy clansman to give him seeds to start a yam farm. Unfortunately that year there was a terrible drought and Okonkwo lost most of his yams. His father tried to comfort him but Okonkwo was disgusted by his father’s words in a time when only action was called for. Later on, Okonkwo’s father became sick and was thrown into a forest called the Evil Forest where the corpses of the sick are thrown to avoid cursing the earth by burying them.
At first, when Ikemefuna comes to live with Okonkwo he is homesick and scared, but Okonkwo’s wives and children welcome him into the family. Okonkwo grows fond of the boy, too but since showing affection is a sign of weakness in his culture, he does not show it. Soon, Ikemefuna begins to call Okonkwo “father.”
During a celebration called the Week of Peace, Okonkwo beats his wife savagely, breaking the peace and shaming the village. In penance, he must sacrifice a goat and a hen and pay a fine. Just before harvest time, the village has a Feast of the New Yam, complete with decorations and decorative body paint. Okonkwo, who does not like the idleness of feasts, grows frustrated and takes his gun to go out to hunt. However, he is not a good hunter and when his second wife, Ekwefi makes a sarcastic remark he becomes infuriated and shoots the gun at her. Fortunately, he misses. Ekwefi married Okonkwo after he won the wrestling contest. He was too poor to pay her bride price, but she ran away from her husband to be with him.
Ikemefuna bonds with Okonkwo’s oldest son, Nwoye, a boy that Okonkwo has previously shown disdain for as he considers him lazy. Through his friendship with Ikemefuna, Nwoye begins to develop into a man and a warrior and Okonkwo is pleased by this. He begins inviting the boys into his hut to hear violent stories to prepare them for manhood. Nwoye misses his mother, but he knows that shunning women and showing hatred for their stories will help win over his father.
One day, locusts descend on the village. The locusts are said to only come once a generation for seven years before disappearing. The village is excited, because the locusts are good to eat one cooked. Okonkwo is informed that the village’s oracle has decreed that Ikemefuna must be killed. However, he is told not to take part in the murder because the boy calls him “father”. Okonkwo lies to the boy and tells him that he is going to be returning to his home village.
Okonkwo and Ikemefuna walk back to the village, and on the way Ikemefuna is attacked by a man with a machete. Ikemefuna cries to Okonkwo and Okonkwo, not wishing to look weak, kills the boy himself. When his father returns home, Nwoye realizes that his friend is dead and something breaks inside of him. Okonkwo falls into a depression and cannot sleep or eat. When his favorite daughter, Ezinma brings him food he wishes that she were a boy because she has the “right spirit”. Okonkwo begins to feel better after he visits a friend to help the man discuss a bride price for his daughter.
Ekwefi wakes Okonkwo early one morning to tell him that Ezinma is ill and needs medicine. Ezinma is Ekwefi’s only child after she suffered the infant deaths of nine others. Okonowo was told that the deaths were a result of an ogbanje spirit haunting them. The ogbanje is the spirit of an evil child who enters the mother’s womb over and over to keep dying and tormenting the parents. A medicine man stopped the ogbanje by mutilating the body of Ezinma’s third child.
When Ezinma was born, she suffered many childhood illnesses but recovered from them. A small pebble that was said to be the ogbanje’s link to the physical world was found and destroyed and this was supposed to stop Ezinma’s health problems, but every illness she gets is a source of anxiety for her mother.
Chielo, the Oracle of the Hills and Caves sends a message that she wishes to see Ezinma. Ekwefi worriedly brings the child to her. Chielo brings Ezinma on her back to her cave. Ekwefi, defying the village rules and the gods, follows the woman and child. She swears to herself that if she hears her child crying she will rush into the cave to save her despite the consequences. Okonkwo startles Ekwefi by showing up to comfort her.
Chielo and Ezinma stay in the cave all night and emerge at dawn. Chielo brings the child home and puts her to bed without saying a word. Okonkwo thinks that he was incredibly worried about his daughter the night before and forced himself to wait as long as he could before coming out to the cave. All in all, he started the journey four times before he allowed himself to finish it.
Okonkwo’s friend’s daughter finally becomes betrothed and the village prepares for the betrothal ceremony which is called a uri. The village prepares a huge feast and the suitor’s family brings fifty pots of wine. The feast is a huge success.
At a funeral for another tribe warrior, Okonkwo’s gun accidentally goes off and kills a sixteen year old boy. Killing a clansman, even accidentally, is a crime against the earth goddess. As punishment, Okonkwo must take his entire family and move into exile for seven years. He gathers all of his valuable belongings and brings his family to his mother’s home village, Mbanta.
The men from Umuofia burn all of Okonkwo’s buildings and huts and kill all of his animals in order to cleanse the village of his sin. Thankfully, Okonkwo’s family receive him very warmly. They help him build a new house and lend him seeds to start up a new yam farm. Okonkwo works hard but suffers more depression over the loss of his home and all that he worked for. Okonkwo’s uncle, Uchendu notices his nephew’s disappointment and gathers together his family. He tells them that one of the most common names that they give in the village, Nneka, means “Mother is Supreme”. This is because a man always returns to his motherland when times are hard and he needs to seek refuge. He tells Okonkwo to accept the comfort of his mother’s village and reminds him that things could be worse.
During Okonkwo’s second year in exile, his friend Obierika brings bad news. A nearby village named Abame was destroyed recently. One day, a white man arrived in the village on an “iron horse” (a bicycle) and the village elders were told by the oracle that the white man would destroy the village. The villagers killed the man and tied his bicycle to a tree to keep it from escaping and telling the man’s friends.
A while later, the man’s friends discovered his last whereabouts anyway and found the bicycle. The men surrounded the market and killed almost everyone in the village. Uchendu asks what the first white man said to the villagers. He said nothing that they could understand. Uchendu says that they were foolish to kill a man who said nothing.
Okonkwo believes the the villagers should have merely armed themselves. Obierika tells Okonkwo that he has been selling off some of Okonkwo’s yams and gives him the money that they have earned. A Christian missionary named Mr. Kiaga comes to Mbanta and tries to persuade the villagers to stop worshiping their false gods and convert to Christianity. The villagers only laugh at him, except little Nwoye who is captivated. The deaths of Ikemefuna and twin newborns that he heard crying in the Evil Forest are still weighing heavily on him and Christianity appeals to him because of this.
The missionaries request a plot of land to build a church, and the village elders offer them a lot in the Evil Forest. The elders assume that the forests evil spirits will kill the missionaries within days but to their surprise that does not happen, and the church begins winning converts.
One day, when Nwoye returns from the church, Okonkwo chokes him and demands to know where he has been. Uchendu has to pull him off the boy. Nwoye finally leaves his father’s house and goes to a school in Umuofia to learn how to read and write. Okonkwo is not sorry to see him go and wonders how he could have raised such a weak son. Okonkwo encourages the elders to drive the missionaries out with violence The elders only ostracize them instead, and Okonkwo chides them for being “womanly.”
As Okonkwo’s exile is coming to an end, he prepares a feast for his family before leaving. He is grateful to them but does not like the villages un-masculine ways. After seven years in exile, Okonkwo and his family are much changed. Ezinma is now of marriageable age as is another of Okonkwo’s daughters. Unfortunately, the white men’s influence has reached Umuofia as well. Okonkwo is shocked to see this and surprised that his village has not driven the white men out either.
The missionary in charge of Umuofia is called Mr. Brown regularly meets with one of the clan’s leaders, Akunna to discuss religion. Akunna tells Mr. Brown that the clan only has one God, Chukwu, who created all of the other gods. Mr. Brown tries to convince him that there is only one God. Mr. Brown builds both a hospital and a school and begs the villagers to send their children to school. He warns them that if they don’t, strangers who are more educated will come in and take over. This persuades the villagers and the hospital is well received too for its medical treatments.
Mr. Brown approaches Okonkwo to talk about Nwoye but Okonkwo chases him away with threats of violence. Shortly later, Mr. Brown becomes ill and he must leave his flock. To replace him a reverend named James Smith is brought in. Reverend Smith is a strict and dedicated man. He disapproves of Mr. Brown’s tolerant ways
Some of the more fanatical converts are happy to be free of Mr. Brown’s restraining ways. One of the converts, Enoch, commits a grave sin when he unmasks a egwugwu during a ceremony to honor the earth deity. The next day, the egwugwu burn Enoch’s hut to the ground. They gather in front of the church and tell the converts that they want to destroy it to cleanse the village. Reverend Smith forbids them to do this. His translator changes the message in order to avoid Smith being killed and tells the egwugwu that Smith wants the matter left to him. However, the men ignore this and burn the church.
Okonkwo and the rest of the villagers expect retaliation for the burned church and ready themselves with weapons. However, they are soon overpowered by soldiers and put in jail for a few days. The people of Umuofia are told that they must pay a fine or their leaders – including Okonkwo – will be hanged. A town meeting is called and the villagers collect the money and pay the fine. The leaders are released. The men return in such a dark mood that everyone is afraid to talk to them. Ezinma – who has recently become betrothed to a man from another village and traveled to attend a ceremony there – takes Okonkwo his food and notices whip marks on his back.
Okonkwo expects that the village will be going into battle against the white men. A town meeting is called again the next morning and Okonkwo vows that he will go along with the elders decision despite what he feels about it. But he wears his war dress, feather headgear and shield to the meeting. During the meeting, five court messengers walk in and demand that the meeting be ended. The man speaking can barely finish the sentence before Okonkwo kills him with a machete. Okonkwo expects his village to be on his side, but instead they ask why he would do such a thing and let the other messengers escape. Okonkwo realizes that they are not going to war and leaves the meeting.
The District Commissioner arrives at Okonkwo’s house and asks for him. After some back and forth with the men sitting outside, Obierika agrees to lead the man to Okonkwo. They proceed behind the compound where they discover that Okonkwo has hanged himself from a tree. Shocked, Obierika demands that no one touch the body because suicide is a grave sin. They send for strangers to take the body down and ask for the Commissioner’s help. The Commissioner asks why they need his help and they explain that only strangers are allowed to touch the body now. Obierika yells at the Commissioner for being the cause of Okonkwo’s death. The Commissioner leaves but orders his men to take the body down.
As he leaves he thinks about how his knowledge of African customs is growing and adding to his research for the book that he is writing called “The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.” He images that Okonkwo’s death will make an interesting couple of paragraphs if not an entire chapter.
Okonkwo – the main character of the story. Okonkwo is a wealthy tribesman, a warrior and the clan leader in Umuofia. Okonkwo’s ambition to become an influential person in his tribe derives from his need to distance himself from his father’s shameful legacy as a gambler and a poor man. Okonkwo’s journey toward high status began when he beat a well known strong man in the tribe’s annual wrestling competition. After that, he began a yam farm and his hard work made the farm so successful that he became one of the wealthiest men in the clan. Okonkwo’s need to appear strong and masculine is what drives most of his narrative throughout the novel. He shames and punishes his son, murders his adopted son and eventually kills himself all in the pursuit of appearing as strong as possible to the clan and himself.
Nwoye – Okonkwo’s oldest son. Nwoye and his father have a strained relation ship because Okonkwo believes that the boy is lazy and feminine. Nwoye befriends Ikemefuna when the older boy comes to live with him and is devastated when Ikemefuna is killed by the clan.
After his family is exiled, Nwoye falls in with the Christian missionaries because he feels that their religion answers the questions that have been building inside of him since he overheard twin newborns crying from abandonment in the Evil Forest. In the end, Nwoye leaves his father’s family and goes to attend a school so that he can learn to read and write.
Ekwefi – Okonkwo’s second wife. Ekwefi was once the village beauty who left her husband for Okonkwo after she saw him win the annual wrestling match. Ekwefi suffered the deaths of nine of her infants before she gave birth to her only living child, Ezinma. Ekwefi and Ezinma have formed a bond that is not typical of normal mother/daughter relationships. One in which they see themselves more as equals. Ekwefi constantly worries that she will lose Ezinma to an illness as the child is frequently sick.
Ekwefi is brave and shows this when she follows the goddess Chielo who is healing her daughter even though she has been told not to do so.
Chinua Achebe Biography
Chinua Achebe was born on November 16th, 1930 in the Igbo village of Ogidi, Nigeria. When Achebe was a small child, his family moved to his father’s ancestral town in what is now the state of Anambra. As a child, Achebe was often regaled with stories from his family members as story telling was an integral part of Igbo tradition. Because his parents were converts to the Protestant church, Achebe began attending religious classes at St. Philips Central School at the age of 6, where he was an exceptional student.
When Achebe was only 12, he left his family to move to the village of Nekede and begin attending the Central School there, where his older brother John taught. In 1944, Achebe began attending secondary school where he was forced to speak only English, a rule that he would later refer to as being ordered to “communicate in the language of their colonizers.” It was at this school that Achebe developed a love of reading and to begin to understand how European writers wrote about Africa. In 1948, Achebe was given admission to Nigeria’s brand new university University College. Initially, Achebe was sent to study medicine, but he soon changed his major to English, history and theology.
Achebe’s very first published piece came in the form of an article in the University’s paper, and he soon wrote his first short story. After graduating, Achebe returned to his hometown of Ogidi to decide what to do next. Soon, he began teaching at a school for poor students after which he left to work for the Nigerian Broadcasting Service, moving to Lagos.
It was while living in Lagos that Achebe first began working on a novel. “Things Fall Apart” his debut novel, was published in 1958. The same year, Achebe met his future wife, Christiana Chinwe Okoli. The two were married in 1961 and went on to have three children.
In 1960, Achebe published his second novel “No Longer At Ease”, a sequel to “Thing’s Fall Apart”. That year, Achebe was awarded a Rockefeller Fellowship for travel and used it to travel to East Africa, confronting the issues that these countries faced with colonialism head on. Two years later, Achebe was given another travel grant in the form of a Fellowship for Creative Artists awarded by UNESCO. This time, he traveled to the United States and Brazil.
Achebe helped to create the Voice of Nigeria radio network and the African Writers Series, a series that was determined to bring postcolonial African literature to the wider world.
Achebe went on to publish many more novels and his life was plagued by the war that erupted when Nigeria left the Republic of Biafra in 1967. During the 1980’s, Achebe spent his time attending conferences, delivering speeches and writing. In 1990, he was in a car accident and spent the rest of his life paralyzed from the waist down. In 2013, Achebe died in Boston, Massachusetts after a short illness. He was buried in his hometown of Ogidi, Anambra State.