Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

August 6, 2009

I read this as part of my effort to catch up on major authors I have overlooked or have never gotten around to reading (e.g. Bellow and Cheever with Maxwell coming soon). As with many of these forays into the “greats”, this one was quite rewarding. Things Fall Apart is an enjoyable, concise, and thought-provoking read.

ThingsFallOkonkwo, the central character, has a lazy father who is most famous for owing debts. The shame of this drives Okonkwo to achieve. His ultimate goal is to take the highest title in the tribe, something only the wealthy and respected can achieve. His goal is realistic given his impressive physique and incredible drive. The opening paragraph relates Okonkwo’s fame and stature in the village (Umuofia) which began with victory in an important wrestling match. Additional details on Okonkwo’s rise are dribbled out throughout the early parts of the novel:

He was a man of action, a man of war. Unlike his father he could stand the look of blood. In Umuofia’s latest war he was the first to bring home a human head. That was his fifth head, and he was not an old man yet. On great occasions such as the funeral of a village celebrity he drank his palm-wine from his first human head.

Okonkwo’s exploits are motivated less by bravery than by fear of failure. He tries to be everything his father was not:

Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness. It was deeper and more intimate than the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of the forest, and of the forces of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw. Okonkwo’s fear was greater than these. It was not external but lay deep within himself. It was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father. Even as a little boy he had resented his father’s failure and weakness…And so Okonkwo was ruled by one passion — to hate everything that his father Unoka had loved. One of those things was gentleness and another was idleness.

Being so driven, Okonkwo is able to survive some early tragedies, including a crop failure “that…had been enough to break the heart of a lion”. He puts more importance on his stature within the tribe than on personal or family connections. For Okonkwo, honor and reputation displace normal human compassion. His defining feature is a fierce ambition so consuming it very nearly must lead to tragedy. Okonkwo is a classical hero.

The novel explores several themes. On one level, the novel is a close examination of one tragic hero. On another level, Okonkwo represents tribal Africa and its collision with European colonialism. The first half to two-thirds of the novel relates Okonkwo’s rise, fall, and redemption within his village of Umuofia. In the second half, modernity looms. Because Okonkwo’s personal identity is so closely linked to his status in the tribe, it is easy to interpret Okonkwo’s personal story as an allegory for the clash of cultures as it played out in Africa.

This book does many things well. Okonkwo is an excellent character about whom the reader cares despite his unlikeability. Achebe’s telling of Okonkwo’s life story is full of insights into the human experience and the individual’s place in society and the world. As importantly, this book provides a window into African tribal life before contact with colonists. Achebe does a masterful job of straddling the cultural divide. As an example, he manages to write about tribal beliefs (e.g. their gods, fear of evil spirits, etc.) with neither condescension nor naive credulity. The reader is drawn, as far as a reader can be, into the mindset of those holding mystical beliefs, without delving into the truth or falsity of them. And, too, the story has a number of compelling plot twists. Achebe is a very good storyteller.

Achebe manages to combine these elements into a novel which, though very personal, addresses broad issues of culture. He skillfully provides the juxtaposition of sacrificial tribal practices performed for the sake of tribal cohesion and similarly sacrificial colonial practices engaged in for the preservation and advancement of civilization. Achebe writes simultaneously with compassion for his characters and with fidelity to the reality of their flaws. This is a bravely honest book. And that is its greatest accomplishment.

Things Fall Apart is a brilliant and accessible work. I highly recommend it.