Things Fall Apart

When he walked, his heels hardly touched the ground and he seemed to walk on springs, as if he was going to pounce on somebody. And he did pounce on people quite often. He had a slight stammer and whenever he was angry and could not get his words out quickly enough he would use his fists. He had no patience with unsuccessful people. He had no patience with his father.

I’ve always loved the title of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, long before I had the faintest idea what is was about. This past fall I helped a girl at the tutoring center where I work write an obituary for Okonkwo as a English project, so I knew some of the details of the plot. The way a ninth grader tells the story is much different from the way the author actually does! I knew I wanted to read it then for real.

image from Amazon

Things Fall Apart is the story of Okonkwo, one of the respected men in the village of Umuofia in Nigeria. His father was lazy, so he learned at an early age that the drive for success came from within. He cared for his mothers and sisters single-handed, and when the time came for him to start his own yam farm he proudly approached his neighbor and requested to sharecrop for a few years. He defeats all opponents in the wrestling matches, so that all the girls admire his strength and physical prowess. Over time he is able to take three wives, and also rise to the second-highest rank in the village.

Okonkwo’s history of success is relayed in the first chapter. Because of achieving all this (or more likely the other way around) he cuts an imposing figure. He is a proud man who  displays little emotion other than resolution or anger, only occasionally letting down his guard. He believes that anyone who has less initiative is weak, even his own son Nwoye; only his bold eldest daughter Ezinma is comfortable around  him. Ultimately he is a man that everyone,  including his family, both respects and fears.

When an Uumofia woman is murdered by men from a neighboring village, Okonkwo helps lead the war party seeking justice. The ransom includes a new wife for the widower, and a young boy named Ikemefuma. It is agreed that he will stay temporarily in Okonkwo’s compound until his fate is decided. Okonkwo begins to feel fondly towards Ikemefuma, even regarding him as his own son, so that when the decision is handed down he is torn about what to do. His critical actions here seem to affect his fate for the rest of the book, and his pride will in the end become his own downfall.

“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, 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.”

Later on in the book, the problems Okonkwo faces are magnified by issues affecting the whole village. White missionaries have come to Nigeria to spread Christianity. They preach against the native spirits and practices like killing twin babies, while teaching the Bible. Some Uumofians like Nwoye join up, but they are more on the fringe of the village and the leaders simple shake their heads. Soon, however, the rift grows greater as each side feels that their beliefs are threatened.

Chinua Achebe was a native Nigerian, though he is now distinguished professor in New England. He writes with a familiarity of the land, explaining the Uumofian ways in a manner that neither glorifies nor condemns them. We see customs for day-to-day life, for weddings and other ceremonies, for family and farming. What stands out to me the most is the rhythm of the writing. It’s different from British or American literature, but compelling.

The back cover of this copy compares Okonkwo’s story to the Greek tragedies, which is certainly true. He comes across as a larger than life character who struggles for what he wants but is blind to his own flaws, especially hubris. It also reminded me of other stories like The Mayor of Casterbridge or Maestro Don Gesualdo with other similar leads (I hesitate to call them heroes). We don’t necessarily like them, but we feel for them and pity their inevitable fate.

This is on the Guardian list (State of the Nation) and on the 1001 Books list. I can’t believe it’s only my third this year. I want to read more classics, but somehow they’re never the first thing I reach for. I’ll have to work on changing that.

Published in: on June 23, 2011 at 6:47 pm  Leave a Comment  
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