Things Fall Apart was written by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe in the twentieth century. It is seen as the typical modern African novel in English. It was first published in 1958 by William Heinemann Ltd in the UK in 1962. The title of the novel comes from William Butler Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming”. Achebe was born in 1930. Achebe mostly writes his novels in English as Igbo language was hard to understand as this language originated from various types of dialects. This essay will discuss the clash of cultures the Igbo community faces with the coming of the British colonizers and Christian missionaries in the novel Things Fall Apart.
Set in pre-colonial Nigeria in the 1890s, Things Fall Apart highlights the clash between colonialism and traditional culture. Achebe’s father was among the first to be converted in Ogidi, around the turn of the century. Achebe himself was an orphan raised by his grandfather. Things Fall Apart deals with how the prospect and reality of change affect various characters. The tension about whether change should be confidential over tradition in the patriarchal society often involved questions of personal status. Okonkwo, for example, struggles with the new political and religious orders generated by the Europeans because he felt that they are not manly and that he himself will not be manly if he tends to join or tolerate them.
To some extent, Okonkwo’s condemnation of cultural change is also due to his fear of losing social status. His sense of self-worth is dependent upon the traditional standards by which the society judges him. Another example would be when Okonkwo returns from exile, he does not adapt to the change brought in by the colonizers. In fact his disapproval of western culture leads him to suicide. On one side Okonkwo is being presented as a strong character by attaining his culture, but on the other hand he was a coward leading himself to suicide. So the clash of culture brought tensions in the Igbo society
The villagers in general are also caught between resisting and embracing change and they face the dilemma of trying to determine how best they could adapt to the reality of change. Many of the villagers were excited about the new opportunities and techniques that the missionaries brought. This western influence, however, threatens to quench the need for the change of traditional methods of farming, harvesting, building, and cooking. These traditional methods, where it was once essential for survival, were now to some extent, unnecessary to the Igbo people as the new technologies were invented by the whites which also included education. Throughout the novel, Achebe shows how dependent such traditions are upon storytelling and language and thus how quickly the rejection of the Igbo language for English could lead to the suppression of these traditions. In Things Fall Apart, western culture is portrayed as being “arrogant and ethnocentric”.
Language is also a sign of culture clash in the novel. Language is an important theme in Things Fall Apart on several levels. In indicating the original and often formal language of the Igbo, Achebe emphasizes that Africa was not the silent or confusing island. Rather, by scattering the novel with Igbo words, Achebe shows that the Igbo language is too complex for direct translation into English. Similarly, Igbo culture cannot be understood within the framework of European colonialist values. Achebe also points out that Africa has many different languages: the villagers of Umuofia, for example, make fun of Mr. Brown’s translator because his language is slightly different from their own. To write his novel in English language also depicts that as the culture of Igbo society was washed of by the whites the language also changed.
Hence, this essay has discussed the clash of cultures on Igbo society due to colonization and how the characters were affected by such changes.
Things Fall Apart Chinua Achebe
(Full name Albert Chinualumogu Achebe) Nigerian novelist, essayist, poet, short story writer, and children's writer.
The following entry presents criticism on Achebe's Things Fall Apart (1958). For further information on his life and works, see CLC Volumes 1, 3, 5, 7, 11, 26, and 127.
Things Fall Apart (1958) is one of the most widely read and studied African novels ever written. Critics have viewed the work as Achebe's answer to the limited and often inaccurate presentation of Nigerian life and customs found in literature written by powers of the colonial era. Achebe does not paint an idyllic picture of pre-colonial Africa, but instead shows Igbo society with all its flaws as well as virtues. The novel's title is taken from W. B. Yeats's poem “The Second Coming.”
Plot and Major Characters
Things Fall Apart traces life in the Igbo village of Umuofia, Nigeria, just before and after its initial contact with European colonists and their Christian religion. The novel focuses on Okonkwo, an ambitious and inflexible clan member trying to overcome the legacy of his weak father. The clan does not judge men on their father's faults, and Okonkwo's status is based on his own achievements. He is a great wrestler, a brave warrior, and a respected member of the clan who endeavors to uphold its traditions and customs. He lives for the veneration of his ancestors and their ways. Okonkwo's impetuousness and rigidness, however, often pit him against the laws of the clan, as when he beats his wife during the Week of Peace. The first part of the novel traces Okonkwo's successes and failures within the clan. In the second part he is finally exiled when he shoots at his wife and accidentally hits a clansman. According to clan law, his property is destroyed, and he must leave his father's land for seven years. He flees to his mother's homeland, which is just beginning to experience contact with Christian missionaries. Okonkwo is anxious to return to Umuofia, but finds upon his return—the third part of the novel—that life has also begun to change there as well. The Christian missionaries have made inroads into the culture of the clan through its disenfranchised members. Shortly after his return, Okonkwo's own son leaves for the mission school, disgusted by his father's participation in the death of a boy that his family had taken in and treated as their own. Okonkwo eventually stands up to the missionaries in an attempt to protect his culture, but when he kills a British messenger, Okonkwo realizes that he stands alone, and kills himself. Ironically, suicide is considered the ultimate disgrace by the clan, and his people are unable to bury him.
The main theme of Things Fall Apart focuses on the clash between traditional Igbo society and the culture and religion of the colonists. Achebe wrote the novel in English but incorporated into the prose a rhythm that conveyed a sense of African oral storytelling. He also used traditional African images including the harmattan (an African dust-laden wind) and palm oil, as well as Igbo proverbs. In an effort to show the clash between the two cultures, Achebe presented traditional Christian symbols and then described the clan's contrasting reactions to them. For instance, in Christianity, locusts are a symbol of destruction and ruin, but the Umuofians rejoice at their coming because they are a source of food. The arrival of the locusts comes directly before the arrival of the missionaries in the novel. Transition is another major theme of the novel and is expressed through the changing nature of Igbo society. Several references are made throughout the narrative to faded traditions in the clan, emphasizing the changing nature of its laws and customs. Colonization is a time of great transition in Umuofia and the novel focuses on Okonkwo's rigidity in the face of this change. Other themes include duality, the nature of religious belief, and individualism versus community.
Reviewers have praised Achebe's neutral narration and have described Things Fall Apart as a realistic novel. Much of the critical discussion about Things Fall Apart concentrates on the socio-political aspects of the novel, including the friction between the members of Igbo society as they are confronted with the intrusive and overpowering presence of Western government and beliefs. Ernest N. Emenyonu commented that, “Things Fall Apart is indeed a classic study of cross-cultural misunderstanding and the consequences to the rest of humanity, when a belligerent culture or civilization, out of sheer arrogance and ethnocentrism, takes it upon itself to invade another culture, another civilization.” One of the issues that critics have continued to discuss is whether Okonkwo serves as an embodiment of the values of Umuofia or stands in conflict with them. This discussion often centers around the question of Okonkwo's culpability in the killing of the boy, Ikemefuna. Many critics have argued that Okonkwo was wrong and went against the clan when he became involved in killing the boy. Other reviewers have asserted that he was merely fulfilling the command of the Oracle of the Hills and Caves. Several critics have compared Things Fall Apart to a Greek tragedy and Okonkwo to a tragic hero. Aron Aji and Kirstin Lynne Ellsworth have stated, “As numerous critics have observed, Okonkwo is at once an allegorical everyman figure embodying the existential paradoxes of the Igbo culture in transition, and a great tragic hero in the tradition of Oedipus, Antigone, and Lear.” Some critics have complimented Achebe's choice to write in the language of the colonizers, lauding his artful use of the English language. Several reviewers have also noted his use of African images and proverbs to convey African culture and oral storytelling. Arlene A. Elder has asserted, “Achebe's use of proverbial language enhances the richness of Things Fall Apart, and the author points out that ‘[a]mong the Igbo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten.’”