Things Fall Apart, A Review
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (Igbo) follows the life of a warrior in the Umuofia village of Nigeria in Africa. Okonkwo, as the warrior is called, is a man’s man. He’s the warrior that all want to be. He is feared. He is strong. He is a leader. However, he has a temper and a searing drive to become chief clan leader of Umuofia.
As a champion wrestler among the tribes, Okonkwo has defeated everyone that has come into his path. The one thing he cannot defeat, though, is his anger and pride. He is a terribly harsh man, but is acting in accordance with how he feels a tribal leader is to act. Okonkwo desires to be better than his father, whom Okonkwo believes to be an effeminate disgrace to the Igbo tribe. To Okonkwo, family and relationships are no match for the pride and respect he desires from his tribe. We see this exemplified in Okonkwo’s actions towards Ikemefuna who is sentenced to death by Umuofia’s leaders, but has come to see Okonkwo as a father figure. Okonkwo sees Ikemefuna as that of a son and an elder advises Okonkwo to not take part in Ikemefuna’s execution because of that closeness. Okonkwo discards the advice and ends up delivering the final deathblow to his “son” Ikemefuna.
Okonkwo does all of this as part of his drive to become supreme leader of Umuofia. However, the tribal members believe in man’s chi which is a god of predestination of sorts for tribal members. One cannot go farther than their chi allows and Okonkwo finds himself an outcast from his tribe based on an accidental death due to Okonkwo’s exploding rifle. Okonkwo and his family is banished for seven years as punishement for the accident. For Okonkwo, this is too long. This banishment from the tribe means that Okonkwo cannot become chief. However, he schemes to find a way. Okonkwo is nothing but driven. He is a prideful man who is also quite violent. He has many wives, as is wont of tribal men in his tribe, and many children. He loves some children more than others. There is one child, his oldest son, who he hates. He has cursed that effeminate boy for converting to Christianity. The storyline culminates with this encroaching religion and imperialistic control over Okonkwo’s native land that destroys the Umuofia way of life.
Christian missionaries come and strive to make things better, but they make things worse. The missionaries want to give an education to all Umuofia who convert. A change in culture is the tuition for this education because one must become like those he is converting to. This is full assimilation on the part of the individual into the church that is new to their village. Okonkwo’s son, who is at first hesitant but drawn, eventually ends up joining the church and casts his family aside for his new family found within his new religion.
Okonkwo is distraught, but mostly angered. He curses his son and later tells the rest of his sons that if they are to convert to do it now so he can curse them. Otherwise he’ll come back in the afterlife and break their necks. No other son capitulates to the demands of the church and we see the anger rise in Okonkwo as the anger rises in the reader at the increasing injustice of the church in Umuofia. In fact, the reader begins looking to Okonkwo to make things right. There is no one else willing to do what only Okonkwo is fit to do. He stages an uprising against the church and takes destructive action.
Events happen quickly as the story draws to a close. The snowball effect occurs and we find Okonkwo has placed himself in a position that cries for the blood of the offender. He is isolated now and we see how this prideful man who wanted nothing but to lead his tribe to their benefit falls to that same pride. Okonkwo becomes like his father Unoka that he despised so much. In his death, Okonkwo is despised by not succumbing to a traditional and respectful death. He is isolated in his exit from this world.
Okonkwo is the only one in the tribe that sought to take action against the encroaching imperialism. Everyone else is apathetic or fearful of taking any sort of stand against the powerful government. How true is this today? We still find that many will cower in fear rather than take a stand for truth and for what’s right. Okonkwo, despite all his failings as a man, fought for his tribe and their way of life. Not every action of Okonkwo’s was acceptable. Any progressive individual would have something to say about how men treated women and children. However, there was admirability in the character of Okonkwo.
The ending is so deflating. How does a people overcome their oppressors? Would it turn out that all who fight against imperialism face the same fate as Okonkwo? What is the point of this book? We see the rich and powerful win over the oppressed. What kind of story is this? The final paragraph in the book is so final and pessimistic and disappointing and poignant all at the same time. This is the problem indigenous peoples find ourselves in today.
Things Fall Apart was written by an Igbo tribal member from Africa telling the story of how Christian imperialism destroyed the local culture and traditions of the Igbo. However, we see how they faced the same experience that Turtle Island’s indigenous faced during colonization and continue to face today. The Christian church, for all its efforts to help, has destroyed the culture of a proud people. There are traditions that do need to be overturned in a tribal nation. I believe that most would agree, no matter their politics. Ill-treatment of women and children and the oppressed is not right treatment in any society. Christianity sought to change things for the better, but only succeeded in deploying its own sense of oppression over tribal peoples. One sense of moral failings was replaced by another.
What are we to gain from this book? The experience of men is a harsh one that rewards the oppressor over the oppressed.
Do the oppressed have hope that they will see their oppression stopped? Some look to government to free men. Some look to God, of varying varieties. Some look to humanitarian efforts. Some look to despair and become nihilistic in their philosophies and actions. However, the overall prevailing thought is that most have hope that oppression can be rendered null.
Look at the hope that people have. We may disagree on the means for hope, but we agree that there is hope. How does imperialism vanish? How do we overcome oppression? We hope. We love. We work together. Okonkwo had hope, but his method was oppression in itself. Things Fall Apart offers no remedy. History offers no remedy. We look back on history and see the same cycles of oppression over and over. But at the same time we see triumphs over and over. Much blood is spilled. Many lives are lost. But passion and risk is what incites hope. Love and courage invite change.
Okonkwo had the strength, but not the love. He met his end and the tribe met it’s own end through their cowardice. Let’s look at their strengths and emulate that. Let’s look at their failings and learn from them.
Literature doesn’t always give solutions. It doesn’t have to. We read to learn. Learning doesn’t mean we’re told exactly what to think. Learning means we think for ourselves and understand why we believe what we believe. When we read Things Fall Apart we are to learn from the actions of the characters in the book. That is how we overcome oppression, by not being like those oppressors. Christmas is near. Christmas invites hope. Christmas invites brotherly love. Christmas invites triumph over oppression. Things Fall Apart explained the problem. What’s our solution?