To fully understand Chinua Achebe’s book Things Fall Apart, one must not fall for the idea that there is one main purpose for the novel. Simply stated the story is much too rich and complex for that. The themes of Okonkwo’s life, and the Ibo culture, are twofold: it is the relation of the conflict between an individual and society, and also the description of the conflict between the larger forces of cultures clashing. Support for this dual thesis is overwhelming. To begin with the text itself demands that interpretation. Things Fall Apart clearly begins with a focus directly aimed upon the main character of Okonkwo.
It is going to revolve around his life. However, at the very same time, the protagonist is not mentioned even one time early on without being connected simultaneously with thoughts of both his home village and the larger culture of the Ibo people. This cannot be ignored. One could argue that rather than being a larger purpose book Things Fall Apart is just a novel of the life and growth of one man, but this is rather silly and simple. The title of the book puts one right on the path to refuting this, giving context to a larger meaning. It is clearly encouraging one to look at larger ‘things’ as opposed to a person.
This is coupled with the basis for the title itself, quoted on the flyleaf: The Yeats’ poem The Second Coming: Turning and turning in a widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. (Quoted in Things Fall Apart). Therefore given the context of a large chaotic world it would be more than naive to assume a different interpretation, that of a more concentrated work based upon an individual. To best prove the ambivalent statement of purpose about Achebe’s novel it is vital to review critical and popular commentary.
This book has struck a highly resonant chord with readers in the fifty years since its first publication. It unabashedly describes an African culture in such a way that the power of the society is shown, and the power of the African individual is also demonstrated. Naturally, all minority groups and oppressed people can find inspiration within the pages. As a result, as may be expected, strong opinions have been catalogued as analysis over time. This paper reviews two such supports for each purpose stated in the thesis. The first part deals with the conflict between individuals and society. The primary source naturally is the book itself.
Briefly paraphrased Okonkwo is a well known warrior. He is extremely self centered and important at the beginning of the novel. This has as its roots a severe cynicism regarding the life and experiences of his father Unoka. In a world where the society of Ibo is stronger than the individuals, this lack of respect seeps into Okonkwo’s world. The foible is too much and eventually pits him at odds with his society. Charles H. Rowell held a conversation regarding this aspect of Things Fall Apart with the author himself. What resulted was a fine understanding and awareness of this thesis through the words of Achebe.
One example of his thought process and the workings of the story of Okonkwo on a personal level is this answer. “People are expecting from literature serious comment on their lives. They are not expecting frivolity” (250). Or as Rowell comments, the creation of Achebe’s stories such as Okonkwo’s are not made just to entertain. They are to connect with readers about their own experiences and then instruct them from there. Rowell’s interview shows an awareness of the importance of the social story. His questions aim to reveal this oft overlooked aspect of writings such as Things Fall Apart.
It is tempting, he relates to merely dismiss (if this is even fair wording) the book as commenting only on the larger theme of Ibo society and what happens when an established social realm is invaded by foreigners. Instead he and Achebe through the discussion point to the power of a narrative surrounding the conflict that one can have on a smaller, more concentrated level: the conflict that occurs when one runs counter to their own society’s expectations. When Okonkwo becomes too heavily involved on a personal level with the sacrifice of the neighboring Mbaino culture, he runs into direct opposition to the world directly around him.
That and his character traits create early conflict and show to the world a story based upon that – an important revelation to readers across the spectrum that may find themselves sometimes in this predicament. The biography of Achebe by Ezenwa-Ohaeto reveals this purpose to be true as well. And this comes from a treatment of just where Achebe was in his own personal life and the moods and hopes that he possessed while writing the book. He was working as a controller at the time in Eastern Region when he first began attempting to introduce Things Fall Apart to the publishing world.
At this time, he ran into the sort of direct conflict with his own society, ironically, that he would develop in the story of Okonkwo. There was great objection to a book about Africans by Africans at the time. The 1950s were not exactly a compassionate moment for the words of Africans. Independence was on the horizon for many countries, but there was also a great deal of fear. This desire of many to not rock the boat, so to speak, put those who would speak out in a path of intersection with their own society (65). This only encouraged Achebe to produce a vision of that for his protagonist.
There must be the strong character trait in one that wishes to change his social culture for the better, he reflects in his novel. The experience of Okonkwo is the experience of an individual in conflict with his society and the results that may come, unexpected or not, from that. The second section concerns itself with the conflict inherent when two cultures clash. This is the broader perspective, necessarily, compared to the experience of the individual. This also is the more basic and popular understanding of the novel. It is very easy to see all of the reasons why.
Again, a look at the primary source of the novel is the starting point for any discussion. Commentary on the book will never quite serve the reader as well as the book itself. And what does it indicate? Most of the second section of the story is examining what happened to the Ibo people and their culture when the white culture insidiously worked their way into it. It broke the home culture into pieces. Things did, indeed fall apart. Consider this quote directly from the book: If we fight the stranger we shall hit our brothers and perhaps shed the book of a clansman. But we must do it.
Our fathers never dreamed of such a thing, they never killed their brothers. But a white man never came to them. So we must do what our fathers would never have done. (Achebe 203). There is no better analysis of this second theme of Achebe’s work. Two cultures clash. Chaos results. And yet that is only the superficial layer of the problem, as this quote clearly shows. The problem that occurs when cultures come into contact and then conflict with each other is the assimilation effect. There will always be faction that fall prey to the invaders and their attractive ideas. Sometimes that is enough for them to forget the values of their peoples.
This conflict then with their own home society can cause open resentment and actual warfare. Then the culture falls into shambles even worse as shared societal values are discarded. In the end there are not only two social cultures left: the home and the invaders. There are three: the home culture, the invaders, and the home culture that is infected by the invaders. None of them are true allies and only further conflict can be expected. Chapter three of John Ball’s book Satire and the Postcolonial Novel (79-114) examines this issue and the breakdown that results from it.
He takes the even larger view that is used often as well when looking at the clashing of the Ibo with the whites that have come into their world. He reviews this setting of Things Fall Apart to be a criticism and revelation of the greater issues of colonialism in Africa (and other parts of the world, for that matter) as seen through one African author’s eyes. Rather than look too thoroughly at the early parts of the novel, he focuses rather on the part of the book in which the two cultures come into contact. This is the point of departure for this second theme.
It is accurate to say that most of the pages from that spot and onward deal with this cultural clashing issue. I think, too, that it is accurate that this does work as a satire. That is to say that I fully believe that Achebe is trying to achieve this effect. Only too well did he personally understand what happens when two completely variant cultures meet. His hope and the hope of the Africans around him was that if treated peacefully, the foreign culture would come in and only benefit them, but he also saw the harsher side of the realities.
This is how Things Fall Apart deals with the situation. Ball is not the only one who could see this expression in the novel and in other works by Achebe. It is a strong defense of the idea that one of the two main themes of the book is that of what happens when two cultures clash. A final proof would use is Isidore Okpewho’s commentary on Achebe in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart: A Casebook. She sees too this problem with assimilation, cultural conflict and resultant expectations. These are all the values and stories of Things Fall Apart.
Seen from the outside she has several comments and thoughts about how these topics are addressed by connecting them to the outside world at the time of the writing. She describes the authorship of this book as being a “succession of forces controlling his [Achebe’s] development as a writer” (5). This is a great assessment. It sets the stage for understanding the direction of his landmark work Things Fall Apart. It is indeed this stage that the book concerns itself with. There is a succession of forces, to use Okpewho’s words, that are acting upon the Ibo culture.
These control the development of the world of that African region and create mass conflict between the two cultures. The assimilation effects, she continues, were strongest in the Ibo part of the world. This is accurately reflected, too, in the sinister ways in which the foreigners crept in with their influences. That is the warning cry of Okonkwo with the text. He sees that the policy of indirect rule is only designed to place one group of people into opposition with another group of their own people. This splinters and fragments the strength of the initial cultures.
It created enemies where there weren’t any other, as reflected in the quote concerning the killing of brethren, used above. This was the white way. It is no surprise then, that this theme would find its way so strongly into Things Fall Apart. The topic is addressed as a cautionary tale. Achebe had already seen this happen in his own world. He saw the sad results. He knew how destructive the penetration of home cultures could be. All of these can be found in Part Three of the book. “It is already too late,” said Obierika sadly. “Our own men and our sons have joined the ranks of the stranger.
They have joined his religion and they help to uphold his government” (176). It is the despondent tone of the theme describing the clash of cultures. All of the above commentary from several sources, combined with a close and analytical reading of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart reveals the thesis to be strongly supported. Of the novel’s purpose, two things then are true: it aim to relate an expression of conflict between an individual and society, while concurrently exploring the description of conflicts resulting from the larger forces of cultures clashing. References Achebe, Chinua.
Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor Books, 1994. Print. Ball, John C. Satire & the Postcolonial Novel: V. S. Naipaul, Chinua Achebe, Salman Rushdie. New York: Routledge, 2003. 79-114. Print. Ohaeto, Ezenwa. Chinua Achebe: A Biography. Oxford: James Currey, 1997. Print. Okpewho, Isidore, Ed. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart: A Casebook. Oxford: UP, 2003. Print. Rowell, Charles H. “An Interview with Chinua Achebe. ” Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart: A Casebook. Ed. Isidore Okpewho. Oxford: UP, 2003. 249-272. Print. Conversations with Chinua Achebe. Ed. Bernth Lindfors. Jackson, MS: UP, 1997. Print.