Achebe’s (1994) novel, Things Fall Apart, is a chronicle of societal change in the face of a colonial invasion. It describes the life of Okonkwo, a distinguished leader of a village in Nigeria. The rich, powerful, brave and intelligent man has worked hard to achieve his high status in his village. The village elders thus chose him to be the guardian of a boy named Ikemefuna, who has been made prisoner by Achebe’s tribe. Okonkwo must keep the boy with him until the Oracle decides otherwise.
When the village elders decide that Ikemefuna must be killed, Okonkwo goes against the advice of the oldest man of the village by killing the boy himself. Subsequently, things start to fall apart for Okonkwo. He accidentally kills another individual at a funeral ceremony. For this act he must be sent into exile with his family for a period of seven years. After all, he has offended his gods by committing the murder.
After Okonkwo and his family have been sent into exile, things start to fall apart for his people back home.
White men begin to enter his village, amiably introducing their religion to the native people. As the number of people embracing the new faith increases, the white entrants grow in power. Ultimately, a new government is formed in the village – that of white people.
When Okonkwo returns to his village, it is a different place altogether. The presence of white men is a change he had not expected. Unhappy with the change, he tries to work with other tribal leaders to reclaim the old government. They do this by destroying a Christian church that they believe has mocked their gods. The white government retaliates by taking Okonkwo and the other tribal leaders as prisoners, holding them for ransom, and humiliating the native leaders further.
A great uprising ensues, as the native people of the village gather to oppose the white government. When the white government tries to stop their meeting by sending some of its messengers, Okonkwo is the only one who kills one of the messengers. His fellow native people allow the remaining messengers to escape, however. Okonkwo is made to understand thus that the villagers are too weak to fight for themselves and/or protect their rights. He therefore begins to believe in the end of his society, reinforcing its disintegration in the following words: “Now [the white man] 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.”
Okonkwo kills himself soon after. The white government sends one of its local leaders to take the great man of the village to court. At this point, Okonkwo is found to have hanged himself. The great man’s death is a sign of the total demise of his people’s old ways of life. After all, it was Okonkwo alone who was strong enough to kill one of the white men in an attempt to eradicate their government. None of his fellow native people were as determined as he.
Still, Okonkwo’s story is a powerful reminder that nothing can withstand forces of change at times. Even the heroes may turn to despair if the forces of change are too powerful to fight. Such forces may change people and their cultures for ever. Even so, the memories of the heroes remain, as in Things Fall Apart.