Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe is a story about personal beliefs and customs, and also a story about conflict. There is struggle between family, culture, and the religion of the Ibo, which is all brought on by a difference in personal beliefs and customs of the Igbo and the British. There are also strong opinions of the main character, Okonkwo. We are then introduced to the views of his village, Umuofia. We see how things fall apart when these beliefs and customs are confronted by those of the white missionaries.
The authors full name is, Albert Chinualumogu Achebe also known as Chinua, he was born on November 16, 1930 in Ogidi, Nigeria. He is a product of both native and European cultures. This has a great effect on the telling of the story. He attended Government College in Umuahia from 1944 to 1947 and University College in Ibadan from 1948 to 1953. He then received a B.A. from London University in 1953 and studied broadcasting at the British Broadcasting Corp. in London in 1956. He joined the Biafran Ministry of Information and represented Biafra as a diplomat. Since then, he has taught variously at the universities of Nigeria, Massachusetts, and Connecticut.
Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart partly in response to what he saw as inaccurate
characterizations of Africa and Africans by British authors. The book was published in 1958, he was 28 years old at the time. It was very successful and has sold over 2,000,000 copies, and has been translated into thirty languages. He has written a total of fifteen different books in his lifetime. He became a political activist in the late 1960’s early 1970’s.
Thirty years ago Chinua Achebe was one of the founders of this new style of literature, and over the years many critics have come to consider him the finest of the Nigerian novelists. His achievement, however, has not been limited to his continent. He is considered by many to be one of the best novelists now writing in the English language. In recent decades he has held a succession of teaching posts, notably a professorship at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.
In Thing Fall Apart, we see a conflict early in the story between Okonkwo and his father, Unoka. “Okonkwo was ruled by one passion – to hate everything that his father Unoka had loved. One of those things was gentleness and another was idleness” (Achebe 13). Unoka was considered to be a failure. Okonkwo did not receive anything from his father and he had to start out with nothing. His goal “chi” in life was to obtain great wealth and to have many wives and children. The Ibo people considered these things signs of success. Yet, his greatest goal was his desire to become one of the powerful elders of the clan. It is Okonkwo’s inner anger and bitterness over his father’s failure that seemed to be the driving force behind everything he did in life. This was evident in the fact that he always felt as though he had to do what was manly and he hated weakness.
Just as Okonkwo did not want to be like his father, Nwoye did not want to be like Okonkwo. Nwoye possessed traits that Okonkwo did not such as gentleness, forgiveness, and acceptance. Okonkwo saw these as signs of weakness. “Okonkwo never showed any emotion openly, unless it be the emotion of anger. To show affection was a sign of weakness; the only thing worth demonstrating was strength” (Achebe 28). Okonkwo considered Nwoye to be lazy and wanted him to be a success like himself. “Okonkwo wanted his son to be a great farmer and a great man.. . . I will not have a son who cannot hold up his head in the gathering of the clan. I would sooner strangle him with my own hands” (Achebe 33). This is an example of the difference in personal beliefs among family.
The Igbo people had a very different religious lifestyle than what the British were used to here. Their culture was very different as well. They believed in polytheism (the belief in many gods). In the United States it seems that everyone one here is monotheistic (the belief in one god). The Igbo supreme god was Chukwu, they believe “he made all the world and the other gods” (Achebe 179). Everything has a spirit. They also believed that the law was kept by a group of nine ancestral spirits called egwugwu. These ancestral spirits represented a village, that is why there were nine.
The Igbo family consisted of a nuclear family which was the man, his wives, and how many children they had. This was a normal family in the Igbo culture. Each wife had her own hut she shared with her children. Men practiced polygamy, while the women were monogamous. Twins were excluded from their society. There was also a group of elders, they were men who achieved high ranking titles, and who kept order in the village. Their
culture respected the seniors because they were filled with knowledge and wisdom. They had their own political structure, it was considered to be a patriarchal society. This had a major impact on their everyday lifestyle.
In the fourth chapter Okonkwo is yelled at by Ezeani, the priest of the earth goddess, for beating his wife during the sacred week of peace. Okonkwo did not feel remorse for his actions and probably thought of it as a sign of strength and manhood. Okonkwo was always worried about being seen as weak. One good example of this is when he kills Ikemefuna. Okonkwo liked the boy because he saw several good qualities in him that he wished his own son possessed. However, he had to be killed because of one of their customs. When it came time to kill Ikemefuna, Okonkwo delivered the second and final blow from his machete and killed the boy so that people would not think that he was weak. After Ikemefuna was killed, Okonkwo was unable to eat or drink for days because he was upset. But, he made himself get rid of those feelings and reminded himself that killing someone should not bother him because he feared being seen as weak, like a “shivering old woman” (Achebe 65). This same event is also a major breakdown for Okonkwo. Killing Ikemefuna represents killing off everything in which Okonkwo believed very strongly in. He saw many of his own qualities in Ikemefuna. He could have done a lot of good for the clan and Okonkwo was very proud of him but, he ends up killing Ikemefuna himself.
Just as Okonkwo was gaining power and higher positions within the clan, he was banished for seven years for accidentally killing another member of the clan. They burned all
his huts down and he and his family had to live in his motherland. He had to resettle in his mother’s maiden land of Mbanta. It was also against the law to unmask the egwugwu spirit. Even though everyone knew that he was innocent and that the banishment was meant for murder, no one was willing to challenge the tradition. The fact that the Ibo people relied on tradition and would not accept change was a weak point in their society. As Okonkwo was preparing to return to Umuofia from his time is exile, he was expecting the people to be exited for his return. He thought they would be happy to have their warrior leader back home. Their reaction was not what he expected. He believed that the people had grown weak. While he was gone the missionaries had also arrived in Umuofia. Okonkwo was not scared of them at first. He did not think that anyone would believe what they had to say.
The arrival of the missionaries is the issue in which there is the biggest clash of beliefs. When the Christian religion was introduced, many members of the clan who were not happy with the Ibo religion became interested. Some of the title-less men were also interested. Nwoye, who did not approve of leaving the supposedly evil twin babies in the woods or the killing of Ikemefuna, was also interested in Christianity because it taught that killing innocent people was wrong. When Okonkwo heard that Nwoye was visiting with the missionaries, he was infuriated and he kicked him out of the house. In general, Okonkwo was fearful and extremely resistant to the new religion because it had the potential of ruining the life long work of the clan of trying to please the gods of its ancestors.
Just as we can see a clash in personal beliefs within the clan, we can also see the difference in customs or methods or motives between the two missionaries. Mr. Brown was a
very passive and understanding man, whereas, Mr. Smith was more forceful and condemning of the people. He did not try to understand the customs of the clan, he simply told them that they were wrong and Christianity was right. Things really got heated up when a convert unmasked and killed an egwugwu. In revenge, the church was burnt down. Okonkwo and other members of the clan were brought before the commissioner and were harassed and beaten. It was after this that a town meeting was called. Okonkwo was infuriated and determined to fight the white men. When a messenger came to break up the meeting, Okonkwo was so enraged that he killed the man.
The arrival of the British in and before the 1800’s led to what seemed like a million conflicts between the Igbo and the British political systems. There were conflicts regarding religion, social life, education and many others. It affected the Igbo both positively and negatively. On the positive side it benefitted them economically and it stayed a patrilineal society (man’s world). Yet there were negative sides to it as well such as that it destroyed their traditional government (“ebu”) and forced them to change their lifestyles. Polygamy was deemed to be senseless. The British told the Igbo that they worshiped fake gods of stone and wood, and that they should convert to their religion.
As the British moved into Umuofia they introduced hospitals and a court system where the Igbo were judged and the British missionaries were protected, they also built jails. The missionaries also created a school where they taught new Christians (reformed Igbo) to read and write in the white man’s language. The British also set up also set up trading shops, which made money for the villagers. There was also an increase in the development in
technology (trains, etc…). It seemed that this was all for the good and only improvements; a better lifestyle would come of these reforms. The people of Umuofia attempted to stop the British and the changing society but they did not succeed.
In the end, Okonkwo committed suicide by hanging himself. He knew that the people would not fight and he was ashamed of what the Ibo society had become. “He knew that Umuofia would not go to war. He knew because they had let the other messenger escape. They had broken into tumult instead of action” (Achebe 205). Everything he lived for and believed in was going to be taken away by the white men. They had control over everything. He did not want to see that happen so he took his own life. Yet, this is ironic because, in doing so, he was committing an act which was considered one of the worst actions a member could do in the Ibo society. Throughout the story we see how strong Okonkwo’s personal beliefs were and how much they meant to him. Beliefs, both personal and those of the society someone is born into, play a major role in their life. This story is an example of what happens when those beliefs are taken away and others are forced upon a person. Everyone needs to believe in something, and things fall apart when they no longer can.
When he tells the story with an understanding and personal experiences in both cultures. He does not portray the African culture and their beliefs as barbaric. He simply tells it as it is, and how things happened. It is the same with the white men. Chinua Achebe realized that neither of the cultures were bad, but they simply had a difference in beliefs.
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