‘Things fall Apart’

early 20th century, Lagos, Nigeria --- A meeting of colonial administrators with tribal messengers from the interior in Lagos, Nigeria. --- Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

Things fall Apart is Achebe’s first novel. Published in 1958, two years before Nigeria gained independence from the British rule, the novel portrays life in an Igbo village, Umuofia, in the 1890s and the dramatic consequences of the changes introduced by colonialism and Christianity.

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The protagonist, Okonkwo, is a great wrestler, renowned warrior and hardworking member of the community. He is not a very likeable character, so one expects a Schadenfreude novel; the rise and fall of such a ruthless man. Okonkwo attempts to achieve prestige and status by accumulating wealth. Also, as a warrior, he is always willing to display the maximum cruelty, which he also does in his own household, to ‘control the womenfolk’. He feels he is destined for greatness and seeks to distance himself from his father, whom he regards as a failure and an ‘effeminate’ man. He reacts against his father’s perceived weakness by being a ‘hyper masculine’ man who rejects his feminine side, upsetting the Earth goddess Ani. He controls his family through anger, beats his wives and despises his son Nwoye, who reminds him of his father. In order not to appear as a weak man, he even kills Ikemefuna, a boy taken from Mbaino as a compensation for the murder of a daughter of Umuofia in order to avoid war. Ikemefuna lives in Okonkwo’s compound, in his first wife’s hut together with Nwoye, for some years and regards Okonkwo as a father. Okonkwo himself grows fond of the boy, who is the kind of son he always wanted and a role model for Nwoye. Ikemefuna’s death, along with certain customs that he could not accept, eventually leads Nwoye to embrace Christianity and to turn his back on his family and traditions.

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After an accidental death caused by Okonkwo’s gun during the Yam Festival, he is barred from Umuofia for seven years, during which Christian missionaries arrive and establish themselves in Umuofia. Christians are granted ‘all the land they wish’, but within the Evil Forest; the place where Umuofians get rid of unwanted sets of twins (whom they regards as an abomination), lepers, outcasts and the mutilated bodies of the ogbanje (children who die during infancy only to be reborn from the same mother over and over). They expect the Christians to die there, but they build their church and start gaining support from the osu (outcasts), the mothers of twins and unsuccessful men who are looked down on in Umuofia.

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He returns from exile only to witness how Christianity has divided Umuofia and how a colonial government is taking root, debunking the ancient customs and laws. Some of the Christian converts, raised in the belligerent Igbo culture, wish for a religious war but they are prevented to act out by the priest. However, some of them challenge their former religion actively. The Christian convert Enoch unmasks an egwugwu, a masquerader representing an ancestral spirit, killing the spirit. The egwugwu then retaliate and destroy Enoch’s compound as well as the church, and the leaders of the community –Okonkwo among them- are jailed and whipped. They are released after paying a fine. When the traditionalist Igbo gather to mourn the abominations suffered by the ancient gods, some colonial officers arrive to disperse the crowd. Okonkwo draws his machete and decapitates the court messenger. But the divided community fails to rise in defense of traditional life, so Okonkwo retreats and hangs himself, committing the ultimate offence against the Earth goddess.

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