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Introduction

The story of Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart takes place in the Nigerian village of Umuofia in the late 1880s, before missionaries and other outsiders have arrived. The Ibo clan practices common tribal traditions-worship of gods, sacrifice, communal living, war, and magic. Leadership is based on a man’s personal worth and his contribution to the good of the tribe. Okonkwo stands out as a great leader of the Ibo tribe. Tribesmen respect Okonkwo for his many achievements.

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Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe is a world-renowned scholar recognized for his ability to write simply, yet eloquently, about life’s universal qualities. His writing weaves together history and fiction to produce a literary broadcloth that offers visions of people enduring real life. Critics appreciate his just and realistic treatment of his topics.

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Plot Summary

A Part I-Okonkwo’s Rise to Fame

Achebe’s Things Fall Apart describes the tragic demise of an Ibo man named Okonkwo. Initially, Okonkwo rises from humble origins to become a powerful leader in Umuofia, a rural village in southeastern Nigeria. As Okonkwo climbs the ladder to success, however, it becomes apparent that his strengths are also his weaknesses: his self-confidence becomes pride, his manliness develops into authoritarianism, and his physical strength eventually turns into uncontrolled rage. In a broader sense, Achebe sets this story about Okonkwo at the end of the nineteenth century when Europeans first began colonizing this region of Nigeria on a large scale. By so doing, Achebe establishes a parallel between Okonkwo’s personal tragedy and colonialism’s tragic destruction of native African cultures.

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Characters

A Okonkwo

Out of awe and respect, the Ibo tribe refers to Okonkwo as “Roaring Flame.” Fiery of temper with a blazing appearance, Okonkwo strikes fear in the hearts of his clan members as well as his own family unit. Okonkwo’s huge build topped by bushy eyebrows and a very broad nose give him the look of a tornado on the warpath. His whole demeanor reeks of controlled fury; he even breathes heavily, like a dragon ready to explode. He always appears to be wound for fierce action.

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Themes

A Custom and Tradition

Okonkwo’s struggle to live up to what he perceives as “traditional” standards of masculinity, and his failure to adapt to a changing world, help point out the importance of custom and tradition in the novel. The Ibo tribe defines itself through the age-old traditions it practices in Things Fall Apart. While some habits mold tribe members’ daily lives, other customs are reserved for special ceremonies. For example, the head of a household honors any male guest by praying over and sharing a kola nut with him, offering the guest the privilege of breaking the nut. They drink palm-wine together, with the oldest person taking the first drink after the provider has tasted it.

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Construction

A Tragedy

Things Fall Apart chronicles the double tragedies of the deaths of Okonkwo, a revered warrior, and the Ibo, the tribe to which Okonkwo belongs. In literature, tragedy often describes the downfall of a great individual which is caused by a flaw in the person’s character. Okonkwo’s personal flaw is his unreasonable anger, and his tragedy occurs when the tribe bans him for accidentally killing a young tribesman, and he returns to find a tribe that has changed beyond recognition. The Ibo’s public demise results from the destruction of one culture by another, but their tragedy is caused by their turning away from their tribal gods.

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Historical Perspective

A Tribal Society

Things Fall Apart was published in 1958 just prior to Nigerian independence, but it depicts precolonial Africa. Achebe felt it was important to portray Nigerians as they really were-not just provide a shallow description of them as other authors had. The story takes place in the typical tribal village of Umuofia, where the inhabitants (whom Achebe calls the Ibo, but who are also known as the Igbo) practice rituals common to their native traditions.

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Questions

How does the displacement from one’s culture affect a person psychologically? Explain possible reactions a person might have and the steps someone might take to help him or her adjust.

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Compare and Contrast

1800s: Prior to colonization, common language and geography differentiated African societies. Six types of societies existed: hunting and gathering societies, cattle-herding societies, forest dwellers, fishermen, grain-raising societies, and city (urban) societies. The geographic area in which people lived determined their lifestyle. Colonial Africa: Africa was divided into more than fifty nation-states, with no regard for maintaining groups sharing common language and livelihood. Today: Societies are no longer as clear-cut. People have more opportunities for education, better jobs, and improved means of communication and transportation. They marry individuals from other societies. As a result, the societies have become mixed, but ethnic conflicts still lead to violence.

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