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.

B Setting

Things Fall Apart is set in Umuofia, a tribal village in the country of Nigeria, in Africa. It is the late 1800s, when English bureaucrats and missionaries are first arriving in the area. Although there is a long history of conflict between European colonists and the Africans they try to convert and subjegate, by placing the novel at the beginning of this period Achebe can accentuate the clash of cultures that are just coming into contact. It also sets up a greater contrast between the time Okonkwo leaves the tribe and the time he returns, when his village is almost unrecognizable to him because of the changes brought by the English.

C Conflict

In Things Fall Apart, the Ibo thrive in Umuofia, practicing ancient rituals and customs. When the white man arrives, however, he ignores the Ibo’s values and tries to enforce his own beliefs, laws, and religious practices. Some of the weaker tribesmen join the white man’s ranks, leaving gaps in the clan’s united front. First, the deserters are impressed with the wealth the white man brings into Umuofia. Second, they find in the white man’s religion an acceptance and brotherhood that has never been afforded them due to their lower status in the tribe. As men leave the tribe to become members of the white man’s mission, the rift in the tribe widens. Social and psychological conflict abounds as brothers turn their backs on one another, and fathers and sons become strangers.

D Narration

Achebe develops Things Fall Apart through a third-person narrative-using “he” and “she” for exposition-rather than having the Characters tell it themselves. Often speaking in the past tense, he also narrates the story with little use of character dialogue. The resulting story reads like an oral tale that has been passed down through generations of storytellers.

E Imagery

While the Characters in Things Fall Apart have little dialogue, the reader still has a clear image of them and is able to understand their motives. Achebe accomplishes this through his combination of the English language with Ibo vocabulary and proverbs. When the Characters do talk, they share the rich proverbs that are “the palm-oil with which words are eaten.” Achebe uses the proverbs not only to illustrate his Characters but also to paint pictures of the society he is depicting, to reveal Themes, and to develop conflict. Vivid images result, giving the reader a clear representation of people and events.

F Point of View

Critics praise Achebe for his adept shifts in point of view in Things Fall Apart. Achebe begins the story from Okonkwo’s point of view. Okonkwo’s story helps the reader understand the Ibo’s daily customs and rituals as well as celebrations for the main events in life: birth, marriage, and death. As the story progresses, however, it becomes more the clan’s story than Okonkwo’s personal story. The reader follows the clan’s life, gradual disintegration, and death. The novel becomes one of situation rather than character; the reader begins to feel a certain sympathy for the tribe instead of the individual. The final shift occurs when Achebe ends the story from the District Commissioner’s viewpoint. While some critics feel that Achebe’s ending lectures, others believe that it strengthens the conclusion for the reader. Some even view it as a form of functionalism, an African tradition of cultural instruction.

G Plot and Structure

Divided into three parts, Things Fall Apart comprises many substories. Yet Achebe holds the various stories together through his use of proverbs, the traditional oral tale, and leitmotif, or recurring images or phrases. Ibo proverbs occur throughout the book providing a unity to the surface progression of the story. For example, “when a man says yes, his chi says yes” is the proverb the tribe applies to Okonkwo’s success, on the one hand, but is also the proverb Okonkwo, himself, applies to his failure. Traditional oral tales always contain a tale within the tale. Nwoye’s mother is an expert at telling these tales-morals embedded in stories. The stories Achebe tells throughout Things Fall Apart are themselves tales within the tale. Leitmotif is the association of a repeated theme with a particular idea. Achebe connects masculinity with land, yams, titles, and wives. He repeatedly associates this view of masculinity with a certain stagnancy in Umuofia. While a traditional Western plot may not be evident in Things Fall Apart, a definite structure with an African flavor lends itself to the overall unity of the story.

H Foil

Achebe uses foil-a type of contrast-to strengthen his primary Characters in Things Fall Apart, illuminating their differences. The following pairs of Characters serve as foils for each other: Okonkwo and Obierika, Ikemefuna and Nwoye, and Mr. Brown and the Reverend Smith. Okonkwo rarely thinks; he is a man of action. He follows the tribe’s customs almost blindly and values its opinion of him over his own good sense. Obierika, on the other hand, ponders the things that happen to Okonkwo and his tribe. Obierika often makes his own decisions and wonders about the tribe’s wisdom in some of its actions. Ikemefuna exemplifies the rising young tribesman. A masculine youth, full of energy and personality, Ikemefuna participates in the manly activities expected of him. In contrast, Nwoye appears lazy and effeminate. He prefers listening to his mother’s stories over making plans for war. He detests the sight of blood and abhors violence of any kind. Mr. Brown speaks gently and restrains the overzealous members of his mission from overwhelming the clan. He seeks to win the people over by offering education and sincere faith. The Reverend Smith is the fire-and-brimstone preacher who replaces Mr. Brown. He sees the world in black and white; either something is evil, or it is good. He thrives on his converts’ zeal and encourages them to do whatever it takes to gain supporters for his cause.

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