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.
The first section of the novel describes Okonkwo’s rise to a position of power. Determined to overcome the unmanly and unsuccessful example of his father, Unoka, Okonkwo develops a strength and determination unmatched among his peers. These attributes enable him to become a great wrestler, strong warrior, wealthy farmer, and prestigious member of his community. As the Umuofians notice his extraordinary talents, they reward him with numerous titles and honors. For example, they make him the guardian of Ikemefuna, a young boy awarded to Umuofia as compensation for wrongs committed by a neighboring village. Similarly, when Okonkwo starts a farm, he receives a generous loan of 800 yams from Nwakibie, a wealthy farmer. Nwakibie is willing to loan these yams to Okonkwo because he knows that Okonkwo will succeed, and Okonkwo proves his ability to succeed by surviving even after a terrible drought destroys his crops. Undaunted by either his humble origins or the forces of nature, Okonkwo soon becomes one of the most successful and well respected men in Umuofia.
Okonkwo’s success, however, quickly begins to lead toward his ultimate downfall. Because he is so successful, he has little patience with unsuccessful and “unmanly” men like his father. In fact, he publicly insults Osugo, a less successful man, by calling him a woman during a kindred meeting. Not only does Okonkwo’s success lead to conflicts with other members of the village, but it also drastically disrupts his ability to rule his own family. Because of his autocratic style of ruling and impulsive anger, his own family fears him. In fact, his own son, Nwoye, eventually rejects him, much like Okonkwo had rejected his own father earlier-only Nwoye rejects Okonkwo for being excessively masculine, whereas Okonkwo rejected Unoka for not being manly enough. Even more significantly, Okonkwo’s hasty temper provokes him to beat his third wife, Ojiugo, during the sacred Week of Peace, a festival time during which Ibo custom strictly forbids any form of violence. Okonkwo commits his worst crime, however, when he participates in the sacrifice of Ikemefuna. After Okonkwo had raised Ikemefuna as his own son for several years, an Oracle required that the Umuofians sacrifice Ikemefuna. Because Okonkwo had been like a father to Ikemefuna, Okonkwo’s friend Ezeudu warns him not to participate in the sacrifice. When the rest of the men begin sacrificing Ikemefuna, however, Okonkwo disregards Ezeudu’s advice and participates in the sacrifice because he fears that the others might consider him unmanly. When Nwoye eventually finds out about Ikemefuna’s death, he has a serious crisis that causes him to question not only his father’s example but also the customs and beliefs of his people.
Despite Okonkwo’s numerous violations of custom and violent behavior, he ultimately loses his prestigious position in Umuofia not because of his misdeeds but because of an accident. During Ezeudu’s funeral ceremony, his gun misfires and accidentally kills a boy. Ironically, it is for this accident rather than for his numerous misdeeds that the Umuofians burn down Okonkwo’s home and exile him for a period of seven years.
B Part II-Okonkwo’s Exile to Mbanta
After being exiled from Umuofia, Okonkwo seeks refuge among his mother’s kinsmen in Mbanta, a neighboring village. During this time, the British begin colonizing the surrounding areas, and this begins a vicious cycle of mutual confrontation as the two cultures clash. For example, the inhabitants of Abame kill the first white man who arrives in their city because they fear him and cannot communicate with him, and the British destroy Abame in retaliation for this murder. Christian missionaries also begin arriving in Umuofia and Mbanta, and they hold debates to gain converts. Most of the people are not interested in the missionaries’ religion, but a few people, including Okonkwo’s son Nwoye, convert. When Okonkwo finds out about Nwoye’s conversion, he becomes enraged and disowns Nwoye. Toward the end of Okonkwo’s exile, the tensions between the village and the missionaries escalate when the Christian converts kill a sacred python and the tribe retaliates by ostracizing the Christians. After Okonkwo’s period of exile ends, he holds a great feast to thank his relatives, and he begins making preparations for his return to Umuofia.
C Part III-Okonkwo’s Return to Umuofia
In the final section, Okonkwo returns from exile with hopes of reclaiming a position of power in Umuofia, but Umuofia has changed drastically since the arrival of the Europeans. The first missionary in Umuofia, Mr. Brown, won the people’s admiration because he respected their customs and developed personal relationships with them. When Mr. Brown has to leave for health reasons, however, he is replaced by the Reverend James Smith, an ethnocentric zealot who stirs up deep antagonism between the new Christian converts and the rest of the town. These tensions finally explode when Enoch, an overzealous new convert, eats a sacred python and publicly unmasks an egwugwu spirit. The Umuofians avenge Enoch’s blasphemies by burning down the Christian church, and the British retaliate in turn by arresting the leaders of Umuofia and fining them 200 bags of cowries.
The Umuofians pay the fine, but the leaders are angered by the duplicitous and unjust manner in which the District Commissioner treated them. Consequently, they hold a meeting to decide how to respond. The village is divided as to whether they should ignore this injustice or retaliate with violence, but Okonkwo has made up his mind that he will oppose British colonization even if nobody else will join him. When a messenger from the government arrives to stop their meeting, Okonkwo kills the messenger, and the meeting ends in chaos.
The next day the District Commissioner himself comes to arrest Okonkwo, but Okonkwo has already committed suicide. The people of Umuofia ask the commissioner to bury Okonkwo because it is against their custom to bury a man who has committed suicide. The commissioner orders his men to take down Okonkwo’s body because he has an interest in African customs, but he refuses to help personally because he fears that cutting down a dead body might give the natives a poor opinion of him. Achebe’s bitterly ironic conclusion to the novel describes the District Commissioner’s callous response to Okonkwo’s tragedy. In the many years that he had toiled to bring civilization to different parts of Africa he had learnt a number of things. One of them was that a District Commissioner must never attend to such undignified details as cutting down a hanged man from the trees. Such attention would give the natives a poor opinion of him. In the book which he planned to write he would stress that point. As he walked back to the court he thought about that book. Every day brought him some new material. The story of this man who had killed a messenger and hanged himself would make interesting reading. One could almost write a whole chapter on him. Perhaps not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph, at any rate. There was so much else to include, and one must be firm in cutting out the details. He had already chosen the title of the book, after much thought: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.
Ironically, the District Commissioner thinks that he has helped pacify the “primitive” tribes of the Lower Niger, but he is blind to his complicity in destroying these tribes and provoking the chain of events leading to Okonkwo’s suicide. The District Commissioner’s thoughts are doubly ironic because he claims to understand Africa enough to write a history of it, but he remains thoroughly ignorant of the people he intends to write about. Okonkwo’s tragic demise, like the tragic destruction of indigenous African people and their traditions, is a long and complex history, but the District Commissioner only sees it as a mere paragraph. For far too long, Europeans like the District Commissioner have ignored and misrepresented the history of Africa, but Achebe’s Things Fall Apart begins to correct the historical record by retelling the conquest of Africa from Okonkwo’s African perspective rather than the District Commissioner’s European one.