July 24, 2007

Chinua Achebe: Things Fall Apart

Posted in Achebe Chinua, Penguin Modern Classics at 2:01 pm by John Self

I keep telling authors that if they want me to read their fifty-year-old classic novels, all they have to do is win an international literary award for a lifetime’s achievement. Fortunately Chinua Achebe recently saw the sense in this policy and won the second Man Booker International Prize, so I’ve responded by finally getting around to reading his 1958 debut novel, Things Fall Apart. (Now Doris Lessing, get your finger out for god’s sake, and don’t make me come over there.)

The book gives us, say the blurb and reviews I’ve read, an insight into white colonisation of Africa from the native’s perspective (Achebe has been critical of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness). But in fact this only happens in the last 50 pages of the book: though as the novel is only 150 pages long, that accounts for a third of it.

Before that the book is divided in two. The first third or so is dedicated to Okonkwo, a warrior and clansman of the Ibo people in Nigeria (Achebe’s own origins). Okonkwo is a larger-than-life character, and not always a likeable one. He “had no patience with unsuccessful men” and believes that “to show affection was a sign of weakness; the only thing worth demonstrating was strength.” All this he owes to his father:

Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness. … It was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father. Even as a little boy he had resented his father’s failure and weakness, and even now he still remembered how he had suffered when a playmate told him that his father was agbala. That was how Okonkwo first came to know that agbala was not only another name for a woman, it could also mean a man who had taken no title. And so 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.

All this is amply demonstrated when Okonkwo takes the flimsiest opportunity to beat one of his wives, and Achebe neatly compounds our horror by having the villagers complain about this only because “it was unheard of to beat somebody during the sacred week.” He also plays with our expectations of ‘primitive’ behaviour (“On great occasions such as the funeral of a village celebrity he drank his palm-wine from his first human head”).

Okonkwo’s savagery can come to no good, and he lives to regret his bloody ways when he does something terrible even by his own standards because “he was afraid of being thought weak.” However it’s at this crucial point where the steam suddenly runs out of the story, and Achebe spends the middle third of the book illustrating various Ibo mores such as marriage customs and funeral rites. It robs the book of its narrative pull.

Only when the white missionaries arrive, as mentioned above, do things pick up again. We are given a tantalising psychological conflict, and it’s fascinating to observe the slow development of the inevitable. If we didn’t already know it, Achebe makes us aware that one supernatural belief system is the equal of any other, and emphasises again how a white, Western point of view is just one among many. The closing paragraph, not incidentally, is one of the finest I have ever read.

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11 Comments »

  1. Equiano said,

    This is the first in a loose trilogy – go on and find the others!

  2. John Self said,

    Thanks Equiano, I might do that. I did have my eye on Anthills of the Savannah, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1987. Do you know anything about it?

  3. Equiano said,

    I read Anthills of the Savannah as required reading for a class on the development of capitalism in Africa, so that should give you some idea of what it is about! That was 15 years ago, so the details are fuzzy, but I do remember finding it really interesting and, like you, it was my second Achebe having read Things Fall Apart as a setwork at school.

    In all his books there will be a bit where the “narrative pull” is lost temporarily, but bear in mind when he was writing, and who his intended audience was. Still well worth reading, I think, and his International Booker is very well deserved.

  4. Eunduk said,

    Things Fall Apart is a good book, and I hope that many people will read it. I liked this book because it teaches us different cultures, different traditions, and different beliefs. The clash between the Christian view point and Umuofia’s view point about God is very interesting. As we read Things Fall Apart, we can see that Okonkwo is actually a man with a soft heart wearing a strong exterior of brutality. For example, when his second wife Ekwefi had followed the priestess of Agbala because she carried Ezinma, Okonkwo was worried, but he showed no concern. He would occasionally visit the cave to see if his wife and daughter were back. Okonkwo is afraid of being thought as weak in front of everybody, so he shows that he does not care when really he does. By reading this book, we can learn many things about life and how everybody does not share the same viewpoint as others on the same things. For example, the Christians viewed God as a being who loves us and takes good care of us while the Igbo clan views their god as a being to be feared. I find it interesting to see how women are considered to be important, but the men treat them as mere property. I was shocked that the Umuofia people acted indifferent to Okonkwo’s treatment to his wives. In fact, they only went against Okonkwo because he beat his wife during the sacred peace week, which was the week to honor the earth goddess. I think that Achebe’s book is well worth reading.

  5. John Self said,

    Thanks for your comments, Eunduk – I agree that Things Fall Apart is worth reading. Most of it has stayed with me since I read it last year, and there aren’t many books I can say that about!

  6. Dee said,

    Chinua Achebe is a fanatical writer. Having sold well over eleven million copies of Things Fall Apart, he has earned every bit of his popularity. When I first opened up the book, I was sure it wouldn’t appeal to me one bit. After getting past the first chapter, I began to feel a little more engaged by the story than I first expected. I liked how Achebe showed Okonkwo’s sternness, but his inner subtle and caring side that was being hidden within. For instance, when Okonkwo went searching for Ezinma and Agbala all across Umofia, that showed his compassionate side and how much he really cared about his daughter. I also liked how Achebe showed how killing Ikemefuna was his tragic error, and from then on his life goes downhill. For example, his gun goes off and hits someone, he was exiled for seven years, and he lost Nwoye to the missionaries. I thought it was interesting when the Christian missionaries came in, and some people willingly and eagerly converted. Nwoye even went off to go study at a training college for teachers in Umuru.
    One of the main components that made this book more interesting was Okonkwo and his fighting spirit. After having his “abomination” of a son leave him, he wanted to eradicate all of the Christian missionaries and converts. When he was held as prisoner, he still talked aloud about how they should have killed one of the white men. It saddened me to see his spirit die when he hang himself after he realizing his clan had truly lost their will and power to fight, and refused to declare war against the white men. Overall, I would rate Things Fall Apart a nine out of ten, simply because it minimized a few major events, and was rather short.

  7. John Self said,

    Thanks Dee – I’m pleased to see that people are still finding my older reviews. I should warn readers that your post above contains some spoilers … although if they’ve got this far, the warning is probably too late. :oops:

  8. Sana said,

    I finished reading”Things Fall Apart” last week, and I really enjoyed reading it. I love reading about different cultures and religions. It gives you a broader outlook about the behaviours and natures of various people. The dialogue about the meaning and function of God in two very different religions or may we say cultures was the finest episode in the novel. It is so very difficult in todays world to know who is right and who is wrong in case of religion. Same was the case in novel where both the sides tried their best to prove their concepts are correct, and I think they both succeeded. One thing I must say is that the novel is very short, even after finishing it one simply don’t get full satisfaction and crave for more.

  9. nada said,

    thank you very much

  10. lizkeenaghan said,

    Thanks John – it was interesting to read your review. I really loved this book, and I’m not sure that I agree the middle ran out of steam – I think it helped us to understand and emphasise with the main characters, which was especially important if, like me, you were from a radically different culture and may at first have seen very little common ground. Overall, to me this book showed us that no matter which culture we’re from we are all human, and have the same frailties as each other – and then described the tragic consequences of willful imperialist ignorance of this as a warning to us all. Agree with you about the power of the last paragraph.

    My review here http://bit.ly/9js06Q

  11. Zaina Zabeen said,

    hi…m a form six student 4rm Fiji Islands nd we hav jst startd readin diz novel. wel da startingz gud n interestin ,i hope 2 enjoy readin da full story..


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