Book Review: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

“The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”

Things Fall Apart tells the story of both the culture and traditions of pre- colonial Africa and also Africa in the face of a Christian colonization that strives to warp and change these traditions. This over arching narrative serves to create a space in which Achebe thoroughly explores a whole multitude of issues and themes, some of the most prominent being that of religion, gender, family, social structure and race. These themes have rooted in them a sense of contrast, whether that be between the clan and the colonizers directly or whether it be more subtle such as the internal v. external troubles of both the main character and the clan as a whole. Through this Achebe creates a novel that is truly poignant and important, and it is therefore a novel I would certainly recommend to anyone!

Igbo culture and tradition v. colonialism and religion is perhaps the theme most central to this novel, and it is one that is certainly executed well by Achebe. This is a novel about colonization told from the perspective of the colonized as opposed to the colonizers, yet Achebe creates a narrative so complex that it perhaps renders a reader unable to direct all their sympathy to one given place. While no sympathy lies with the colonizers that feel they can take over merely due to technological superiority as opposed to actual cultural superiority, the reader does feel sympathy for those from the clan who have been converted to Christianity. Through these characters Achebe explores what it is to consider certain traditions outdated, a particularly strong example of this being the couple that had to cast away their newborn twins as a result of superstition eventually converting to Christianity. This exploration of pity and outdated traditions is one that is executed brilliantly throughout the novel, and is proven to be completely central to the story in its clear and deliberate presence in main character Okwonko.

As mentioned previously, complexities regarding sympathy and outdated traditions are also reflected in the main character Okwonko.  This is a main character that is far from likable; he is misogynistic, abusive, domineering and ruthless, and is also very much the product of warrior culture. Yet this characters struggle to prevent an internal and external downfall, and his struggle to cling to a life that the reader can see will only bring about his downfall faster evokes a sympathy that cannot be ignored. We see this character fight to prevent a downfall in his internal life by being as unlike his father as possible, yet we see him banished from the clan as a result of this. We then see his fight to not fall externally, in other words we see him fight to keep the clan together in the face of colonization. Eventually it is this that brings about his ultimate downfall, and it is this struggle and subsequent failure that evoke feelings of pity in the reader despite the character himself not being particularly likable.

Explorations of gender are also key to ideas of outdated traditions and also the novel as a whole. Okwonko treats his wives terribly, consistently beating them and treating them as completely inferior. Though Okwonko is represented as generally more brutal than most, this treatment of women as inferior is still seen throughout the entirety of the clan. However, it is important to note that though it may be tempting for a Western reader in particular to view the Christian treatment of women as likely being better for them, the reality is that it is unlikely that they will view women as equal either.  This is where the lines blur concerning the contrasts between the two opposing groups, creating an incredibly intricate and complex novel that is definitely a very important read!

Furthermore, the ending to this novel was one that I found particularly important. The sudden change to the perspective of the colonizer in the last paragraph is jarring, as is his act of reducing Okwonko’s life to a mere segment of his book that couldn’t possibly hold any truth about his life. Through doing this Achebe effectively shows that the main character’s battle was almost in vain, and that the colonizers would ultimately be successful in colonizing not only the land, but also the people on it. This is the ultimate conclusion to the tragedy of Okwonko in that no matter how faithful he was to the clan, his name would still be used as a means of the colonizers making further advances on their land.

Overall, Things Fall Apart was an incredibly impactful exploration of pre- colonial Africa and colonialism. There are complex layers to the story that are certainly worth exploring, and I would highly recommend this novel to anyone!

3 thoughts on “Book Review: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe”

  1. Great review! I haven’t read this, but based on your review I’m really interested. I’m especially intrigued/encouraged by the way the lines blur between the two cultural group – sounds fascinating and thought-provoking!

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  2. Great review! I was surprised when I read this that Achebe took such an even-handed approach, showing the awfulness of the old ways just as much as he showed the colonial sense of superiority. I can’t say it made me feel much sympathy for either Okwonko or the clan’s traditions – I agree Christianity would still have treated women as unequal but it wouldn’t, by that time, have condoned regular beatings or infanticide either. It’s a complex subject, for sure, and I was pleased Achebe didn’t try to simplify it.

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