Things fall Apart: Chapter 19,20,21

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Summary of Chapter Nineteen

It is nearing the end of Okonkwo’s exile. He has prospered in his motherland but feels he would have prospered more in Umuofia, and he has regretted every day of exile. He called his first daughter born in exile Nneka (Mother is Supreme), but he called his first son in exile Nwofia (Begotten in the Wilderness)


Okonkwo sends Obierika the money to rebuild his huts in his old compound, and as soon as the rains stop, he prepares to return. There is a rainbow in the sky, and the people call it the python in the sky. He has a feast to thank his mother’s people, and it is lavish as befits a great man.  The elders say, “We come together because it is good for kinsmen to do so” (Ch. 19, p.167). The elders lament that the young no longer know what it is to speak with one voice.


Commentary on Chapter Nineteen

Here is another of the great feasts in the old style that call the clan together. The elders speak of the strength of the clan and how it is more important than anything else. They thank Okonkwo for this moment of unity in the face of the divisive new religion. It gives us the last glimpse of Igbo unity before the deluge to come.


Summary of Chapter Twenty


Part Three opens with Okonkwo’s return to Umuofia. He knows he has lost his place among the masked spirits of justice, and his chance to lead a war against the new religion. He had lost the time to gain the highest titles. He was determined to make up lost time by building a bigger compound, taking new wives, and initiating his sons into the ozo society. These plans became embittered with the loss of his first son to the Christians. But he had five more sons whom he called together. He announced to them the disowning of Nwoye.


He is more fortunate in his daughters, and Ezinma has grown up to be beautiful and sought after, but she bends to her father’s wishes to wait till the return to Umuofia to marry. He asks her to explain to Obiageli why, and she does. Okonkwo wants the prestige of having two beautiful marriageable daughters when he returns.


Umuofia, however, has changed. Even men of title like Oguefi Ugonna were cutting their anklets and joining the church. The worst is that the white men brought a government with a District Commissioner who judged cases. The whites use native court messengers to bring in people to trial. The messengers are hated and called kotma, or, wearing khaki shorts. They guard the prison full of men who have broken the white man’s law; for instance, throwing away twins. The prisoners are beaten and made into slaves. Some of them are men of title.


Okonkwo does not understand how his people lost the power to fight. Obierika tells him it is too late for that, since many of their people have joined the Christians.


They speak of Aneto who killed Oduche in a fight over land. The whites imprisoned Aneto and all the leaders of his family, finally hanging Aneto and letting the rest go after much suffering. They confiscated the land and gave it to a white supporter.


Commentary on Chapter Twenty

The white government has now completely usurped the power of the clan to solve its own arguments. They intervene on behalf of black Christians who adhere to their religion and rules. Aneto’s case was not allowed to be settled by the tribal custom. Thus, as Obeirika tries to explain to Okonkwo, it is too late to fight because they have won over so many of the people. He mentions how clever the white man was to come peaceably with his new religion, then took over: “He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart” (Ch. 20, p. 176).


Obierika speaks the theme of the book. Achebe took the title of the novel from a phrase by Yeats in his poem, The Second Coming: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.” There are the natural rhythms of the seasons, the land, life and death. From an Igbo point of view, life is unpredictable and often violent, yet there was an order to it before the whites came. Now, they are losing their relationship to land, gods, and each other. Their center is gone.


Summary of Chapter Twenty-One

All the people of Umuofia are not upset at the white man, for even if he brought a lunatic religion; he has opened a trading store that brings money and goods to the town. Mr. Brown, the white missionary, has a lot to do with the success of the new religion because of his tolerance. He makes friends with some of the great men of the clan, such as Akunna, who had given his son to be taught in the white school.


Mr. Brown and Akunna actually discuss religion in Akunna’s hut through an interpreter. Akunna says they also believe in one God, called Chukwu. They discuss the fine points of polytheism and monotheism, finding points of agreement and disagreement. Akunna’s points are intelligent, and so Mr. Brown realizes he cannot make a frontal attack on the local beliefs. Instead, he builds a school and begs for the children to come. Mr. Brown tells the people that the power belongs in the future to those who can read and write. They must become educated to protect themselves or others would come to rule them.


Soon not only children but adults come to the schools, for they can get jobs. Mr. Brown’s success destroys his own health, and he is forced to leave. Mr. Brown had called on Okonkwo when he returned to town, but Okonkwo had driven him away. Okonkwo is disappointed with his return, for not many have taken notice. The clan is now barely recognizable as it falls apart before his eyes.


Commentary on Chapter Twenty-One

As Obierika had said to Okonkwo, it is too late to defeat the white man, for he has conquered from within. The people are already becoming dependent on the new ways, even if there are negative side effects. Mr. Brown is one of the more intelligent missionaries who actually tries to learn about the people. The religious discussion with Akunna allows the reader to see more than Mr. Brown does however, into Igbo beliefs, for Akunna acquits himself well. He explains what the dense white man does not get about earth religions: they worship lesser gods to honor certain powers and elements in nature, but they also recognize a supreme God, Chukwu. As with human government, there is a hierarchy of powers, and one must honor them all and call on the right one for certain favors. Mr. Brown does not get the theological significance of these arguments as he sticks to his own dogma, but he understands practically that these are not ignorant or unreflective heathen, so he takes a different, more indirect tactic. The conversation shows the depth and flexibility of Igbo spirituality, and the inflexibility of the Christians, who despite their religion of love, are ruthless in practice.


Mr. Brown forbears from trying to convince anyone after that; he goes for the practical lures of education, jobs, goods, money. These temptations are too much for most of the villagers who look to what will bring prestige in the future. They try to keep up with the times. Okonkwo is exactly the sort of person who will suffer most from this change. He has lost his power, his status, and his clan. His strategy of arriving in his old town with beautiful marriageable daughters is successful but does not stir that much attention, and because he cannot initiate his sons into the ozo society for two years, the gesture is lost. Life has left the old warrior behind.

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