Things fall Apart: Chapter 22,23,24
Summary of Chapter Twenty-Two
Mr. Brown’s successor is a more rigid and ruthless man, Reverend James Smith. He condemns Mr. Brown’s policies of compromise. He sees things in terms of conflict, much as Okonkwo does. Mr. Brown had only thought to bring in numbers, but Rev. Smith is appalled by the ignorance of his flocks on important Christian beliefs, and their clinging to pagan practices. He expels a woman from church for allowing her dead child to be mutilated as an ogbanje.
Enoch is one of the converted who was the son of a snake priest and who was rumored to have killed a sacred python. He is an angry and dogmatic Christian who gains power after Rev. Smith arrives. He is the one who touches off the conflict between church and clan that had been brewing. He unmasks one of the egwugwu, or masked ancestors, during an earth celebration. This is killing an ancestral spirit, and all of Umuofia is in confusion.
At night, the Mother of Spirits wails, and the next day all the egwugwu arrive from all the villages to the market place, and it is a terrible gathering. The Christians are gathered at Mr. Smith’s house, and even he is afraid. The egwugwu burn Enoch’s compound and start for the church. Mr. Smith goes out to meet them, and his interpreter, Okeke, is there to back him up. The band of egwugwu is ready to swallow up the men and the church, but Ajofia, the leader of egwugwu, gives the judgment: the whites can stay and worship as they will, but the church must be destroyed, for it is breeding abominations. The church is burned to the ground, but no one is harmed, and the spirit of the clan is pacified.
Commentary on Chapter Twenty-Two
One of Achebe’s messages is that the black and white thinking of Rev. Smith or Okonkwo is not the spirit of life; it is the soul of conflict. It is remarkable under the provocation that the egwugwu are restrained and that their leader, Ajofia, gives a fair judgment, of merely burning the church rather than revenge on any people. Enoch has a personality like Okonkwo’s but on the other side of the fence. He longs for a holy war.
It is clear that both sides have difficulty in understanding the other. Why it is an unheard of disaster to unmask an ancestor is difficult for Mr. Smith, and why it is terrible to mutilate an evil child is difficult for the clan. The interpreter wisely mistranslates during negotiations for this very reason, trying to keep tempers under control. Yet, despite the people of good will on either side, the tension keeps escalating, and the reader can see greater disaster coming, though the clan cannot.
Summary of Chapter Twenty-Three
Okonkwo is almost happy again, for he had counseled the egwugwu they must do something, and they had listened, although they had not agreed to kill anyone or drive away the Christians. Still, pride had been saved. For two days nothing happened, except that every warrior went around armed.
When the District Commissioner returns, Mr. Smith goes to him, but the clan takes no notice. A few days later a messenger came to ask the leaders of Umoufia to meet the Commissioner in his headquarters. This was not unusual, for it had happened frequently.
The six men went armed, on Okonkwo’s advice. The Commissioner says he has heard a story and wants to ensure it won’t happen again. Ogbuefi Ekwueme stands and begins the story, but the Commissioner says he wants his men to hear it too. Twelve men come in and handcuff the clansmen. The Commissioner tells them he represents the Queen, the most powerful ruler in the world, and he cannot allow them to burn a church. They must pay a fine of 200 bags of cowries and will remain in prison until it is paid.
The clan leaders are put into prison, insulted, starved, and beaten. Okonkwo is one of them and expresses regret at not killing Mr. Smith. The people, worried their leaders will be taken to Umuru and hanged, raise 250 bags of cowries, not knowing 50 is for the hated messengers.
Commentary on Chapter Twenty-Three
The Commissioner does not treat the elders with any dignity or fairness, assuming they are savages. He deceives them and says they will be safe in prison, but the other black guards, the hated court messengers—imported from a distant town—take the opportunity to humiliate and torture them. Thus, he need not dirty his own hands.
The speech in which the Commissioner explains he is the representative of the Queen, administering a just government, and that they are not going to be allowed to break the law, sounds reasonable, but only if the clansmen are assumed not human or having any legitimate right to their own land and ways. He says he will listen to their grievance, but he does not and acts unilaterally. This is incomprehensible to Igbo people who have a fair way of dealing with enemies.
Summary of Chapter Twenty-Four
Okonkwo and the others are not set free right away after the fine is paid. When they do go home, they go in silence and do not speak. Okonkwo goes to his obi where Ezinma feeds him, and Obierika notices the whip stripes on his back.
The village crier announces a meeting for all Umuofia. Okonkwo is bitter but excited like a child. He brings out his war dress. He wants vengeance. If Umoufia decides on war, it is well, but if they don’t he will avenge himself. He thinks of the wars of the past when men were men.
He begins to worry about Egonwanne, the coward, who is a powerful speaker and could turn the people against war, telling them not to fight a war of blame. He vows if they listen to him, he will take matters in his own hands.
He goes to the marketplace with Obierika, and when he sees Egonwanne there, tells Obierika that he will fight alone, if Egonwanne turns the people. Okonkwo decides he will let Egonwanne speak first.
It is Okika, one of the imprisoned leaders, who speaks first. He says, “All our gods are weeping . . . Our dead fathers are weeping” (Ch. 24, p. 203). He cautions, however, that if they go to war, they hit their own brothers, still, they must root out the evil now (“bale this water now that it is only ankle deep” p. 204).
At that moment, five court messengers show up and order the meeting to stop. Okonkwo’s machete is out of its sheath before he can think. He murders the head messenger. The crowd jumps into life, and the meeting is stopped. Okonkwo stands looking at the dead man, suddenly knowing that Umuofia will not go to war because the crowd let the other messengers escape, and has broken in confusion in all directions.
Commentary on Chapter Twenty-Four
The meeting represents the last chance of the people to stop the white man, and Okonkwo has declared war, whether or not his people follow. He worries about the pacifist, Egonwanne, who never even gets the chance to speak. Instead, a fellow prisoner, Okika, makes the speech Okonkwo would have made for war. The messengers showing up to stop the meeting are only five in number, and yet the fact that the people do not kill them is a sign they know they cannot win. They give up and go away in a panic.
Okonkwo has always been violent and rash, so we are not surprised that he kills the head messenger. These messengers had been involved in the capture and torture of Okonkwo and the other leaders. It was an instinctive move to take out his machete and strike, without thought. He had vowed vengeance, and the opportunity presented itself before he expected. But Okonkwo can also read the crowd. The fact that they dispersed at the appearance of the messengers means the lesson has already been learned. The stripes on Okonkwo’s back have been felt by the whole clan. They do not fight, and it is not because of Egonwanne or any pacifist speech.