Things fall Apart: Themes
Though Achebe is extremely political in his writing and speaking, even at times an activist in his life on behalf of Biafra and Nigeria, he stresses the virtues of moderation and tolerance. Rigid characters on either side of the fence, clan or Christian, are shown to be divisive, and they lead to the violence and hardship in African life.
Okonkwo, for instance, is the tragic hero of the story. Tragic heroes are typically noble but inflexible. Okonkwo reacts, is rash, and sees things as black or white. His friend, Obierika, is also a great warrior, but wiser and thoughtful. He does not participate in the killing of the hostage, Ikemefuna, and yet does not feel it demeans his status as a warrior to refrain from killing the boy who calls Okonkwo “father.” He sees farther than Okonkwo, has more of a range of responses.
Similarly, Achebe contrasts the two white missionaries, Mr. Brown and Mr. Smith. Mr. Brown is a somewhat more practical man, and he finds a way to achieve his goal of spreading Christianity without disturbing Ibo life too much. He discusses religion with the elders, and once he knows their beliefs, backs off, quietly making his own approach through what will appeal to the people.
Achebe does not approve of the deceptive methods of colonization that rob the Igbo of their heritage, but Mr. Brown is more in keeping with the Igbo tradition of peace. Mr. Smith, on the other hand, catches the Ibo off guard because he is aggressive without provocation. His values are black and white, escalating the conflict between clan and church until tragedy occurs. He suspends members of the church for continuing their Ibo customs, making them choose. He is a Christian of doctrine, rather than love. He is abetted by his African convert, Enoch, who wants to start a holy war. He touches off the final conflict when he unmasks one of the ancestral spirits or egwugwu, which he knows is a great sin to the clan.
Peacemakers in the story are shown to be the wise elders, such as Ezeudu, a great and fearless warrior who warns Okonkwo not to kill Ikemefuna, and Uchendu, the maternal uncle, who tries to teach Okonkwo the female wisdom to balance his masculine fire. Umoufia medicine is strong in terms of never starting “a war of blame” or aggression, yet their warriors are feared.
This philosophy of balance, or “live and let live” is summed up in the proverb, “let the kite perch and let the eagle perch” (Ch. 3, p. 19). The principle of tolerance is demonstrated throughout the novel in the mechanisms the Ibo have for settling quarrels (the court case in Chapter Ten) and helping one another through hard times (Nwakibie’s loan to Okonkwo). It is not an aggressive or competitive society. There are no kings or dictatorial leaders. Consensus reigns. Peace with the gods, the Earth, and one another is the goal.
“Mother is Supreme”
Achebe demonstrates the dynamic balance of natural forces in Things Fall Apart, in the honoring of both male and female energies. Okonkwo’s tragedy partly stems from his overcompensation of male energy in order to avoid what he thinks is the effeminate behavior of his father, who was neither a great warrior nor a provider and called “agbala” or woman, a man with no rank. He several times commits sins against mother Earth, by disturbing Peace Week when he beats his wife, and by accidentally killing a kinsman during a funeral.
Ani is the Earth goddess, in charge of fertility and the main goddess, who presides over all the functions of the seasons and life: “She was the ultimate judge of morality and conduct” (Ch. 5, p. 36). The earth priest, Ezeani, tells Okonkwo: “We live in peace with our fellows to honor our great goddess of the earth without whose blessings our crops will not grow. . . The earth goddess whom you have insulted may refuse to give us increase. . . (Ch. 4, p.30). Okonkwo must do ceremonies of pacification so the whole tribe will not suffer. It is the earth from whom the egwugwu or male ancestral spirits derive their powers. It is telling that Okonkwo is uncomfortable during the Feast of the New Yam to the Earth goddess, whom he had insulted during Peace Week. Okonkwo hates the idea of feasting and being idle and prefers the wrestling contest.
Still he does not learn the lesson and beats the boys when they are planting the yams, fearing they will not learn that “Yam stood for manliness” (Ch. 4, p. 33). He is afraid his son will be weak like his grandfather. Though men rule the family, and women have a separate sphere, the Ibo greatly respect and fear the female forces of nature.
Okonkwo makes Ikemefuna and Nwoye hear stories of war and the taking of enemy heads, when Nwoye prefers his mother’s stories about Tortoise. The priestess Chielo wields more power over the clan than even the egwugwu or masked ancestral spirits. When she declares the Oracle’s will that Ikemefuna be killed, no man may dispute the harsh judgment. Even Okonkwo is afraid of her when she speaks in trance, transporting his daughter to the Cave of the Oracle. He follows with his machete, but makes no protest.
There are many elders in the clan who are more balanced in energies, such as Obierika, Ezeudu, and Ochendu, all great warriors. Okonkwo is ironically closer to his daughters than his sons, but he never shows this. He wishes over and over that Ezinma had been a boy because she understands him and the ways of the clan.
When Okonkwo accidentally shoots and kills a kinsman, it is considered a female sin, and he is banished for seven years, a lesser penalty than a male aggressive sin. He must leave the fatherland for his mother’s land at Mbanta. His maternal uncle, Uchendu, receives him and when he sees Okonkwo’s bitterness with his fate, he reproaches him and tries to teach him the lesson that “Mother is Supreme” (Ch. 14, p. 133). A child belongs to the father, he says, but when the father is cruel, the child always turns to the mother for help and protection. He concludes by singing the song when a woman dies:
“For whom is it well, for whom is it well?
There is no one for whom it is well.” (Ch. 14, p. 135)
Though women do not appear to have power, they are the fortune of the clan. In the end, Okonkwo’s warrior ways fail to help his people, and he never learns that “Mother is Supreme.”
Things Fall Apart
The rhythms of life, and the seasons of nature are the constant foreground of the story. The festivals of the New Yam and Peace Week come and go at their appointed hour. Yet the unexpected happens. Okonkwo as a young man survives one of the worst planting seasons in memory, destroying many farmers with a drought, followed by heavy rains. These natural upheavals are an accepted part of Igbo life. Nature is one force that makes the clan adapt to survive.
Against a structure of ongoing tradition and festivals and ceremonies, there is frequent mention of things changing and dying out. The elders complain that the young have gone soft. For instance, Nwakibie who gives the seed-yams to the young Okonkwo, says that he rarely gives to the young men today because few are as hard working as Okonkwo (Ch. 3, p. 22). The elder who speaks at the farewell feast in Mbanta similarly laments that the young have forgotten the bond of kinship and the power of speaking with one tribal voice (Ch. 19, p. 167).
When Okonkwo breaks the Week of Peace, he is given a light penance, according to some elders who remember when such an offence of disturbing the peace was punishable by death. There is an elegiac note from the beginning that the customs are not as pure as they once were, whether from adaptation and expedience, or greater softness in the younger generation. Yet this natural change and falling apart of things—Okonkwo’s killing the man at the funeral by accident and his subsequent exile, for instance—is nothing compared to the coming of the white colonizers and the annihilation of the tribal life. The whites do not just want a place among the Igbo, but to rule them. This is a “falling apart” of a different magnitude.
The book’s title is a quote from Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming”: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” Yeats’ poem is concerned with the larger cycles of civilizations rising and falling. It is hellish to be in the chaos between cycles when one phase is dying and another, perhaps worse one, is arising. Yeats says that when there is such a gigantic dissolution of life, “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” Achebe has mentioned that the Igbo people fear, not political anarchy, but metaphysical anarchy, the kind he feels is represented in Yeats’ poem. The white destruction of the Igbo worldview and life is such a metaphysical anarchy, and the way Achebe registers such horror for the reader is in the falling apart of his hero.
The novel is set up like a three-act tragedy, with Part One, Okonkwo’s rise, Part Two, his exile, Part Three, his return and death. The disappearance of the ancestral tradition is shown in a few deft strokes in Part Three of the novel. Obierika explains to Okonkwo who has just come back to Umoufia after seven years’ exile, during which the Christian church and government have been installed, that it is too late to expel the whites: “ How do you think we can fight when our own brothers have turned against us? . . . 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” (Ch. 20, p. 176).
Things Fall Apart is a condemnation of the aggressive white colonization of Africa, with its deceptive peaceful approach, and its brutal takeover of the tribes in the name of true religion and “civilization.” The District Commissioner breaks the spirit of the Igbo by imprisoning the leaders and treating them as non-entities. They are seen and treated as animals. This “falling apart” of Umoufia is a tragic rending of the tribal unity that once protected the Ibo physically, psychologically, and spiritually. Achebe explains the Igbo fear of night and darkness in Chapter Two: “Darkness held a vague terror for these people, even the bravest among them” (p. 9).
When Okonkwo realizes what his own son, Nwoye’s, defection to the Christians means, he is staggered: “. . . his son’s crime stood out in stark enormity. To abandon the gods of one’s father . . . Suppose when he died all his male children decided to follow Nwoye’s steps and abandon their ancestors? Okonkwo felt a cold shudder run through him at the terrible prospect, like the prospect of annihilation” (Ch. 17, p. 153). It is a shock but no surprise that Okonkwo has nowhere to go when the power of his tradition is stripped from him, and he kills himself. The man who could withstand any manner of natural hardship or battle is not able to deal with this kind of chaos.