Things Fall Apart

things fall apartOkonkwo, the Igbo protagonist of Things Fall Apart (1958), is a strong man. He’s spent most of his adult life trying to dispel the legacy of his father, who lost money and neglected his farm and his wives; Okonkwo wants to be wealthy, to provide for his family, to show no weakness either physical, material, or emotional. And at first, things go well for him. He has a good farm and many children, including Ezinma, his favorite daughter, who is so strong she “should have been born a boy.” He is even able to house Ikemefuna, a boy from another tribe, as a settlement when a man from Ikemefuna’s tribe murders a woman from Okonkwo’s tribe.

But for all Okonkwo’s striving, life takes a path he would rather not follow. It is decreed by the gods that Ikemefuna, who has become like a son to him, must die. Okonkwo does not oppose this decision lest he look weak and feminine, and even participates in the murder. Later, white men come to his village to begin the process of missionary conversion, and in his anger, Okonkwo lets his gun go off, accidentally killing one of his own tribesmen. He must flee the clan for seven years to expiate his sin. In that long, long interval, he loses not only his farm, his money, his power, and his influence, but any sense of the identity of his village and clan. The white missionary colonizers gain more than a foothold in his village; they make converts, form a government, and convince the Igbo people of their hopelessness and powerlessness. In the end, Okonkwo’s strength and masculinity belong to an older order, and it is the new order that will dictate terms from now on.

I’ve had many, many experiences with literature I didn’t like or understand the first time I read it, and liked much more the second time around, when I was a better or more sophisticated reader. (The Great Gatsby is probably the best example.) I have had nearly no experiences with reading something as an adult that is considered a major world classic, as is Things Fall Apart, and just not thinking it was that good. I understand its historical significance: this is one of the very first English-language African novels written that depict the dignity and beauty of the culture of the Igbo people. Most African novels written before this were written by the colonists, and they often showed Africans as “natural” or primitive at best and threatening savages at worst. The use of language, the Igbo proverbs that well up through the story, the way cultural rituals naturally find their way into the narrative without being either exoticized or over-explained — all this was new and incredibly influential. Everything I see tells me that Nigerian and other African authors, right down to contemporary authors like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, still see Achebe as a major influence.

But reading it from this distance… I just found it all so overdetermined. I can see why every high school seems to teach it, right? It is all so clearly signposted: here is where things fall apart. Here is the delineation between masculine and feminine. Here is a symbol for the white man (bad!) and the village culture. Here is where Okonkwo’s desire to get away from his father trips him up, and brings him full circle to his father’s fate. And it is all told in a very neutral, third-person style, so the experience of living in that culture is mediated and distanced, unlike (say) Camara Laye’s The Dark Child (1954). It didn’t seem particularly complex or engaging, especially compared to some of the other novels I’ve read on these topics.

I wonder what I am missing? I am prepared to believe I’m wrong; a major classic of world literature probably has more than I’m seeing if I am not finding many layers. Someone tell me why this is your favorite novel. Convince me!

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15 Responses to Things Fall Apart

  1. Jeanne says:

    I am no help; I liked teaching this novel because I hated it, and that’s something it’s great for students to see–so often they’re reading novels because of how much the teacher loves them. You come at analysis differently when you hate it–like how it’s easier to write a proposal when you’re arguing for a side with which you don’t fully agree.

    • Jenny says:

      I feel that way about Rousseau, whom I hold responsible for about a third of the ills of modern society (and also find personally reprehensible, whiny, and narcissistic — nearly irredeemably unpleasant to read.) I teach him, though, because he’s so crucial, and I get quite passionate about it!

  2. Jenny says:

    I can’t convince you either because I’ve stayed away from this one. It’s one of those books I don’t want to hate, but I’m sure I would hate it, so I haven’t read it at all. Secretly I never plan to.

    • Jenny says:

      Well, the main character is certainly not at all sympathetic, but normally that’s not a problem for me. It was the very neutral narration coupled with the HELLO HERE HAVE SOME SYMBOLISM that put me off.

  3. Things Fall Apart isn’t my favorite novel, but I did enjoy it. Perhaps that’s because I first read another book of his, Arrow of God, in a literature class and we spent a long time learning about Igbo culture and Nigerian history so that we had more context. I think I may have enjoyed Arrow of God more than Things Fall Apart, though.

    If you want to try another Achebe but are wary of his other novels, I’d recommend his collection of autobiographical essays, The Education of a British-Protected Child.

    • Jenny says:

      Thank you, I think I’ll take that recommendation! Often an author’s nonfiction may appeal when the fiction doesn’t.

  4. Teresa says:

    I gave up on this halfway through, but I mostly blamed the fact that I was listening to the audiobook and not liking the narration much. However, I never got around to the print, which says something about my lack of engagement with it. My guess–and it’s just a guess–is that the novel continues to be taught because of its historical significance, and the signposting you talk about might make it a helpful book in classes focused more on the history than the literary value. IIRC, one of my sisters had to read it her freshman year in college for an all-campus reading program. A book like this might be useful for that kind of program, where the literary quality is secondary to the ideas it raises.

    I have read a couple of his essays and found them interesting, even when I didn’t agree entirely with his arguments, so Rayna might be on the right track.

    • Jenny says:

      Ask Jeanne, but it looks to me as if it would be an easy novel to teach, too, because of the signposting, whether it were in a history class or an English class. It is a bit like Man Vs. Nature, only it’s Culture Vs. Culture.

      Of course, I don’t want to diminish its obvious importance. And there were some very good parts to it, some excellent set pieces. I don’t want to exaggerate and say I thought it was bad; I didn’t.

  5. For some readers, the ideas are the literary quality; literature is nothing but ideas.

    How did you like the scene where the daughter goes to the cave at night and – I guess I do not remember it that well. You know which one I mean.

    I do wonder why this is book is not switched out with Ousmane Sembene a little more for teaching purposes.

    • Jenny says:

      There were a few wonderful scenes, mostly the ones involving women. The one you refer to is one; it was very vivid.

      The notion that literature is nothing but ideas reminds me of those people who say that if they could, they would take a pill each day that contained all their nutrition, because meals are a waste of time. Perhaps the readers you’re referring to would like a bullet-pointed list of the ideas in books, instead of having to read what the author tediously wrote, to have to get at the ideas.

      • Jenny says:

        Oh, Ousmane Sembene? Maybe because he’s not an English-language author? Would that make any difference? Or perhaps because he writes a little later? Or because he’s a Communist? Or all three? I love Sembene.

  6. Pingback: Audiobook Review: Things Fall Apart | The Indiscriminate Critic

  7. anokatony says:

    I’m a big fan of Chinua Achebe’s work and have read “Things Fall Apart”, “Arrow of the Gods”, and “Anthill of the Savannahs”. It’s been quite awhile so I really can’t get into specifics, but I did discover Achebe about the same time as I discovered many of the Latin American writers. He provided a new perspective on seeing the world.

  8. Amy Brandon says:

    I’m so glad to read your post and the comments. I felt like I was missing something here. I didn’t dislike the book, but I also didn’t like it. I just felt kind of “meh” about the whole thing. I understand the cultural importance; I assume that’s the reason for its inclusion on so many required reading list.

    • Jenny says:

      I think it must be — though as Tom pointed out, there are also some wonderful scenes in it. But I know several African novels from the same time period that I think are better literature and have the same cultural importance. So I just wonder.

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