Okonkwo, 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!