Things Fall Apart Chapter Summaries
Get Full Essay
Get access to this section to get all the help you need with your essay and educational goals.Get Access
In addition to being a skilled warrior, Okonkwo is quite wealthy. He supports three wives and eight children, and each wife has her own hut. Okonkwo also has a barn full of yams, a shrine for his ancestors, and his own hut, called an obi.
Okonkwo fears weakness, a trait that he associates with his father and with women. When Okonkwo was a child, another boy called Unoka agbala, which is used to refer to women as well as to men who have not taken a title. Because he dreads weakness, Okonkwo is extremely demanding of his family. He finds his twelve-year-old son, Nwoye, to be lazy, so he beats and nags the boy constantly.
As a result, Okonkwo cannot count on Unoka’s help in building his own wealth and in constructing his obi. What’s more, he has to work hard to make up for his father’s negative strikes against him. Okonkwo succeeds in exceeding all the other clansmen as a warrior, a farmer, and a family provider. He begins by asking a wealthy clansman, Nwakibie, to give him 400 seed yams to start a farm. Because Nwakibie admired Okonkwo’s hard-working nature, he gave him eight hundred. One of Unoka’s friends gave him another four hundred, but because of horrible droughts and relentless downpours, Okonkwo could keep only one third of the harvest. Some farmers who were lazier than Okonkwo put off planting their yams and thus avoided the grave losses suffered by Okonkwo and the other industrious farmers. That year’s devastating harvest left a profound mark on Okonkwo, and for the rest of his life he considers his survival during that difficult period proof of his fortitude and inner mettle. Although his father tried to offer some words of comfort, Okonkwo felt only disgust for someone who would turn to words at a time when either action or silence was called for.
Another important way in which Achebe challenges such stereotypical representations is through his use of language. As Achebe writes in his essay on Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, colonialist Europe tended to perceive Africa as a foil or negation of Western culture and values, imagining Africa to be a primordial land of silence. But the people of Umuofia speak a complex language full of proverbs and literary and rhetorical devices. Achebe’s translation of the Igbo language into English retains the cadences, rhythms, and speech patterns of the language without making them sound, as Conrad did, “primitive.”
Okonkwo is the protagonist of Things Fall Apart, and, in addition to situating him within his society, the first few chapters of the novel offer us an understanding of his nature. He is driven by his hatred of his father, Unoka, and his fear of becoming like him. To avoid picking up Unoka’s traits, Okonkwo acts violently without thinking, often provoking avoidable fights. He has a bad temper and rules his household with fear. Okonkwo associates Unoka with weakness, and with weakness he associates femininity. Because his behavior is so markedly different from his father’s, he believes that it constitutes masculinity. However, it strains his relationship with Nwoye and leads him to sin in Chapter 4 by breaking the Week of Peace. His rash behavior also causes tension within the community because he expresses disdain for less successful men. Ikemefuna later demonstrates that masculinity need not preclude kindness, gentleness, and affection, and Nwoye responds far more positively to Ikemefuna’s nurturing influence than to Okonkwo’s heavy-handedness.
Despite its focus on kinship, the Igbo social structure offers a greater chance for mobility than that of the colonizers who eventually arrive in Umuofia. Though ancestors are revered, a man’s worth is determined by his own actions. In contrast to much of continental European society during the nineteenth century, which was marked by wealth-based class divisions, Igbo culture values individual displays of prowess, as evidenced by their wrestling competitions. Okonkwo is thus able, by means of his own efforts, to attain a position of wealth and prestige, even though his father died, penniless and titleless, of a shameful illness.
During the Week of Peace, Okonkwo notices that his youngest wife, Ojiugo, has left her hut to have her hair braided without having cooked dinner. He beats her for her negligence, shamefully breaking the peace of the sacred week in a transgression known as nso-ani. The priest demands that Okonkwo sacrifice a nanny goat and a hen and pay a fine of one length of cloth and one hundred cowries (shells used as currency). Okonkwo truly repents for his sin and follows the priest’s orders. Ogbuefi Ezeudu observes that the punishment for breaking the Peace of Ani has become mild in Umuofia. He also criticizes another clan’s practice of throwing the bodies of all who die during the Week of Peace into the Evil Forest.
After the Week of Peace, the villagers begin to clear the land in preparation for planting their farms. Nwoye and Ikemefuna help Okonkwo prepare the seed yams, but he finds fault with their work. Even though he knows that they are too young to understand farming completely, he hopes that criticism will drive his son to be a great man and farmer. Ikemefuna settles into Okonkwo’s family and shares his large stock of folk tales.
The annual wrestling contest comes the day after the feast. Ekwefi, in particular, enjoys the contest because Okonkwo won her heart when he defeated the Cat. He was too poor to pay her bride-price then, but she later ran away from her husband to be with him. Ezinma, Ekwefi’s only child, takes a bowl of food to Okonkwo’s hut. Okonkwo is very fond of Ezinma but rarely demonstrates his affection. Obiageli, the daughter of Okonkwo’s first wife, is already there, waiting for him to finish the meal that she has brought him. Nkechi, the daughter of Okonkwo’s third wife, Ojiugo, then brings a meal to Okonkwo.
The religious values of the Igbo emphasize the shared benefits of peaceful, harmonious relations. The Igbo always consult the Oracle before declaring war, for they fear punishment from their gods should they declare war without just cause. Their religion also emphasizes the individual’s obligation to the community. When Okonkwo breaks the peace during the sacred week, the priest chastises him for endangering the entire community by risking the earth deity’s wrath. He refuses Okonkwo’s offer of a kola nut, expressing disagreement peacefully. This parrying of potential violence on the interpersonal level reflects the culture’s tradition of avoiding violence and war whenever possible.
Moreover, the belief in the chi, an individual’s personal god, also smooths possible tensions in the Igbo community. The chi allows individuals to attribute some portion of their failures and successes to divine influence, thus lessening the shame of the former and pride of the latter. This belief encourages respect between individuals; the men are thus able to settle a dispute between Okonkwo and a man whom he insults without resorting to personal attacks.
Although traditional Igbo culture is fairly democratic in nature, it is also profoundly patriarchal. Wife-beating is an accepted practice. Moreover, femininity is associated with weakness while masculinity is associated with strength. It is no coincidence that the word that refers to a titleless man also means “woman.” A man is not believed to be “manly” if he cannot control his women. Okonkwo frequently beats his wives, and the only emotion he allows himself to display is anger. He does not particularly like feasts, because the idleness that they involve makes him feel emasculated. Okonkwo’s frustration at this idleness causes him to act violently, breaking the spirit of the celebration.
Okonkwo’s extremely overactive desire to conquer and subdue, along with his profound hatred of all things feminine, is suggestive of impotence. Though he has children, Okonkwo is never compared to anything thriving or organic; instead, Achebe always associates him with fire, which consumes but does not beget. The incident in which he tries to shoot Ekwefi with his gun is likewise suggestive of impotence. After Ekwefi hints at Okonkwo’s inability to shoot properly, Okonkwo proves this inability, failing to hit Ekwefi. Impotence, whether or not it is an actual physical condition for him, seems to be a characteristic that is related to Okonkwo’s chauvinistic behavior.
To the village’s surprise, locusts descend upon Umuofia. They come once in a generation and will return every year for seven years before disappearing for another lifetime. The village excitedly collects them because they are good to eat when cooked. Ogbuefi Ezeudu pays Okonkwo a visit, but he will not enter the hut to share the meal. Outside, he informs Okonkwo in private that the Oracle has decreed that Ikemefuna must be killed. He tells Okonkwo not to take part in the boy’s death, as Ikemefuna calls him “father.” Okonkwo lies to Ikemefuna, telling him that he will be returning to his home village. Nwoye bursts into tears.
During the long walk home with the men of Umuofia, Ikemefuna thinks about seeing his mother. After hours of walking, a man attacks him with a machete. Ikemefuna cries to Okonkwo for help. Okonkwo doesn’t wish to look weak, so he cuts the boy down. When Okonkwo returns home, Nwoye intuits that his friend is dead. Something breaks inside him for the second time in his life; the first time was when he heard an infant crying in the Evil Forest, where newborn twins are left to die.
Okonkwo begins to feel revived a bit. He decides that his unhappiness was a product of his idleness—if Ikemefuna had been murdered at a busier time of the year, he, Okonkwo, would have been completely undisturbed. Someone arrives to report the death of the oldest man in a neighboring village. Strangely, the old man’s wife died shortly thereafter. Okonkwo questions the man’s reputed strength once he learns how attached he had been to his wife.
Okonkwo sits with Obierika while Obierika bargains his daughter’s bride-price with the family of her suitor. Afterward, Obierika and his future son-in-law’s relatives talk about the differing customs in other villages. They discuss the practice of, and skill at, tapping palm trees for palm-wine. Obierika talks about hearing stories of men with skin as white as chalk. Another man, Machi, pipes in that such a man passes through the village frequently and that his name is Amadi. Those who know Amadi, a leper, laugh—the polite term for leprosy is “the white skin.”
Nwoye shows promise because he voices chauvinist opinions, but his comments are really aimed at Okonkwo. In fact, Nwoye loves women’s stories and is pleased when his mother or Okonkwo’s other wives ask him to do things for them. He also seeks comfort in his mother’s hut after Ikemefuna’s death. Nwoye’s questioning of Ikemefuna’s death and of the practice of throwing away newborn twins is understandable: Obierika, too, frequently questions tradition. In fact, Obierika refused to accompany the other men to kill Ikemefuna, and Okonkwo points out that Obierika seems to question the Oracle. Obierika also has reservations about the village’s practice of tapping trees. Okonkwo, on the other hand, accepts all of his clan’s laws and traditions unquestioningly.
Interestingly, Obierika’s manliness is never questioned. The fact that Obierika is skeptical of some Igbo practices makes us regard Nwoye’s skepticism in a different light. We understand that, in Umuofia, manhood does not require the denigration of women. Like Nwoye, Ikemefuna is not close to his biological father. Rather, his primary emotional attachments to his natal village are to his mother and little sister.
Although he is not misogynistic like Okonkwo, Ikemefuna is the perfect clansman. He eagerly takes part in the community celebrations and integrates himself into Okonkwo’s family. Okonkwo and Ikemefuna love one another as father and son, and Ikemefuna is a good older brother to Nwoye. Most important, he is protective rather than critical. He does not allow Nwoye and his brothers to tell their mother that Obiageli broke her water pot when she was showing off—he does not want her to be punished. Ikemefuna illustrates that manliness does not preclude gentleness and affection.
In calling himself a “shivering old woman,” Okonkwo associates weakness with femininity. Although he denigrates his emotional attachment to Ikemefuna, he seeks comfort in his affectionate friendship with Obierika. Ezinma is likewise a source of great comfort to him. Because she understands him, she does not address his sorrow directly; rather, she urges him to eat. For all of Okonkwo’s chauvinism, Ezinma is his favorite child. Okonkwo’s frequently voiced desire that Ezinma were a boy seems to suggest that he secretly desires affectionate attachment with his actual sons, although he avoids admitting as much because he fears affection as a weakness. It is interesting to note that Okonkwo doesn’t wish that Ezinma were a boy because she exhibits desirable masculine traits; rather, it is their bond of sympathy and understanding that he values.
Ekwefi’s nine other children died in infancy. She developed the habit of naming them symbolic things such as “Onwumbiko,” which means, “Death, I implore you,” and “Ozoemena,” which means, “May it not happen again.” Okonkwo consulted a medicine man who told him that an ogbanje was tormenting them. An ogbanje is a “wicked” child who continually re-enters its mother’s womb only to die again and again, causing its parents grief. A medicine man mutilated the dead body of Ekwefi’s third child to discourage the ogbanje’s return. When Ezinma was born, like most ogbanje children, she suffered many illnesses, but she recovered from all of them. A year before the start of the novel, when Ezinma was nine, a medicine man named Okagbue Uyanwa found her iyi-uwa, the small, buried pebble that is the ogbanje’s physical link to the spirit world. Although the discovery of the iyi-uwa ought to have solved Ezinma’s problems, every illness that Ezinma catches still brings terror and anxiety to Ekwefi.
The first dispute that comes before the egwugwu involves an estranged husband and wife. The husband, Uzowulu, states that the three brothers of his wife, Mgbafo, beat him and took her and the children from his hut but would not return her bride-price. The woman’s brothers state that he is a beastly man who beat their sister mercilessly, even causing her to miscarry once. They argue that Uzowulu must beg Mgbafo to return to him. If she agrees, the brothers declare, Uzowulu must understand that they will cut his genitals off if he ever beats her again. The egwugwu decide in favor of Mgbafo. One village elder complains that such a trifling matter should not be brought before them.
Chielo, in her role as priestess, informs Ekwefi that Agbala, Oracle of the Hills and Caves, wishes to see Ezinma. Frightened, Okonkwo and Ekwefi try to persuade Chielo to wait until morning, but Chielo angrily reminds Okonkwo that he must not defy a god’s will. Chielo takes Ezinma on her back and forbids anyone to follow. Ekwefi overcomes her fear of divine punishment and follows anyway. Chielo, carrying Ezinma, makes her rounds of the nine villages. When Chielo finally enters the Oracle’s cave, Ekwefi resolves that if she hears Ezinma crying she will rush in to defend her—even against a god. Okonkwo startles her when he arrives at the cave with a machete. He calms Ekwefi and sits with her. She remembers when she ran away from her first husband to be Okonkwo’s wife. When he answered her knock at his door, they exchanged no words. He led her to his bed and began to undo her clothing.
Mutually supportive interaction between women receives increasing focus as the novel progresses. For example, Okonkwo’s wives frequently try to protect one another from his anger. Before Ezinma’s birth, Ekwefi was not jealous of Okonkwo’s first wife; she only expressed bitterness at her own misfortune. While Okonkwo gathers medicine for the fever, his other wives try to calm Ekwefi’s fear. Ekwefi’s friendship with Chielo, too, is an example of female bonding.
The incident with Chielo creates a real dilemma for Ekwefi, whose fear of the possible repercussions of disobeying her shows that Chielo’s role as a priestess is taken seriously—it is not just ceremonial. But Ekwefi and Okonkwo’s love for their child is strong enough that they are willing to defy religious authority. Although she has lost nine children, Ekwefi has been made strong by suffering, and when she follows Chielo, she chooses her daughter over the gods. In doing so, Ekwefi contradicts Okonkwo’s ideas of femininity and demonstrates that strength and bravery are not only masculine attributes. Okonkwo also disobeys Chielo and follows her to the caves. But he, too, is careful to show respect to Chielo. She is a woman, but, as a priestess, she can order and chastise him openly. Her authority is not to be taken lightly.
Unlike the narration of Chielo’s kidnapping of Ezinma, the narration of the egwugwu ceremony is rather ironic. The narrator makes several comments to reveal to us that the villagers know that the egwugwu are not real. For example, the narrator tells us: “Okonkwo’s wives, and perhaps other women as well, might have noticed that the second egwugwu had the springy walk of Okonkwo. And they might have noticed that Okonkwo was not among the titled men and elders who sat . . . But if they thought these things they kept them within themselves.” The narration of the incident of the medicine man and the iyi-uwa seems likewise to contain a trace of irony. After discussing the iyi-uwa and egwugwu in a tone that approaches mockery on a few occasions, the narrator, remarkably, says nothing that seems to undermine the villagers’ perception of the strength of Chielo’s divine power.
The story that Ekwefi tells Ezinma about Tortoise and the birds is one of the many instances in which we are exposed to Igbo folklore. The tale also seems to prepare us, like the symbolic locusts that arrive in Chapter 7, for the colonialism that will soon descend upon Umuofia. Tortoise convinces the birds to allow him to come with them, even though he does not belong. He then appropriates all of their food. The tale presents two different ways of defeating Tortoise: first, the birds strip Tortoise of the feathers that they had lent him. This strategy involves cooperation and unity among the birds. When they refuse to concede to Tortoise’s desires, Tortoise becomes unable to overpower them. Parrot’s trick suggests a second course of action: by taking advantage of the position as translator, Parrot outwits Tortoise.
Okonkwo’s family begins to prepare for Obierika’s daughter’s uri, a betrothal ceremony. The villagers contribute food to the festivities and Obierika buys a huge goat to present to his future in-laws. The preparations are briefly interrupted when the women retrieve an escaped cow and the cow’s owner pays a fine for setting his cows loose on his neighbors’ farms. The suitor’s family members arrive and settle the clan’s doubts about their generosity by bringing an impressive fifty pots of wine to the celebration. The women greet the visitors and the men exchange ceremonial greetings. The feast is a success.
Killing a clansman is a crime against the earth goddess, so Okonkwo must atone by taking his family into exile for seven years. Okonkwo gathers his most valuable belongings and takes his family to his mother’s natal village, Mbanta. According to the mandates of tradition, the men from Ezeudu’s quarter burn Okonkwo’s buildings and kill his animals to cleanse the village of his sin. Obierika questions why a man should suffer so much for an accidental killing. He then mourns the deaths of his wife’s twins, whom he was forced to throw away, wondering what crime they committed.
The importance of kinship bonds in manifests itself in the ramifications of the violation of such bonds. When Ikemefuna enters Okonkwo’s family as a surrogate son, he begins to heal the tension that exists between Okonkwo and Nwoye as a result of Okonkwo’s difficulty in dealing with the memory of his father. Ikemefuna is thus presented as a possible solution to Okonkwo’s tragic flaw. But Okonkwo fails to overcome his flaw and, in killing the boy who has become his son, damages his relationship with Nwoye permanently. Moreover, he seriously injures Nwoye’s respect for, and adherence to, Igbo cultural tradition.
Okonkwo’s accidental killing of Ezeudu’s son seems more than coincidence. We sense that it is a form of punishment for his earlier violation of kinship bonds. Just before the ill-fated incident happens, the one-handed spirit calls out to Ezeudu’s corpse, “If your death was the death of nature, go in peace. But if a man caused it, do not allow him a moment’s rest.” Although the explosion of Okonkwo’s gun moments later is not evidence that Okonkwo is, in fact, responsible for Ezeudu’s death, it seems to suggest that Okonkwo’s killing of Ikemefuna has been hurtful to the well-being and solidarity of the clan and its traditions.
Okonkwo’s punishment emphasizes the importance of strong, harmonious relations within the community. Although Obierika questions the harsh punishment that Okonkwo receives for such an accident, the punishment, in a way, helps stave off anger, resentment, and, ultimately, revenge. Despite the accidental nature of the death of Ezeudu’s son, it is understandable for Ezeudu’s close relatives to be angry with Okonkwo. The burning of Okonkwo’s compound displaces this anger onto his property, while Okonkwo’s exile separates him temporarily from the offended community. Over a period of seven years, any remaining anger and resentment from Ezeudu’s close relatives will dissipate, and the offender’s place in the community will be restored.
The following day, Uchendu gathers together his entire family, including Okonkwo. He points out that one of the most common names they give is Nneka, meaning “Mother is Supreme”—a man belongs to his fatherland and stays there when life is good, but he seeks refuge in his motherland when life is bitter and harsh. Uchendu uses the analogy of children, who belong to their fathers but seek refuge in their mothers’ huts when their fathers beat them. Uchendu advises Okonkwo to receive the comfort of the motherland gratefully. He reminds Okonkwo that many have been worse off—Uchendu himself has lost all but one of his six wives and buried twenty-two children. Even so, Uchendu tells Okonkwo, “I did not hang myself, and I am still alive
The reason for Obierika’s visit and for the bags of cowries that he brings Okonkwo is business. Obierika has been selling the biggest of Okonkwo’s yams and also some of his seed yams. He has given others to sharecroppers for planting. He plans to continue to bring Okonkwo the money from his yams until Okonkwo returns to Iguedo.
The narrator tells the story of Nwoye’s conversion: six missionaries, headed by a white man, travel to Mbanta. The white man speaks to the village through an interpreter, who, we learn later, is named Mr. Kiaga. The interpreter’s dialect incites mirthful laughter because he always uses Umuofia’s word for “my buttocks” when he means “myself.” He tells the villagers that they are all brothers and sons of God. He accuses them of worshipping false gods of wood and stone. The missionaries have come, he tells his audience, to persuade the villagers to leave their false gods and accept the one true God. The villagers, however, do not understand how the Holy Trinity can be accepted as one God. They also cannot see how God can have a son and not a wife. Many of them laugh and leave after the interpreter asserts that Umuofia’s gods are incapable of doing any harm. The missionaries then burst into evangelical song. Okonkwo thinks that these newcomers must be insane, but Nwoye is instantly captivated. The “poetry of the new religion” seems to answer his questions about the deaths of Ikemefuna and the twin newborns, soothing him “like the drops of frozen rain melting on the dry palate.”
Unoka’s words regarding the bitterness of failing alone are important considering Okonkwo’s present situation. Like Unoka, Uchendu reminds Okonkwo that he does not suffer alone. Uchendu laments the loss of five of his wives, openly expressing his strong attachment to the women who have shared his life and borne his children. He mentions that his remaining wife is a young girl who “does not know her left from her right.” Youth, beauty, and sexual attractiveness are not the only things one should value in a wife, he argues. Uchendu also values wisdom, intelligence, and experience in a wife. Each and every death has caused him pain. Although we would not know it from Okonkwo, a father grieves for lost children just as a mother does.
The introduction of the European missionaries is not presented as a tragic event—it even contains some comical elements. The villagers, for example, mock the interpreter’s dialect. They neither perceive the missionaries as a threat nor react violently like the village of Abame, even though the missionaries call their gods “false” outright. And the missionaries do not forcibly thrust Christianity on the villagers.
Considering the emphasis that the Igbo place on careful thought before violent action, Okonkwo’s belief that the people of Abame should have armed themselves and killed the white men reflects a rash, violent nature that seems to clash with fundamental Igbo values. Throughout Things Fall Apart, Igbo customs and social institutions emphasize the wisdom of seeking a peaceful solution to conflict before a violent solution. Uchendu voices this social value when he states that the killing of the first white man was foolish, for the villagers of Abame did not even know what the man’s intentions were.
The language that Achebe uses to describe the pleasure that Nwoye finds in Christianity reflects Umuofia’s seeming need to be soothed physically as well as spiritually. Achebe sets up, from the beginning of the novel, a system of images that accentuate both the dry land and the tense atmosphere in the village. The image of the words of the hymn as raindrops relieving Nwoye’s “parched soul” refers not only to relief from the arid, desertlike heat with which Africa is commonly associated but also to the act of bringing Nwoye out of his supposed ignorance and into enlightenment through Christianity. It begins to quench his thirst for answers that Igbo religion has not been able to provide him.
One of Okonkwo’s cousins notices Nwoye among the Christians and informs Okonkwo. When Nwoye returns, Okonkwo chokes him by the neck, demanding to know where he has been. Uchendu orders him to let go of the boy. Nwoye leaves his father’s compound and travels to a school in Umuofia to learn reading and writing. Okonkwo wonders how he could ever have fathered such an effeminate, weak son.
Okonkwo, on the other hand, has good reason to reject Christianity. Should Mbanta not drive the missionaries away, his killing of Ikemefuna would lose part of its religious justification. The damage to his relationship with Nwoye also seems more pointless than before. Both matters become his mistake rather than the result of divine will. Moreover, men of high status like Okonkwo view the church as a threat because it undermines the cultural value of their accomplishments. Their titles and their positions as religious authorities and clan leaders lose force and prestige if men of lower status are not there—the great cannot be measured against the worthless if the worthless have disappeared.
Nwoye’s conversion devastates Okonkwo. Although he has always been harsh with his son, Okonkwo still believes in Nwoye’s potential to become a great clansman. Nwoye’s rejection of Igbo values, however, strikes a dire blow to Okonkwo’s hopes for him. Additionally, Nwoye’s actions undermine Okonkwo’s own status and prestige. It is, as Okonkwo thinks at the end of Chapter 17, as though all of Okonkwo’s hard work to distance himself from the legacy of his father has been destroyed. He sighs and thinks to himself: “Living fire begets cold impotent ash.”
Despite the challenges that the church represents, Mbanta is committed to peace and remains tolerant of the church’s presence. Even with the converts’ blatant disrespect of Umuofia’s customs—rumor has it that a convert has killed a royal python—the clan leaders vote for a peaceful solution, deciding to ostracize rather than attack the Christians. Okonkwo is not happy with their decision and advocates a violent reaction. His mentality is somewhat ironic: he believes that the village should act against its cultural values in order to preserve them.
The arrival of the white colonists and their religion weakens the kinship bonds so central to Igbo culture. Ancestral worship plays an important role in Igbo religion, and conversion to Christianity involves a partial rejection of the Igbo structure of kinship. The Christians tell the Igbo that they are all brothers and sons of God, replacing the literal ties of kinship with a metaphorical kinship structure through God. The overjoyed response of a missionary to Nwoye’s interest in attending school in another village—”Blessed is he who forsakes his father and his mother for my sake”—illustrates that the Christian church clearly recognizes Igbo kinship bonds as the central obstacle to the success of its missionaries.
Achebe does not present a clear-cut dichotomy of the white religion as evil and the Igbo religion as good. All along, the descriptions of many of the village’s ceremonies and rituals have been tongue-in-cheek. But the Christian missionaries increasingly win converts simply by pointing out the fallacy of Igbo beliefs—for example, those about the outcasts. When the outcasts cut their hair with no negative consequence, many villagers come to believe that the Christian god is more powerful than their own. Achebe himself is the son of Nigerian Christians, and it is hard not to think of his situation, in Chapter 17, when the narrator points out Okonkwo’s worry: “Suppose when he died all his male children decided to follow Nwoye’s steps and abandon their ancestors?”
However, Umuofia is much changed after seven years. The church has grown in strength and the white men subject the villagers to their judicial system and rules of government. They are harsh and arrogant, and Okonkwo cannot believe that his clan has not driven the white men and their church out. Sorrowfully, Obierika explains that the church has weakened the ties of kinship and that it is too late to drive the white men out. Many of the clansmen are now on the white man’s side. Okonkwo observes that the white man is very shrewd because he came in peace and appeared to have only benevolent interests in the Africans, who thus permitted him to stay. They discuss the story of Aneto, who was hanged by the government after he killed a man with whom he had a dispute. Aneto had been unsatisfied with the new court’s ruling on the dispute because it ignored custom. Obierika and Okonkwo conclude their discussion on a fatalistic note, sitting in silence together.
Mr. Brown builds a hospital and a school. He begs the villagers to send their children to school and warns them that if they do not, strangers who can read and write will come to rule them. His arguments are fairly effective and his hospital wins praise for its treatments. When Okonkwo first returns to Umuofia, Mr. Brown goes to tell him that Nwoye is in a training college for teachers. Okonkwo chases him away with threats of violence. Not long afterward, Mr. Brown’s health begins to fail, and, sad, he leaves his flock.
Okonkwo’s daughters attract many suitors, but to his grave disappointment, his clan takes no particular interest in his return. The ozo initiation ceremony occurs only once in three years, meaning that he must wait two years to initiate his sons. He deeply regrets the changes in his once warlike people.
Although Okonkwo still wishes that Ezinma were a boy, she remains a comfort to him throughout his troubles. Ironically, she best understands the dilemma of compromised manhood that her father faces. She sees how important her marriage is to Okonkwo’s position in the community, and she has considerable influence over her sister, who quickly agrees to postpone her marriage as well. After Nwoye’s departure, Okonkwo shows no sign of changing his practice of lecturing his sons about the rash and violent nature of true masculinity, showing his continued refusal to accept the fact that aggressiveness and pensiveness are not gender-defined, mutually exclusive traits.
Already having dealt with the missionaries in Mbanta, Okonkwo is now forced to deal with them in his own village. However, Mr. Brown, their leader, is far more enlightened than the average white colonist. Although he doesn’t really understand Igbo beliefs, he is capable of respecting them, and he does not want his flock to antagonize the clan. In a rare occurrence of cross-cultural understanding, he seems to share the clan’s value of peaceful, harmonious relations, and he debates religion with Akunna without insults or violence. His influence is largely benevolent, and Achebe uses Mr. Brown as a foil for the missionary who eventually takes his place, the more radical Reverend Smith.
Things Fall Apart is not one-sided in its portrayal of colonialism. It presents the economic benefits of cross-cultural contact and reveals the villagers’ delight in the hospital’s treatment of illnesses. The sympathetic Mr. Brown urges the Igbo to send their children to school because he knows that the colonial government will rob the Igbo of self-government if they do not know the language. In essence, he urges the Igbo to adapt so that they won’t lose all autonomy. Nevertheless, it is difficult to view colonialism in a tremendously positive light: suddenly the Igbo must relate to the colonial government on European terms. The story of Abame and the discussion of the new judicial system show how different the European frame of reference is from that of the egwugwu. The colonial government punishes individuals according to European cultural and religious values. For example, without first making an effort to understand the cultural and religious tradition behind the practice, the government pronounces the abandonment of newborn twins a punishable crime.
At the end of Chapter 20, Obierika points out that there is no way that the white man will be able to understand Umuofia’s customs without understanding its language. This idea mirrors one of Achebe’s purposes in writing Things Fall Apart: the book serves not only to remind the West that Africa has language and culture but also to provide an understanding of Igbo culture through language. Achebe shows us the extent to which cultural and linguistic structures and practices are intertwined, and he is able to re-create in English the cadences, images, and rhythms of the speech of the Igbo people. By the time things begin to “fall apart,” it becomes clear that what the colonialists have unraveled is the complex Igbo culture.
That Enoch is the son of the snake-priest makes his suspected killing of the sacred python all the more dire a transgression. Enoch’s conversion and alleged attack on the python emblematize the transition from the old order to the new. The old religion, with its insistence on deism and animal worship, is overturned from within by one. In its place comes the new religion, which, for all its protestations of love and harmony, brandishes a fiery logic and fierce resolve to convert the Igbo at any cost.
Enoch figures as a double for Okonkwo, although they espouse different beliefs. They are similar in temperament, and each man rebels against the practices and legacies of his father. Like Okonkwo, Enoch feels above all others in his tradition. He also feels contempt for them—he imagines that every sermon is “preached for the benefit of his enemies,” and, in the middle of church, he gives knowing looks whenever he feels that his superiority has been affirmed. Most important, in his blind and unthinking adherence to Christianity, Enoch allows his violent desires to take over, just as Okonkwo is prone to do.
The language barrier between the colonists and the villagers enables a crucial misunderstanding to take place. Unawareness of his interpreter’s attempt to appease the villagers, Smith considers the burning of the church an open show of disrespect for the church and his authority. The power that the interpreter holds highlights the weaknesses and vulnerability created by the language gap, reinforcing Mr. Brown’s belief that reading and writing are essential skills for the villagers if they hope to maintain their autonomy. This miscommunication reminds us of Parrot’s trickiness in Ekwefi’s story about Tortoise.
Okonkwo’s desire to respond violently to the Christian church is not completely motivated by a desire to preserve his clan’s cultural traditions. He has been fantasizing for many years about making a big splash with his return to his village, but the church has changed things so much that his return fails to incite the interest that he has anticipated. He has also hoped that his daughters’ marriages would help to bring him some reflected glory but, again, his daughters’ suitors did not cause Umuofia to notice him. The opportunity to once again be a warrior represents Okonkwo’s last chance to recapture some of his former glory. His motivations for wanting revenge, including his humiliation in the jail, are deeply personal.
The village crier announces another meeting for the following morning, and the clan is filled with a sense of foreboding. At sunrise, the villagers gather. Okonkwo has slept very little out of excitement and anticipation. He has thought it over and decided on a course of action to which he will stick no matter what the village decides as a whole. He takes out his war dress and assesses his smoked raffia skirt, tall feather headgear, and shield as in adequate condition. He remembers his former glories in battle and ponders that the nature of man has changed. The meeting is packed with men from all of the clan’s nine villages.
The first speaker laments the damage that the white man and his church have done to the clan and bewails the desecration of the gods and ancestral spirits. He reminds the clan that it may have to spill clansmen’s blood if it enters into battle with the white men. In the middle of the speech, five court messengers approach the crowd. Their leader orders the meeting to end. No sooner have the words left the messenger’s mouth than Okonkwo kills him with two strokes of his machete. A tumult rises in the crowd, but not the kind for which Okonkwo hopes: the villagers allow the messengers to escape and bring the meeting to a conclusion. Someone even asks why Okonkwo killed the messenger. Understanding that his clan will not go to war, Okonkwo wipes his machete free of blood and departs.
Obierika explains that suicide is a grave sin and his clansmen may not touch Okonkwo’s body. Though they have sent for strangers from a distant village to help take the body down, they also ask the commissioner for help. He asks why they cannot do it themselves, and they explain that his body is evil now and that only strangers may touch it. They are not allowed to bury it, but again, strangers can. Obierika displays an uncharacteristic flash of temper and lashes out at the commissioner, blaming him for Okonkwo’s death and praising his friend’s greatness. The commissioner decides to honor the group’s request, but he leaves and orders his messengers to do the work. As he departs, he congratulates himself for having added to his store of knowledge of African customs.
The commissioner, who is in the middle of writing a book about Africa, imagines that the circumstances of Okonkwo’s death will make an interesting paragraph or two, if not an entire chapter. He has already chosen the title: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.
Unoka’s words regarding the bitterness of failing alone come to have real significance in Okonkwo’s life. In fact, they can be seen as a fatalistic foreshadowing of the bitter losses that befall Okonkwo despite his efforts to distance himself from his father’s model of indolence and irresponsibility. He values his personal success and status over the survival of the community and, having risen to the top of the clan’s economic and political heap alone, he fails alone. Okonkwo’s lack of concern for the fate of his community is manifested when, before the clan-wide meeting, he doesn’t bother to exchange greetings with anyone. He is not interested in the fate of anyone other than himself. Despite his great success and prestige, he dies in ignominy like his titleless, penniless father. This solitude persists even after his life ends, as the supposed taking over of his body by evil spirits renders his clan unable to handle his burial.
One way of understanding Okonkwo’s suicide is as the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy regarding his fear of failure. He is so afraid of ending up precisely the way he does end up that he brings about his own end in the worst manner imaginable. No one forces his hand when he slays the messenger; rather, the act constitutes a desperate attempt to reassert his manhood. The great tragedy of the situation is that Okonkwo ignores far more effective but less masculine ways to resist the colonialists. Ultimately, Okonkwo’s sacrifice seems futile and empty.
The novel’s ending is dark and ironic. The District Commissioner is a pompous little man who thinks that he understands indigenous African cultures. Achebe uses the commissioner, who seems a character straight out of Heart of Darkness, to demonstrate the inaccuracy of accounts of Africa such as Joseph Conrad’s. The commissioner’s misinterpretations and the degree to which they are based upon his own shortcomings are evident. He comments, for example, on the villagers’ “love of superfluous words,” attempting to ridicule their beautiful and expressive language. His rumination that Okonkwo’s story could make for a good paragraph illustrates his shallowness. Whereas Achebe has written an entire book about Okonkwo, he suggests that a European account of Okonkwo would likely portray him as a grunting, cultureless savage who inexplicably and senselessly kills a messenger. Achebe also highlights one of the reasons that early ethnographic reports were often offensively inaccurate: when Obierika asks the commissioner to help him with Okonkwo’s body, the narrator tells us that “the resolute administrator in [the commissioner] gave way to the student of primitive customs.” The same people who control the natives relay the accepted accounts of colonized cultures—in a manner, of course, that best suits the colonizer’s interest.
Achebe’s novel seeks at least in part to provide an answer to such inaccurate stereotypes. Okonkwo is by no means perfect. One can argue that his tragedy is of his own making. One can also argue that his chi is to blame. But as a societal tragedy, Things Fall Apart obviously places no blame on the Igbo people for the colonialism to which they were subjected. At the same time, the traditional customs of the villagers are not glorified—they are often questioned or criticized. Achebe’s re-creation of the complexity of Okonkwo’s and Umuofia’s situations lends a fairness to his writing. At the same time, his critique of colonialism and of colonial literary representations comes across loud and clear.
In a settlement with a neighboring tribe, Umuofia wins a virgin and a fifteen-year-old boy. Okonkwo takes charge of the boy, Ikemefuna, and finds an ideal son in him. Nwoye likewise forms a strong attachment to the newcomer. Despite his fondness for Ikemefuna and despite the fact that the boy begins to call him “father,” Okonkwo does not let himself show any affection for him.
During the Week of Peace, Okonkwo accuses his youngest wife, Ojiugo, of negligence. He severely beats her, breaking the peace of the sacred week. He makes some sacrifices to show his repentance, but he has shocked his community irreparably.
Ikemefuna stays with Okonkwo’s family for three years. Nwoye looks up to him as an older brother and, much to Okonkwo’s pleasure, develops a more masculine attitude. One day, the locusts come to Umuofia—they will come every year for seven years before disappearing for another generation. The village excitedly collects them because they are good to eat when cooked.
Ogbuefi Ezeudu, a respected village elder, informs Okonkwo in private that the Oracle has said that Ikemefuna must be killed. He tells Okonkwo that because Ikemefuna calls him “father,” Okonkwo should not take part in the boy’s death. Okonkwo lies to Ikemefuna, telling him that they must return him to his home village. Nwoye bursts into tears.
As he walks with the men of Umuofia, Ikemefuna thinks about seeing his mother. After several hours of walking, some of Okonkwo’s clansmen attack the boy with machetes. Ikemefuna runs to Okonkwo for help. But Okonkwo, who doesn’t wish to look weak in front of his fellow tribesmen, cuts the boy down despite the Oracle’s admonishment. When Okonkwo returns home, Nwoye deduces that his friend is dead.
Okonkwo sinks into a depression, neither able to sleep nor eat. He visits his friend Obierika and begins to feel revived a bit. Okonkwo’s daughter Ezinma falls ill, but she recovers after Okonkwo gathers leaves for her medicine.
The death of Ogbuefi Ezeudu is announced to the surrounding villages by means of the ekwe, a musical instrument. Okonkwo feels guilty because the last time Ezeudu visited him was to warn him against taking part in Ikemefuna’s death. At Ogbuefi Ezeudu’s large and elaborate funeral, the men beat drums and fire their guns. Tragedy compounds upon itself when Okonkwo’s gun explodes and kills Ogbuefi Ezeudu’s sixteen-year-old son.
Because killing a clansman is a crime against the earth goddess, Okonkwo must take his family into exile for seven years in order to atone. He gathers his most valuable belongings and takes his family to his mother’s natal village, Mbanta. The men from Ogbuefi Ezeudu’s quarter burn Okonkwo’s buildings and kill his animals to cleanse the village of his sin.
Okonkwo’s kinsmen, especially his uncle, Uchendu, receive him warmly. They help him build a new compound of huts and lend him yam seeds to start a farm. Although he is bitterly disappointed at his misfortune, Okonkwo reconciles himself to life in his motherland.
During the second year of Okonkwo’s exile, Obierika brings several bags of cowries (shells used as currency) that he has made by selling Okonkwo’s yams. Obierika plans to continue to do so until Okonkwo returns to the village. Obierika also brings the bad news that Abame, another village, has been destroyed by the white man.
Soon afterward, six missionaries travel to Mbanta. Through an interpreter named Mr. Kiaga, the missionaries’ leader, Mr. Brown, speaks to the villagers. He tells them that their gods are false and that worshipping more than one God is idolatrous. But the villagers do not understand how the Holy Trinity can be accepted as one God. Although his aim is to convert the residents of Umuofia to Christianity, Mr. Brown does not allow his followers to antagonize the clan.
Mr. Brown grows ill and is soon replaced by Reverend James Smith, an intolerant and strict man. The more zealous converts are relieved to be free of Mr. Brown’s policy of restraint. One such convert, Enoch, dares to unmask an egwugwu during the annual ceremony to honor the earth deity, an act equivalent to killing an ancestral spirit. The next day, the egwugwu burn Enoch’s compound and Reverend Smith’s church to the ground.
The District Commissioner is upset by the burning of the church and requests that the leaders of Umuofia meet with him. Once they are gathered, however, the leaders are handcuffed and thrown in jail, where they suffer insults and physical abuse.
After the prisoners are released, the clansmen hold a meeting, during which five court messengers approach and order the clansmen to desist. Expecting his fellow clan members to join him in uprising, Okonkwo kills their leader with his machete. When the crowd allows the other messengers to escape, Okonkwo realizes that his clan is not willing to go to war.
When the District Commissioner arrives at Okonkwo’s compound, he finds that Okonkwo has hanged himself. Obierika and his friends lead the commissioner to the body. Obierika explains that suicide is a grave sin; thus, according to custom, none of Okonkwo’s clansmen may touch his body. The commissioner, who is writing a book about Africa, believes that the story of Okonkwo’s rebellion and death will make for an interesting paragraph or two. He has already chosen the book’s title: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.
rising action · Enoch’s unmasking of an egwugwu, the egwugwu’s burning of the church, and the District Commissioner’s sneaky arrest of Umuofian leaders force the tension between Umuofia and the colonizers to a breaking point.
climax · Okonkwo’s murder, or uchu, of a court messenger
falling action · The villagers allow the white government’s messengers to escape, and Okonkwo, realizing the weakness of his clan, commits suicide.
themes · The struggle between tradition and change; varying interpre-tations of masculinity; language as a sign of cultural difference
motifs · Chi, animal imagery
symbols · The novel is highly symbolic, and it asks to be read in symbolic terms. Two of the main symbols are the locusts and fire. The locusts symbolize the white colonists descending upon the Africans, seeming to augur good but actually portending troublesome encounters. Fire epitomizes Okonkwo’s nature—he is fierce and destructive. A third symbol, the drums, represents the physical connection of the community of clansmen in Umuofia, and acts as a metaphorical heartbeat that beats in unison, uniting all the village members.
foreshadowing · The author’s initial description of Ikemefuna as an “ill-fated boy,” which presages his eventual murder by Okonkwo; the arrival of the locusts, which symbolizes the eventual arrival of the colonizers; Obierika’s suggestion that Okonkwo kill himself, which foretells Okonkwo’s eventual suicide
Get access to
Guarantee No Hidden