Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is the famous novel about nineteenth century Nigerian society and Colonialism’s impact on it. The book was written in 1958, in English. 

This short novel follows Okonkwo, an important man in Igbo society.  The story covers a swath of Okonkwo’s life. He is wealthy, respected  and successful. The tale explores the people that he has relationships with, including his multiple wives, children and friends.  When he accidently kills a man he is sent into a seven - year exile to his mother’s home village. During this time European government and missionaries move into the area. The newcomers disrupt the life of the Iocal people. Okonkwo family and friends are divided as some convert to Christianity at the urging of the newcomers. There is violence between the Igbo and the Europeans. At its height, an entire Igbo village is massacred.

This book works on several levels. The author delves into Igbo culture and society. Many pages are devoted to customs and folklore. The story covers such diverse topics as food, religion and marriage, just to name a few. 

The philosophy and message of this book is complicated. The story exposes the arrogance and wrongness of Colonialism. The Europeans bring death and chaos to the local society. 

There is also something ugly going on among the Igbo.  Okonkwo is a brutal man and a murderer. He physically abuses his multiple wives. He devalues woman. Throughout the text, the author seems to be reminding us that within this society there is a streak of brutality, violence, a devaluating of the feminine. We find out that when twins are born they are left in the forest to die. These horrors reach a low point when Okonkwo murders the young boy that he has taken in as son. All of Igbo society is indicted as the killing was ordered by a religious leader.  

At one point, Nwoye, who is Okonkwo son, is shown to be enjoying the stories told be his female relatives. But sexism and the glorification of violence leads him to reconsider. 

“That was the kind of story that Nwoye loved. But he now knew that they were for foolish women and children, and he knew that his father wanted him to be a man. And so he feigned that he no longer cared for women's stories. And when he did this he saw that his father was pleased, and no longer rebuked him or beat him. So Nwoye and Ikemefuna would listen to Okonkwo stories about tribal wars, or how, years ago, he had stalked his victim, overpowered him and obtained his first human head…”

It seems that the author is criticizing both European and Igbo society and actions. This book contains strong anti - violence and anti – misogynistic themes. The tale accomplishes this by shedding light upon the malignant effects of violence and the harmful affects of degrading women. 

There is a lot to recommend this work. In addition to the themes mentioned above, this is a wonderful examination of the positive aspects of Igbo culture. The commentary on Colonialism and religion is also complex and deserves a separate blog post.  Okonkwo, despite his flaws, is a brilliantly crafted character. I recommend this book to those who appreciate serious literature as well as anyone who may be interested in learning about the Igbo culture. 


Stephen said...

This book comes up every time I search on goodreads for nonfiction or fiction relating to Africa. Strange that so vast and varied a continent has so little written about it, at least going by my results. At any rate this book sounds grim and disturbing.

Fred said...


I agree with your assessment. I had noted those aspects of the Igbo culture that many of us in the Western World would find abhorrent, and I wondered about Achebe's attitude toward them.

I had also read the sequel, _No Longer at Ease_, and found it to be much less interesting for some reason I'm still not certain about. It just didn't work for me nearly as well as _Things Fall Apart_.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stephen - Though I lack knowledge about it, I think that there is a lot of great African Literature.

I think one reason that this book is so popular in the United Stated and the Great Britain is that it is written in English.

Brian Joseph said...

P. S. - Parts of the book were grim. There were also a lot of positive and lively aspects too.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Fred - I though about cultural differences. However, Achebe seemed to highlight the negative aspects of what I mentioned above.

It is unfortunate that the sequel was disappointing.

Fred said...


Yes, he did bring them out and didn't try to ignore them. Both sides of Igbo culture were depicted.

Did you read the sequel?

I read somewhere that he wrote two other novels, which he said weren't sequels, but were set in that culture.

Brian Joseph said...

I have not read the sequel.

It looks like Achebe has quite a few books.

JacquiWine said...

My grandfather was a big admirer of this book, so much so that I think he encouraged me to read it as a teenager. I remember it making a big impression on me at the time. A very thoughtful review as ever, Brian.

James said...

I was first introduced to this book when I was in college. That reading made an impression on me at the time. Reading your fine commentary makes me wonder how I would view it today. It certainly is an interesting story.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Jacqui.

It is a powerful book. A good read for a teenager.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks James.

I think that this is a good book for a young person to read. It is interesting how books have different impressions on us as we get older.

Suko said...

Brain Joseph, this is an excellent review. I am certainly glad that this book contains strong anti-violence and anti–misogynistic themes. This work sounds quite fascinating.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Suko.

The book was very interesting and readable. The themes were worthy.

Sharon Wilfong said...

I have come across the book a lot. No review has inspired me to read it. Not that your review is not excellent. It gives me a good idea and allows me to make an informed decision.

Perhaps I haven't found the right authors. It would be nice if there was more diversity in African writing. It mostly seems to be from a Colonial-oppressive context. Surely African writers can find an independent voice, especially considering the profound transactions that are currently taking place.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali's book, Infidel, touches upon this: namely that Africa right now is imploding and millions of Africans are trying to gain visas to guess where? Europe and America. Maybe there's some living conditions that are worse than Colonialism.

baili said...

sounds very powerful description of a society that was influenced by the outsiders .
while reading about the main character reminded me the cruelties of rural men here in our country .yes there are still few parts of society exist in areas far from civilized enlightened citizens and force women to live their lives according to the law made by men only

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Sharon.

There is a glut of narratives about Colonialism and in my opinion there is an extreme form of Post Colonial theory that is popular that incorrectly sees most of the world's problems through the lens of Colonialism.

With that Colonialism was a vitally important historical even and this book was written at a time when it had a greater impact. I believe that it was also very original for the time. It is also balanced in that it is highly critical of Igbo culture. I will even go out on limb and say that the worst excesses of PostColonialism see the world through the eyes of Colonialism. This book seems to look at Colonialism as one of many ills that plague the world and looks to causes that are more Universal. In my opinion In my opinion, those Universal themes move this book way beyond the usual critique of Colonialism.

I really want to read Ayaan Hirsi.

Have a great week!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Baili - Throughout history men have tried to control women. Hopefully as we move further century, we will see less and less of that.

Literary Feline said...

I have a copy of this on my shelf, but have no yet read it. I considered adding it to my list of 50 classics I wanted to read, but hesitated and decided against it. It sounds like quite a thought provoking book that touches on important themes and ideas. I have read some African literature, but not much--and definitely not enough. As to Colonialism, besides U.S. history in that regard, I probably know more about the impact of it on India than I do on African countries.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Literary Feline . A think that one does not have to me well versed on the history of Colonialism in order to understand this book. The plot is relatively straightforward.

If you read this I would love to know what you thought.

thecuecard said...

This book seems to be highly regarded in African Lit. I have not read it, but it seems like there's violence on both sides of the cultural divide in it. I don't know much about the Igbo, but I have read one of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novels (Americanah) and she is from an Igbo family. I would like to read her earlier novels which talk more about Nigeria.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - This book gets a lot of respect.

I knew nothing about the Igbo before reading it.

I have not read anything from Adichie but I would like to.

Felicity Grace Terry said...

A book I seemed to remember reading for my sociology exam in which we explored women in different cultures.

Great review as always Brian, you read some truly thought-provoking stuff.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Tracy. This book's observations on women and society are very relevant to the subject that you were studying.

Maria Behar said...

Excellent review as usual, Brian!

This was a real eye-opener! I had never heard of Igbo culture before, nor had I ever heard of this book and author. This is definitely a serious work that condemns the evils of violence and sexism, and I would like to read it, in spite of my squeamishness. Lol.

It's interesting that misogyny is so entrenched in most, if not all, world cultures. It's not just a product of Western 'civilization'. Even the enlightened Greeks, who produced the great philosophers Plato and Aristotle, had a misogynistic culture.

In regards to Igbo culture, I am reminded of the Old Testament stories of Jacob and his wives, and especially of King Solomon and his MANY wives. I am also reminded of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, and his several wives, as well. It seems so contradictory to me that any religion would condone this type of thing. So, while upholding moral values in certain areas, religions can be remarkably 'in denial' when it comes to the rights of women. Why this should be so is a complete mystery to me!

I'm sure that the Europeans who so brutally colonized Africa deplored the polygamy practiced by the African people. And, of course, they probably also decried the violence of the tribes against each other, considering the Africans to be 'barbarians'. How hypocritical of them! They might not have had several wives themselves, as polygamy was eventually abolished in Western circles, but extramarital affairs were, of course, very common among, as they have always been. And European violence, especially toward colonized people, is historically known to be horrible.

This all points to the fact that human nature is basically flawed in the same ways, no matter what the culture. I think this author brings out this point brilliantly, from what you've written.

Thanks for sharing your very interesting, insightful thoughts!! Have a GREAT weekend!! :) :) :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Maria.

I also knew nothing of Igbo culture before reading this book.

Oppression and devaluing of women has been so common throughout human cultures and over time. It is indeed a evidence of common human failings.

One thing that I liked about this book is that it illuminates both Igbo and European failings.

Have a great weekend!

The Reader's Tales said...

Good early morning, Brian!! Thanks for this brilliant, well-written post. I have never heard about this book. I am particularly interested to delve into Igbo culture and society and learn their customs and folklore. But on the other hand, I apprehend all that violence. So, I'm not sure to read this book in the near future. Have a great weekend ahead :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi The Reader's Tales.

The reader learns a lot about Igbo culture from this book. On the other hand, while the violence is not graphic in this novel it can be hard to take.

Have a great weekend!

HKatz said...

I like books that have this sort of nuance - not just a simple narrative of "evil colonizers" vs. "innocent native culture." Except for some of his shorter fiction, I haven't read Achebe's writing and should check it out. Speaking of good short fiction from Africa, if you're interested, I recommend The Anchor Book of Modern African Stories.

Kate Scott said...

I was just reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's latest book, Dear Ijeawele, and she writes about how there are good and bad elements of Igbo culture–deeply embedded misogyny being her focus since it is a feminist book.

It's been about a decade since I first read Things Fall Apart. I really need to buy a copy and reread it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Hila - I would add that the nuance here makes the book's themes Universal. Human ills plague both the Europeans as well as the Igbo.

The Anxhor book sounds very good, I would like to give it a try.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kate - I would like to read Adichie. The positive aspects of Igbo culture sound fascinating. Like all cultures, the negative aspects should also be illuminated.

Kate Scott said...

If you want to read Adichie, I highly recommend starting with We Should All Be Feminists or her latest, Dear Ijeawele. They're both only about 60-something pages long and very small books, so they can easily be read in less than 45 minutes. I haven't read any of her novels yet but I hope to sometime this year.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Kate. I have read a fair amount of Feminist oriented non - fiction. We Should All Be Feminists seems very popular these days. I will likely read it soon.

Caroline said...

I wonder what happened to my comment. I left one weeks ago but now I saw it vanished.
Too bad. I found your review very intersting and the debaate about colonialism is so importnat right now - because of the upcoming elections in France. Most parties use it one way or the other to make a point. Sorry, my earlier comment was more eloquent.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - Sorry about your earlier comment. I checked my spam box. There is no sign of it. This has happened to me. It is so frustrating.

I did not know that folks were still debating Colonialism in regards to everyday politics in France. That is interesting. In an international scale, folks who talk about social justice and the state of the world in general still talk about it a lot.

I like the fact that this book offered a balanced view.

Caroline said...

There aren't all that many countries who had colonies and France has still territories outside of France and maintained a very close economical relationship. This means that people from many former colonies can still enter and stay which causes problems in some cases.
The biggest problem is caused by Algeria a colony France never intended to give up. Hence the war . . . Very complex. So the politicians of the left feel Frnace has never atoned while those of the right say they should be grateful they were colonised and France shouldn't apologize. You can imagine the hated debate . . .
I hope I can listen to the candidates debate on March 20. It's the first time that they all discuss together like this. There are five candidates.
The comment problem is linked to the auto-fill. It seems I have two domain names, one is faulty.