I must confess that I haven’t read much literature from Africa or from African-American authors. When I joined the Classics Club I really wanted to challenge myself and picked a few entries that were definitely out of my English Lit bubble.
Things Fall Apart follows Okonkwo, a powerful leader in an Ibo village in late 19th century Nigeria. Due to his physical strength and work ethic, Okonkwo was able to rise from poverty, but his early life, especially his lazy father, still haunts him. Unoka, Okonkwo’s father, was very lazy and depended upon the kindness of others for food, and at his death had built a mountain of debt.
The first half of the book focuses on immersing the reader in the Igbo culture and Okonkwo’s place within the society. It seems, at first, to be a random series of events, but each one of them contributes to Okonkwo’s fall in society (along with his jaded outlook).
Personally, I loved the first part of Things Fall Apart because I wanted to know the tribe and its inner workings. Authors tend to write African tribes as either savages or simple, idyllic innocents, and they were neither. They had their own system of governance and a distinct culture with its own graces and faults.
After Okonkwo’s fall from grace (sorry, trying not to be evasive but I don’t want to spoil the events that lead Okonkwo here), the second and third parts of the book focus on the British Empire (preceded by missionaries) moving into the land and the effect they have not only on the Igbo, but on Okonkwo’s continued descent as well.
I was pleasantly surprised because I thought I was going to get a simple narrative: Colonialism = bad, African natives = good. And to be honest, with all the horrors and instability that colonialism brought to Africa, no one (least of all me) would blame the author.
Instead, Chinua Achebe gives us a story of deep complexity that merely masquerades as simple. Both the British and the Igbo are faulty in their governing and their justice. The missionaries’ new religion flourishes because the people the Igbo outcast become a part of society again.
But in the end, this is Okonkwo’s story and colonialism just solidifies his fears about his position in his clan.
The heart of Things Fall Apart is a tragedy, because everything does truly fall apart around Okonkwo.
Due to hatred of his father, Okonkwo hates everything weak or ‘effeminate’ (believing his father’s laziness stems from these ‘female’ traits). He is cruel to his wives and children and beats everyone in his immediate family that shows any signs of weakness. Two of the three events that lead to his fall center around his overwhelming anger towards and hatred for everything he perceives as weak.
“Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness. It was deeper and more intimate that the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of the forest, and of the forces of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw. Okonkwo’s fear was greater than these. It was not external but lay deep within himself.” (pg.13)
As many of us learn in life, most of the time the answer to an extreme is not the other extreme. Okonkwo thought he was doing right by shunning everything his father represented, equating it with laziness. But running to another extreme just created different problems for Okonkwo and his family. Masculinity helped Okonkwo rise from poverty and leave the shame of his father behind, but it was his continued shunning of the ‘feminine’ that leads to Okonkwo’s tragic end.
I wholeheartedly recommend this book. The language alone is strong and simple in its magic. Even after a couple of days I’m still grasping how multi-layered the novel was.
I hope I did the subject matter justice in this review.I didn’t even touch on the historical context for the novel, the author himself (you really should learn about Achebe’s background after reading this novel), or the strong supporting characters in the novel.
I can tell you one thing, I’m pretty sure this tragedy will stick with me for a long time.
**Also don’t trust Goodreads on classics. This has a score below 50 Shades of Grey and a mountain of shitty YA books.