Things Fall Apart was written by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe and was published in 1958. The title foreshadows the tragedy in the novel. Achebe borrows the title from W B Yeats’ poem The Second Coming: ‘Things fall apart and the center cannot hold’. The phrase things fall apart is used to show the images of more general chaos that follows in the novel. The second phrase is a kind of declaration that “the centre cannot hold,” It is relevant to Achebe’s novel as the traditional structure of the society is challenged by the coming of missionaries and the white court. The coming of missionaries not only destroys the Igbo tribe’s s social or moral rules, but also destroys their unity. Things Fall Apart is also the demise of Okonkwo, the leader of the clan, because he is alienated from the society where he lived in, and finally he falls apart from it. It becomes his personal tragedy more than the tragedy of the clan itself. This paper will try to analyse the title of the novel and will document the life of the protagonist Okonkwo, son of Unoka and a great wrestler.
While the novel is structured in three parts, the characters of the novel fall apart from their setting and eventually result in the fall of their tribe. Before discussing the story of Okonkwo, the paper will discuss the structure of the story and how the well-structured plot contrasts the chaos in the novel. The novel is well structured and is divided into three parts. The first part describes the life of Ibo people before the arrival of colonizers or the white men. The second part describes Okonkwo’s exile and the coming of the colonial culture comprising missionaries, white officialdom and the effects of such colonization. Following the arrival of missionaries, Okonkwo’s family is impacted as Okonkwo’s son Nwoye converts into Christianity. This section of the story is the beginning of Nwoye’s subsequent alienation from his father. The last section of the story can be read as the falling apart of the Ibo culture. It shows how missionaries’ law, education and culture destroy the tribe’s culture as well as the tragic end of Okonkwo following his return to his village Umofia after his exile. Thus, the structure of the novel is in stark contrast with the foreshadowed chaos in the novel.
Things Fall Apart is a complex novel that can be which can superficially be read as the story of the rise and fall of a central hero, Okonkwo. The title of the novel indicates the intention of the novel. Several critics have noted that the novel is the tragedy of Okonkwo. In a typical sense, Okonkwo is a tragic hero and his tragic flaw is a combination of manliness, rashness, anger, violence and arrogance. Okonkwo’s flaw is his failure to show emotions and affection. He also fears displaying weakness in public and, in his village Umuofia, it is regarded as strength and braveness. For instance, Okonkwo threatens his son Nwoye and Ikemefuna during their preparation for the yam festival, “If you split another yam of this size, I shall break your jaw” (Achebe 28). This attitude of Okonkwo eventually destroys the relationship between Nwoye and Okonkwo, who fails to make his son like himself.
However, even though Okonkwo falls short of Aristotle’s definition of a tragic hero as he was never a larger-than-life-figure, he starts from him being one of the leaders of his village. Through Okonkwo’s role in Things Fall Apart, a reader can analyse how his fear of weakness, failure, and feminine qualities leads to his destruction or leads him falling apart. Okonkwo’s definition of a man comes from what his father never was: courageous, successful and hard-working. He ensures that he is not like his father, Unoka, and is in every way a “complete antithesis to his weak father” (Jua 200). Unoka’s nature is a contrast to is son, who was famous for his wrestling and courageous acts in war. Unlike Unoka, Okonkwo was rich and had a hut for each of his wives. His father was fond of music, laughter, feasting, and peace and, therefore, Okonkwo refutes all these qualities. “Okonkwo, unlike his father, has no fear of violence, but revels in it. Fearlessness in war is a highly respected quality in Umuofia” (Shmoop). Okonkwo’s hatred for his father and his fear of becoming like him triggers his desire to constantly “prove and reassert his manhood” (Jua 202). This fear not just puts him at odds with his father, but also with his society.
According to critic Íde Corley, Okonkwo develops a “hyper masculinity” due to his fear of displaying a trace of weakness (Corley 205). This hyper masculinity “threatens to upset the balance of gender values in Umuofia” (Corley 205). Okonkwo’s views of masculinity are in conflict with Igbo’s traditional views of feminine roles despite Igbo’s male-dominant society. Okonkwo fails to acknowledge the balance between the two gender roles that is an integral part of Igbo society. The feminine roles, generally played bweaknessy the mothers, offer sympathy and compassion. These characteristics are not traditionally present in the society’s male figures. However, there are other characters in the novel that display feminine trait, including Okonkwo’s father Unoka, who displayed this kind of gentleness, and Okonkwo’s friend Obierika.
However, Okonkwo does not consider sympathy as a masculine trait because “to show affection was a sign of weakness”, and weakness is only for “agbala” like his father, and he “never showed any emotion open, unless it be the emotion of anger” (Achebe 10-18). When Okonkwo accidently kills the son of Ezeudu, he is forced to leave the village and is exiled to his Motherland. He meets Uchendu upon arriving at his Motherland, and Uchendu tells him “mother is supreme”, an ideology that Okonkwo seems to oppose from the start counter everything he stands for. Uchendo even asks Okonkwo to justify the saying, and when Okonkwo is unable to do so, Uchendu condemns him not recognizing the importance of feminine principles in Igbo society. Okonkwo’s ignorance of feminine principals may be attributed to the absence of his mother. Okonkwo’s lack of importance for mother and feminine principals outlines his “primal flaw, for despite his many wives, children and titles, Okonkwo is still a child” (Jua 202).
Even though Okonkwo does not accept feminine qualities, the relationship between Ndulue and Ozoemena proves gender equality between men and women in Igbo society. Women are important in Igbo society, and their importance is reiterated by the trial of wife-beater Uzowulu. Uzowulu’s wife had fled their home for the fear of her life. Okonkwo’s constant disapproval of feminine qualities increases the disconnect between him and the society he lived it as he fails to acknowledge the significance of women. Almost all the offense committed by Okonkwo are the ones that insult the goddess Ani. He violates the sanctity of the Week of Peace and is rebuked by the priest of Umuofia, who claims that his actions could have resulted in the destruction of the clan. Okonkwo repents his actions, but does not show it because he does not consider himself to be those men who “go about telling his neighbors that he was in error” (Achebe 20). According to him, he would become like his father if he admitted his fault or failure.
Okonkwo continues to defy the goddess Ani with the murder of Ikemefuna, which is described by Rhonda Cobham as an important moment that leads “in motion a chain of events which ultimately led to his [Okonkwo’s] downfall” (514). Okonkwo defends the killing of Ikemefuna and tells Obierika that he killed Ikemefuna because it was demanded by the Oracle someone had to do it. Obierika counters Okonkwo’s justification by saying that his action will anger the goddess Ani. He calls the murder as “the kind of action for which the goddess wipes out whole families” (41). In return, Okonkwo’s “harshness becomes sacrilege” (Rhoads 66). Of course, Okonkwo fears Ani, but he does not share it and continues his defilement of Ani’s creed. Such actions keep him at further odds with his society, including his son Nwoye. Nwoye experiences anguish at the death of Ikemefuna, who had become his close friend. Nwoye starts hating his father and becomes further separated from him.
Okonkwo associates violence and honor with masculine characteristics, which prove to propel his want for blood. He tells the villagers of Umuofia that they would perish if they fail to fight the missionaries and do not raise arms against them. He adds that the people who were massacred at Abame were cowards since they did not fight back. Okonkwo does no sympathize with the people killed in the massacre as Obierika did. His values of courage and masculinity are not widely shared or appreciated as he thought them to be. It finally leads to his alienation from his society, and so “he mourned for the clan which he saw breaking up and falling apart and he mourned for the warlike men of Umuofia, who had so unaccountably become soft like women” (Achebe 104). For Okonkwo, it is he himself who fell apart, and not the clan.
Therefore, Okonkwo’s true tragic flaw is that he fails to see beyond his own strict definition of masculinity, and it leads him to “underestimate the flexibility and comprehensiveness of the clan’s values” (Cobham 515). Okonkwo’s clan is so flexible that it can find a loophole in its own traditional custom that does not allow them to bury a suicide victim like Okonkwo, whose body is considered evil. The clansmen pay Commissioner and his men to remove Okonkwo’s body and bury it on their behalf. The Igbo clan genuinely cares for Okonkwo, who is honored in death as “one of the greatest men in Umuofia” (Achebe 117). Okonkwo’s memory continues to live through feminine qualities such as grief and sympathy, the values that Okonkwo had opposed and had tried to destroy.
In conclusion, the novel not only depicts the fall of the Igbo tribe due to the coming of Christian missionaries and the English government’s rule, but the fall of Okonkwo. The title depicts Okonkwo's hold on his life, family and his community and how it slowly slips away from him. In the end, Okonkwo’s life literally falls apart due to various events in the novel the struggles in his life.
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart: A Norton Critical Edition.1st ed. New York: W.W. Norton& Company, 2009.
Cobham, Rhonda. “Problems of Gender and History in the Teaching of Things Fall Apart.” Things Fall Apart: A Norton Critical Edition.1st ed. New York: W.W. Norton &Company, Inc., 2009. Print.
Corley, Íde. “Conjuncture, Hypermasculinity, and Disavowal in Things Fall Apart.” Interventions: The International Journal of Postcolonial Studies11 (2009): 203–210.EBSCO MegaFILE. EBSCO. Web. 4 April 2014.
Jua, Roselyne M. “Things Fall Apart and Achebe‟s Search for Manhood.” Interventions: The International Journal of Postcolonial Studies 11 (2009): 199-202. EBSCO MegaFILE. EBSCO. Web. 4 April. 2014
Rhoads, Diana Akers. “Culture in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.” African Studies Review. 36 (1993): 61–72. JSTOR. Web. 22 April. 2014.
Shmoop. 4 April 2014 (Accessed) http://www.shmoop.com/things-fall-apart/title.html