Summary of the Novel
Things Fall Apart is a story told by a skillful storyteller. The novel attempts to recreate the social, cultural, and religious fabric of traditional Igbo life between 1850 and the early 1900s. However, the novel cannot be interpreted as an accurate social and political history of the Igbo people, because it is a work of fiction. Nevertheless, the novel depicts conflicts and tensions within Igbo society as well as changes introduced by colonial rule and Christianity. The novel is structured in three parts. Part One depicts life in pre colonial Igboland. Part Two relates the arrival of the Europeans and the introduction of Christianity, and Part Three recounts the beginning of systematic colonial control in eastern Nigeria. Okonkwo, the protagonist, is a talented but inflexible Igbo who struggles to achieve success in the traditional world.
The setting of Part One is Umuofia, a union of nine villages. Okonkwo is introduced as a great wrestler, a renowned warrior, and a hardworking member of the community. He has amassed two barns filled with yams, three wives, many children, and two titles. His goal is to move through the traditional Igbo title taking system by balancing personal achievement and community service. However, although Okonkwo feels he is destined for greatness, his chi, or the god-force within him, does not seem destined for greatness.
Okonkwo seeks to overpower his mediocre chi by working hard. He is profoundly afraid of failure. As a result, he is unable to balance the feminine energy of love with the masculine energy of material success. Okonkwo often suppresses his feminine side as he pursues his goals and angers the Earth goddess Ani. His rage, inflexibility, and fear of appearing weak like his lazy father, the musician Unoka, consistently overshadow his respect for his community.
When a daughter of Umuofia is killed by the neighboring village of Mbaino, a young boy named Ikemefuna is given to Umuofia in order to avoid war. Okonkwo adopts the boy and seems to admire him, for Ikemefuna is both a talented musician and a great hunter. He is also a brother and role model for Okonkwo’s eldest son Nwoye, who appears to be lazy. Ikemefuna lives with Okonkwo for three years until the Oracle of the Hills and Caves demands his life. Ogbuefi Ezeudu, the oldest man in the village, advises Okonkwo not to take part in the ritual killing of the boy. Although Okonkwo loves Ikemefuna, he does not want to appear weak. He joins the ceremony and kills Ikemefuna. Okonkwo’s action ultimately shatters his relationship with his sensitive son, Nwoye.
Okonkwo is both affectionate and violent with his family. He loves his daughter Ezinma, who is an ogbanje, or a changeling child who seems to die continually only to return to her mother’s womb to be reborn and die again. In an attempt to break the power of the ogbanje, Okonkwo follows his wife Ekwefi, the priestess Chielo, and his daughter Ezinma on a journey to the oracle Agbala. Okonkwo also assists a medicine man locate and destroy his daughter’s iyi uwa, or the sacred stone that links the child with the spirit world. However, Okonkwo also has a dark and dangerous side, for he controls his family through anger. In bouts of rage, he beats his youngest wife, Ojiugo, for neglecting to cook dinner and braiding her hair instead during the Week of Peace. He also takes a shot at Ekwefi with a rusty gun during the Yam Festival.
Okonkwo’s immoral actions affect the community. During the funeral rite for the elder Ezeudu, Okonkwo’s gun accidentally explodes, killing Ezeudu’s son. Okonkwo’s crimes enrage the Earth Goddess Ani, for he has consciously and unconsciously chosen death by beating his wife, killing Ikemefuna, and now, killing Ezeudu’s son. His irrational actions are destroying the moral fabric of traditional life. Therefore, Ani banishes Okonkwo to Mbanta, his mother’s village, for seven years.
Part Two of the novel takes place while Okonkwo is in exile in Mbanta. Okonkwo flees to his mother’s village and takes refuge with the feminine principal represented by the Earth goddess. He is given time to learn the supremacy of a mother’s nurturing love. However, Okonkwo’s goals never change. He works hard to amass wealth through the production of yams, and he dreams of returning to Umuofia to become a judicial leader in the clan. While Okonkwo single-mindedly labors in Mbanta, the Europeans arrive in Igboland. His friend Obierika visits him twice with news of the political and social upheaval. Abame, one of the villages in the union of Umuofia, is razed by the British. Christianity, a new religion, is attracting the marginal members of the Igbo community. The disenfranchised among the Igbo include the anguished mothers of twins who are forced to discard their children in the Evil Forest, the osu, who are despised descendants of religious slave cults, and unsuccessful men who do not earn titles or achieve status in the traditional world. The new Christian converts include Okonkwo’s son, Nwoye.
In Part Three, Okonkwo returns from exile in Mbanta to a tense and radically changed Umuofia. At this point, a colonial government is taking root, the palm-oil trade is transforming the economy, and Christianity is dividing the Igbo people. Tensions escalate at the annual worship of the Earth goddess when the zealous Christian convert Enoch unmasks an egwugwu, a masquerader representing an ancestral spirit. His apostasy kills the spirit, unmasks the traditional religion, and throws Umuofia into confusion. Other egwugwu, who are actually Igbo men masked as ancestors, are enraged and retaliate. They raze Enoch’s compound to the ground and burn the new Christian church. Okonkwo and other village leaders are subsequently jailed and whipped by order of the District Commissioner. After paying a fine, the humiliated Igbo are released from prison.
The traditional Igbo gather to mourn the abominations suffered by the ancient gods, the ancestors, and the entire Igbo community. They decry the new religion, which has pitted Igbo against Igbo. When colonial officials arrive to disperse the crowd, Okonkwo blocks them. He draws his machete and decapitates the court messenger. Okonkwo marshals no support; however, for the divided Igbo community fails to rise in defense of traditional life. Okonkwo has no recourse. He retreats and hangs himself from a tree.
Okonkwo fails to achieve immortality according to Igbo tradition. Only strangers may touch him now, for he has committed suicide, the ultimate offense against the Earth goddess. Okonkwo does not even merit a simple burial among his own people. In the final denouement, a perplexed District Commissioner orders members of the Igbo community to appear in court with Okonkwo’s corpse. The commissioner decides to allot the tragedy of Okonkwo a paragraph in his anthropological study of the Igbo, which he has cruelly entitled “The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.” (p. 148)
Although the novel represents Igboland in the 1890s, it is crucial for the reader to remember that Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart in 1958, at the dawn of Nigerian independence. Achebe writes from a realistic third person point of view and questions assumptions about civilization, culture, and literature. Proverbs, folk tales, myths, and portraits of rituals and festivals support the basic plot line and paint a picture of Igbo life. In Morning Yet on Creation Day, Achebe explains his desire to show that precolonial Africa was “not one long nightmare of savagery.” (p. 45) Overall, Achebe succeeds in presenting Igbo society as an organic whole and providing a window into the heart of Africa.