Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart

Fittingly, the final book I read in 2017 belongs to a growing category: novels I had wrongly prejudged. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is the post-colonial novel, you see, and so it has attracted an endless string of commentary from “post-colonial theorists” and cultural studies professors – people I regard as tedious imbeciles. Achebe’s novel, I’m happy to report, is infinitely more interesting and nuanced than its most vocal critics, and deserving of its reputation as the preeminent African novel. It tells the story of Okonkwo, an Ibo tribal leader in the village of Umuofia in the late 1800s, whose years of hard work overcoming his father’s reputation as a worthless, unreliable slacker have earned him wealth, three wives, and the respect of his fellow villagers. But his way of life is fatally threatened by the arrival of white European settlers, and Achebe plots this collision course with consummate skill.

The bulk of the book’s beginning is spent giving us insight, through the character of Okonkwo, into the Ibo (the real-life Igbo) way of life. Theirs is a highly stratified society: men alone take charge of political affairs, including administering justice and dealing with all outside tribes and villages, while the women have a greater say over the rituals and customs that govern marriage and childbirth. Insight into the status of women is provided by their language, which uses the same word – agbala – to describe a woman and a man without accomplishments or titles to his name. And though they appear to have no written language, “the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten.” Their principal food is the yam, a “manly crop” because it demands so much care and attention to cultivate, and there are organized rituals and festivals timed to the harvesting of it. Old men and women are revered for their wisdom, and ancestor worship is an important component of village life. They lead hard lives, filled with toil and early death, but the villagers cannot be described as unhappy; on the contrary, they celebrate life every chance they get, finding joy even through the greatest of their hardships. Achebe, however, does not fall into the temptation of romanticizing the Ibo society, which is also described as superstitious, rigidly hierarchical, and brutal to women, children and those who break with the local customs and traditions. We learn, for example, that there is something of a caste system in place, with the osu (outcasts, roughly speaking) having a status comparable to India’s Untouchables: they are shunned from village life, universally reviled. Worse, perhaps, are the numerous catastrophes attributed to evil spirits, and the prescribed “remedies” for combatting them:

Darkness held a vague terror for these people, even the bravest among them. Children were warned not to whistle at night for fear of evil spirits. Dangerous animals became even more sinister and uncanny in the dark. A snake was never called by its name at night, because it would hear. It was called a string.

The birth of twins, for example, is considered an ill omen, and the parents respond by carrying their infant children into the brush and leaving them to die. Miscarriages – which occur with alarming frequency in a society with no real conception of human anatomy and no effective medical technologies – are likewise considered the doings of evil spirits, countered by subsequently mutilating the dead baby’s corpse. We see all of this through the lens of Okonkwo, who is himself a complicated figure. Born to a slothful father, he was at risk of living life under the strain of his father’s reputation, but early on decides to commit himself to a life of discipline and hard work. Through his efforts in agriculture, he becomes one of the wealthiest and most prosperous men in the village; as an athlete, he becomes not only the village’s best wrestler – a position of great admiration – but the greatest wrestler across a multitude of villages, famous throughout the land. In other words, he is deeply respected. But Achebe points us to a flaw in his character, born out of his very worship of strength and determination: he has no patience for weakness, and therefore no tenderness of feeling. “Okonkwo never showed any emotion openly, unless it be the emotion of anger. To show affection was a sign of weakness; the only thing worth demonstrating was strength.” Of all his children, he loves his youngest daughter best, and yet he cannot show his affection as affection. And to his sons, who disappoint him in their inability to live up to his example, he is often callous, even cruel.

The arrival of European colonists disrupts village life, first almost imperceptibly, and then in ways that are fatal to the Ibo way of life. At first, only one or two settlers arrive, happy to live peacefully on the peripheries of the village, learning what they can. Then, missionaries arrive, churches are built, and converts to Christianity are sought amongst the villagers. The first priest to arrive, Mr. Brown, is described as a mild-mannered man, deferential and respectful to the village elders, and more than tolerant of their many superstitions. He is also eager to spread education, to teach the villagers willing to learn how to read and write and do arithmetic, and Achebe – to his credit – recognizes this twinning of Christianity and education: “From the beginning religion and education went hand in hand.” But upon Mr. Brown’s death, he is replaced by a fire-and-brimstone type, eager to stamp out heathenism in a holy war for his god, and his approach understandably provokes the Ibo to violence – a confrontation that, by dint of their technological backwardness, they were always destined to lose. Okonkwo is one of the most vocal opponents of the colonizers, and the earliest to recognize what their settlements and their religion will mean for the village and its customs, and so, naturally, he shares the same fate as the Ibo way of life.

Things Fall Apart is an excellent novel, at once a recreation of an almost-lost way of life and a summons to sympathy for a people who were left without representation or advocates while their entire way of life was taken from them. I cannot help, as I reflect on its many qualities, to note what a challenge this novel represents to a popular catchphrase on the modern left, attributable to Audre Lorde: “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Here we have a novel written in English, whose title comes from one of Europe’s most revered poets (Yeats, from “The Second Coming“), that has sold some 20 million copies, and has perhaps done more than any single other work to recontextualize Europe’s expansionist period, transforming it – in the popular imagination – from a period of unqualified glory to a period of shameful subjugation.