Theme and Biographical Analysis of Things Fall Apart
Chinua Achebe, through his novel Things Fall Apart, presents a clan of Igbo people and their way of life during the beginning of colonization in Africa. Through the representation of the Igbo peoples’ way of life and their reaction to the colonizing forces that enter their villages, Achebe presents themes of identity as a group of African people with a past and heritage to be honored. This reoccurring theme of identity in the sense of an African people can be traced back to Achebe’s background as a native of the Igbo people in Africa.
Things Fall Apart investigates aspects of identity through its main character Okonkwo’s views of what it means to be a man and what it means to be African. When the white Christian colonizing forces invade his village he sees this as a threat to his and his people’s way of life, and as a result to their identity as Africans. The English bring with them new religion, new language, and new forms of government, that threaten to breakdown the previously established culture that Okonkwo and the other villagers who resist the change have become accustomed to, probably because they see these changes as a threat to what makes them who they are as African people. Evidence of this can be seen at the end of chapter 20 in Things Fall Apart, when Okonkwo’s friend Obierika visits him to discuss the changes that have occurred in Umuofia since Okonkwo was banished. Obierika explains the white man in Umuofia “says that our customs are bad; and our own brothers who have taken up his religion also say that our customs are bad. The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one”, illustrating the men’s feelings of despair and fear at the changing landscape of their culture and tribesmen (Achebe, pg 940). This threat on Okonkwo’s identity that comes from the invasion of the Europeans is additionally seen when Okonkwo returns to Umuofia to see these changes himself. Here the narrator expresses that “The clan had undergone such profound change during his exile that it was barely recognizable. The new religion and government and the trading stores were very much in the people’s eyes and minds. There were still many who saw these new institutions as evil, but even they talked and thought about little else…” (Achebe, pg 493). The text explains that Okonkwo was “deeply grieved” by the changes that had taken place in his village, and that his grief was not only for himself, but that he also “mourned for the clan, which he saw breaking up and falling apart” (Achebe, pg 943).
Much like Okonkwo, Achebe’s parents, living in an Igbo village during the colonization and creation of Nigeria, saw firsthand many of the changes that were occurring in their homeland and culture and the alienation this caused between tribesmen. Ezenwa- Ohaeto, in his book Chinua Achebe: A Biography, explains that when Achebe’s parents returned to Ogidi in 1935 with their family, the cultural crossroads faced by their society was plainly apparent in that “The storytelling sessions of the oral tradition existed side by side with book-reading sessions in the schools. The hymn-singing, Bible reading members of catechist Achebe’s family, on one side, faced his traditionalist kin on the other”, clearly illustrating the clashing cultures present in their village at the time and the divide it created between members of the Igbo (Ohaeto, pg 8). As this quote also suggests, much of this cultural change came from not only the introduction of the European religion and government but also from their school system which was “intended to transplant on African soil what established academic circles in England regarded as the best features of English universities, without much regard for the special needs of the countries where they were set up”, bringing not only the native people of the Igbo tribes further away from their own oral literary traditions but also enforcing an idea that these European texts and methods were superior (Booker, pg 2). This separation from his native culture and the introduction to European culture caused Achebe to face many of the feelings of identity crisis his characters encounter in Things Fall Apart. In an interview he explained that the cultural limbo he experienced caused him to feel like a “bat in the folk tales- neither bird nor mammal- and one can get lost, not being one or the other” (Cott).
Along with the effects the English colonization of the Igbo had on the education and oral literary traditions of the Igbo people, their influence was equally effective in their disintegration of the Igbo people’s religious traditions. The attack of the English on the Igbo culture and religion was so effective in fact that “before the natives realized what had happened, their land, their culture, their wealth, their gods and goddesses, and their own people had been won over by the alien agencies. Hence it became very difficult for the Nigerians to counterattack their white enemies effectively without harming their fellow clansmen” (Ogbaa, pg 55). This attack on the Igbo culture was especially successful in the religious field, evidence of which can be seen in that the majority of Igbo people have left their own gods and goddesses for the Christianity introduced through their colonization (Booker, pg 110). In fact, the time of crossroads of culture that came as a result of the colonizing forces in Nigeria created parallels can be made between the historical attempts against the Igbo religion and the similar fictional attacks in Things Fall Apart. For example, an Igbo historian and one of Achebe’s childhood friends and classmates recalls an event in which a masquerader, or someone in costume for the Igbo religious festivities, was “killed” (only literally knocked down however) in frustration by someone who adapted the new religion of the English ( Ohaeto, pg 10). The account continues to state that “It was an abomination to desecrate a masquerade and the news spread throughout the district. From every quarter mighty masquerades came out, by day and by night, to mourn in a ritual called Ibe Oye” (Ohaeto, pg 10).
This can be compared to the similar event that occurred in Okonkwo’s village with the intentional unmasking of an egwugwu during the annual ceremony to honor the earth deity by a Christian convert, which to the Igbo was seen as an act equivalent to killing an ancestral spirit. The text explains that “one of the greatest crimes a man could commit was to unmask an egwugwu in public, or to say or do anything which might reduce its immortal prestige in the eyes of the uninitiated”, illustrating just how divided Okonkwo’s tribesmen were through the introduction of the new religion (Achebe, pg 944). Like Achebe’s own experience, his characters in Things Fall Apart, were being pitted against each other with the introduction of Christianity and the other cultural forces of the English. In this way, they were unable to stand together as a united African people under a shared religion as they had in the past.
In general, the message presented by the British was one in which “their own society was superior, and also that conversion of the local people would have to be not only from the traditional religion but from the whole way of life which was intertwined with it and supported it”, which resulted in their effort to change everything about the native Igbo culture (Crowder). The effects of this can be seen throughout Achebe’s fictional work Things Fall Apart, as well as his recorded biography. Through adaption of English culture and religion by the Igbo many of their aspects of identity were sacrificed, in terms of their abandonment of their own cultural heritage and the separation between clansmen who chose to adapt to the new culture and those who kept to the traditional ways. Achebe’s firsthand experience of this attack on his identity is presented in Things Fall Apart through his character Okonkwo’s inability to cope in his changing environment.
- Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor, 1994. Print.
- Booker, M. Keith. The Chinua Achebe Encyclopedia. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2003. Print.
- Cott, Jonathan. “Chinua Achebe at the Crossroads: An Interview with the Nigerian Writer.” Parabola: Myth and the Quest for Meaning 6.2 (1981): 33-37. Print.
- Crowder, Michael. The Story of Nigeria. London: Faber, 1978. Print.
- Ezenwa-Ohaeto. Chinua Achebe: A Biography. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1997. Print.
- Ogbaa, Kalu. Understanding Things Fall Apart: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1999. Print.