Things Fall Apart Summary and Study Guide

Chinua Achebe

Things Fall Apart

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  • Features 25 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
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Things Fall Apart Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 57-page guide for “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 25 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Proverbs and Fathers and Sons.

Plot Summary

Things Fall Apart, published in 1958, is Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe’s first novel. Simultaneously portraying the traditions and beliefs of Nigerian Ibo culture and engaging with the narrative of European colonialism in Africa, Things Fall Apart uses one man’s story to speak for many.

Achebe’s plot centers on Okonkwo, a passionate man focused on reaching the apex of masculine virtue in his home village, Umuofia. As a child, Okonkwo notices his father’s “feminine” and dishonorable behaviors: Unoka is lazy, pleasure-seeking, and debt-ridden. As a young man, Okonkwo seeks to “ his hands” of his father’s legacy through intense hard labor (8). He wins glorious wrestling victories, leads his village to war, and builds a thriving farm. Quickly, he is on track to earn titles within the community, markers of power and influence.

Okonkwo’s first troubles come with Ikemefuna’s arrival. The product of an exchange intended to avoid war between two villages, Umuofia and Mbiano, Ikemefuna ends up in Okonkwo’s household. Though his adjustment is not immediate, he quickly becomes Okonkwo’s favorite. Okonkwo is satisfied by Ikemefuna’s influence over his oldest son, Nwoye, with whom he is constantly disappointed; with Ikemefuna around, Nwoye acts more like a man and less like his grandfather, Unoka. But when Umuofia’s Oracle, Agbala, demands Ikemefuna’s death, Okonkwo releases him and participates in his murder.

Agbala also demands Okonkwo’s daughter, Ezinma, and Okonkwo tries to protect his favorite biological child. Though Okonkwo, his wives, and his friends respect the authority of their gods and ancestors, they find following these commands difficult. Okonkwo faces punishment if he treats his wives or peers too harshly. Even when Okonkwo, his friend Obierika, and Nwoye question the will of the gods or ancestors, their adherence to the family structure remains firm. Rituals, drum summons, and Oracle appearances always happen at night, in the darkness; the mysterious darkness holds a powerful sway over Okonkwo, his family, and his kinsmen, and their community beliefs help them maintain stability and unity in times of conflict.

Okonkwo accidentally shoots the son of an elder during ritual gunfire at the elder’s funeral, and in response to his crime, he and his family must leave the village for seven years. Transplanted to Mbanta, the village of his mother, Okonkwo mourns the loss of the future for which he worked so hard. Though he continues to hold high expectations for himself and build new wealth and influence, his distance from the tribe means that he expects to work to earn honor upon his return.

While Okonkwo and his family are in Mbanta, white missionaries arrive in Umuofia. The unfamiliar church wins over the village’s outcasts; eventually, a preacher visits Mbanta and converts Nwoye. Nwoye abandons his family to join the church; this fracture in the structure of the social system indicates a greater fracture that the white men’s arrival catalyzes.

Upon return to Umuofia, Okonkwo discovers that the white man’s religion has become political, too. The colonial administration imprisons men when they follow local tradition. Though one missionary, Mr. Brown, coexists effectively with the villagers, the next, Mr. Smith, incites deep-seated conflict. As he collaborates with authorities, specifically the District Commissioner, Mr. Smith deepens the rift in Umuofia.

Mr. Smith encourages an overzealous convert, Enoch, to unmask an egwugwu, an elder who embodies a spiritual ancestor. This crime profoundly offends the villagers, and the egwugwus burn down his church. The District Commissioner tricks Okonkwo and five of Umuofia’s other leaders into prison, and the villagers scramble to post bail for these powerful men. When they return, Okonkwo wants to declare war.

Before the villagers can decide how to solve their conflict, messengers arrive to dissolve their meeting. Rather than engage in conversation, as leaders have so far, Okonkwo responds directly: he decapitates a messenger. Disappointed with his fellow villagers’ cowardice, Okonkwo flees the scene and commits suicide. When messengers return to Umuofia, asking for Okonkwo, his friend, Obierika, leads them to his hanged body and asks that they remove it: his body is unclean, for suicide is a great evil, and his fellow villagers cannot bury him with their own hands.

The novel ends with entry into the District Commissioner’s consciousness, as he conceives of the story of Okonkwo as a detail in his colonial narrative, The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.

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Chapters 1-3