Things Fall Apart Summary

Chinua Achebe

Things Fall Apart

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Things Fall Apart Summary

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Things Fall Apart is a 1958 literary novel by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. Set in late nineteenth century Nigeria and concerning the British colonial period, it focuses on Okonkwo, an Igbo leader, who is known for his boldness and wrestling prowess. The novel is split into three sections, the first focusing on Okonkwo and his family history, as well as the society of the Igbo and their traditions and culture. Parts two and three bring in the influence of British colonialism and Christian missionaries, tracking their often-brutal impact on the local culture. Exploring themes of colonialism, tradition, masculinity, and resistance, Things Fall Apart has been praised by modern scholars for being one of the first modern novels to show pre-colonial African society in a positive light. Considered one of the first great African novels, it is widely taught in colleges today and has been adapted multiple times into TV miniseries, feature films, and radio and stage productions, as well as influencing an album by the popular American band The Roots. Several of Achebe’s later works, including sequels No Longer at Ease and Arrow of God, follow up on the themes and characters introduced in Things Fall Apart.

As Things Fall Apart begins, Okonkwo is famous in his village Umuofia for being a wrestling champion, defeating all comers. He is respected for being strong and hardworking. But, he is haunted by his family history—his father, Unoka, was seen as a disgrace for being effeminate, cowardly, poor with money, and neglecting his wife and children. Okonkwo overcompensates by working to build his wealth, as well as to prove to everyone that he is every bit the man his father wasn’t. He is obsessed with his masculinity, responding aggressively to anything he perceives as a challenge towards it. He is rather cold towards his wife and children. However, his village sees him as wealthy, powerful, and brave, and he becomes a natural leader. It seems as if he’s reached the position he’s been striving for his whole life.

As part of a peace settlement with a nearby village, Okonkwo is asked to be the guardian of Ikemefuna, a young boy taken from the rival village after the boy’s father killed an Umuofian woman. The boy moves in with Okonkwo’s family, and Okonkwo comes to like the boy while the boy looks up to him. However, the Oracle of Umuofia has a disturbing vision one day, and says that Ikemefuna must be killed or ruin will come to the village. Ezeudu, the village elder, tells Okonkwo not to have anything to do with killing the boy as it would be like killing his own child. However, unwilling to appear weak, Okonkwo insists on killing the boy himself, refusing to stay his hand even as his foster son begs for his life. Although he remains solid in his determination, he is consumed by guilt and sadness afterwards. This leads into a string of bad luck for Okonkwo and his family. His daughter takes ill soon afterwards. When Ezeudu dies, a mishap with Okonkwo’s gun during a salute kills the old man’s son. Okonkwo and his family are sent into exile for seven years.

While Okonkwo is in exile, he learns that white people have come to Umuofia with the intention of spreading Christianity. The number of converts grows, and the white people gain a strong presence in the village. Eventually, a new government run by the intruders is formed, and the village is split between resistance and giving in to the new order. When he returns to his village, Okonkwo is shocked and angered by the changes. Religious conflict in the village begins to rise. When a convert unmasks an elder and disgraces the spirit he represents, the village responds by burning a local church. The leader of the white government takes them hostage for ransom, shaving their heads and whipping them. A big uprising starts to build in the village, led by Okonkwo. The brash leader advocates war against the white man. When the white men try to arrange a summit, Okonkwo beheads one of them, but is disturbed that the rest of the village let the others go. He realizes that his village does not have his will to fight, and the white man’s conquest is inevitable. When the white men come to arrest him for his crime, they find he has hung himself to avoid trial. In death, he followed in his father’s footsteps and is now viewed as a disgrace as Igbo tradition strongly condemns suicide.

Chinua Achebe was a Nigerian novelist, poet, professor, and literary critic. Things Fall Apart was his debut novel, and is considered his greatest work. It remains the most widely read book in modern African literature. He wrote an additional four novels and four children’s books, as well as many short stories and poetry collections. He was also widely known for his political commentary about the impact of colonialism on modern Africa. A titled Igbo chieftain himself, most of his works focus on traditional Igbo society as informed by his first-hand experiences. A political activist and strong believer in independence for the Biafra region of Nigeria, he also served as a professor of languages and literature at Bard College, and a professor of Africana studies at Brown University.