Chinua Achebe & Things Fall Apart

Added by Melissa Culross

Although he has also written poetry, short stories, and essays--both literary and political--Chinua Achebe is best known for his novels. Considering these novels, Anthony Daniels writes in Spectator, "In spare prose of great elegance, without any technical distraction, he has been able to illuminate two emotionally irrecconcilable facets of modern African life: the humiliations visited on Africans by colonialism, and the utter moral worthlessness of what replaced colonial rule." Set in this historical context, Achebe's novels develop the theme of "traditional verses change," and offer, as Palmer observes, "a powerful presentation of the beauty, strength, and validity of traditional life and values and the disruptiveness of change." Even so, the author does not appeal for a return to the ways of the past. Palmer notes that "while deploring the imperialists' brutality and condescention, [Achebe] seems to suggest that change is inevitable and wise men...reconcile themselves to an accomodating change. It is the diehards who resist and are destroyed in the process."

Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God focus on Nigeria's early experience with colonialism, from first contact with the British to widespread British administration. "Chinua Achebe creates in these two novels a coherent picture of coherence being lost, of the tragic consequences of the African-European collision," offers Robert McDowell in a special issue of Studies in Black Literature dedicated to Achebe's work. "There is an artistic unity of all things in these books which is rare anywhere in modern English fiction."

Things Fall Apart, Achebe's first novel, was published in 1958 in the midst of the Nigerian renaissance. It tells the story of an Ibo village of the late 1800's and one of its great men, Okonkwo, who has achieved much in his life. He is a champion wrestler, a wealthy farmer, a husband to three wives, a title-holder among his people, and a mamber of the select egwugwu whose members impersonate ancestral spirits at tribal rituals. "The most impressive achievement of Things Fall Apart..." maintains David Carroll in his book Chinua Achebe, "is the vivid picture it provides of Ibo society at the end of the nineteenth century." (see also "Women in Things Fall Apart")

The order is disrupted, however, with the appearance of the white man in Africa and with the introduction of his religion. "The conflict of the novel, vested in Okokwo, derives from the series of crushing blows which are levelled at traditional values by an alien and more powerful culture causing, in the end, the traditional society to fall apart," observes G.D. Killam. Okonkwo is unable to adopt to the changes that accompany colonialism. In the end, in frustration, he kills an African employed by the British, and then commits suicide, a sin against the tradition to which he had long clung. Achebe acieves a balance in recreating the tragic consequences of the clash of two cultures. Killam notes that "in showing Ibo society before and after the coming of the white man he avoids the temptation to present the past as idealized and the present as ugly and unsatisfactory." [from Contemporary Authors]

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Last Modified: 4 January 2005