The novel “Things Fall Apart” by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe is a 20th-century classic for many reasons, including that it is an exceedingly even-handed account of the cultural clash between the African inhabitants of Nigeria and the English who descended on them in the late 19th century.
Achebe is credited with firmly placing African literature on the map with the publication of this novel in 1958 to great acclaim. Although he often demurred at that particular distinction, “Things Fall Apart” unarguably launched his highly successful career as both a writer and professor of literature in Africa and the United States.
The heavy praise this novel has since received is thoroughly justified. The story is gripping from beginning to end, it is masterfully structured, and the writing is executed with a poet’s ear for combining music and meaning. This essay is yet another homage to this work, motivated particularly by my admiration for the even-handedness referenced above, for “Things Fall Apart” is assuredly the most intellectually balanced work of literary fiction I’ve ever read.
Achebe Offers a Generous Perspective
Why is this worth pointing out in a forum devoted mainly to political analysis? These days, our political discourse is glutted with opinions formed in the heat of emotion and clung to with a hardened death-grip. When do we ever encounter a balanced perspective on anything, let alone matters of great import?
In a time of more rigorous standards, the claim to intellectual integrity would be predicated on a person having delved deeply into a subject, thoroughly examining it before arriving at a conclusion. Achebe’s novel, despite exploring one of humanity’s most despicable predilections — the colonization of foreign territories and their inhabitants — stands in sharp contrast to the emotion-driven, uncritical haste of our day.
This poignant tale about a great Igbo warrior depicts the gradual encroachment of Christianity and English law into an Igbo village in Nigeria. The novel’s perspective is so generous that both the merits and shortcomings of each culture receive equal consideration before the inevitable tragic end.
Both worlds contain objectionable evils; both worlds offer a deeply humane vision of life. In Igbo culture, for instance, whenever a woman was unfortunate enough to give birth to twins, which was considered an unnatural abomination, the newborns would be placed in clay pots and thrown away in the forest. Or a young man’s life might be deemed forfeit simply because the gods of his community commanded it.
At the same time, Igbo social structure was so tightly knit that, throughout the novel, a deep and abiding sense of community is palpable. Achebe’s fierce protagonist is a man whose strivings are universal — providing for his family, protecting his village against threats, respecting the traditions of his elders — responsibilities he views as fundamental duties and which, in the course of carrying them out, establish him as an eminently sympathetic character.
The English missionaries, on the other hand, are shown to have brought an alien religion completely at odds with that of the Igbo, one that mercifully forbade such practices as the abandonment of babies and random death sentences by the gods. They introduced an enticing form of commerce that enriched the villagers beyond anything they’d previously experienced, not only providing more money but making a wider variety of foods available to more people.
At the same time, Achebe presents quite dramatically the rough justice administered by the English system of jurisprudence. It brooked no dispute and ultimately destroyed the traditional authority of the village elders, ending forever the native community’s independence and self-governance, not to mention much of Igbo culture.
A Glimpse at Human Conflict, Internal and External
What may have inspired Achebe to represent these extremes of the colonial fact so fairly was that his parents, born into a traditional Igbo tribe, had revolted against their kin and converted to Christianity. Perhaps the balanced view he achieves stems from a desire to explore what motivated his parents to arrive at that choice at the expense of their culture. The result is a narrative that honestly depicts these warring values between the colonized and the colonizer as character conflicts, both external and internal.
That last point is so compelling. Antagonism between a colonized people and their colonizer is tragic but obvious. Less obvious and perhaps even more tragic is the same conflict played out within individuals on either side of the colonial drama. In this novel, it is within the mind and heart of the protagonist’s son Nwoye that doubts begin to stir about aspects of his culture. Those doubts ultimately flourish to the point that, to the horror of his father, the great warrior Okonkwo, Nwoye joins the English missionaries.
Achebe is careful to present this change as a form of self-affirmation rather than a mere rejection of parental or cultural authority. It is triggered by one of the novel’s most dramatic incidents.
A youth, brought into the village a few years previously as another clan’s payment for murder, is sent to live in the warrior’s household until the village decides what to do with him. After three years, the village oracle determines the young man must be put to death, and Okonkwo adheres to its wishes, albeit reluctantly.
When Nwoye realizes that the young man who has become a brother to him has been slain, and by his father no less, the emotion this realization engenders — “something seemed to give way inside him, like the snapping of a tightened bow” — catapults him into the memory of another time he experienced it.
He had had the same kind of feeling not long ago, during the last harvest season. … They were returning home … when they heard the voice of an infant crying in the thick forest. … Nwoye had heard that twins were put in earthenware pots and thrown away in the forest, but he had never yet come across them. … Then something had given way inside him. It descended on him again, this feeling, when his father walked in, that night after killing Ikemefuna.
This frank depiction of barbarism introduces a sharp wedge in our sympathies for this African village, sympathies to which the novel has carefully led us. But of significance here is that the narrative informs us of Ikemefuna’s callous murder and the practice of discarding babies, both within the context of Nwoye’s reaction.
Achebe Displays the Complexity of Human Nature
Why is that significant? It is his emotional reaction that introduces the wedge in the first place, and it has been introduced from within his world, rather than from values imposed without from the British colonizers. They would have considered these events barbaric, but the narrative shows us that at an inchoate, gut level, Nwoye, a child of the Igbo culture, does too.
This view is reinforced by how the arrival of the missionaries affects Nwoye:
Then the missionaries burst into song. It was one of those gay and rollicking tunes of evangelism which had the power of plucking at silent and dusty chords in the heart of an Igbo man. … It was the poetry of the new religion, something felt in the marrow. The hymn … seemed to answer a vague and persistent question that haunted his young soul — the question of the twins crying in the bush and the question of Ikemefuna who was killed. He felt a relief within as the hymn poured into his parched soul. The words of the hymn were like the drops of frozen rain melting on the dry palate of the panting earth.
This passage is remarkable for more than its lyricism. For a person who had come of age at the height of Nigeria’s experience of colonialism and who would have seen firsthand the psychological and cultural depredations of the English, it is almost bewilderingly generous.
Achebe held opposing realities in his hands and, setting personal interest aside, gave fictional life to a reality that emerged from that deplorable situation: His character’s discomfited reaction to these death sentences — always referred to in the novel as “questions” — is succored by the Christian hymn.
The novel puts forward the bitterly ironic possibility that these life-affirming values, latent in the African sensibility and brought to the continent by force, required Christianity to become fully realized. Given the author’s historical standpoint, giving voice to that possibility is the ultimate example of intellectual integrity.