Review: Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart”

by Miles Raymer

Things Fall Apart

Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart has been on my radar for a long time, so I decided to pick it up as part of an effort to explore authors from backgrounds and cultures different from my own. And while that process has generally proved fruitful, I disliked every aspect of this book.

Things Fall Apart takes place in late 19th-century Nigeria, and tells the story of Okonkwo, a leading member of the fictional Igbo tribe. An unusually good wrestler and extremely hard worker, Okonkwo seems to be a typical example of a successful Igbo warrior. He is a man of rank within the village’s traditional hierarchy and is generally respected by his peers and family. The first half of the book focuses on Okonkwo’s participation in his tribe’s traditional farming and cultural practices, and the second half examines the growing tension between the Igbos and newly-arrived white Christian colonialists.

The biggest problem with Things Fall Apart is that it is tremendously dull. Achebe’s writing is accessible but lacking in vitality, and the book’s events aren’t strung together with much thematic or linguistic artistry. Especially in the first half, the chapters drone on about various happenings, disputes, weather events, and rituals, few of which feel interrelated or truly significant. The depth of Okonkwo’s character is so limited that I spent a fair bit of time early on wondering if he was actually the protagonist, and none of the other tribespeople made any kind of meaningful impression. This made it impossible for me to form the empathic bond with Achebe’s characters that is the foundation of all great literature.

The second biggest problem is that Okonkwo and the other Igbo men are awful people. When not farming yams, they spend most of their time jockeying for patriarchal status by trying to prove how tough and manly they are:

Okonkwo never showed any emotion openly, unless it be the emotion of anger. To show affection was a sign of weakness; the only thing worth demonstrating was strength. (28)

The Igbo men treat women and children like they are property, beating them when they feel like it and blithely exchanging them as bargaining chips to settle tribal disputes. Worst of all, the identity of male Igbos seems almost entirely predicated on controlling the bodies and activities of women, as well as refraining from any kind of activity that might seem “womanish.” This is demonstrated by Okonkwo’s thoughts about his son Nwoye’s development:

He wanted Nwoye to grow into a tough young man capable of ruling his father’s household when he was dead and gone to join the ancestors. He wanted him to be a prosperous man, having enough in his barn to feed the ancestors with regular sacrifices. And so he was always happy when he heard him grumbling about women. That showed that in time he would be able to control his women-folk. No matter how prosperous a man was, if he was unable to rule his women and his children (and especially his women) he was not really a man. (52-3)

I’d be happy to report that this is the only passage in Things Fall Apart that drips with undisguised misogyny, but I can’t. Worse still, traditional Igbo rituals and ethical judgments are shot through with superstitious, male-dominated interpretations of how the “gods” think things ought to be done.

As the novel ends, Okonkwo’s final despair appears to derive from his existential terror that the stature of Igbo manliness will be compromised by the external pressures of cultural competition. Fearing that his Igbo brothers will not declare war on the Christians, he laments:

Worthy men are no more…Isike will never forget how we slaughtered them in that war. We killed twelve of their men and they killed only one of ours…Those were the days when men were men. (200)

I want no part in such a definition of manhood, and have no patience for stories that promulgate it.

This novel’s potential for tragedy collapses under the weight of each Igbo man’s vain desires and cruel behaviors. The God-bothering Christian missionaries who present a cultural challenge to Igbo traditions are certainly no better than the Igbos themselves, but a fair examination of this book’s contents makes it hard to argue that they are substantially worse. This should not be misinterpreted as an oblique justification for colonialism, but rather an explanation for why this particular narrative failed to trigger my typical sympathies for those subjected to colonial displacement. To me, Things Fall Apart appears to be a work of nihilism (intentional or otherwise), with humanity doomed to choose between two misguided worldviews that, despite their superficial differences, prove equal in their ignorance.

Rating: 2/10