Sunday, September 19, 2010

What Keeps Things Fall Apart Together

Every now and then I feel almost indifferent to a book as long as I’m reading it… but don’t close the book when I finish the last page because I’m ready to go back to the beginning, to revisit and analyze. These books tend to stay with me. Such is Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, which combines vivid detail of Igbo (or Ibo) tradition with literary archetypes to describe religious and cultural transitions that came to Nigerian life through colonization.

There are plenty of online summaries of Things Fall Apart – such as this one on Wikipedia and this one on ImageNations, a blog about African literature – so I’ll focus primarily on a few motifs I found most interesting. I know some of you have read the book so would love to hear your thoughts about favorite passages and themes.

Express Summary (without revealing plot twists): Things Fall Apart describes the life of Okonkwo, a prosperous, hard-working, and angry yam farmer with three wives. Okonkwo is determined not to resemble his father, Unoka, who was “lazy and improvident and was quite incapable of thinking about tomorrow.” The first half of the novel depicts Okonkwo’s life at home and in his community, then Achebe broadens his settings and draws in missionaries and colonization.

Here’s a sampling of what struck me most:

Wrestling: Achebe mentions Okonkwo’s wrestling skill in the first paragraph of the book: “As a young man of eighteen he had brought honor to his village by throwing Amalinze the Cat… Amalinze was a wily craftsman, but Okonkwo was as slippery as a fish in water.” Wrestling matches resurface later in the book, but I liked the use of wrestling as a metaphor for many types of struggles: between Okonkwo and his surroundings, between Igbo spirituality and Christianity, between masculine and feminine...

Masculine-Feminine: Okonkwo dislikes weakness and has such a preference for masculine over feminine that he often wishes his beloved daughter Ezinma were male. He looks back on his warrior days with nostalgia, saying “Those were days when men were men.” I thought one of the most interesting passages in the book was a mini-lecture from his maternal uncle, who tries to impress on Okonkwo the importance of a mother’s protection, mentioning that the commonest name is Nneka, which means “Mother is Supreme.” Okonkwo doesn’t seem too impressed.

Tragic Flaws & Archetypes: Though Okonkwo’s tragic flaws are obvious – all that pride, anger, and violence! – he has a positive side, too, in his loyalty, work ethic, and ability to support his large family. The ambiguities in Okonkwo, as a character, often parallel ambiguities in his culture.

Oral Traditions & Spirituality: Achebe begins invoking oral tradition and folk themes on the novel’s first page, where he mentions that the founder of Okonkwo’s town “engaged a spirit of the wild for seven days and seven nights.” He later includes an untranslated song plus folk tales told at night in the family’s huts and among friends. There is also talk about slavery that shows interesting attitudes toward storytelling. Initially, nobody thought the stories were true, and Okonkwo’s uncle comments, “There is no story that is not true. The world has no end, and what is good among one people is an abomination with others.” Also: Near the end of the book, after Christianity has begun to take hold, I was interested to see an example of dual belief: a woman is suspended from church for allowing “her heathen husband to mutilate her dead child” in a traditional ritual.

Things Falling Apart: When Okonkwo discusses the disintegration of his culture with a friend, the friend tells him:

“The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act as one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”

Up next: Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall, which incorporates lyrics from Styx on page two. *cringe!*

Image credit: Scartol, via Wikipedia.


  1. Achebe is such a gifted storyteller. Interesting points to pick out - especially the story telling one. So interesting! Will you read the following two books in Achebe's African Trilogy?

  2. Those themes alone, and the mention of missionaries and colonisation has put this book high on my wishlist in a manner that a normal review couldn't have done. Thank you.

  3. Thanks to both of you for your comments!

    @Amy: I'm always on the lookout for storytelling themes and how characters shape narratives. The last paragraph of the book particularly struck me because it looks at how history is shaped. I'm definitely interested in the next two books so will probably read them eventually.

    @irisonbooks: Sometimes a normal review just doesn't feel right, particularly with modern classics. I'm glad this "nonnormal" one was helpful for you and hope you enjoy the book!

  4. Your reviews are always so revealing and focus on the deeper details. I want to read this now.

    Thanks for the great post!

  5. Thank you, Amy! I'm glad this format seems to work for you and other readers... I find it very difficult to write typical "reviews" of classics.