Book #43: Things Fall Apart
I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again. One of the things I love about reading through this expansive, diverse list is the opportunity I have to learn about other places, cultures, and periods in history.
And I’m not sure that any novel has taken me further away—at least in the sense of culture and lifestyle—than Things Fall Apart by Nigerian author, Chinua Achebe.
This book is brilliant. I absolutely love it.
Achebe tells the story of Okonkwo—a leader in the Nigerian tribe of Umuofia. He’s got 3 wives and 9 children—which seems like enough stress as it is—but he creates his own share of problems amongst the tribe when he accidentally kills someone trying to prove his manliness. He’s excommunicated and forced to work his way back into the tribe’s good graces.
But that’s not all. In the middle of all of this inner tribal turmoil, European missionaries show up to convert and educate the Umuofians—who are okay with life as it is. The missionaries are persistent, which creates plenty of tension between the tribal people and these new guests. It’s a great look at colonialism and the exploitation of indigenous people based on religion.
One of the main themes in Things Fall Apart—in addition to the reoccurring spirit world theme—is the extreme to which males hold all the power in this culture. Females are expected to spit out babies, take care of the kids, and cook dinner. That’s about it.
As a male leader, Okonkwo is as harsh and domineering as they come. He beats his wives. He abuses his children. And as a former wrestling champion, he’s a scary dude with a bad temper. He’s like a steroid-induced, raging middle linebacker, long before steroids or football even existed.
Okonkwo is constantly trying to prove to the other male leaders that he isn’t “weak.” Some examples:
“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.”
“No matter how prosperous a man was, if he was unable to rule his women and children (and especially his women) he was not really a man.”
And my personal favorite:
“The world is large,” said Okonkwo. “I have even heard that in some tribes a man’s children belong to his wife and her family.”
“That cannot be,” said Machi. “You might as well say that the woman lies on top of the man when they are making the babies.”
What would these fellas think of alimony?
One of my favorite aspects of Things Fall Apart is the simplicity of Achebe’s writing style. He writes in a very matter-of-fact tone. I almost felt like I was sitting outside a tent in the Umuofian village, listening to one of the elders tell a story from years ago.
It really seems like Achebe had a great respect for the oral traditions of the Nigerian people, and that shows in his writing.
It was the time of the full moon. But that night the voice of children was not heard. The village ilo where they always gathered for a moon-play was empty. The women of Iguedo did not meet in their secret enclosure to learn a new dance to be displayed later to the village. Young men who were always abroad in the moonlight kept their huts that night. Their manly voices were not heard on the village paths as they went to visit their friends and lovers. Umuofia was like a startled animal with ears erect, sniffing the silent, ominous air and not knowing which way to run.
The latter parts of the story deal with the arrival of European missionaries and how the villagers react to them. It highlights some of the issues with how missionaries dealt with local populations in the late 19th century.
They arrived without much knowledge of local custom and proceeded to haphazardly impose their Western values. Some of the tribe converted, but many of them eventually became enemies.
“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 like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”
Notice the allusion to the title there at the very end of that quote.
It’s sad to see how the story ends, and I won’t spoil that for you. But Achebe definitely leaves a bitter taste in your mouth in regards to both Okonkwo’s fate and the ultimate purpose of the missionaries.
So, yeah, another sad book from the Time list. But at this point, I’m expecting depressing books and will be pleasantly surprised when I don’t find one.
Though Things Fall Apart is ultimately a sad story, it’s such a beautifully crafted story that I can’t help but love it. The book is regarded as the preeminent work of African literature, and I honestly can’t find much negative to say about it.
Like most novels, it’s just a matter of taste I guess. Many of you mentioned in my preview how much you loved Things Fall Apart, but I know some of you have expressed dislike for the book as well.
For my money—of which I spent $10 purchasing the book—it’s an outstanding novel, one of the most unique stories I’ve read.
The Opening Line: “Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond.”
The Meaning: As I’ve mentioned, the title comes from a Yeats poem called “The Second Coming.” It seems to refer to the deteroriation of both Okonkwo’s life and the culture around him.
Highlights: Man, there are so many. The story itself is so riveting. Achebe’s style of writing is simple, yet underneath the writing are extremely complex issues: colonialism, patriarchy, murder, female subservience.
Lowlights: I really don’t think I have a lowlight for this book. If you disagree, mention one in the comments.
Memorable Line: “People should not talk when they are eating or pepper may go down the wrong way.”
Final Thoughts: Outstanding novel. I’m calling it worthy of the top 5 in my meaningless rankings. I’m sure Achebe is shouting for joy as we speak…what an accomplishment—the top 5 in 101 Books rankings!!! Things Fall Apart is fairly short, easy to read, and absolutely worth your time.