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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.”

OR

“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.

Chinua Achebe (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Other Stuff

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.

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22 Comments Post a comment
  1. Sounds like a great book to read on the beach this summer. Thank you 😉

    Like

    June 12, 2012
    • I think this is an excellent beach read. Short, easy to read, great story.

      Like

      June 12, 2012
  2. This has been on my list for several years. Sounds like it’s worth digging out sooner than later, so off I go to start digging (literally).

    Like

    June 12, 2012
  3. Reblogged this on Musings from my Penthouse.

    Like

    June 12, 2012
  4. I read this book in college and found it to be difficult to concentrate on, but it was a wonderful story with a very real underlying meaning. I learned a lot about the Nigerian culture and traditions, but I also learned so much about the colonization of Africa through this novel, as well as the play “Death and the Kings Horseman” by Wole Soyinka and from the colonists perspective the novel “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad.

    Like

    June 12, 2012
  5. I haven’t read this book yet but it does sound like an intriguing must-read. I love the layout of your review and all the extra information, including photo of the author, that you included.

    Like

    June 12, 2012
  6. One of my favourite books of all time! I love the creation of the Nigerian traditional culture with all it’s horrors to a modern Western audience whilst also accepting its value and lamenting it’s westernisation. With Western eyes we recognise that the ancestors are just men in masks; as readers we respond to the power of the prose, suspending our cynicism and disbelief.

    Okonkwo has always reminded me of Heracles in Greek Mythology: an ancient, powerful icon of masculinity and wildness attempting unsuccessfully to become domesticated … Which led Herakles to murder his wife Megara and Okonkwo to … do what he did at the end of the book.

    Like

    June 12, 2012
    • Great comparison. Really hated that ending.

      Like

      June 12, 2012
  7. Isaac #

    Love this book! Although I find it hard to finish without a particular craving for fufu.

    Like

    June 12, 2012
  8. I studied ‘Things Fall Apart’ alongside Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ during my English degree, and I adored it. Post-colonial literature offers a true insight into the varying culture of the world and can teach us valuable lessons on where we should tread. Wonderful.

    Like

    June 12, 2012
  9. I taught this book for several years and the response from grade 12 students was always positive. I love its simplicity, yet it is so powerful. This book resonates with all people who come from colonized countries (the vast majority of us…) It really makes you question what is better: clinging to the past, ignoring tradition and plowing on with modernization…and is a happy medium a cop-out? Great review…loved the quotes you selected.

    Like

    June 12, 2012
    • Such a great book. Love that you taught it in high school. And, yeah, so many great quotes it was hard to pull out just a few.

      Like

      June 12, 2012
  10. The thing I liked most about this book was its utter simplicity in the wording and the complexity of the motivations and psychology behind the characters. The perfect read for a quiet afternoon.

    Like

    January 4, 2013
  11. I read this book in college and fell in love with it. It is a fascinating read. I love Achebe’s clear direct style. It reminds me of Homer. I know the book has been likened to Greek tragedy. Ajax by Sophocles comes to mind. Any one who loves good books should read this.

    Like

    September 19, 2013
  12. I can’t say enough about this book. It was my gateway into African literature when I read it over a decade ago. I read it for the 4th time earlier this year when Achebe passed away and have not changed my opinion. This is a beautiful text.

    Like

    November 11, 2013
  13. Things Fall Apart’ marks my venture into African Literature if I do not count ‘Cutting for Stone’ by Abraham Varghese on the basis that the latter mostly had Indian characters.

    Chinua Achebe’s writing style in ‘Things Fall Apart’ is seemingly simple but the characters provide much intrigue and the plot is highly engrossing. The protagonist Okonkwo is stands for everything I can dislike in a person – He is a misogynist, male chauvinist, who constantly strives to establish his mettle in the tribal society he lives in but, when I took at a wider look at the timelines, and how backward people are even in today’s world, I could understand Okonkwo’s character enough to sympathize with his pain. This probably is the first book, where I absolutely disliked the protagonist yet loved the entire story – the credit definitely goes to Achebe for brilliantly balancing the story on the shoulders of conflicts due to British Colonialism.

    Though it is infuriating to know the thought processes of a character such as Okonkwo, this point of view was very important in terms of the story as it serves as the key factor in understanding the mentality of the traditionalist Nigerian tribes before the advent of Christian Imperialism in Africa. Only then shall we be able to see how much impact the advent of Christian missionaries had on the Igbo tribes. Achebe has cleverly portrayed both sides of the story as to how the missionaries on one hand provided a sanctum to the helpless and ostracized people who couldn’t fit into the tribes because of the strict rules and how on the other hand, they led to the breaking of traditionalist societies that had prevailed peacefully for centuries.

    In all, it is a highly interesting book which apart from throwing light on the working ways of Igbo tribes and the effect of colonialism tells a painfully beautiful tale. Just like in life, when everything seems right, things fall apart.

    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    – W.B Yeats

    Like

    December 3, 2014
  14. This is one of my favorite books! Your review was excellent. So glad I found your blog, and I’m really excited to keep reading more.

    Like

    January 12, 2015
  15. Currently, I am writing a paper on Things Fall Apart for my English class. One of the options was to look at it through a feminist lens, so I found your review very helpful in deciding which lens I wanted to focus on. (I chose psychoanalytic in case you were wondering) I loved this book and I’m glad it made the Times list and yours.

    Like

    February 16, 2015
  16. Great Book! Thanks for the review. This book is the best example of imperialism that I’ve ever read. And one that I would send someone to for understanding what imperialism does to a culture.

    Like

    February 24, 2015
  17. Great book and great review. “Things Fall Apart” gave me a unique perspective on post colonization and how missionaries actually affected villages they came to. We studied this in college, and read “The God of Small Things” by Arundhati Roy after it. I know you’ve got a full plate with the list, but I’d highly, highly recommend Roy’s book if you liked this one. It’s a bit darker, but really deep and such an interesting way to learn about unique cultures.

    Like

    April 24, 2015

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  1. Ranking The First 45 Novels | 101 Books
  2. Top 100 English-Speaking Novels | Osman Gashi

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