Chinua Achebe, Things fall apart (Review)

Chinua Achebe, Things fall apart

First edition, from Heinemann (via Wikipedia)

At last I’ve read that classic of African literature, China Achebe’s Things fall apart. It all came about because this year ABC RN’s classics book club is doing Africa. As I’ve been wanting to read this book for a long time, and as my reading group has been making a practice of choosing one ABC RN bookclub book a year, I recommended Things fall apart and – woohoo – they agreed. I am so happy! OK, so I’m easily pleased, but …

The funny thing is that as I started it, I did wonder what all the acclaim was about. Yes, I was finding the writing gorgeous, and yes, I found all the detail about life in the little Igbo village of Umuofia fascinating, but were these enough for its huge reputation? Then, I got to Part 2 – this is a classic three-part book – and the arrival of white man and the missionaries in southeastern Nigeria. The plot started to thicken – but, not just the plot. The whole gorgeous structure of the novel, its complexity and its sophisticated analysis of human society and the colonial imperative started to become clear.

Here, though, is my challenge – a challenge faced by all bloggers writing about much-analysed classics – what can I add? I haven’t actually read any of the analysis, except for my edition’s introduction, so I risk either going over the same old ground, or heading off on a completely irrelevant tangent, but I’m going to try. And how I’m going to try is to talk about a few of the aspects of the book that stood out to me, which, as is my wont, will focus more on how it is written than with the story itself.

However, I will start with a brief synopsis of the story, just in case there are others out there who haven’t read it. The plot is fairly simple: it tells the story of Okonkwo. Born to an “ill-fated”, “lazy and improvident” man, he decided early in life that he would not be like his father. He becomes a powerful and respected “warrior” in his community, one known to be hardworking but who could also be cruel to his family or to anyone who showed weakness. He is determined to be a “man”, to never show a “female” side. Male-female dichotomies are, in fact, an underlying thread in the novel. Whenever things go wrong for him, his response is always aggressive: if you aren’t confronting a situation head on, you are a “woman”. This inflexibility, his unwillingness to waver from his tough-minded course, results in his downfall. He could be seen I think as a classic tragic hero, as the man who could have been great but for a tragic flaw, an inability to be flexible, an unwillingness to marry his two sides.

This idea of two parts is fundamental to how the novel is structured and how the themes are developed – and Achebe conveys it through dichotomies and parallels. There’s the male-female one, which Okonkwo battles within himself. “When did you become a shivering old woman” he asks himself regarding the distress he feels after engaging in a violent act. Later, he is surprised to hear of a husband who consulted his wife before doing anything:

 ‘I thought he was a strong man in his youth.’ ‘He was indeed,’ said Ofoedu. Okonkwo shook his head doubtfully.

But there are other dichotomies, and two, in particular, that I found interesting. One is between  Okonkwo and his friend Obierika. Both are respected men in the village, and both adhere to their traditions and conventions, but Okonkwo, who is “not a man of thought but of action” is so fearful of appearing weak he follows the “laws” rigidly. Obierika on the other hand is more thoughtful:

Obierika was a man who thought about things. When the will of the goddess had been done, he sat down in his obi and mourned his friend’s calamity. Why should a man suffer so grievously for an offence he had committed inadvertently? But although he thought for a long time he found no answer. He was merely led into greater complexities. He remembered his wife’s twin children, whom he had thrown away. What crime had they committed?

A similar dichotomy is set up between two missionaries:

Mr Brown’s successor was the Reverend James Smith, and he was a different kind of man. He condemned openly Mr Brown’s policy of compromise and accommodation. He saw things as black and white. And black was evil. He saw the world as a battlefield in which the children of light were locked in mortal conflict with the sons of darkness.

So, we have dichotomies established within the two cultures he’s describing – the African and colonial/missionary – but these two sets of dichotomies also work as parallels for each other, reflecting the differences, the conflicts in fact, that can occur within both (all) cultures.

Now I get to more uncomfortable ideas. Okonkwo’s tragedy could be seen to mirror Africa’s, but this is a tricky thing to consider. Okonkwo’s flaw we know. Did Africa, likewise, have a flaw or weakness? We criticise colonialism – and surely it is a bad thing, the subjugation of one people by another, the taking of one people’s land by another – and yet … Achebe himself benefited from the education brought by the missionaries, and in Things fall apart he tells us that some Igbo villagers saw positives:

The white man had indeed brought a lunatic religion, but he had also built a trading store and for the first time palm-oil and kernel became things of great price, and much money flowed into Umuofia.

Some even saw positives in the religion.

So, Achebe is not uncritical of either side of the colonial equation – the colonisers and the colonised – but his final point in the novel makes clear his attitude to the colonial project. In the last paragraph we learn that District Commissioner plans to write a book. Its title, “The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger”, euphemistically describes the colonisers’ mostly violent/aggressive subjugation of African people as “pacification” and demonstrates an arrogant assumption that a society not like their own is “primitive”. For Achebe, then, the overriding point of Things fall apart is not so much to present the positives and negatives within the two opposing cultures, but to expose the disdain with which the colonisers treated African people, and the way they denigrated African culture.

This is such an honest and provocative book, one that would bear multiple re-readings – like all good classics. Have you read it?

Chinua Achebe
Things fall apart
London: Penguin Classics, 2001 (orig. pub. 1958)
ISBN (e-book): 9780141393964

35 thoughts on “Chinua Achebe, Things fall apart (Review)

  1. Indeed I have read it, many years ago and I still have my battered old Penguin copy in the bookshelf. Although it was too long ago for me to have kept a journal about it, I have very fond memories of reading it, and although I was tempted to re-read it for the Africa Book Club, I decided not to, because, well, you know how it is, sometimes when you re-read a book you loved, you spoil the memory.
    I have, more recently, read No Longer at Ease, also by Achebe, and that is also a novel where the character’s behaviour is a metaphor for Nigeria’s post-colonial transition. (I think we need to be wary of extrapolating ‘African’ experience from ‘Nigerian’ experience. The diversity of the post-colonial experience in Africa is something I am only just beginning to learn about).
    Anyway, I loved reading your review and I especially like your take on the balance between male & female. I’ve read some fascinating novels from Nigeria, South Africa and Ghana which show that contemporary gender issues and the definition of masculinity are both different to and the same as in Western societies!

    • Thanks Lisa – yes, I toyed with whether to refer to Africa or Nigeria because clearly there are some huge differences is what has happened in the different countries, but I decided to stick with Africa because people speak of it as an African classic. But your point is well worth making, so thanks.

  2. My experience mirrored yours in that initially I was wondering why this was considered a landmark novel. By the end I was convinced of it’s rightful status. For a slim text Achebe certainly packs in a lot of ideas and themes many of which seemed to be about the clash of opposites: manliness versus femininity as you say; colonists versus natives; old traditions versus new practices and western versus African religious beliefs. Well worth reading – and rereading

  3. I read this a number of years ago and I saw it as important as an African novel, in English, told from the African side of the encounter with the westerner, in an African style. It is a small and simple book in some ways, the kind that sits and works away in your consciousness. Now that you write about it I can instantly transport myself back to that book to scenes that have never left. It is a book that grows if you let it sit with you, not even trying to analyze it too much. It is a classic because it speaks down the years. Thank you for your review.

    • This is on the old eternal TBR list. I must finally get around reading this. Have you seen Achebe’s fierce attack on Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness? Ultimately I feel that Achebe is mistaken but he has powerful points to make about western literature’s lack of comprehension of its African “other”.

      • I haven’t actually seen it Ian, but the introduction mentions it and that this, and books like it, was one of the reasons for his writing this. It’s a long time since I’ve read Heart of darkness so I can’t comment, but my sense is that Achebe has a point but Conrad may have had other fish to fry? However, I really can’t argue this from any point of recent knowledge.

  4. Like MST and Ian, I haven’t read this but it’s been sitting in my TBR for years. I do think I need to read more African fiction because I could probably only count what I have read on one hand. Last year I read ‘Season of Migration to the North’ by Tayeb Salih, which is set in the Sudan and explores what sounds like similar issues to Achebe’s novel. I found it a deeply thought provoking read.

    • So many of us it seems, kimbofo, I’m so glad I’m not alone. In my reading group there were a few of us too. And yes, I’ve not read much either – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who’s great, and some white South Africans like Gordimer and Coetzee but they don’t count do they? I should try to read more from RN’s list.

  5. I read it in my Leaving Year, back in 1967. It was good to read your review, because I had forgotten much. Though at the same time I do remember how it gave me insight into the African world.

    • That’s great Meg. I understand that it is a set text in schools. If it was in NSW, my teachers didn’t choose it. We did Patrick White and English writers as I recollect.

  6. Have just finished Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, which I loved. I’m ashamed to admit that I haven’t read any Achebe, but am certainly primed to now. Thanks for a very interesting review, WG. And the title: isn’t it from the Communist Manifesto?

  7. Thanks for this wonderful review. I love this book which I found on my father’s bookshelf when I was still at school. It was a literary must read for all post colonial students from Africa after the war. My father is Indian but was born and raised in Kenya.
    I taught this novel in World Literature classes for many years – it was a joy to share it with students. When I read the much more recent novel, “Purple Hibiscus” by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, I realised that I had the perfect contemporary companion piece to Achebe’s book. Adichie’s book provides us with a look at the dark legacy left in the colonies by the hundreds of Reverend James Smiths. I loved teaching these novels in our largely Euro centric curriculum – thanks again for the review…

    • I’m not surprised you know it Anita, but I didn’t know that about your father’s background of course. It’s a really beautiful book – from so many angles, isn’t it? I haven’t read Purple hibiscus, but I have read a short story of hers and Half of the yellow sun and liked them both a lot. Hannah is urging me to read Americanah, which she loved.

      I hear what you say about the Euro-centric curriculum.

      • It was an ongoing battle in my teaching career to introduce literature from Asia, Africa, the Pacific and Indigenous Australia. I succeeded for a while and students loved these new worlds – I really enjoyed teaching Narayan, Rendra, the Tang Dynasty poets, Matsuo Basho and the haiku masters, Jhumpa Lahiri, Arundhati Roy, Salman Rushdie, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Chinua Achebe, etc. but it is struggle to maintain these writers in the curriculum. Sadly many Australian teachers are still unwilling to step out of their European/ Anglo comfort zone but hopefully things will change. I must read Americanah. I always take Hannah’s advice on literature…:)

        • And she has taken many of yours as I recollect. It is a shame I agree. Even just getting more indigenous Australia or women Australian writers would be an achievement, wouldn’t it. (BTW I don’t know Rendra? Indian? Don’t worry I can Google of course!!)

  8. W.S. Rendra is one of Indonesia’s great modern poets. I used to teach his work in translation. Most of it was banned during the Suharto era. Rendra was periodically placed under house arrest for his dramatic performances of poetry that criticised the regime. His anthology “Pamphlet for an Unproclaimed Emergency” is graphic, powerful and courageous.
    I completely agree with you about Indigenous writers and Australian women writers. Recently I read a beautiful verse novel by an Indigenous woman Ali Cobby Eckermann. It’s titled “ruby moonlight”. I would have loved to teach it to students.

  9. Late comment. I have read this. You capture it well. I think the final paragraph is one of the most devastating I’ve read, though Graham Greene is probably the master of the final page (often final sentence) sucker punch to the gut. Still, as you say you have to give this one a bit of time before its sheer excellence shines through.

    • Thanks Max. Yes, I’ve read a few devastating conclusions, but this is certainly one of them. (And Grahame Greene is not – he’s one of those writers I’ve seen adaptations of but for some reason have read very little of. I did read a couple in my youth but that was SO long ago. Maybe I should recommend one for my reading group – that’s always a good way for me to make sure I fill in some reading gaps!)

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