Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, published in 1958, is a landmark text in African writing in English. At the most basic level, the novel is a story about Okonkwo, his rise to status in the Igbo community and the subsequent fall culminating, eventually, in his suicide. The combination of hubris and misfortune that leads to the downfall of Okonkwo may persuade one to read Things Fall Apart as a tragedy of a character. However, such a reading fails to take into account the cultural and racial politics that Achebe presents in the novel.
While Okonkwo’s life constitutes the plot of the novel, the narrative extends beyond that. In part one, which is the longest part of the novel, only a few pages are devoted to plot building. The rest of the novel, that is not directly related to the plot, provides a cultural context to the life in the Igbo community before the arrival of the European colonisers and missionaries and highlights the social, cultural, and political cost of the process of colonisation. Thus, the novel aims to portray through Okonkwo the tragedy of the process of colonisation and its impact on the colonised. Okonkwo’s tragedy, then, is not just a personal one, but one that is rooted in the politics of race and colonisation.
Another way in which the novel depicts the impact of colonisation is through its structure. The novel is divided into three parts. Part one of the novel is the longest and spans the first thirteen chapters, while part two and part three are made up of six chapters each. Part one of the novel begins by establishing the status as someone who “was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond” and whose “fame rested on solid personal achievements”. Okonkwo is an important man in his community who has earned his status due to his achievements in wrestling, his skills in farming, and due to his hard work. Okonkwo’s obsession with achieving status and the ideal of masculinity leads to an often hyper-masculine behaviour and a violent temperament that makes up his fatal flaw and leads to his exile from his village, Umuofia, at the end of this section. Beyond this, however, the first section of the novel portrays the structure and life of the Igbo community in Umuofia. It is an attempt to show life prior to the arrival of the European colonisers and missionaries and, in Achebe’s own words, shows that “their past – with all its imperfections – was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God’s behalf delivered them”.
Part two of the novel covers Okonkwo’s years spent in exile in his mother’s village. It is also during this time that the first encounter of the Igbo community with the white man takes place. It is through Obierika that the encounter with the “white man” and his “iron horse” that led to the destruction of Abame is narrated. With the establishment of the colonisers in this region of Africa, the missionaries soon follow and several members of the Igbo community, particularly those on the margins, convert to Christianity. Thus, a gradual decline of Igbo culture and values is set into motion.
It is in part three, when Igbo returns to Umuofia from his exile, that the change is most apparent. The Umuofia that Okonkwo and his family return to is not the same as the Umuofia that they had left seven years ago. It is now in direct contact with the coloniser, a church has been set up, and several members have converted to Christianity. What follows is Okonkwo and his community’s struggle to deal with the rapid changes and the structures imposed on them by the colonisers. Mr Brown, the missionary who had first interacted with members of the community and had tried to follow the practice of compromise and mediation is replaced by Reverend James Smith who “condemned openly Mr Brown’s policy of compromise and accommodation. He saw things as black and white. And Black was evil.”. The Manichaean framework that Smith uses to understand morality and reality draws upon the racial discourses propagated by the colonisers to justify and legitimise the colonial control over the colonised. In the end, when Okonkwo realises that his community will not use force against the imperial forces, he commits suicide. This suicide is not just symbolic of his utter despair on a personal level. Okonkwo had always aspired to gain status in his community, by committing suicide, he loses a place in the afterlife. This portrays the utter hopelessness that the colonial and imperial forces had reduced Okonkwo, and Igbo community, to.
What is also significant is that the first section of the novel employs techniques from the oral culture of the Igbo community. Achebe highlights the importance of oral culture in the Igbo community within the first chapter of the novel by the lines “Among the Ibo the art of communication is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten”. Thus, the first section of the novel follows a circumlocutory narrative. However, with the arrival of the colonisers, this form of narrative is replaced with a more European linear structure. This change in the narrative mode of the novel further foregrounds the loss of traditional culture and methods. This is further emphasised when after Okonkwo’s suicide, the District Commissioner contemplates using Okonkwo’s story for a passage in his book The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger. This incident that ends the novel symbolises the appropriation of the local narratives by the imperial forces and the reduction of the former as mere symbols and objects of study by the latter. Thus, Things Fall Apart is an instance of cultural and historical tragedy as opposed to the European forms of Aristotelian or Modern tragedy.