Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe. Originally published in 1958.
Things Fall Apart focuses on the story of Okonkwo, a Nigerian tribe leader in the fictional Umuofia clan around the end of the 19th century, as African colonization is beginning in earnest. The historical fiction novel is divided into three parts.
In part one we are introduced to Okwonko, a strong, hard working and ambitious tribal leader. He worked himself up to that position in the face of what should have been enormous odds, since his father was a man of little means and low reputation who left him nothing on which to build his own farm and family.
In his determination to be nothing that his father was and everything his father was not, Okonkwo became renown for his skill as a warrior, industriousness, wealth and masculinity. He is a harsh man of strength and determination who is respected and deferred to among the people of his clan. He is referred to as the “Roaring Flame”.
Part 1 also gives us a glimpse of his family, his three wives and many children, the structure of marriage and family life within the clan, and their polytheistic religion along with its rituals. Okonkwo’s religious devotion is genuine but sometimes clashes with his pride and need for control.
Of specific interest is Okonkwo’s second and seemingly most beloved wife of the three, the only surviving child he sired with her (a daughter he frequently laments wasn’t born male), and his oldest son Nwoye who is a disappointment to him almost from birth and whom Okonkwo resigns will never be a great man:
“A chick that will grow into a cock can be spotted the very day it hatches. I have done my best to make Nwoye grow into a man, but there is too much of his mother in him.”
As part one closes Okonkwo, after committing a female offense -an inadvertent one- resulting in a death, is humbled by a 7 year exile from his clan in which he has to return to his motherland.
Part 2 of the book begins as Onkonkwo is resettling his family among the land and clan of his maternal family. It is here that he experiences his first encounter with European Christian missionaries. It is here that Nwoye is drawn to the new religion, converts to it, and finds relief as his relationship with his father is irreparably severed. One of the missionaries attempt to assuage Nwoye’s nonexistent grief by quoting Mark chapter 10, but it wasn’t necessary. Nwoye was relieved to finally be free of his father’s oppressive and rigid view of manhood:
Nwoye did not fully understand. But he was happy to leave his father. He would return later to his mother and his brothers and sisters and convert them to the new faith.
This is Okowonko’s fear: that after his death, his remaining children will forsake the ways and religion of their ancestors and embrace the white man’s God.
The rest of the second portion of the book examines the escalation of tensions between the missionaries and their new converts, and the attempts of clan leaders to resist the usurpation of their way of life.
In part 3, Okonkwo returns home from his exile to find a much different clan than the one he left 7 years earlier. The missionaries have exerted considerable influence and established a rapidly growing church, much to Okonkwo’s dismay.
The missionaries and the African traditionalists at one point achieve a peaceful coexistence so long as the leader of the missionaries was one whose tactics were in line with actual Christian teachings; conversion void of coercion. Eventually however, his health takes a turn for the worst and he is replaced by a man with a zeal for rooting out evil in all its forms, and things truly begin to fall apart:
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 a mortal conflict with the sons of darkness.
Reverend Smith was seemingly unacquainted with the verses declaring that we do not war against flesh and blood, and things went downhill very quickly.
Okonkwo, still a man of war, wanted his clan’s men to rise up and fight for the preservation of their way of life. His clan shared his concerns but also embraced the newly formed markets and schools the missionaries brought to their village. Also, having seen the fate of another clan who had attempted to fight, his clan refused to join him, and it causes him much grief:
Okonkwo was deeply grieved. And it was not just a personal grief. He mourned for the clan, which he saw breaking up and falling apart, and he mourned for the warlike men of Umuofia, who had so unaccountably become soft like women.
Not long after this, Okonkwo meets his tragic end.
This book, while void of preachy proclamations, does open the door to lots of questions about how Christians take the gospel to the ends of the earth. How much of an imprint should we make on cultures we enter? How do we preach Christ without decimating traditional ways of life? Are we careful not to allow our Western sensibilities to declare sinful what is in reality not sinful but simply different albeit personally offensive to us?
To be sure, many of the religious practices of the Nigerian tribe in this book were sinful, such as the belief that twins were an abomination, accursed and the babies to be immediately discarded to spare the wrath of the earth goddess. But there were other practices that were simply different: the attire (or lack thereof) of the women were so ingrained in the way of life that it was certainly not as sexually provocative as it would be in the West, to name just one example.
This book, I have recently learned, is commonly taught as a part of the literature curriculum in many public middle and high schools. I suspect their perspective and reasoning for assigning it is far different from my own, if Shmoop’s gender analysis is any indication.
Content advisory: Nothing objectionable, although perspective is everything I suppose. War, allusions to sex, and Okonkwo’s highly un-PC view of sex roles permeates the book.