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Literature / Things Fall Apart

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Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
— Excerpt from William Butler Yeats' The Second Coming, the book's opening Epigraph

Things Fall Apart is a 1958 Nigerian novel (written in English) by Chinua Achebe. The events depicted take place in the late 19th century. An allusion to historical events seems to date the story to the 1890s.

Its hero is Okonkwo, a proud Igbo tribesman who watches his life change radically under the weight of his own decisions and the increasing encroachment of English colonial settlers and missionaries. The novel is considered one of the best books of the 20th century, partly because of its humanization of characters from both factions, and partly because it was one of the first novels in English to deal with African society from the viewpoint of Africans rather than the traditional Anglocentric viewpoint.

Contains the following tropes:

  • Abusive Parent: Okonkwo and possibly the other tribesmen.
    • Justified: Okonkwo's own father, Unoka, was neglectful in providing for his children. Due to Unoka's refusal to farm so that he can feed himself or his wife or his children, Okonkwo is required to support his father once he himself is capable of providing.
  • Accidental Murder: Near the middle of the book, Okonkwo's gun explodes when he fires it, killing Ezeudu's teenage son. This is considered manslaughter and punished by temporary exile from the village.
  • Berserk Button: For Okonkwo, laziness and associating with anything "un-manly".
  • Beware the Quiet Ones: One of the Igbo folk legends has this as its moral.
  • Big Ol' Eyebrows: Okonkwo is described as having large, bushy eyebrows, which add to his stern look.
  • Broken Ace: Okonkwo is a respected, prosperous clan leader and an accomplished warrior who has worked very hard to get where he is. He's also a complete asshole who beats his wives and children for the smallest of offenses, kills his adopted son without hesitation just so he won't appear weak to the rest of the clan, and ends up committing suicide in disgrace when he can't accept that his people's way of life is changing because of the white invaders. His life's work ultimately amounts to possibly a single chapter in a commissioner's book about "pacifying the savage tribes of Nigeria".
  • Broken Bird: Ekwefi was once the village beauty and is Okonkwo's favored wife, but a long series of stillbirths and miscarriages made her very bitter until Ezinma was born.
  • Bugs Herald Evil: Double-subverted for readers with a Judeo-Christian background, who are likely to be apprehensive at the arrival of a huge swarm of locusts. It's then revealed that the villagers are happy because they basically see locusts as popcorn from the sky. But it's not long after this that the oracle declares Ikemefuna must be killed.
  • Daddy's Girl: Ezinma, whom Okonkwo wishes had been born a boy.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: All aspects of Igbo tradition are presented in the story, including things such as the killing of twin babies. The English themselves are portrayed as holding the imperialistic views of the day. While there is one missionary, Mr. Brown, who tries to work peacefully with the Igbo, he gets replaced with James Smith, who goes out of his way to provoke conflict with the non-Christian Igbo.
    • It's actually this deviation which causes Okonkwo's son to be drawn to the missionaries. He had been taken aback by the brutality of his own culture and was seeking something more palatable.
  • Desecrating the Dead: When one of Ekwefi's children dies as a baby, it is thought to be an ogbanje—an evil spirit that repeatedly dies and is reborn to torment its mother. Its body is mutilated with a razor by the medicine man and buried in the Evil Forest so that it will not return.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Okonkwo commits suicide upon seeing that his neighbors are bewildered as to why he'd kill a messenger of the District Commissioner, and won't go to war.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Okonkwo beats one of his wives for taking a few leaves off a banana tree to wrap some food.
  • Domestic Abuse: Okonkwo regularly beats his wives and children, even his favorite ones. Even the rest of the village is uneasy about this.
  • Downer Ending: Okonkwo commits suicide, and the traditional Igbo way of life is dying with the arrival of the English.
  • Driven to Suicide: Okonkwo kills himself at the end of the novel, since the English have arrived and Okonkwo feels that no one is trying to stop them from wiping out their culture.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: Okonkwo does this after killing Ikemefuna, the political prisoner he had raised like his own son for three years.
  • Fatal Flaw: Okonwo being explicitly modeled after the heroes of Greek Tragedy, it's no surprise that his flaw is hubris, leading to the atë (rashness) that caused his downfall. The pride itself is specifically pride in his own strength, and an obsession with being manly and powerful that makes him blind to consequences.
  • Father, I Don't Want to Fight: Nwoye. One of the many reasons why Okonkwo is disappointed in him.
  • The Fettered: Okonkwo has locked himself into a particular idea of manliness and adherence to tradition, which he finds himself incapable of breaking away from. This is most prominently highlighted in his participating in the killing of Ikemefuna, and his inability to adapt to the changes English colonialism imposes on the Igbo.
  • Firing in the Air a Lot: Okonkwo's gun exploding when he tries to do this ends up killing someone else. The elders convict him of manslaughter and he is sentenced to seven years in exile (per the customs of the village).
  • Freudian Excuse: The main reason Okonkwo is emotionally distant and obsessed with manliness and power is that his father was a lazy weakling who preferred to loaf around and play music rather than take care of his family and farm.
  • The Fundamentalist: Reverend Smith. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he is portrayed negatively compared to the other missionaries.
  • Gratuitous Foreign Language: Igbo, with a small dictionary in the back of the book.
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: Both the traditional Igbo society and the new colonial Christian society are presented as having positive and negative qualities.
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: It doesn't take much to anger Okonkwo.
  • Hates Their Parent: Okonkwo despises his father Unoka, who spent more time singing than tending his fields and fighting for his clan, resulting to him growing poor. After he died, he refuses to sacrifice a goat to him, saying he didn't even have a goat when alive.
  • The Hecate Sisters: Okonkwo's wives — Nwoye's mother is the Crone, Ekwefi is the Mother, and Ojiugo is the Maiden.
  • I Am Not My Father: Okonkwo bases his character after trying to avoid his father's laziness as much as possible, which becomes his Tragic Flaw at the end of the book.
  • Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy: Okonkwo shoots at his second wife Ekwefi out of anger (in fact, right when she's Lampshade Hanging precisely this trope), but fortunately misses. Tragically inverted later on when he shoots off his gun at a celebration and inadvertently kills a young boy, forcing him to go into exile with his mother's family for several years.
  • I Should Write a Book About This: At the book's conclusion, the colonialist District Commissioner considers Okonkwo's life to be maybe worth a paragraph of filler in a book he might write about pacifying savage Africans.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Okonkwo. On the jerk side: He once beat and attempted to murder his second and favored wife for making a snide remark about his poor gunmanship, and disowned Nwoye after he converted to Christianity. On the heart of gold side: He trekked to a distant and forbidden shrine four times in the dead of night after a priestess took his favorite daughter there because he was worried about her.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Okonkwo's participation in the killing of Ikemefuna (which he was warned against by the village) comes back to haunt him. It's hinted that his later misfortune, especially his exile, was karma for this blasphemy.
    • More concretely, Ikemefuma's death ostracizes Nwoye and is a major factor in his conversion to Christanity.
  • Lazy Bum: Okonkwo's father, Unoka, was a lazy man who frequently borrowed money and failed to pay it back, and neglected his family and farm to play music, leaving Okonkwo with nothing after he died.
  • Like Father, Like Son: It's fairly subtle since the story is from Okonkwo's point of view and he's an Unreliable Narrator, but Nwoye and Okonkwo are similar in all the wrong ways. They're both hard-headed and stubborn, refusing to change their minds or listen to others (how else would Nwoye defy his father and become a Christian?), and each of them wants to eschew the life his father led in favor of something he sees as better. Much more apparent in the sequels where Nyowe appears and proves just as patriarchal and controlling as Okonkwo.
  • Literary Allusion Title: "Things Fall Apart" is a line from William Butler Yeats' poem "The Second Coming".
  • Masculine Girl, Feminine Boy: Nwoye and Ezinma. Nwoye is sensitive, more emotional and considered more "feminine" by Okonkwo, while Ezinma is bold and considered to be more "masculine". Even Okonkwo frequently says that he wishes Ezinma was born a boy instead.
  • Meaningful Rename: Nwoye takes on the name of "Isaac" when he converts to Christianity. Given the whole business with Ikemefuna, his name choice seems especially important. "Isaac" itself means "He will laugh," which seems like a direct response to Ononkwo’s distaste for humor and levity.
  • The Missionary: Several, treated with varying degrees of sympathy.
  • Motherhood Is Superior: Discussed when Okonkwo is sent into exile after the Accidental Murder of Ezeudu's son, and has to take refuge in his mother's village. His uncle Uchendu explains that although in Igbo culture the father is in charge of the family and children "belong" to their fathers and fatherland, your mother (and by extension her land) is where you seek sympathy and protection in times of sorrow, when even your father/fatherland punishes you. Thus one of their sayings and one of the most common names they give children is Nneka, "mother is supreme."
  • My Hovercraft Is Full of Eels: One African who acts as a translator for the missionaries is given the nickname of "My Buttocks", because the dialect he's speaking in isn't quite the same as that of the viewpoint characters, and the word for "myself" in his dialect translates to "my buttocks" in theirs.
  • National Geographic Nudity: Most of the characters don't wear much clothing. It is explicitly pointed out at one point that Ekwefi must hold her breasts in place to keep them from flapping against her body.
  • No Name Given: Okonkwo's senior wife is only ever referred to as "Nwoye's mother."
  • Parental Favoritism: Ezinma is clearly Okonkwo's favorite child. He does wish she were a boy, but it's because he thinks that a boy with Ezinma's personality would be an ideal son to mold in his image, but gender roles in this society are far too strict for him to do this with a girl.
  • Polar Opposite Twins: Okonkwo's daughters, Ezinma and Obiageli. Ezinma is sensible and otherworldly, while Obiageli is spoiled and childish.
  • Sacrificial Lamb: Ikemefuna, both in and out of universe.
  • Secret Identity: Tinkered with. Chielo acts and is treated as a different person on and off her job as a priestess, but everyone knows who she is. Also, while the spirits who judge the village on occasion are concealed in full-body costumes, any peculiar mannerisms or the fact that someone isn't where they usually sit are politely ignored.
  • Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: At one point, Okonkwo and two of his friends discuss how one village in the region had been entirely wiped out by white men. That village received a prophecy that a strange man would bring about their ruin, so when they saw a white man approach them peacefully, they killed him. That man's three friends later find out what happened, so they and several native mercenaries surround the village market during an important holiday and kill everyone inside. Okonkwo believed that the village deserved its fate because they killed a man without even letting him speak first.
  • She's All Grown Up: Ezinma grows from being a sickly child to a beautiful, strong-willed woman.
  • Shoot the Messenger: Played straight when Okonkwo beheads one of the Christian messengers.
  • Sociopathic Hero: Okonkwo has shades of this. Not very many people can be considered a hero after being convicted of murder and arson, but Okonkwo barely pulls it off.
  • Stealth Insult: When Nwoye converts to Christianity, he renames himself Isaac. This name means "he laughs", possibly a jab at his father Okonkwo who hates laughter and not being taken seriously.
  • The Stoic: Okonkwo is this for the most part; the only emotion he ever openly displayed was anger.
  • Sympathetic P.O.V.: Not just unique in substituting an African perspective for a British one, but the POV is that of Okonkwo and those who share his general views. Thus, while the reader is likely to sympathize with Okonkwo's son, whom he abuses for not being manly enough, the narration isn't very sympathetic to the character.
  • The Three Faces of Eve: Okonkwo's wives.
    • His first wife and Nwoye's mother is the Wife; despite the occasional friction with the two junior wives, she is unremarkable, steady, and is kind to the other wives' children. She refers to Ezinma, Ekwefi's only living child, as "The Good One," and not only takes care of Ojiugo's children when Ojiugo forgets to come home in time to give them their supper, but tries to protect Ojiugo by claiming that Ojiugo asked her to.
    • Ekwefi was the Seductress in her youth. She was the village beauty but married a violent man who beat her. Okonkwo was somehow an upgrade? She's lost most of these traits in the present of the story, after suffering a series of miscarriages while Okonkwo's other wives had a half-dozen kids each, but she is Okonkwo's favorite wife and the one whose point of the view the story dwells on.
    • Ojiugo is the youngest of Okonkwo's wives and The Child. She is the wife he actually beats when she goes off to braid her hair with her friends and gets so caught up that she doesn't come home in time to care for her children.
  • Tragedy: On the classical Greek model outlined in Aristotle's Poetics, no less. Our main character Okonkwo is a great, successful, powerful man. However, he has a flaw (harmartia), in this case pride (hubris). He rashly ignores the consequences of the actions driven by his pride, making several mistakes (atë). He then experiences a dramatic change of fortune (peripeteia), in this case, exile. The change of fortune leads to his downfall (in this case, suicide). The only possible deviation is the sense of closure (catharsis) since Achebe seems to sympathize with Okonkwo to some degree.
  • Tragic Hero: Achebe was more or less explicit that Okonkwo was supposed to be a tragic hero on the classical Greek model.
  • Tragic Mistake: A couple, actually.
  • Traumatic Haircut: Okonkwo and some of his friends are arrested by the white men and have their heads shaved. When they are released, Okonkwo is pissed about it.
  • Unbuilt Trope: Things Fall Apart was one of the first novels in English to deal with African society from the viewpoint of Africans (contrasting the traditional Eurocentric viewpoint), and it played a major role in popularizing postcolonial literature. However, its conflict is far more gray-shaded than one might expect. In his portrayal of the pre-colonial Igbo people, Chinua Achebe doesn't hesitate to tackle cultural practices that can seem disturbing to modern readers—like abandoning newborn twins in the forest to die, executing adopted stepchildren on the advice of village elders, exiling an entire family for the crime of one person (even if the crime was an accident), the large amount of misogyny and physical abuse towards females, and ostracizing any man who doesn't live up to traditional Igbo ideals of masculinity. He also doesn't depict the British colonizers as being all evil colonialists, with the British culture of the era being depicted as having both virtues and flaws, much like the Igbo. This is best demonstrated through Mr. Brown, one of the British missionaries. While his ultimate goal is to get the Igbo to convert to Christianity, Mr. Brown is full-heartedly willing to learn about the Igbo culture instead of automatically dismissing it as evil and doesn't want the Igbo to lose their cultural identity and autonomy to British colonialism. Unlike other missionaries in this novel and future postcolonial novels, he takes the time to personally meet and befriend villagers, from clan leaders to outcasts, and actually listens to their stories, opinions, and beliefs. Mr. Brown also does things that genuinely help benefit the Igbo, such as setting up a hospital to decrease the death and disease rate in Umuofia and setting up a school to teach English literacy so the villagers would be better equipped in their dealings with the European colonizers. All of this, combined with Mr. Brown accepting converts unconditionally, is why several of the Igbo, especially outcasts, willingly become Christians through him, and even some Igbo who don't convert come to respect Mr. Brown. One of the major themes of the novel (and most of Achebe's bibliography) is that, while colonialism of Africa during the period of New Imperialism was hardly all sunshine and lollipops for those being invaded, some of the criticisms the colonizers had of precolonial Africa were at least partly valid, and there were good reasons why so many Africans were willing to adopt at least some aspects of European society and culture.
  • Viewers Are Goldfish: Some things are repeatedly explained to the reader as if they would've forgotten the information given just last chapter.
  • Wacky Parent, Serious Child: Unoka, Okonkwo's father, was not a good farmer and preferred to spend his time playing music which Okonkwo saw as a frivolous pursuit. He died destitute and and left Okonkwo nothing but unpaid debts, which lead Okonkwo to become the hard worker and harsh disciplinarian he is.
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Reverend Brown, who still tries to be respectful towards others' beliefs when persuading them to join his religion, and believes that there is good in everyone. This sets him apart from his successor, Reverend Smith, who is far less idealistic and sees morality as black and white.
  • Workaholic: Okonkwo, so much that he doesn't particularly enjoy the celebration of the New Yam Festival because he'd rather be working on his farm.