Things Fall Apart

Before Things Fall Apart came out in 1958, novels about Africa were generally written by Westerners, and tended to portray Africans as dim and uncultured. Chinua Achebe, who grew up in a Nigeria still under British rule, set out to change that. This novel, his first, tells the tale of Okonkwo, a Nigerian chieftain living in the 1890s. Proud and aggressive, he strives to establish himself as a leader within his clan, and clashes with the colonisers. As the British make inroads into Nigeria, traditional society begins to fall apart. Achebe succeeded in his aim: the book has sold 20m copies and been translated into 57 languages, paving the way for other African writers to find fame.


The novel is set in the 1890s, just as the British Empire was establishing control of Nigeria. Missionaries infiltrate Okonkwo’s community and begin to reshape local life with their newfangled ideas and technologies. But Achebe does not simply portray the whites as bad and the blacks as good. The missionaries win people over, the novel says, because of injustices in traditional society.


Achebe vividly portrays local religious customs, including a ceremony to honour the earth deity. But missionaries arrive halfway through the novel and tell the villagers that their gods are false, setting the scene for a clash of ideas. Achebe’s parents were Protestant, but he grew up in a village like the one in the novel, where old beliefs persisted. As such, he is sensitive to both traditions.


Okonkwo’s behaviour as a chieftain is tied to his notions of what makes a man. He acts tough, shows no emotion, and teaches his sons to do the same. Believing that men are superior to women, he beats his wives. Achebe makes it clear that Okonkwo’s views are not shared by the clan as a whole: many male characters prefer peace and negotiation to violent confrontation.


The tribespeople revere animals, and local fauna play a big role in their folklore. One villager, a Christian convert, is rumoured to have eaten a snake; his father curses him for it. Achebe also uses wildlife for its symbolic force. In one powerful passage, a swarm of locusts presages the arrival of the white colonisers.


Achebe’s decision to write in English is significant. The author argues that the written form of the local language, Igbo, is not suited to novels. Given his ambition to change the world’s perception of Africa, he must also have reasoned that English would give the novel a wider reach. That said, the narrative is peppered with Igbo words, giving the reader an insight into local culture.