Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe: A review

Chinua Achebe was the first African writer, published in English, who received wide acclaim by critics and others in the West. He was really the forerunner who paved the way for such modern writers as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Achebe was Nigerian and was from the Igbo culture which he wrote about in Things Fall Apart, his first and what many consider his best book. It was published in 1958, the first of a trilogy.

Things Fall Apart tells the story, in three parts, of an Igbo (called Ibo in the book) man named Okonkwo. 

The first part establishes Okonkwo in his village/clan and describes how he was a respected member of that community because of his prowess as a wrestler and as a warrior who had taken heads of his clan's enemies in war. As we meet him, he is a successful farmer of yams, the primary crop of the area and he has three wives and several children. He is a brutal man who beats his wives and children, but that is exactly what is expected of men in this society. His wives live only to serve him.

Part two covers Okonkwo's fall from grace after he accidentally kills a fellow clan member and is ostracized from the village for a period of seven years. During those seven years, he takes his family and goes to the village from which his mother came and lives among them. Although his mother's family treats him well, he is not happy there and waits impatiently for the seven years to end so that he can return home.

Part three finds him and his family returning home, but it is a home village that has changed in the interim. Soon Christian missionaries arrive on the scene to proselytize and try to turn the villagers away from their traditional gods. Okonkwo deeply resents the Christians and wants the village to rise up in war against them, but many villagers, including Okonkwo's oldest son, are converted to the new religion and want to go to the schools run by the missionaries.

This then devolves into a tale of a clash between cultures, between animism and Christianity, between colonialism and traditional culture. It also is a tale of an unabashedly misogynistic society that does not value women except as objects to gratify men's sexual desires and to bear and raise their children.

It is a society where many children are born, but many, perhaps most, die in their first few years. Moreover, it is a society that is superstitious about twins, seeing them as a bad omen; consequently, they are abandoned in the forest when they are born and left to die.

To modern sensibilities, Okonkwo is a thoroughly unlikable, even despicable,  character and yet he is completely a creature of his time and place. In the end, it is impossible not to feel a bit sorry for him as he sees his world crumble around him and he is cut adrift from all that he values.  

Achebe interweaves Igbo folk tales and proverbs into his novel and in this way gives the reader a greater understanding of the traditional culture and how it operated. I found the story disturbing because of the misogyny and the devaluing of children's lives that were so much a part of this society. And the tale seemed dated - which, of course, it is. But, on the whole, I found it interesting and a worthwhile read. In the end, it gave me an even greater appreciation of the work of Adichie whom I much admire.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars   

Comments

  1. Totally unrelated to your book review but I think I just saw an Eastern Phoebe in my yard. I thought it was a mockingbird, but it picked off a butterfly and I know mockingbirds don't do that so I looked it up. Happy Thanksgiving to you!

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    1. The phoebes are definitely back in the area so it would well have been one that you saw. Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family, too!

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  2. Happy Thanksgiving, Dorothy, to you and your loved ones!

    Hmmm...I don't like this book from what you have written, but I'm glad you liked it somewhat as it paved the way for other African writers in the wider world.

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    1. It is well-written and it certainly has historical significance. I'm glad I read it but there was not much to like about the characters.

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  3. I spent some time today reading reviews of this book on Goodreads. As someone who majored in cultural anthropology in college, this sounds like something I would attempt to read.

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    1. I think you would probably find it interesting, Alana. It has a lot to offer as far as describing the Igbo culture at the time leading up to the introduction of Christianity to that area and the clashes that occurred between the traditional belief system and the new religion.

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  4. Thanks for your review Dorothy. This was one of the first pieces of literature written by an African author I ever read. It opened my eyes for the first time to the viewpoint of an African tribe when confronted with colonialism. Also interesting that the younger generation is more accepting while the older wants to hang on to tradition. Appropriate perhaps for Thanksgiving when the generations get together to compare how we are doing with the changes of the past year.

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