Things Fall Apart: Examining Literary Merit
by Feross Aboukhadijeh
In Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, the reader is taken on a literary journey to a Nigerian tribe, the Umuofia, to experience first-hand the struggles of a warrior named Okonkwo. At first glance, the novel appears to be written for a very specific audience: scholars familiar with Nigerian history, traditions, and culture. However, upon further examination the novel reveals itself to be a striking chronicle of human experiences, universal themes, and timeless struggles that appeal to every human, regardless of familiarity with Nigerian culture. Taken as a whole, the novel appears to be much more than the sum of its parts: syntax, diction, figurative language, imagery, repetition, and symbols. Things Fall Apart is a novel with literary merit—and lots of it.
Part of the novel’s appeal lies in its compelling themes which strike chords that resound throughout time and across linguistic barriers. The clash of cultures, the struggle with change, and fatal character flaws are the main themes which Achebe’s novel probes. In order to sculpt a literary monument to the human condition and these universal themes, the author, Achebe, employs a broad variety of literary tools. Literary devices play a crucial role in enhancing the novel’s main themes and earning Things Fall Apart its widespread acceptance as a quality piece of literature.
The clash of cultures is undoubtedly one of the most universal themes seen in literature. This cultural clash can be seen throughout life and history anytime two groups of people hold differing views that cannot coexist. Even today, Western and Eastern cultures—the U.S. and China are one example; the Palestinians and Israelis are another—continue their struggles to reconcile dissimilar beliefs through negotiation, and in some cases, armed conflict. Similarly, the European missionaries and the native Umuofians struggle to coexist peacefully. However, the relationship between the Europeans and the Umuofians is one-sided.
When the Europeans arrived in Umuofia, they brought Christianity with them but did not foist it upon anyone; joining the church was entirely optional. But over time, the missionaries became increasingly aggressive—even hostile—to the native Umuofian beliefs and culture. Slowly, the Europeans erode the native beliefs and come to dominate the native society. Achebe expresses the effects of the missionaries clearly through the repeated imagery of the tribal drums. The signature Umuofian drums are heard many times throughout the story—until the Europeans arrive in the tribe—after which the drums are heard no more. The tribal drums are a symbol of tribal unity. “The drums were still beating, persistent and unchanging. Their sound was no longer a separate thing from the living village. It was like the pulsation of its heart. It throbbed in the air, in the sunshine, and even in the trees, and filled the village with excitement” (44). Any time Achebe mentions the sound of the drums, Umuofian society is functioning properly. Every clansman knew his place and purpose in life; the tribe worked together, functioning as a single unit. Indeed, the drums seemed to have Umuofia under a spell. “Old men nodded to the beat of the drums and remembered . . . its intoxicating rhythm” (47). However, the constant repetition of the drum imagery before the European missionaries arrive stands in stark contrast to the lack of drums throughout the latter half of the novel.
After the Christian missionaries arrive in Umuofia, they immediately begin to evangelize the locals. One method they used to captivate the tribesmen was to sing hymns. “Then the missionaries burst into song. It was one of those gay and rollicking tunes of evangelism which had the power of plucking at silent and dusty chords in the heart of an Ibo man” (146). And pluck at Umuofian hearts the missionaries did. Achebe uses imagery of the “silent” and “dusty” Umuofian man’s heart being quenched by the Christian music to demonstrate the European point-of-view. No doubt, the missionaries believed that they were bringing salvation (water) to a savage people (living in the desert). When Okonkwo returns from his seven year exile, he finds the Europeans dominating Umuofian culture—even controlling the Umuofian government. The tribal unity has been shattered. Family ties—once so important in Umuofian society—are now nearly meaningless. In this clash between tradition and change, change was the clear-cut winner.
In addition to cultural clash, Achebe explores the theme of masculinity versus femininity, and in doing so, reveals Okonkwo’s fatal character flaw: hyper-masculinity. Okonkwo is motivated by a desire to prove himself superior to his father, who was cowardly and irresponsible and died a poor man with many unpaid debts. He viewed his father as overly pensive, slow to act, and effeminate (womanly). Therefore, Okonkwo adopts opposite traits; Okonkwo is rash, quick to act, and excessively violent (Okonkwo associates violence with masculinity). Achebe uses figurative language like metaphors and similes to compare Okonkwo to a fire. “. . . Okonkwo's fame had grown like a bush-fire in the harmattan . . .” (1). Okonkwo gained power and importance in Umuofian society by burning lesser people as fuel. Just like a brush-fire, Okonkwo’s fame, importance, and prestige grew stronger the longer he burned. He continued to burn strong into adulthood. “. . . [The drums] filled him with fire as it had always done from his youth. He trembled with the desire to conquer and subdue” (42). Okonkwo’s inner fire is what allowed him to conquer Umuofian society and rise above the disgrace of his father.
As his fame and popularity increased, Okonkwo pursued his ideal of masculinity. Okonkwo constantly distanced himself from anything even remotely feminine. He constantly reminded himself of his masculinity and strove to make sure all his clansmen knew of it as well. “Okonkwo was popularly called the ‘Roaring Flame.’ As he looked into the log fire he recalled the name. He was a flaming fire” (153). The metaphor of fire is perfect to describe Okonkwo’s character, and yields a deep analysis of human feelings and personality. Like a fire, Okonkwo is violent, and burns whatever he touches. In many cases, he “burns” his own family. Throughout the novel, Okonkwo nags on his wives and son, beats his family, and kills three innocent people—not to mention himself, as well. In many cases, he hurts his family for trivial reasons. For instance, Okonkwo chastised and beat his son, Nwoye, for merely listening to his mother’s stories. He beat Nwoye again when he discovered him helping women with their household tasks. Okonkwo saw within Nwoye the same “effeminate” essence of his the father whom he hates so much.
Although Okonkwo’s fiery personality is what allowed him to succeed in Umuofian society, his destructive nature also led to his eventual suicide. As the Europeans gained influence and political clout in the Umuofian government, Okonkwo saw his own power and influence at risk. When the Europeans finally succeed in taking control of the government, then Okonkwo—like a fire without any fuel—dies, a victim of his own nature. And this is the beauty of Achebe’s fire metaphor, which is seen throughout the novel.
Ultimately, the success of Things Fall Apart as a novel of literary merit is due to Achebe’s use of universal literary themes like self-exploration, change, tradition, cultural clash, and masculinity versus femininity. No matter what language is spoken by the reader or what time period they come from, Achebe’s writing about the human experience is relevant and meaningful. Of course, not all scholars agree with the assertion that Things Fall Apart has literary merit. However, this is not important. Achebe’s skillful use of literary devices like metaphor, simile, imagery, and repetition demonstrate the quality of writing. Achebe’s understanding of the “human experience” demonstrates the relevance of theme. And the number of copies of the novel sold (over two million worldwide) demonstrates the universality of the story. It is safe to say that Things Fall Apart has earned widespread acceptance as a quality piece of literature.
Aboukhadijeh, Feross. "Sample Literary Devices Essay - "Things Fall Apart"" StudyNotes.org. Study Notes, LLC., 17 Nov. 2012. Web. 11 Mar. 2018. <https://www.apstudynotes.org/english/sample-essays/literary-devices-things-fall-apart/>.
Things Fall Apart Chinua Achebe
(Full name Albert Chinualumogu Achebe) Nigerian novelist, essayist, poet, short story writer, and children's writer.
The following entry presents criticism on Achebe's Things Fall Apart (1958). For further information on his life and works, see CLC Volumes 1, 3, 5, 7, 11, 26, and 127.
Things Fall Apart (1958) is one of the most widely read and studied African novels ever written. Critics have viewed the work as Achebe's answer to the limited and often inaccurate presentation of Nigerian life and customs found in literature written by powers of the colonial era. Achebe does not paint an idyllic picture of pre-colonial Africa, but instead shows Igbo society with all its flaws as well as virtues. The novel's title is taken from W. B. Yeats's poem “The Second Coming.”
Plot and Major Characters
Things Fall Apart traces life in the Igbo village of Umuofia, Nigeria, just before and after its initial contact with European colonists and their Christian religion. The novel focuses on Okonkwo, an ambitious and inflexible clan member trying to overcome the legacy of his weak father. The clan does not judge men on their father's faults, and Okonkwo's status is based on his own achievements. He is a great wrestler, a brave warrior, and a respected member of the clan who endeavors to uphold its traditions and customs. He lives for the veneration of his ancestors and their ways. Okonkwo's impetuousness and rigidness, however, often pit him against the laws of the clan, as when he beats his wife during the Week of Peace. The first part of the novel traces Okonkwo's successes and failures within the clan. In the second part he is finally exiled when he shoots at his wife and accidentally hits a clansman. According to clan law, his property is destroyed, and he must leave his father's land for seven years. He flees to his mother's homeland, which is just beginning to experience contact with Christian missionaries. Okonkwo is anxious to return to Umuofia, but finds upon his return—the third part of the novel—that life has also begun to change there as well. The Christian missionaries have made inroads into the culture of the clan through its disenfranchised members. Shortly after his return, Okonkwo's own son leaves for the mission school, disgusted by his father's participation in the death of a boy that his family had taken in and treated as their own. Okonkwo eventually stands up to the missionaries in an attempt to protect his culture, but when he kills a British messenger, Okonkwo realizes that he stands alone, and kills himself. Ironically, suicide is considered the ultimate disgrace by the clan, and his people are unable to bury him.
The main theme of Things Fall Apart focuses on the clash between traditional Igbo society and the culture and religion of the colonists. Achebe wrote the novel in English but incorporated into the prose a rhythm that conveyed a sense of African oral storytelling. He also used traditional African images including the harmattan (an African dust-laden wind) and palm oil, as well as Igbo proverbs. In an effort to show the clash between the two cultures, Achebe presented traditional Christian symbols and then described the clan's contrasting reactions to them. For instance, in Christianity, locusts are a symbol of destruction and ruin, but the Umuofians rejoice at their coming because they are a source of food. The arrival of the locusts comes directly before the arrival of the missionaries in the novel. Transition is another major theme of the novel and is expressed through the changing nature of Igbo society. Several references are made throughout the narrative to faded traditions in the clan, emphasizing the changing nature of its laws and customs. Colonization is a time of great transition in Umuofia and the novel focuses on Okonkwo's rigidity in the face of this change. Other themes include duality, the nature of religious belief, and individualism versus community.
Reviewers have praised Achebe's neutral narration and have described Things Fall Apart as a realistic novel. Much of the critical discussion about Things Fall Apart concentrates on the socio-political aspects of the novel, including the friction between the members of Igbo society as they are confronted with the intrusive and overpowering presence of Western government and beliefs. Ernest N. Emenyonu commented that, “Things Fall Apart is indeed a classic study of cross-cultural misunderstanding and the consequences to the rest of humanity, when a belligerent culture or civilization, out of sheer arrogance and ethnocentrism, takes it upon itself to invade another culture, another civilization.” One of the issues that critics have continued to discuss is whether Okonkwo serves as an embodiment of the values of Umuofia or stands in conflict with them. This discussion often centers around the question of Okonkwo's culpability in the killing of the boy, Ikemefuna. Many critics have argued that Okonkwo was wrong and went against the clan when he became involved in killing the boy. Other reviewers have asserted that he was merely fulfilling the command of the Oracle of the Hills and Caves. Several critics have compared Things Fall Apart to a Greek tragedy and Okonkwo to a tragic hero. Aron Aji and Kirstin Lynne Ellsworth have stated, “As numerous critics have observed, Okonkwo is at once an allegorical everyman figure embodying the existential paradoxes of the Igbo culture in transition, and a great tragic hero in the tradition of Oedipus, Antigone, and Lear.” Some critics have complimented Achebe's choice to write in the language of the colonizers, lauding his artful use of the English language. Several reviewers have also noted his use of African images and proverbs to convey African culture and oral storytelling. Arlene A. Elder has asserted, “Achebe's use of proverbial language enhances the richness of Things Fall Apart, and the author points out that ‘[a]mong the Igbo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten.’”