A few weeks ago, I was perusing the list of novels that I had to pick from for my Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition class, when one of them suddenly jumped out at me: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. Set far away from the privileged society of nineteenth century Europe that serves as the typical setting for classical novels, Things Fall Apart offers insight into both the unique and little known culture of the peoples of the Lower Niger and their fateful encounters with white colonialists and their incongruous values. Its message, one that everyone should know and remember, tells of one of the greatest and most widely ignored injustices in modern history: the colonization of Africa and the cultural destruction that followed.
From the first page, Achebe pulls the reader into the world of the Umuofia, one of the clans of the Ibo people in Nigeria, in which the protagonist Okonkwo, a great leader and warrior, lives with his family. He vividly depicts the esteemed local religion and traditional institutions, such as the prophesying goddess who lives in the hills and the council of spirits, or egwugwu, who administer justice. With the arrival of white missionaries and colonial rulers, the foundation of their society is shaken as clansmen begin practicing Christianity and the white men quickly show that the tribes are no match for them. Okonkwo attempts to stir his people to war, inciting the honor and excitement of the old times, but when he leaps into battle, he finds that no one stands with him.
The novel chronicles the life of Okonkwo, a coarse, ambitious man whose life is truly a “rags-to-riches” story. Yet, no fairy godmother transformed Okonkwo for his fateful ball. Through hard work and unrelenting persistence, he made his own wealth and fame, cultivating yams year after year and earning the respect of the village by throwing the fiercest wrestler in the clan competition. Resentful of his father’s laziness and cowardice, Okonkwo has become a hardened man, cruel at times, with no tolerance for apparent weakness. His hard perspective on life shapes the story, from the sorrowful end that meets his surrogate son to his angry, belligerent response to the white colonists and the reckless move that leads to his own destruction.
The novel offers not only a rich insight into a unique culture but also pointed commentary into the actions of the white colonists in Africa and how they led to the cultural destruction that crippled the region to this day. This message, though it refers to actions that occurred nearly a century ago, is pertinent to our time. The repercussions of Western imperialism and colonialism are being felt most acutely today, in the twenty-first century, when African nations, crippled by foreign oppression and racism, are still struggling to reach complete autonomy after decades of ethnic warfare and even genocide, and when many desperate people are turning to terrorism and extremism for answers. We must learn from the ignorance and arrogance of our ancestors. We must learn from our past so that we do not repeat our mistakes. And what better place to start than by reading a novel that is not only insightful but also enjoyable, like Things Fall Apart?
The novel’s ending is far from happy, yet leaves its message deeply entrenched in both the reader’s mind and heart. With the climax of the novel, the reader knows that the Umuofia clan will meet the end of ethnic destruction and imperial rule that so many other African tribes suffered. Achebe ominously leaves the reader with the unflinching arrogance of one of the colonial leaders, who thinks that Okonkwo’s story will make a good paragraph or two in his upcoming book, which he has titled “The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.”
If you are interested in culture, history, or ethnic conflicts, then you will love this novel. It is worth reading just to see the juxtaposition of the Nigerians’ ethnic identity and “superstitions” with the Europeans’ deeply entrenched, “enlightened” beliefs and unquestioned arrogance. Even if you don’t usually enjoy reading about cultural backgrounds, you will still love this novel for its underlying message and its witty depiction of a daily life that seems so contrary to everything that we know. So, get your hands on this novel as soon as you can. I know that you will enjoy reading it.
Narrelle is a homeschooled teen from West Palm Beach, Florida. In addition to writing, she enjoys singing in a choir and playing piano, and loves literature, politics, history, astronomy, and physics.