Classic book: Things Fall Apart

Desiree Reynolds looks at Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

August 30, 2013
5 min read

fall-apartThings Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe was a simple act of revolution. Published two years before Nigeria’s independence, it set out its clear and controversial mandate: that black people can define themselves and, crucially, define their own history. In critical race theory terms, it can be seen as one of the first ‘counter narratives’.

With Achebe’s recent death it is worth looking back at the novel that led him to be considered the father of African literature. In it Achebe did the unthinkable: he presented a Nigeria, and specifically a pre-colonial African society, that had never been seen before.

Things Fall Apart describes Igbo traditions, rites and rituals as well as linguistic customs. It explores the old versus the new, while treading the tightrope between judgement and explanation. It wonders at an internal life in combat with daily necessity. And it examines in detail one man’s descent from power.

Informed by his intense desire to be unlike his drunkard, lazy father, Okonkwo is driven by a hunger for validation and status. A farmer, he lives in a village with his wives and children. Through the strength of his determination and wrestling in his youth, he has risen from the lowest to the highest ranks of his region, Umuofia.

But Okonkwo has two major flaws. The desperation to rid himself of his father’s legacy motivates nearly everything he does, and his uncontrollable rage makes him a good warrior, but brooding and difficult in peace times. He is a strict father, a brusque and demanding husband, continually dissatisfied with his life and what he feels are his lack of achievements.

As he is grappling with the struggles of being father to a boy he doesn’t understand, Okonkwo adopts a boy from another village, who has been given in forfeit. The boy fits well into his family and is the son he wishes he had. When the elders decide, after three years, that the boy must die, Okonkwo is shaken to his core but refuses to listen to advice to not have any part in the boy’s murder. The thought of appearing weak is more than he can bear and this sets in motion the events which will finally lead to his fall.

The ‘scramble for Africa’ heralds the beginning of colonial rule. Achebe presents it as inevitable, pointing to the mutually dependent relationship between racism, religion and greed. The new force uses commerce to gain the trust of the village. Whereas the white man’s religion embraces all and has different hierarchical structures to that of the Igbo, to the villagers it seems almost childlike in its simplicity. That is why it appeals to Okonkwo’s son, Nwoye, who is struggling to understand his place in his community and family. Christianity gives him an ‘answer’.

The juxtaposition of the old and the new, where traditions and customs become a site of struggle, is demonstrated by the conversation between a village elder and the missionary. White religion is cold and removed, whereas the Igbo gods live among them and through them. When it is apparent that some of the old customs are antiquated and the new religion gains ground, Okonkwo is left dismayed and disappointed.

In an accident Okonkwo shoots someone and is exiled for seven years. He dreams of a triumphant return but instead he’s hardly noticed. This and the fundamental changes that have taken place in his absence whittle away at him. The missionaries have arrived and like a tick under the skin, have taken a strong hold of Umuofia. Okonkwo laments the passing of the old ways. His is saddened daily by what he sees as the erosion of his customs, beliefs and way of life and he is furious that no one wants to fight this new religion.

The pre-colonial Igbo world is finally a lost one. The disintegration of the social and psychological structures of pre-colonial Igbo life and the forceful impositions of new ones defeats Okonkwo. All the foreboding and doom that fills him about the future turns out to be prophetic. It is Okonkwo’s disempowerment that leads to the book’s tragic end. He knows has no place in this new world.

Chinua Achebe, writing under the gaze of Discourse on Colonialism (Aime Cesaire, 1950) and Black Skin, White Masks (Frantz Fanon, 1952), popped the white supremacist bubble. He dared to be open with his criticisms of literary ‘blindness’ to racist writing. His reading of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness caused great controversy at the time. Could a literary classic be racist? He argued a resounding ‘yes’ and forced white literary theorists, uncomfortably, into thinking about racism and literature.

Okonkwo ends as a footnote in the story of the white coloniser, but with Things Fall Apart, Achebe created a novel that is embedded in the history of the continent. It is a part of literary thought and practice; it is part of our collective history.


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports

On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill


19