Table of Contents
Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is a postcolonial novel published in 1958 depicting life before colonial influence in Nigeria. The author’s debut novel is a response to the earlier colonial works by European writers that depicted Africans as savages who were in dire need of civilization and enlightenment (Kenalemang, 2013). The novel refutes the stereotypic view of African culture, traditions, and lifestyle. However, the story presents a raw and profound insight into the life of the Igbo community, depicting both good values and imperfections of African practices. The story’s protagonist, Okonkwo, is at the center of this cultural shift and interference from the European missionaries. The story follows Okonkwo’s gradual disintegration from being a respected leader to being banished from the community. The story chronicles the life of Okonkwo and his family, illustrating the psychological disintegration influenced by his pride, arrogance, and the norms that fostered masculinity. In the background, Achebe presents a more profound issue concerning the influence of western culture on African tradition and how the reception of such change varied among Africans. Using adequate characterization and symbolism, Achebe effectively illustrates masculinity, tradition, and change.
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Theme Analysis of Tradition vs. Change
The central focus of Things Fall Apart is the tensions between the traditions of the Igbo and the impeding change brought by the European Missionaries. The first section of the novel highlights the crucial aspects of the Umuofia people under the leadership of Okonkwo. The author depicts the essential values of the Umuofia village life and traditions, including festivals, harvest, and rituals. However, the status quo is at risk of disintegration with the arrival of the missionaries. The colonizers brought a new life founded on Christianity values, condemning some of the rituals and practices previously held high by the villagers (Jweid & Nimer, 2016). The author writes, “Among the Ibo, the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm oil with which words are written” (Achebe, 1994, p.11). Achebe highlights proverbs as a critical aspect of the villagers. However, with the arrival of the missionaries, much of the Umuofia lifestyle is on the verge of disintegration. While others are happy at the prospects of a new beginning and influence, some villagers, including Okonkwo, resented the idea of change. The divisions witnessed among the villagers illustrate the generational divide’s conflict as modernism challenges conformism (Kadhem, 2018). The European influence threatens to extinguish the need for mastery of traditional values, making them dispensable. Okonkwo’s son, Nwoye’s ultimate willingness to become a Christian exemplifies the influence of European traditions.
Characterization and Symbolism
The protagonist, Okonkwo, embodies the tensions between tradition and change. According to Foley (2001), the author effectively uses the character of Okonkwo to depict the Igbo traditions and how the impending change threatened the social order of the village people’s lifestyle. As a young man, Okonkwo is admired by his peers for his wrestling ability and warrior mentality. He embodies the values of the Umuofia people, which resent weakness and foster masculinity and patriarchy. Okonkwo even resents his father, Unoka, who was viewed as weak and nicknamed Agbala, a woman (Achebe, 1994, p.18). Achebe writes, “Okonkwo was ruled by one passion-to hate everything that his father Unoka had loved” (Achebe, 1994, p.18). He resented laziness and calmness perpetuated by his father. As a result, Okonkwo ruled by fostering masculinity and aggression as he was considered a person of war.
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Conversely, Nwoye exhibits weakness and laziness that Okonkwo hates. Similarly, he refuses to change his view on the arrival of Europeans, which can be attributed to his belief in the value and customs of his village. Okonkwo expects everyone else in the village, including his son, to have the same resentment to change because it threatens the value of their lifestyle. Okonkwo’s character exemplifies some of the villagers’ fears about the influence of European values on the important values that the villagers have held for the longest time. Similarly, his character illustrates that change is imminent over time, irrespective of the significance of traditions and conventionality.
Achebe utilizes various symbols that illustrate the impact of change on the values and norms of the people of Umuofia. Before the arrival of the Christian missionaries, Umuofia village people had varied practices, rituals, and beliefs that guided their way of life. Planting and harvesting were crucial to the lifestyle of Umuofia society as they classify the year concerning the planting of yams (Khan et al., 2018). The yams symbolize masculinity as it is considered labor-intensive, and only men are allowed to plant them. Achebe states, “Yam stood for manliness, and he who could feed his family on yams…was a very great man indeed” (Achebe, 1994, p.35). The planting and harvesting of yams are essential to the values of Umuofia. Even when Okonkwo is exiled for accidentally killing Ezeudu’s son, his family packs yams to his motherland, Mbanta, as a sign of the essence of the Umuofia tradition.
Overall, Chinua Achebe effectively explores the tensions between the African tradition and European values during the pre-colonial period. Using Okonkwo’s character at the center of the novel, Achebe illustrates the European influence on African values as depicted by the introduction of Christianity and the villagers’ mixed reaction to the change in beliefs and value system. Similarly, Achebe’s novel disproves the degrading and stereotypic depiction of African culture as primitive and less valuable before the arrival of the missionaries. Achebe not only depicts the Igbo culture as rich but also depicts life before the colonial period demonstrating the positive and negative influences.
- Achebe, Chinua (1994) Things Fall Apart. 1st ed., Anchor Books.
- Foley, A. (2001). Okonkwo’s fate and the worldview of Things Fall Apart. Literator: Journal of Literary Criticism, Comparative Linguistics and Literary Studies, 22(2), 39–59.
- Jweid, A. N. A. A., & Abdalhadi Nimer, A. (2016). The fall of national identity in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Pertanika Journal Social Sciences and Humanities, 24(1), 529-540.
- Kadhem, S. M. (2018). Conflict between Tradition and Change in Chinua Achebe’s postcolonial novel Things Fall Apart. Al-Adab Journal (ISSN: 1994473X), 1(124), 81-92.
- Kenalemang, L. M. (2013). Things fall apart: an analysis of pre and postcolonial Igbo society (Publication No. 648320) [Bachelor’s thesis, Karlstad University]. Electronic Publications from Karlstadt University Library.
- Khan, M., Iqbal, M., & Shah, S. Z. A. (2018). Cultural symbols, identity and meaning formation: Symbolic interactionist analysis of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. University of Chitral Journal of Linguistics & Literature, 2(I), 1-9.