Things Fall Apart
This story illustrates the meeting of the African tribal, clan life in Nigeria with European colonialists in the form of Christian missionaries.
This novel was originally published in 1957, but was re-released in 2010.
It is organized into two parts with more than 20-five to seven page chapters making it easy to start and stop reading.
The first part illustrates the tribal village/clan life through the eyes and experiences of the “hero” Okonkwo. At the same time, he exemplifies in personality and cultural adherence the most traditional and conservative values of that lifestyle.
This makes the contrast between Ibo village lifestyle and religious beliefs and that of the white Christian missionaries most stark.
Okonkwo is the only character whose values and motives are described in detail. Although Okonkwo is violent and kills on more than one occasion, one could not see him as a villain, but an angry personality following the dictates of his culture to the extreme. I found myself hoping that some of the other characters would be more developed and play a greater role in the story.
However, one can imagine that the author's message is clearer and more forceful without the detailed involvement of many people. These characters seem to exist to explain and underline the cultural values inherent in the contrast.
Of most potential interest is Okonkwo's daughter Ezinma, whom we read, best understands her father. He wishes, in this highly patriarchal society, that she had been born a boy. A polygamous society, Okonkwo's success is also measured in his having three wives. Ezinma is the only child of one of these, Ekwefi.
In this book there are no villains and while ruthless acts, by our standards, may be committed, they don't seem vindictive or motivated by resentment, jealousy or other negative emotions. They seem more ordained by their belief system of gods, oracles and such and who has heard what from one of these.
We learn that Okonkwo's value system is primarily a reaction to his father's lax undisciplined way of life. He deeply resents his father so tries to live in contrast. This involved gaining and valuing wealth and aspiring to the honours that the male oriented clan bestowed on each other for macho accomplishments. Being 'effeminate' or like a woman is synonymous with cowardice and a great insult. Okonkwo saw his father and eldest son in that light. Okonkwo thought some clans degenerating to that.
The farming economy of the society seems based on yams and how many one grows, a major factor in status. “Do you know that men sometimes lose all their yams and even their children.”
We are introduced to Okonkwo just as he is about to win a wrestling match which remains a lifelong macho accomplishment. Wrestling seems the major athletic distraction of the society.
Although at barely 200 pages, it is a short book, many years go past and Okonkwo's banishment of seven years is barely a short chapter.
When he returns home the white Christian influence is firmly established and to his great anger it has captivated his oldest son, effectively taking him from the clan. It is the clan that is falling apart and Okonkwo sees it.
“Umofia (the town things centre on) was like a startled animal with ears erect, sniffing the silent ominous and not knowing which way to run.”
Religion isn't the only disrupter of local life as the whites also bring government, courts and a police which erode the way the people have done things. And while one might hope they dispense with unjust practices, it seems just a substitution favouring the new values, as a local delegation to the new order is whipped and jailed.
And that everything is falling apart is captured in the melancholy comments of an old man. “Those were the good days when a man had friends in distant clans. Your generation does not know that. You stay at home afraid of your next-door neighbour.”
An interesting caution brought forward when one tribe killed a white man who first came to the territory. In hearing the story, it was asked what did the man say and we learn he said nothing. We learn that you should never kill a man who says nothing. “There is something ominous behind silence.” You don't know anything about strength or weakness.
The new church made some converts, but the establishment of the clan dismissed these as worthless no status people.
We also hear of the fearful discrimination against twins who are promptly “thrown away” in the forest and left to die. We read of one woman who had four sets.