Things Fall Apart is a simple little novel with a fable-like voice that packs a real punch. The main character is Okonwo, a leader in the fictional Nigerian village of Umuofia. He is extremely industrious and strong, but also brusque and ambitious to point of harboring a lot of anger to those who don’t fit into his vision. The first half of the novel is a fascinating background about Okonkwo, his family, his village, and their indigenous cultural and religious beliefs and practices. The second half shows just how “things fall apart” (Chinua Achebe took the title from Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming”).
Achebe touches on many themes in just 180 pages. Umuofia’s culture is described in detail and it’s rituals and beliefs are connected throughout to the larger themes of gender, religion, history, and mythology. While all of this is fascinating and serves the novelistic purpose of building believable and interesting characters, for me Achebe’s crowning achievement comes in the second half of the book.
Achebe takes a situation that could easily be oversimplified in a novel (that of the destruction of African culture due to the influence of white men, specifically Christian missionaries) and allows it to have its inherent complexity and truth. For example, Okonkwo is no romanticized version of a native African man – he is overbearing, angry, and completely inflexible and all of these qualities contribute to his downfall as much as the influence of Christianity. In turn, the two white men who spend time in Umuofia are not stereotypical villains, but have distinct personalities: Mr. Brown is benevolent and aims to convert many people to Christianity by letting them dabble in its teachings; Mr. Smith is hard-edged and sends away anyone who does not bend completely to the will of God as he lays it out.
Things Fall Apart is a stern warning about the destruction that can happen when two cultures come into contact. It’s clear in the novel (and in Africa’s history over the past 100 years) that the influence of white culture has been forceful and destructive, but Achebe very interestingly points out that no one is perfect and Okonkwo himself could destroy the life he built for himself. In other words, the individuality that we as humans each have plays an important role in strengthening our societies – perhaps an even more important one than culture itself.
Things Fall Apart is a great gateway into African literature, and absolutely belongs on the list of books to read before you die.