Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart is a powerful novel about the social changes that occurred when the white man first arrived on the African continent. The novel is based on a conception of humans as self-reflexive beings and a definition of culture as a set of control mechanisms. Things Fall Apart is the story of Okonkwo, an elder, in the Igbo tribe. He is a fairly successful man who earned the respect of the tribal elders. The story of Okonkwo’s fall from a respected member of the tribe to an outcast who dies in disgrace graphically dramatizes the struggle between the altruistic values of Christianity and the lust for power that motivated European colonialism in Africa and undermined the indigenous culture of a nation.
Okonkwo's father was laughed at by the villagers, and was considered a failure. However, this was not true of Okonkwo, who lived in a modest home. Okonkwo's prosperity was visible in his household. He had a large compound enclosed by a thick wall of red earth. His own hut, or obi, stood immediately behind the only gate in the red walls. Each of his three wives had their own hut, which together formed a half moon behind the obi. The barn was built against one end of the red walls, and long stacks of yams stood out prosperously in it.
Unfortunately, the clash of the cultures that occurs when the white man's missionaries come to Africa in an attempt to convert the tribal members, causes Okonkwo to lash out at the white man and results in his banishment from the tribe. Okonkwo had a bad temper which he often displayed: Okonkwo ruled his household with a heavy hand. His wives, especially the youngest, lived in perpetual fear of his fiery temper, and so did his little children. Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear of failure and of weakness.
The cracks within Okonkwo's character are not so much external as internal, manifestations of those aspects of his being that have been his greatest strengths: acting without thinking; never showing any emotion besides anger; inflexibility; fear of being perceived as weak and, therefore, womanly. Slowly, these characteristics that have served Okonkwo so well in the past, begin to alter the direction of his life. The first such incident occurs when Okonkwo accidentally breaks the W...
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...s return to Umuofia at the end of his exile when he returns home. The white men send their a messenger to the village. Okonkwo is still enraged about Nwoye's conversion. He sprang to his feet as soon as he saw who it was. He confronted the head messenger, trembling with hate, unable to utter a word. The man was fearless and stood his ground, his four men lined up behind him. “In a flash Okonkwo drew his machete. . . . Okonkwo’s machete descended twice and the man's head lay beside his uniformed body” (204).
In the end it is Okonkwo’s inability to recognize change that forces him to commit suicide. It is the white missionaries’ inability to recognize that the Africans did not wish to change which adds to his demise. The missionaries represent the ruthlessness of the white man in Africa. The native Africans were expected to accept the ways of the white culture, for their own benefit, or suffer the consequences. In this light the missionaries can only be seen as brutal, and anything but true Christians, but rather religious zealots who like Okonkwo wish to force their world view upon others.
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor Books, 1959.
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