Colonialism in Things Fall Apart

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  • 0:03 It Takes a Toll
  • 0:29 How It Started
  • 1:45 The Missionaries are…
  • 3:48 One Man Against Many
  • 4:37 The White Men Win
  • 5:19 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Susan Nagelsen

Susan has directed the writing program in undergraduate colleges, taught in the writing and English departments, and criminal justice departments.

In ''Things Fall Apart'' by Chinua Achebe, the issue of colonialism is front and center for us to examine. In this lesson, we'll look at whether colonialism had a positive or negative impact on the Igbo culture and the novel's protagonist, Okonkwo.

It Takes a Toll

In Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, we are compelled to consider how the title is a reflection of the effect of colonialism on the novel's protagonist, Okonkwo. He fights a losing battle to prevent missionaries from taking control of his community. He struggles throughout the novel to keep from becoming lazy like his father and works frantically to keep the culture of his tribe intact.

How it Started

In order for cultural change to take place, the colonizers must begin by introducing their religion. They attempt to allay fears by coming on a platform of peace, but their ultimate goal is to fundamentally change the beliefs of the tribe.

And at last the locusts did descend. They settled on every tree and on every blade of grass; they settled on the roofs and covered the bare ground.

While the quote is a symbolic representation, it accurately reflects the arrival of the intruders who have every intention to take over the Igbo by introducing monotheistic religion and undermining the things that had previously been valued. We see Okonkwo and his son torn apart because Okonkwo cannot accept that his son has forsaken his tribe for Christianity. The tribe is in trouble, and Okonkwo knows there is nothing he can do to stop the death of all he holds dear, as is reflected in the following passage:

The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.

The Missionaries Are Successful

The missionaries gain a foothold in Umofia, and it doesn't take long before they have converted most of the tribe to Christianity. This results in the customs and practices of the Igbo tribe being thrown away, and this causes Okonkwo great distress. The missionaries essentially force the tribe to convert to Christianity, and do so by telling them that their beliefs were based on untruths.

While Okonkwo is in exile, he is told of the annihilation of the nearby Abame by the white men. A white man had come to the village on a bicycle or 'iron horse' as the villagers called it. People were afraid, and the elders consulted the Oracle. They were told the white man would destroy them and that more were heading their way. They killed the white man and placed the bicycle on their sacred tree.

Soon, more white men came to the village. When they saw the bicycle on the tree they left, but soon many more came into the village when the people were gathered at the market, and the white men killed them all.

We have heard stories about white men who made the powerful guns and the strong drinks and took slaves away across the seas, but no one thought the stories were true.

The missionaries are successful in stripping the Igbo of its customs, rituals, and beliefs. While it is true that the missionaries' goal was to bring religion to the clan, they also sought to bring what they saw as civilization. They helped take away inhumane practices such as ritualized sacrifices and violence. It brought an elevation in the economic structure, but more importantly it also brought the opportunity for more knowledge.

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