Conflict in Things Fall Apart

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' conflict is integral to the plot and overall message. This lesson will take a closer look two examples: Okonkwo fighting for his reputation, and the Umuofia clan fighting against white missionaries and government.

Chinua Achebe

Conflict is essential to most stories in order to make them interesting. However, in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, conflict had a bigger impact as the book opened a rich dialogue about the cultural clash between the native Africans and the missionaries and the colonial government put in place in Nigeria. This eye opening book has been a must read for many students around the world.

In order to understand the importance of the overall message, we must look at the conflicts that took place in the book. We'll focus on the main character Okonkwo, and the tension between the natives and the missionaries.


The protagonist in the story, Okonkwo, is caught in an internal struggle that affects his entire life. He is fighting with all his might against the possibility of becoming like his father, who he found to be effeminate and lazy.

Okonkwo learned at an early age that his father was a laughing stock in the village: 'Even as a little boy he had resented his father's failure and weakness, and even now he still remembered how he had suffered when a playmate had told him that his father was agbala.' It was insulting to be called 'agbala', which meant woman, or someone who had not taken a title. Either way, Okonkwo knew that it meant his father was not a man in the eyes of the villagers.

Okonkwo's father, Unoka, was a man with no ambition and no title. This caused Okonkwo a considerable shame. All through his life he considered his father weak, so he did everything in his power to be just the opposite. He worked hard to build a reputation that demonstrated that he was strong, proud, and masculine. He is described as 'well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievements.'

Okonkwo was driven even at a young age. When he was eighteen he won against a wrestler who had been undefeated for seven years. This proved to everyone that he was someone who was powerful and strong. Okonkwo was able to hold his head high as he walked through the village.

Okonkwo intended to show everyone in the village that he was not like his father. He was going to have land, build a reputation, and have a title. 'He had a large barn full of yams and he had three wives. And now he was going to take the Idemili title, the third highest in the land.'

Finally he had succeeded in doing what his poor, pitiful father had been unable to do. In Okonkwo's mind he was a success because he had not become like his father.

Okonkwo's Temper

Okonkwo was known for his quick temper. He had a difficult time controlling it, and it caused him great conflict with the relationships in his life.

His temper made it difficult for him to form relationships with his children, especially his son, and in this way he was much like his father who was unable to build a relationship with him. What Okonkwo feared most proved true. The conflict between he and his son over religion drove him to disown his son.

Okonkwo was someone who would show no mercy when he was provoked or needed to make a point. When he felt he had been slighted, he struck back. He didn't like being challenged in public, and when a man with no title did so in a meeting, Okonkwo insulted him by saying, 'This meeting is for men.' Okonkwo knew how to kill a man's spirit.

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