Proverbs in Things Fall Apart

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  • 0:04 Purpose of the Proverb
  • 0:59 Proud Lizard and Judging Corn
  • 1:58 A Toad, a Fowl, and Dry Bones
  • 3:45 A King's Mouth and…
  • 4:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Margaret Stone

Margaret has taught both college and high school English and has a master's degree in English.

This lesson reviews the definition and purpose of a proverb and goes over some examples that appear in 'Things Fall Apart' by Chinua Achebe. These memorable sayings carry the wisdom of the Igbo clan throughout the work.

Purpose of the Proverb

Most cultures enjoy storytelling and language, so it is only natural to pepper speech with proverbs. These memorable sayings can be a fun way to pass on the wisdom of a people.

Proverbs, or short sayings that convey some acquired wisdom, appear throughout Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. The Igbo sometimes use the proverbs to clarify an idea; often the clan uses proverbs to add color to their speech and to provide an image of some universal truth.

The proverbs of the Igbo clan carry their truth in images that are readily recognizable to the locals, and since the Igbo are an agricultural society, the proverbs often revolve around agricultural products like yams, corn, and palm. Many of the proverbs also refer to the animals that are native to the region, as well.

Let's look at some examples.

Proud Lizard and Judging Corn

The main character, Okonkwo, goes to the very prosperous yam farmer, Nwakibie, to ask for yams to start his crop. Okonkwo wants to make clear that he is not the lazy man that his father was. He says that he knows Nwakibie may be reluctant to help him since many of the young people are lazy. Okonkwo tells Nwakibie that he has already prepared his land for the crop and that he's willing to work hard.

Okonkwo says, 'The lizard that jumped from the high iroko tree to the ground said he would praise himself if no one else did.' In other words, Okonkwo is proud of the fact that he has taken care of himself since he was a young man, and he knows that this kind of determination deserves praise.

Nwakibie responds with another proverb: 'You can tell a ripe corn by its look.' Nwakibie means that he can judge Okonkwo's character by his appearance and demeanor, so he trusts him enough to give him the yams to plant.

A Toad, A Fowl, and Dry Bones

Unoka, Okonkwo's father, was a shiftless drunkard, and his failure propels Okonkwo toward success. He does not want to emulate his father, so he works hard to achieve material success and titles. Even after his father's death, Okonkwo still feels shame when he thinks of him.

One day, the men discuss the strange case of Obiako. Obiako has suddenly given up his profession as a palm-wine tapper without explanation. The men speculate that the Oracle may have warned of some danger related to his profession. The group cannot discern the real reason Obiako has stopped working at his trade, but they know there is more to the story: 'There must be a reason for it. A toad does not run in the daytime for nothing.'

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