Themes in Things Fall Apart

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  • 0:01 What Is a Theme?
  • 0:50 Family
  • 2:25 Religion
  • 3:35 Tradition
  • 4:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Liz Breazeale
Chinua Achebe's famous novel 'Things Fall Apart' is still widely read today, in part because of its interesting, relatable themes. Learn about a few of those themes in this lesson.

What Is a Theme?

Have you ever noticed some common elements in a work of literature? Not what the book is about, but some underlying ideas? Perhaps like love, marriage, and duty in Jane Austen novels. Or the idea that war causes suffering like in Gone With the Wind or War and Peace? You've been noticing themes.

A theme in a work of literature is just a main idea of the text. There can be many themes within a novel or story, and they can either be stated explicitly within the text, or they can be read between the lines and inferred. A theme is an important part of a work because it helps communicate the ideas the author is trying to discuss within the text.

In Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe's famous postcolonial 1958 novel, there are plenty of themes to go around. In this lesson, you'll learn about three of those themes: family, religion, and tradition.


Family is huge in this novel, because the family unit was very important in Igbo culture during the 1800s, during which Things Fall Apart is set. The Igbo are an indigenous Nigerian people. Families are very large in the novel, not stature but in quantity. Polygamy, or having more than one spouse, is a very big part of Igbo culture for the characters.

For example, Okonkwo, the novel's protagonist, has multiple wives and several children, as do many men of Okonkwo's village, Umuofia. Okonkwo feels that it is his most important duty as father and husband to provide for his family, because his own father was a terrible provider.

Okonkwo also feels that it's his duty to be a much better father than his own father was to him. Okonkwo's dad was a laughingstock and very lazy. He left Okonkwo with no inheritance, so Okonkwo is desperately afraid of becoming like his father. Yeah, that's a pretty universal feeling, you might say. Nobody wants to become his or her parents. But Okonkwo so badly doesn't want to become his father that he is very strict with his own children and his wives, even cruel. He threatens to kill his second wife at one point because he's afraid of dishonor.

Family and honor are tied together throughout the novel. Okonkwo is forced into exile because he accidentally shoots the son of a village elder. At another point, Okonkwo's family takes in a child from a neighboring village because the boy's father killed an Umuofian woman and his exchange is the honorable thing for his family to do. Okonkwo's daughter even refuses to marry in exile because she knows this won't bring her father any honor in their home village.


Religion also plays a huge role in this novel. The Igbo have many gods and goddesses and worship them in traditional ways. Okonkwo feels very tied to these old ways of worship. His second wife is even close friends with a priestess. The gods and goddesses are typically of nature and natural things because the Igbo culture is so dependent on agriculture. A family's ancestors are often consulted, and masks of their faces are even worn in judicial ceremonies by elders; see, there's family again!

But where the interesting conflict comes in is after Okonkwo and his family return from exile. Christian missionaries have moved into town, built a church, and attracted some converts. As you can imagine, Okonkwo, along with some of the other villagers, is not a fan of this setup, because they're so tied to the old religion and old ways.

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