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Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:38 Book Summary
  • 2:56 Themes
  • 4:04 Masculinity
  • 4:42 Tradition
  • 5:46 Symbols
  • 6:18 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Megan Pryor

Megan has tutored extensively and has a Master of Fine Arts Degree in Fiction.

In this lesson, we will examine the novel Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. After a brief summary of the novel's important events, we will analyze its main themes. The lesson will then conclude with a short quiz.

The Reach of Things Fall Apart

Published in 1958, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe is considered a modern African novel. Things Fall Apart is written in English, which means that, in addition to being a popular book in African schools, the novel has been widely read and taught outside of Africa, too. Although it was only published about 60 years ago, the novel takes place in the 1890s. Things Fall Apart deals heavily with the effect of colonialism on the native people of Africa, in addition to examining the traditional culture of the Nigerian villagers in the novel.

Book Summary

The novel follows the life of a Nigerian man, Okonkwo. Okonkwo lives in a group of nine villages. The villages are ruled by a council of elders. Okonkwo is one of the respected leaders of his village. He is also a wrestling champion. Both his wrestling and his leadership role are driven by his shame about his father, who left a lot of debts unpaid when he died, and who Okonkwo viewed as too feminine.

When a man from a neighboring village kills one of the women from Okonkwo's village, a peace settlement requires the son of the man who killed the woman to come live in Okonkwo's village. Okonkwo himself takes the boy in and they develop a strong bond.

Unfortunately, a decision is made to kill the boy. One of the village elders, Ezeudu, warns Okonkwo not to assist with killing the boy. Determined not to seem like a coward, especially because of his father's legacy, Okonkwo kills the boy himself with a machete. The boy's death is like a bad omen. After the boy dies, Okonkwo accidentally kills Ezeudu's son. For his crime, the village determines he must spend seven years in exile to appease the gods.

During his exile, white missionaries arrive in the village. When Okonkwo finally returns, the white men have thoroughly infiltrated his village. Okonkwo helps destroy a Christian church, only to be arrested by the white government.

Some of the villagers, including Okonkwo, want to stage an uprising against the village. He even kills one of the white men. After he does so, he realizes that the other villages have changed too much. They will not fight the white men off. Unable to live with his revelation, Okonkwo kills himself. This is a very important moment in the novel because, according to Okonkwo's traditional beliefs, suicide is not allowed. Okonkwo's desperation about his changing village is staggering if it can outweigh his strict adherence to the traditional ways.

At the end of the novel, a white commissioner, upon learning about Okonkwo's rebellion and suicide, notes that it will make an interesting paragraph in the book he is writing about 'the pacification of the primitive tribes of the lower Niger.'

Themes: The Destructive Effect of Colonization

There are several themes in Things Fall Apart. One is the destructive effect of colonization. Okonkwo's life starts to go downhill around the time white men arrive. He has barely settled into his exile before he learns that the white men have already destroyed one of the other villages. When he returns to his village, he finds that the presence of the white men has spread a lot. They have already built a church and converted a number of villagers.

In addition to eradicating the traditional religion of Okonkwo and his people, the white men have also taken over the justice system. While the villagers have their own system of law, the white people think nothing about arresting, jailing, and beating the villagers when they do something they (the white men) consider wrong.

The influence of Christianity does not just destroy beliefs, either. It destroys families. Okonkwo's own son converts to Christianity, resulting in his father disowning him. Other villagers, who have converted, end up disturbing some of the traditional religious rituals when the others try to carry on with life as normal.

Masculinity

Masculinity is a huge theme in Things Fall Apart. Okonkwo's entire identity is built around the concept of masculinity. His father had a lot of traits that Okonkwo considers distinctly feminine. He was bad with money and he also neglected his family.

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