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Things Fall Apart Vocabulary

Instructor: Susan Nagelsen

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

This lesson will introduce the meaning and context of several vocabulary words from 'Things Fall Apart' by Chinua Achebe. Included will be quotes where they appear and an analysis.

Understanding the Plot

'Things Fall Apart' by Chinua Achebe is an aptly named tragedy. We meet Okonkwo, whose fall from grace signals the beginning of the end of the world as he knows it. In order to fully comprehend this novel, we must consider the vocabulary.

Okonkwo is the leader of his tribe, the Igbo people. He does not want to be like his father who is lazy, so he works hard and becomes rich and well respected. But life takes a turn for him when he adopts a boy and is then forced to participate in his ritualized killing. Later there is more difficulty when white missionaries come.

Vocabulary Makes the Story

In order to completely grasp the meaning of what we read, it is necessary to take the time to make sure we understand the words being used, or we will miss the subtle meanings, be confused, and lose enjoyment of the story. Let's look at some of the vocabulary that will help aid in our understanding of Things Fall Apart.

Okonkwo's Character

  • To pounce, is to move as if in an attack. We witness a description of Okonkwo, a man who was a presence in the family and the community: 'When he walked, his heels hardly touched the ground and he seemed to walk on springs, as if he was going to pounce on somebody.' His walk showed others that he had little patience.
  • When someone is improvident, they cannot provide something useful for the future. This is an important thing for us to know in the story because it is the root of what motivates all that Okonkwo does. He positions himself so he will not be like his father, who is described as 'lazy and improvident and was quite incapable of thinking about tomorrow.'
  • Okonkwo was not malevolent; he did not wish to do evil to others. But he did have a healthy dose of fear. He is deathly afraid of being seen as his father was seen, like a weak or feminine man: 'It was deeper and more intimate than the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of the forest, and of the forces of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw.' Okonkwo is afraid of himself; it is his downfall and his ultimate weakness.
  • Incipient means the beginning of some kind of development. Okonkwo worries about his son: 'his first son, Nwoye, was then twelve years old but was already causing his father great anxiety for his incipient laziness.' We already know how Okonkwo feels about his lazy father and what he has done to ensure that this behavior would not show itself in him. Now he fears he sees the trait in his son, and he treats him harshly for it, creating yet another father son relationship that will be damaged.
  • A woman from the book's tribe has been murdered by a neighboring tribe. To keep peace, they must atone for it, in other words, make amends. Okonkwo will 'carry a message of war to their enemies unless they agreed to give up a young man and a virgin to atone for the murder of Udo's wife.' Okonkwo is given a young boy from that neighboring village.

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