Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…
Chinua Achebe’s 1958 novel, Things Fall Apart, which takes its title from W.B. Yeats’s poem, “The Second Coming,” is set in late-nineteenth century Nigeria and spans both the pre-colonial and post-colonial eras.
Although the novel serves as a commentary on the effects of European colonization at a larger scale, the plot itself follows a single individual, Okonkwo, a warrior from the Umuofia clan, a tribe in lower Nigeria. Plagued by the shadow of his father’s reputation as a poor, lazy coward in every aspect of his existence, Okonkwo strives to achieve what his father could not: status as a wealthy, courageous, honorable warrior. At the story’s onset, we see that Okonkwo has been largely successful in this goal. He is a revered warrior, known for his physical and mental strength and bravery.
From the beginning of the novel, it is apparent that Okonkwo’s beliefs are simple and steadfast; he believes that honor is comprised of unyielding masculinity, unwavering ruthlessness, and unrelenting adherence to tradition. Honor is also to be valued above all else, including life. However, as the plot progresses, Okonkwo himself becomes victim of his own ideals, as those same values he venerates lead to hardship and an inability to recognize that the tides of change are beyond his control.
Achebe explores Okonkwo’s story against the greater backdrop of the beginning of colonialism and its complex effects on the lives of tribal communities. However, Achebe provides a unique and enriching perspective that appears in stark contrast to the traditional, western-centric narrative of imperialism.
Things Fall Apart is as much an exploration of an individual’s fight to maintain his personal identity and the cultural identity of his community as it is of the subjugation of a people, whose voice has been largely absent in Western literary canon until this novel’s publication.
A quick read at just over 200 pages, Achebe’s novel crafts a captivating plot that builds to an impactful and highly symbolic ending. Achebe also seamlessly weaves cultural references and Igbo proverbs and language into the story, giving readers a culturally enriching experience. Through the lens of Okonkwo’s weaknesses and shortcomings as a husband, father, and village leader, Achebe crafts a narrative in which every reader can observe the universality of human weakness, although we are separated from the historical context of the novel by many geographical miles, decades, and cultural differences.
At the very least, even if one cannot relate to the themes of the novel, Things Fall Apart provides a critical look at the narrative of a person, place, and time period that has been largely left out of the literary conversation. Achebe’s novel is not only a commentary on masculinity, tradition, and honor, but also an incisive criticism of Western imperialist perspectives.