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Free Study Guide Things Fall Apart Chinua Achebe BookNotes

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CHAPTER SUMMARIES WITH NOTES / ANALYSIS

 

PART ONE


CHAPTER 1


Summary

The novel begins with the introduction of Okonkwo, a young man famed throughout for his strength as well as other personal achievements. At the age of eighteen, he had brought honor to his village by overthrowing Amalinze, the cat. Okonkwo was a tall man, with bushy eyebrows and a wide nose. He had risen to his present state of prominence because of his ambitious nature and hatred of failure. His father, Unoka had always been a failure and a debtor. He was more interested in playing his flute than working in the fields. Because of this, his family never had enough to eat and he became a source of shame to Okonkwo. Once when a neighbor called Okoye had come to him to request him to return his money, Unoka had laughed at him and said that he would first pay the others whom he owed more money.

After his father’s death, Okonkwo, though young, won fame as the greatest wrestler. Since then, he has become a wealthy farmer, with two barns full of yams. He also had three wives and two honorific titles and was a great warrior. Everybody respected him in the village for his achievements.


Notes

Set in the late nineteenth century, the novel covers a tumultuous period in African history as the encroachment of British civilization into many parts of Nigeria in the form of missionaries, explorers, and eventually an administrative apparatus disrupted and ultimately destroyed the economic and social systems of traditional cultures such as the Igbo. In the first chapter, the reader is exposed to some of the nuances of traditional Igbo culture and its precepts as well as the protagonist of the novel, Okonkwo.


Some of the traditions and cultural aspects of Igbo life introduced in this chapter are social rituals such as the treatment of a guest. A guest always visits a house with his goat skin, which he unrolls and sits on. A small wooden disc containing a kola nut, some alligator pepper and a lump of white chalk is brought out, and the disc is passed to the guest. The disc is then broken and some lines are drawn on the floor. After eating the kola nut, they have conversation on various subjects. A number of proverbs are used while speaking. These proverbs are wise sayings that reflect on the morals and customs of their society as well as provide a very particular meaning within Igbo society. They are “the palm oil with which words are eaten.” As well as social rituals, marriage customs such as having more than one wife, honorific titles, economic indicators such as yams and cowries (shells) and legends are detailed to reveal the complex culture the Igbo have.

One of the main indicators of a person’s wealth and success is the number of yams a man has grown and stored in his barns, as well as the number of titles he has taken. A title is taken when a man has reached a certain economic status and buys his recognition through initiation fees to others who share that title. There are four titles to be gained in Igbo society, each one more expensive than the other. With these titles comes power within the tribe. These economic indicators allow those who are not born into wealth such as Okonkwo to amass fortunes through hard work and gain a prestige that is not based on inheritance or nobility.

Okwonko is portrayed as a dynamic protagonist, who has immense belief in success and who resents failure. He is a self-made man who has risen above his father’s disreputable life to achieve success and power in his village. “He had no patience with his father.” In this chapter, his father, Unoka is portrayed as a lazy man who enjoyed his life and was happiest when he played on his flute. Okwonko’s fear of failure is deeply ingrained in him and throughout the novel, he fears his father’s deeds coming back to him.

Using the familiar structure and traditions of Greek tragedy, Achebe developed his character Okonkwo as a tragic hero and Things Fall Apart can be interpreted within this form as a tragedy. Although Okonkwo is admirable and represents the best qualities including physical feats and economic success, he also has a tragic flaw or harmartia. In chapters to come, the reader can see Okonkwo’s flaw reveal itself in subtle yet inexorable ways.

Lastly, mention is made of Ikemefuna, a young man who will be part of Okonkwo’s household, and who will have a significant impact on Okonkwo’s personal tragedy.


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