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Free Study Guide Things Fall Apart Chinua Achebe BookNotes

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THEMES - THEME ANALYSIS


The immediate subject of Chinua Achebe’s novels is the tragic consequence of the European encounter with African civilization. His novels deal with the social and psychological conflicts created by the invasion of the white man and his culture into the hitherto self-contained world of African society, and the disarray of the African consciousness that has followed.

In Things Fall Apart, the theme is the colonization of Africa by the British and the negative and violent changes this brought about in the lives of the African tribes. Along with colonization was the arrival of the missionaries whose main aim was to spread the message of Christianity and to convert people to their religion. These missionaries eventually establish a strong foothold in the tribe which then allows a government as well as law court for administering justice to become part of the indoctrination of native peoples to Western ways. Achebe does not gloss over the cruelty and superstition that prevails in the tribe, and even shows that it was this element that opened the way for the disintegration of the tribe and their ‘falling apart.’ This theme is best shown in the rise and fall of Okonkwo, who represents the best and worst of his culture. Thus, Okonkwo himself becomes a symbol of the disintegration.

In a tribal society, the most important factor is the unity of the members of the tribe and their absolute obedience to the ruling of the elders as well as the gods and goddesses. This is lost when some of them accept contrasting values brought to them by the missionaries. This leads to an increasing openness to Western thought and religion and allows for the eventual exploitation and assimilation. Okonkwo is one of few who resist and he ends up dead at the end of the novel. His refusal is a form of resistance to conforming to the ways of the white man as well as a rejection of his own culture as he has made a terrible transgression in committing suicide and will not be buried in the warrior style that he deserved. In a way Okonkwo rejects his own tribe members for their cowardice and lack of support.

This tragedy is one that is shared by the entire tribe, which has ‘fallen apart.’ This thus is a double tragedy, due to the weakness and mistake of the hero, but also the weakness of the tribe, who despite their power among the local clans, cannot resist the colonizing effort.

Achebe has used tragedy as a medium in handling this theme. This involves a particular dramatic ordering of events in which each of the situations is linked to another, thus revealing a tragic pattern. Achebe thus succeeds in striking a profoundly sad and ironic note in his novel Things Fall Apart.



THE TRAGIC FAULTS OF OKONKWO


Okonkwo, for all his greatness, has his faults, which ultimately lead to his downfall. His greatest fault, or hamartia, as seen in the protagonist of a typical Greek tragedy, is his pride. His own success as a self-made man, makes him impatient of others who are not as successful. For example, at a meeting of the tribe’s elders, he calls another man a woman and says, “This meeting is for men.” This man who had contradicted him had no titles, and so Okonkwo felt that he was not worthy enough. However, Okonkwo had to apologize to him.

Okonkwo is hard and stern with his family, particularly his son, Nwoye, who does not take after him. It is Okonkwo’s inner, psychological fear that he too would be a failure like his father, that makes him proud and hard. He is strict with his wives too and never shows his inner emotions. It is this that drives him to break the rules of the Week of Peace, by beating his wife when she does not send him his food as required. Breaking the rules of the week of peace is considered a sin against the Goddess of the soil, Ani. So this is both a personal error and an error against the rules of the tribe.

At the New Yam festival, too, he almost shoots his second wife, Ekwefi, with a gun as he thinks that she has cut down his banana tree when she has only cut a few leaves. This again shows his impulsive nature and volatile temper, faults which later rebound on him. When the Oracle of the Hills and Caves orders the death of Ikemefuna, Okonkwo, in order to show his fearlessness and impartiality, strikes the final blow with his machete, even as the boy is calling him “My father, they have killed me!” Ogbuefi, the oldest man in the village had asked Okonkwo not to participate on the killing of the boy as he called him his father. By killing the boy himself Okonkwo commits his second offense against the tribal laws.

At the funeral of the leader of the tribe Ezeudu, there is much dancing and firing of crackers and guns. Okonkwo fires his gun, but it explodes and a fragment of metal kills Ezeudu’s own son. For this final fault against the tribe - a killing of one’s own kinsmen - he is banished for seven years.

At the end of the novel, when Okonkwo cannot take more of the vile behavior of the District Commissioner, it is his impulsive nature that pushes him to behead one of his messengers. Though this was a brave act, he commits suicide realizing that his clan is no longer with him. The reader thus sees Okonkwo as a puppet of his own actions and nature, all which finally lead him to his doom.


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