The major theme of the novel is that British colonization and the conversion to Christianity of tribal peoples has destroyed an intricate and traditional age-old way of life in Africa. The administrative apparatus that the British imposed on the cultures of Africa were thought to be just as well as civilizing although in reality they had the opposite effect of being cruel and inhumane practices that subjugated large native populations to the British. In conjunction with the colonizing practices, Western missionaries endeavored to move native peoples away from the superstitious practices that they perceived as primitive and inhumane and convert them to Christianity.
Another important theme that is explored in this book is the fallibility
of a man like Okonkwo, who is ambitious and hardworking who believes strongly
in his traditions. He wishes to achieve the highest title in his village
but ultimately his rash and impetuous behavior leads to his fall. The
reader also sees how Okonkwo refuses to break away from his traditional
and religious values, which results in his own death. He refuses to conform
to the forces of domination and therefore, one feels respect and admiration
for such a strong individual.
One of the minor themes that Achebe addresses in this book is the complex and subtle rites and traditions that make up Igbo culture. Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart in response to representations of Africans as primitive or as noble savages by European writers. In his novel, Achebe explodes these Western constructions by presenting a society that is as complex and dynamic as any culture in Western society. His characters are also complex beings rather than stereotypes. It is in fact the white colonialists and missionaries who appear to be one-dimensional.
Along with the major theme of the destruction of African culture due
to colonization, the readers also see how orthodox traditions and customs
rule the people of the society. Absolute loyalty and obedience to the
tribal religion is inculcated into the minds of the people from their
childhood. Strict adherence to the laws, as well as gender roles create
a community that is extremely close knit, but once this bond is broken,
tribal ways give way easily and fall apart. This breakdown of society
is seen as tragic as people suffer and communities become divisive.
The title of the book as well as the epigram sets the tone of the novel quite accurately. It comes from a W.B. Yeat's poem called The Second Coming. Yeats was a late 19th century Irish poet, essayist, and dramatist. The actual verse that Achebe uses as his epigram is:
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.
Chaos and disruption pervade good portions of the novel as well as a sense of life being diminished and changing in ways that cannot be controlled. Throughout the novel, the mood is usually somber and tragic although there are moments of great celebration and joy during village ceremonies such as weddings and the Week of Peace. The villagers have strong faith and deep beliefs and do not allow any kind of laxness with their customs. Yet during the festival seasons or during the wrestling contests, the people lose some of their inhibitions and enjoy themselves.
The novel focuses on the downfall of Okonkwo and often conveys a sense
of loss and tragedy. When the reader reads about the egwugwu,
the marked representatives of the ancestral spirits, the mood conveyed
is extremely dramatic and even frightening.