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“Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe: Theme Study Essay (Book Review)

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Updated: Aug 24th, 2022

Introduction

‘Things fall apart’ is an English language novel published during 1958 by the celebrated Nigerian author, Chinua Achebe. This book gained popularity among global English speaking readers and is deemed as the first African novel written in English, which received international applause for its treatment of African themes. The major themes in this novel are cultural erosion, gender domination, racism and colonial hegemony, besides the preponderance of ritualistic elements in the prevalent African societal fabric. It is proposed to take up the racist elements in this novel. Among other themes, ‘Things fall apart’ considers the mental state of a fiercely loyal nationalist and local chieftain, Okonkwo, pitted against the powers of, first the oracles, and then, the Christian missionaries. The latter wish to preach their religion and convert local natives into Christian faith, thus seeking to destroy the rich African traditions and cultural values, of which the protagonist, Okonkwo is a living icon and vociferous supporter.

This novel vividly portrays the influence of colonialism in a traditionally bound Nigerian village at that moment of history. Its central character, Obi Okonkwo, exemplifies both the nobility and rigidity of the ancient cultural value systems prevailing in deep Africa, who is so much imbued in nationalistic fervor that he would rather die than submit to the progressive yet subversive religious overture of foreign elements.

At one level, the novel takes the reader on a voyage into the middle of Africa and the rituals and customs that differentiated this large continent from rest of the world. But, in a more significant metaphysical level, it delves into the yearnings of the anguished mind of Okonkwo, laid bare before the readers. This reaches its climax upon his return from exile to his beloved country and his disturbed reactions upon seeing its gradual transformation at the hands of colonial settlers. He rebels against these intrusions, but eventually has to meet his own tragic destiny along with ultimate erosion of his tribe.

Discussions about the theme

“Okonkwo’s struggle to live up to what he perceives as “traditional” standards of masculinity, and his failure adapt to a changing world, help point out the importance of custom and tradition in the novel.” (Achebe, 2006, Custom and tradition, para.1). In this novel, it is evidenced that through extraordinary fighting prowess, hard work and dedication to his tribe, Okonkwo is able to reach the high position of chieftain of his sect, and also earns their respect and obedience. However, his killing of the boy, who was to be sacrificed to appease the Gods, and subsequent murder of another person at the funeral, earns him exile for several years. Under African customs, Okonkwo himself was not empowered to kill a person who was needed to be sacrificed. Upon his return, he is not able to reconcile himself to the changed environment, brought about by colonial expansionism. Although he yearns to protect his land from foreign cultural invasion, he finds that now he has lost the support of his own tribesmen and now has only two options left before him – either to surrender to colonialist over lordship and face the consequences, or to seek redemption through death.

A proud leader of a ferocious tribe, he preferred death to ultimate dishonor, a process that would save him the ignominy of presiding over the complete and systematic destruction of the cultural values and traditions of his tribe, which he protected for so long and had held so dear. The main theme of the novel, in terms of cultural subjugation and introduction of western traditional values to replace contemporary African cultures are discussed during the course of this novel.

Discussions about the author’s treatment of the theme

The author’s treatment of the theme has been adequate. He has been able to convey the pathos and moral degeneration of the tribe, accompanying the changes in value systems, quite vividly and vibrantly. Achebe’s narrative style – succinct, simple yet strikingly elegant, also serves to heighten the reader’s total reading experience, especially towards the end of the novel. His mastery over the language and narrative text, choice and flow of words are indeed exceptionally remarkable, which has been the main reason for the raving success of this work, reinforced with its delicately rendered narration. Achebe’s treatment of his characters, his plot and its intricate interwoven elements do not have any controversial elements, and most readers would end up sympathizing with the protagonist, Okonkwo, and his fate.

Perhaps, an issue of slight controversy would be the heartlessness with which the Christian missionaries are depicted in this novel. Being a Nigerian himself, and considering the fact that this novel is dated during the middle of the 20th century, with its age old taboos and value systems, it is much natural that Achebe would have felt strongly about the protection of African cultural moorings and its preservation against foreign elements.

There are strong indications of nationalistic fervor in this novel, which perhaps, Okonkwo glorifies with the ultimate death of his protagonist, a martyr. This way, the balancing act is also completed, in that while Okonkwo was successful throughout his lifetime in the many conflicts he undertook, ultimately, he failed to secure himself and his clan in the ultimate battle against colonial expansion on his soil. This perhaps is the mainstay of his story and its ultimate theme. The chieftain could not win the ultimate battle against himself, his own contradictions, and reconciliation to changing times and modern value systems, deftly depicted in the colonialism of Africa and its poor, albeit proud people.

Reference

Achebe, C. (2006). Things fall apart study guide: Themes: Custom and tradition. Book Rags. Web.

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