Imperialism is defined as “a policy of extending a country’s power and influence through colonisation, use of military force, or other means”. It also marks a sombre period in Britain’s long history, with particular regard to the consequences of Britain’s economic and foreign policy in the 18th and 19th century. But whilst imperialism is well documented from the perspective of the “civilised coloniser”, often the “colonised” are not given the voice they deserve within contemporary western literature of the time.
Though Achebe’s novel was published in 1958 long after missionaries were well established in the region, Things Fall Apart is held in high regard across Africa and the rest of the world for exploring pre- and post-colonial life in Nigeria. The story is set in the late 19th century and follows the life of Okonkwo, a champion fighter and proud man who is famous throughout the surrounding villages. He is a self-made man who earns his fortune through hard-work and toil, a far cry from his father, Unoka, who died with shame and in debt. As part of a peace settlement with a neighbouring village, a young boy named Ikemefuna is sent to live with Okonkwo, his three wives and their children until the elders can consult the Oracle and decide Ikemefuna’s fate. From this point onward Okonkwo’s life is changed forever, and his actions are to have lasting consequences throughout the village.
Given that much has already been written and discussed about Achebe’s choice of English over the Igbo language in Things Fall Apart, perhaps it is best to put this to one side except to say that Achebe had his own reasons for doing so which you can read here.
So language aside, what else can be said of Things Fall Apart? Firstly, it is beautifully written and structured. Traditional Igbo proverbs are littered throughout, and Achebe spends a lot of time chronicling Okonkwo’s life, particularly his struggle to be successful and respected in spite of his father. In doing so, Achebe allows the reader to become accustomed to how the village operates, what customs and social hierarchies are to be followed, and the intricacies of village life. Therefore upon the arrival of the missionaries, the disruption to this familiar order is palpable, as is the wariness, confusion and anxious curiosity of the villagers. As the novel progresses however, it becomes painful to see the rifts that emerge not only between families, but also the traditions and beliefs that have been passed down from generation to generation. The feeling of loss and grief for a way of life that is under attack is astounding.
Okonkwo is also a fascinating character; he is driven and ambitious, but eaten alive by the fear of becoming like his father. He is stoic, harsh, rash and exceptionally hard on his children whom he fears will become like their grandfather, lazy and a burden to the community. So although Okonkwo isn’t a particularly warm or likeable character, by the end Things Fall Apart almost reads like a Greek tragedy. Okonkwo falls victim to his own hamartia and the arrival of colonialism, and the reader is left feeling deeply for Okonkwo and a lost way of life.
The ending itself is not easily forgotten, and is incredibly moving and powerful. It serves as a stark reminder that culture is precious, and to lose it can be devastating. Things Fall Apart deserves it’s reputation, and I would urge everyone to read it!