Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

On the wrong side of history…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Okonkwo is determined not to be like his drunken, feckless father. Through hard work, he gains an honoured place in his Ibo village as a yam grower with three wives and several children. As we follow what happens to him, we will learn about the ways and traditions of his people, and of how the coming of the white man changed them irrevocably.

If ever a man deserved his success, that man was Okonkwo. At an early age he had achieved fame as the greatest wrestler in all the land. That was not luck. At the most one could say that his chi or personal god was good. But the Ibo people have a proverb that when a man say yes his chi says yes also. Okonkwo said yes very strongly; so his chi agreed. And not only his chi but his clan too, because it judged a man by the work of his hands.

The thing is that Achebe’s depiction of those ways and traditions are so appalling that I found myself completely on the side of the colonisers, not a place I either expected or wanted to be! The perpetual beatings of wives and children paled into insignificance when compared to the frequent killings for no reason at the behest of the many seemingly cruel and unjust gods worshipped and feared by the people. Centuries of farming tradition and yet they hadn’t worked out any methods of crop irrigation or protection, leaving them entirely at the mercy of the elements and of those pesky gods. The customs of deciding that some people should be treated as outcasts for no discernible cause and, even worse, of throwing twins out at birth to be left to die in the open made me feel that anything had to have been better than this. Come the colonisers, and with them education, healthcare, and a religion that taught of a loving god, gave a place to the outcasts and saved the lives of the abandoned twins – sounds good to me! And that makes me feel bad, because of course I really ought to be up in arms about the iniquities of the colonisers, oughtn’t I?

I really struggled for at least half of this quite short book. It’s quite repetitive and although it’s certainly revealing and, I assume, honest about the life and traditions of the village, there’s very little in the way of story. I must say Achebe surprised me, though. I knew nothing about him except that he called Conrad a “thoroughgoing racist” for his portrayal of colonisation, and I assumed therefore that he would show the Africans in a positive light. I admire him, therefore, for not taking that easy route and instead giving a very harsh and unromanticised portrayal of life before the colonisers arrived. I suspect his real argument with Conrad was probably that Conrad often leaves the “natives” at the periphery of the picture, as if they are merely props on a stage set for the star actors in his dramas, the white men, and I certainly would agree with that assessment though I wouldn’t agree that that makes him racist. Achebe reverses this, putting the Africans as the central stars, with the colonisers having merely walk-on roles, and this has apparently influenced generations of African writers ever since the book was first published in 1958, making them realise the possibility of telling their own stories.

Chinua Achebe

The story picks up in the second half, once the colonisers arrive. We see the mix of missionary and soldier, one trying to change the Africans through the influence of Christianity, the other controlling them at the point of the gun. We see any form of violent resistance met with a wholly disproportionate response, and the newly installed justice system being used as a thin veneer to camouflage total dominance. We see misunderstandings caused by a failure of each to attempt to understand the other’s culture, and those misunderstandings often escalating to murder or massacre. Again, Achebe doesn’t make this entirely one-sided. While obviously the military might of the colonisers is by far the greater, he shows that many of the Africans are attracted to the things they offer, whether that be a better life or simply the pleasure that comes from being on the side of the more powerful, especially to those who have been treated as outcasts by their own society.

Through Okonkwo and the older villagers, we see their despair at the destruction of the old ways, and from a male perspective I could certainly sympathise with that. But from a female perspective, I couldn’t help but feel that the women would have had less to regret – on the basis of Achebe’s depiction, they lacked all political power and had little influence even in the domestic sphere, not to mention the accepted tradition that husbands ought to beat their wives regularly. (Not, of course, that that tradition was exclusive to Africans…)

“The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”

I can’t say I wholeheartedly enjoyed it, either for the very bleak portrayal of the life of the Africans, nor for any particular literary merit. It is well written but not exceptionally so and the structure makes it feel rather unbalanced, with what story there is all happening towards the end. What makes it stand out is the rare centrality of the Nigerian people in their own story, and the, to me, unexpected even-handedness with which Achebe treats both Africans and colonisers. For those reasons, and because it’s considered an African classic by the “father of African literature”, I’m glad to have read it.

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49 thoughts on “Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

  1. It’s a double edged sword, isn’t it…old traditional ways versus less cruelty and more humanity. I can’t really think it’s right for people to be treated in such a cavalier manner. Excellent review ☺️

  2. Top notch review I must confess. I read Things Fall Apart in high school during my days of seeking out eclectic writers from all over the world and enjoyed reading the African classic. What stood out for me in the short but cinematic book was the conceptualization of the girl child Ezinma as a Spirit-Child whose sickness emanated not from any known medical condition but from the promptings of the village mountain goddess. Read much like Stephen King’s horror book but with a local flavor.

    I could only imagine how the villages in Africa would have fared had the colonizers from Europe and America remained in their “superior” world with guns and greed and more. Evolution has inherent evil. Thanks for sharing

    • Thank you! 😀 Yes, the girl was probably my favourite character too, and I liked the way Achebe showed how the gods were given credit and blame for everything that happened. I guess it would be interesting to know what would have happened if colonisation never had, but I suspect we might be reaching a point of seeing that there were some benefits to the indigenous people of the various colonised countries, at the same time as a lot of bad. I was glad Achebe’s account was pretty balanced.

  3. I must admit, my feelings about this book were pretty much identical to yours. From a structural point of view, I remember its uneven quality, but the thing I found more disturbing and problematic was that I struggled to warm to Okonkwo, which in turn made me feel very uneasy for totally the wrong reasons. I would still recommend it to people however, as it does try to redress the balance by placing the Africans centre stage and attempting to explore this part of history from their point of view in a very unsentimental manner.

    • Yes, I found all of the male characters pretty difficult to empathise with, except the young boy who gets killed very early on. I liked the women a little more, but didn’t feel we really got much idea of their perspective on the changes that were happening. I’m glad Achebe didn’t romanticise the old ways, although I did wonder if he in fact went too far in the other direction – it seems to me that writers like Rider Haggard, strangely, present a far more positive picture of African culture at that time. But of course I have no idea which depiction is closer to the truth – I’d like to think Achebe’s, although I frequently feel Scottish writers run down their own culture for literary effect much more than “foreigners” do…

  4. It is a really difficult story to read, isn’t it, FictionFan? And for the reasons you outline, too. I agree with you that the villagers are the main players here, and not on the periphery, and it is good to read the story from that perspective. But some of those truths are very hard to take. It must have been hard to be that honest about a society…

    • Such a bleak depiction, isn’t it? I’m glad he didn’t romanticise the culture but I couldn’t help wondering if he actually went too far in the other direction. Since I frequently criticise Scottish authors for their overly grim portrayal of Scots culture, I always have a niggling doubt that indigenous writers are necessarily fairer than “outsiders”, if that makes sense. However, it was an intriguing read, especially that he was honest about how so many Africans helped prop up the colonisers, which is true of most of the old empire, I think.

  5. I read this years ago before I had a blog, so I don’t remember it very well – your post has made me get the book off the shelf and wonder about re-reading it. As I remember it Christianity didn’t come out of it very well to say the least.

    • I don’t think anyone came out of it well! I must say if I had to choose between Christianity as portrayed in the book or the gods of the Igbo, I’d go with Christianity, though – especially if I happened to be a twin… 😉

    • Yes, I saw your review on Goodreads and know exactly where you’re coming from – I nearly abandoned it myself a couple of times, and only struggled on because it’s hailed as such a great classic. But I hated how bleak the portrayal was and how cruel everything seemed to be…

    • Ha – thank you! 😀 Not an easy read, I felt, even though it’s quite short. But there’s an awful lot of bleakness and cruelty in it – all true, probably, but I’m afraid it was a bit too grim for me…

  6. I have to admit I’ve never heard of this. (the book OR the author) History is full of colonization and in some ways I can understand why it was done… but it so often doesn’t work out well (if ever?) for those being colonized. Maybe it’s the methods used or maybe just the fact the opposing cultures are just too different. I appreciate your review, but don’t think this one is for me. 😐

    • I hadn’t until a few years ago and I can’t actually remember where I came across it – somebody’s blog, no doubt! I have very mixed feeling about the impact of colonisation. Obviously there are lots of bad things about it, especially in the likes of America and Australia where we stole the land and killed the indigenous people in huge numbers, but in other places – Africa and India – I do think some of the legacy is more positive, or at least more ambiguous…

  7. This is such a good review, thank you. I did read this years ago and only really remember the amount of palm wine that was drunk, but I think you’re right that the point is that the people are at the centre of their own story.

    • Thank you! 😀 Ha, yes they did seem to drink a lot of palm wine and the idea of yam for breakfast, lunch and dinner didn’t do much to tempt me! Yes, it was interesting to see the colonial experience from the perspective of the colonised for once…

  8. Like so many others, I read this years ago in college. The title always comes up on ‘must read’ lists, but I have never had the desire to reread it, even though I barely remember it. And with this review, I think I’m good! I do think some books ‘should’ be read, but it’s ok to say they don’t work for you.

    • Yes, I could probably make a longish list of books I’m glad to have read even though I didn’t really enjoy them much at the time, and this one would be on it. But it didn’t encourage me to seek out the other two books in the trilogy, I’m afraid.

  9. What a thoughtful review FF! I suspect I would have the same torn feelings as you, guilty by what I should be feeling just as much as what I shouldn’t be feeling! hahaha I think that in itself means its a great book.

    • Ha, yes, at least it made me think! I do find colonialism a difficult subject, mainly because I think some good things came out of it in some parts of the world but it’s not really considered OK to say that at the moment. Lots of bad things too, of course. Maybe future historians and novelists will be able to take a more balanced view…

  10. The impact of colonialism seems different in each country. For me I think of Australia’s history first where the impact was devastating. This book doesn’t tempt me at all, well done to you for sticking it out.

    • Yes, I always think America and Australia were the two really disastrous ones, because we settled them rather than just sort of governing them. NZ, too, though it doesn’t seem to have been quite so destructive to the indigenous culture. But Africa and India – hmm, well, I’d say it’s more mixed, especially India where in fact hardly any Brits settled – it was all done with the consent and support of many Indians.

      • Australia compares really poorly to New Zealand in this. The differences between the impacted people in each country is still enormous and shameful. I’ve heard Maori people say the difference between them and Australian Aboriginals is that they fought back as a united group and so gained more, something which was impossible for Aboriginal people to have done. It’s a huge topic and as you say, disastrous.

        • I’m thinking of doing a challenge to read more about the dominions and colonies – fiction rather than history – but not until I finish the Around the World one. I find it fascinating how differently the various places were, and still are, affected by it. I might be looking for recommendations for Australian books…

          • That’s an interesting idea for a reading theme. I might be a little biased when recommending Australian books (as they’re all great!) This is an area in Australian fiction which is beginning to grow.

            • Yes, I think it’s long enough ago now for authors to be approaching it in a more thoughtful way than simply being pro or anti. Plus we’re finally beginning to see some indigenous writers coming through, so it seems like a good time to explore colonial-themed fiction. I hope so, anyway! 😀

  11. It’s been years since I read this and I don’t remember it clearly but I don’t recall having these struggles with it. This would have been before I read much international fiction so I’m going to guess much of it was over my head. It’s interesting to me now to see how much writing (and how much great writing) is coming from Nigeria and into the rest of the world and I think Achebe was a huge part of that.

    • I’ve been reading an awful lot of empire history and colonial fiction over the last few years, so definitely brought my own views to the book and I have very mixed feelings about the impact of colonisation, in Africa and India especially, where we governed with local support rather than settling in huge numbers. I’m not minimising the adverse impacts but I do think there were some benefits too – one of them might even be the introduction of a written literary tradition in some parts of Africa which had never had one before. Apparently Achebe himself said that he wrote in English because the African languages he grew up with weren’t suited to the written word.

          • It’s hard to avoid that. We’re different generations but still when I was in school we read almost exclusively British/colonial voices, even more so than Canadian writers. University introduced me to a wider range of authors but most of the “other side” I’ve had to make an effort to seek out. (And haven’t read as many as I should yet.)

            • I think that’s the same in a lot of the old empire – I know there’s a bit of a backlash in India because the education system still relentlessly focuses on British literature rather than Indian writers, though happily I think it’s changing now. Even in my Scottish education we were given far more English classics than Scottish – I guess “owning” the language has given English authors a major advantage.

            • CanLit has definitely taken off in recent years but I’m not sure the education system has quite caught up. And most everything anyone here considers a “classic” is English. It certainly helps to have the power and the language of power for hundreds of years!

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