Things Fall Apart (1958) is set in the 1890s during a time when European imperialism sought to include Africa as part of their colonial empires. The Berlin Conference (1884) between Europe’s superpowers is often referred to as the starting point of the Scramble for Africa because this was where the Belgian King Leopold II’s right to seize Congo was officially recognised. Other European superpowers soon followed suit and would together colonise the entire African continent except Ethiopia and Liberia. European military technology was far more advanced than their African counterpart by this point in history, which helped to make conquest a rapid process. Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart is concluded with the fictive Igbo village Umuofia, which chose to accept defeat by the British without resisting. African responses to colonialism varied across the continent and some of the more notable acts of colonial resistance were in fact Igbo (the Ekumeku movement 1883-1914, the Anglo-Aro war 1901-2). Achebe’s choice to focus on the Igbo people (Achebe is Igbo himself) and his criticism of Igbo norms and values gives his novel a great sense of objectivity. He does not hesitate to criticize certain traditions of the Igbo nor does he overlook the collectivist and democratic aspects of Igbo society, allowing the reader a sensible Africanist perspective of an African society.
The various responses to European colonialism have often been grouped into two oversimplified categories of Resistance or Collaboration. I say oversimplified because African kings and chiefs often identified the relative potential advantage of each situation. They would collaborate in some instances in order to maintain as much autonomy as possible within the confines of the colonial state, and resist in other instances with the same aim in mind. The Resistance-Collaboration dichotomy fails to include the whole spectra of responses and becomes an ever-greater problem when attributes are fixed to these terms. Collaboration is viewed as an act of cowardice and betrayal while resistance is associated with heroism. Chinua Achebe’s protagonist Okonkwo represents the latter and refuses to accept the new British order that has assumed control of Umuofia during his seven-year exile. His fellow villagers instead choose to accept the inevitability of European rule over their people. Okonkwo becomes a symbol of the last traditional African, the British represent the inevitability of modernity and eastern Nigeria becomes the set for a clash between traditional Africa and modern Europe.
In Things Fall Apart we meet Okonkwo, a man that symbolises masculinity in a society that values traditional masculine characteristics. He is a strict husband/father and works hard to prove himself opposite to his lazy father, Unoka. Okonkwo is a man powerful in strength (he was once the unbeaten wrestling champion of the nine Igbo villages for seven years) and in influence (he was among Umuofia’s most influential men before his exile), who resolves all conflicts with violence, or the threat of it. By portraying an archetype of Igbo masculinity as a difficult-to-sympathise-with character, Achebe undoubtedly challenges ideas of how men are supposed to be.
The first half of the novel introduces us to traditional Igbo society, its religion, traditions, laws, rituals and other social practices. Achebe’s account of Igbo society demonstrates a lively and historic culture, which greatly undermines the colonial idea that Africa was a dark and primitive place. Things Fall Apart has undoubtedly become one of the most influential literary demonstrations of Africa taking possession of the right to define itself. Having sold over 8 million copies in its original language English, it has also been translated into 50 other languages.
Things Fall Apart is the father of modern African literature and a must-read for those interested in getting an African account of an African society. It also demonstrates the complexity of African thought, something that was left out of European colonial accounts. In Things Fall Apart Achebe demonstrates an alternative image to the stereotypical colonial representations of Africa. These colonial representations continue to exist in western society today as Africa continues to be reported as a poverty-stricken, war-torn continent. African literature plays an important role in broadening the general understanding of Africa and offers an alternative view to the narrow and negative western images of the continent fed to us by media. Things Fall Apart is an entertaining read that educates, questions and challenges preconceived ideas about Africa. If you haven’t read the book, see that you do. If not for the story then at least for the many fantastic Igbo proverbs!
“An animal rubs its aching flank against a tree, a man asks his kinsman to scratch him”.