Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe, is the story of tribal Africa both before and during the colonial period.
The story follows the main character, Okonkwo, through his life as a highly respected man in his tribe, an accident that forced him away, his anger at the white man moving in and changing things, and his untimely death at his own hand. Things Fall Apart is a moving tale that speaks of the normalcy of tribal life before the arrival of the white man, and the falling apart of society as it was known due to the introduction of Christianity and the white man’s law.
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Chinua Achebe’s purpose in writing this story was to present the colonial period in Africa through the eyes of the people it really affected. Achebe uses the first and second portions of his novel to explain what everyday life was like in a fictional section of Africa before the white man came (Achebe, 1959).
Through his writing, the reader learns much about the way these people lived. Every part of their society, from cooking to house building to tribal ranks, is covered in detail, but it is told through the eyes of people who would have really lived that way.
Achebe seems to wish for his readers to see that there was more to African tribes than what little was told about them in history books. He pulls the reader in and makes them a part of the tribe by explaining everything in minute detail. It almost feels as if one is in the camps as they read.
The controversy that Achebe focuses on is the ruin of tribal society by the arrival of the white man, the Christian religion, and the white man’s law. The tribes had their own ways of dealing with problems and the breaking of their laws, but the white men moved in and changed all of that. They built courts and prisons so they could carry out their own kind of justice (Achebe, 1959).
The tribal religions were ancient, but Christianity was introduced and made many villagers turn away from the gods that their families had followed for lifetimes (Achebe 1959). Achebe’s opinion of these actions appears to be less than accommodating.
From the way that he writes, it seems that he sympathized greatly with the people who were undergoing such change. One gets the impression that Achebe believes that the tribes would have been better off left alone. His presentation of the information is split into three sections, and each section deals with a different part of the main character, Okonkwo, life falling apart.
The first section is a description of his happy life in his tribe, the second part deals with his banishment to his mother’s family land, and the third deals with his encounters with the white man and his desperate bids to change things back to the way they were (Achebe, 1959).
It is made very clear that things have been so changed that they will never be “normal” again, and that seems to be the reason for the three point process. Life changes before the reader’s eyes, just as it changes before the characters eyes. In this way the reader feels the loss of the tightly woven society bit by bit, and that seems to be what Achebe hopes to accomplish.
Things Fall Apart is a fictional work, and so it does not have a basis in outside printed sources, or at least none that Achebe lists. This book is based on a reality that has been passed down for generations, and no doubt Achebe used some old stories and songs to base his story upon. However, the purpose of this book is not to focus on any one area. Instead, it is meant to represent all of Africa and all of what was lost during colonization.
Narrowing the scope to a place and people that existed in reality would lessen the scope of the book. Perhaps that is why Achebe did not choose to use printed sources as his guide. Melding the bits of knowledge that he had about the whole colonization process into one book gives the reader pieces of every tribe, not just one in particular.
Things Fall Apart has many chapters, but three major sections. The first section tells the reader all about everyday life in the tribes. The reader learns how important it is to be seen as “manly,” and how necessary it is to stay in the good graces of the gods (Achebe, 1959). Also covered in this section are descriptions of the diet of the tribe, the clothing they wore, and the buildings in which they lived (Achebe, 1959).
Tribal lore is also introduced, such as the thought that twin babies were evil and must be left to die, and the idea of the obanje child, an infant born again and again to the same woman, only to die at a young age every time (Achebe,, 1959). The reader also learns of the tribal forms of punishment, particularly the rule that accidental murders lead to a banishment of seven years to the motherland of the convicted (Achebe, 1959).
This rule is particularly important to the rest of the story, because it is the first step in the downfall of Okonkwo. Achebe’s argument in this portion of the story seems to be that although tribal life could be hard and cruel to outside eyes, it was nearly perfect for the people who lived it.
Everyone in the villages knew their place and their contribution to the tribe as a whole, and as long as everyone did their part and kept to the rules that had been in effect for hundreds of years, life ran smoothly.
Achebe paints a picture of a society that might not make a lot of sense to outsiders, but worked out just fine for the people within it. The underlying argument is, “Why force change on something that works?”
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