Book of the Month Discussion: Things Fall Apart.

from random house

from random house

It has been speculated that Uncle Tom’s Cabin aggravated the cultural conversation about slavery and planted the seeds for the Civil War. Whatever analysis is taken from the novel, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s serialized stories became relevant during a very particular time and place.

So, what set the cultural tone for an unknown West African man to publish the novel that would come to be seen as the seminal work from the African continent? Why was it important that this story be written in English?

Brief context: already dealing with post-WWII economic ruin, and wanting to avoid the expensive wars being fought by other European powers, the British began decolonization. During the mid-20th century, large swaths of their African colonies became (using the term very loosely) independent nations.  Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe was published two years before Nigeria was granted its independence.

Historically, it does not appear that Achebe’s novel could have been published at a more accepting time. Yet the novel’s very existence is an interesting contradiction—a thoroughly African story written in the preferred style and language of the author’s adopted culture.

In an essay titled “The African Writer and the English Language,” Achebe deals with, among other things, English as a global language used to tell many different stories.  At the end of the essay Achebe quotes James Baldwin whose qualms with the English language is that it reflects none of his experience. To this Achebe responds:

“I recognize, of course, that Baldwin’s problem is not exactly mine, but I feel that the English language will be able to carry the weight of my African experience. But it will have to be a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit its new African surroundings.”

And what of, as stated above, “a thoroughly African story?” And how does Achebe use the English language to suit his African surroundings? What at the core are the universal themes of Okonkwo’s story?

  • jwrosenzweig

    I taught high school for five years, and taught this book every year to my sophomores. I was always frustrated, though, by the fact that it never quite engaged them as much as I wanted it to. Over time, I started to wonder if I’d overrated this book…I’m curious to see the discussion you’ll have surrounding the book.

    If it’s all right for a total newcomer to your blog to offer a remark or two, I always thought that the most gripping theme in the story is one that has less to do with Okonkwo specifically than with the whole society. The fracturing of the culture destroys them all–Nwoye as much as his father. And yet Achebe doesn’t hide the ugliness of many aspects of the traditional culture; the sexism, the violence, the abandoned twins in the Evil Forest. The reason I found the book so moving was that it wasn’t the story of the fall of one man, it was the story of how, when a traditional culture is threatened, whether you embrace its fall or fight against it, you lose yourself. For that reason, I wonder if Achebe went wrong by turning the attention of the plot so fully onto Okonkwo in the last half of the book. Would it have been stronger, or more moving, if we had seen the changes through more eyes than simply Okonkwo’s?

  • I too find it overrated as a text. I am waiting for Zunguzungu to set me straight, but all of Achebe’s other writings are just… more enjoyable to read.

  • Welcome to PB!

    Honestly, I didn’t read TFA until college, and I didn’t find it all that engaging. Years later, I’ve come around to appreciating it for its historical significance.

    But I think you make an interesting point about the focus on Okonkwo. I didn’t connect to him, and that disconnect made it hard for me to see the larger picture that I think Achebe was trying to present.

  • I haven’t read TFA in many years but I have too always wondered why everyone seemed to love this story so much as I didn’t like it very much when forced to read it in high school, twice. I think that it is not so much the story itself that is so important but the historical and cultural importance of the novel and the fact that it stood alone in telling the story from an African perspective. I wonder if the way the story is written is more appealing to a white reader? Just a thought… Seeing as how both teachers who assigned the novel to me as a teen were white and so enthusiastic about the story while myself and all of my peers, (all students of color, predominantly black)thought the story lackluster.

  • Algernon

    I’m a new commenter as well, and I have to admit that I’m among the few here who don’t care for TFA as much as a lot of other post colonial authors. That being said, I find that TFA pairs very well with Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood. Both tackle specific issues in Igbo culture, and if I’m not mistaken the two have a rather serious rivalry.

  • belleisa

    Thanks for commenting.

    “Over time, I started to wonder if I’d overrated this book”

    I bet you can name a ton of books in the canon that are overrated. Or books you’ve come back to and discovered they weren’t very good? That is why my connection to TFA has mostly been about its historical significance than the actual story.

    “The fracturing of the culture destroys them all–Nwoye as much as his father. And yet Achebe doesn’t hide the ugliness of many aspects of the traditional culture; the sexism, the violence, the abandoned twins in the Evil Forest.”

    There are times when the novel read as anthropology. There were so many cultural notes on Gods, Harvest times, and ceremonies that I often wondered what Achebe or his editor had to cut out in order to maintain an actual story. Achebe, I believe, had the task of describing a culture most people were (are) unfamiliar with and to illustrate how abruptly that culture was changed by colonialism. Why should he hide the ugliness? It would have been false of Achebe to talk about the ills of colonialism as if pre-colonialism life was conflict-free and fabulous.

    “The reason I found the book so moving was that it wasn’t the story of the fall of one man, it was the story of how, when a traditional culture is threatened, whether you embrace its fall or fight against it, you lose yourself.”

    I didn’t mean to imply the total importance of Okonkwo, although he is the main character. But in culture based on male privilege and dominance,with no attempt or discusiion of aknowledgeing anything else, the stripping away of those rights was deeply emasculating.

    Who wouldn’t fight to maintain that type of treatment? Especially treatment they deem is granted to them by God? Especially when the opposition is coming from people who look nothing like you, don’t believe that you’re culture is worthwhile. It’s the type of fighting against change that we’re seeing now with healthcare—the type of aggression we see in modern day politics. And I think that is Achebe’s point.

    Nwoye’s temperament is more like this grandfather’s. I think it was important for Okonkwo to not have a son just like him. Mostly because it adds to the tragic hero’s story—Okonkwo toils all his life to build something for himself and his future family only to have a son who is nothing like him. I mean that particular story line had been told millions of times over.

    Also, Achebe is showing varying models of masculinity. Nwoye and Okonkwo would probably be members of different class categories.

    Babling on, but I hope you continue to teach this novel, and maybe stress some different points. Contemporary West African novelists really start with Achebe.

  • Real quickly, I think the question about why it’s written in English is related to the way it treats “the traditional.” Most simply, Achebe has said that English can be a Nigerian language because there is no other Nigerian language that doesn’t instantly communicate ethnic particularism. But it’s also a generational thing. Achebe originally started writing Things Fall Apart as a story that continued to the present, where Okonkwo’s grandson is a character much like himself (this part of the book became the sequel, No Longer at Ease). And for Achebe’s generation, fathers and grandfathers were often oppressive figures. There’s a gerontocratic bias in so many African cultures, of course, and that’s part of the story, but the generational clash was also particularly acute in the waning days of colonialism; for people like him (and young educated go-getters like he went to school with essentially went on to do every important job in Nigeria from that point on), the notion that one’s elders always knew better could be stifling and dis-empowering, especially when the tribal structure had been fundamentally integrated into the colonial system itself. A lot of the resentment/critique that Achebe channels into Okonkwo has got to be (I think) of a piece with the kind of generational conflicts that were going on all over the place, and the fact that the younger generation communicated in English *across* tribal barriers in contrast to the older tribal structures which did not is important.

  • belleisa, I definitely got the ethnography aspect of it too. It seems like that might be a result of my status as an outsider; I wonder if we would see the same if we were Igbo ourselves.

  • jwrosenzweig

    Oh, I certainly agree regarding the canon. And since it appears I miscommunicated a bit, I’m not saying I dislike the novel–it has a strange power for me, and I continue to get something meaningful from it (in part from its historical importance I suppose, but also as a story).

    Your comments re: anthropology very much go the direction I ended up going with the novel–seeing it as a way to immerse the students in a culture (as much as one can, when encountering it merely as a book) and see it as no more violent or arbitrary than Western culture, in many ways. It was a challenge for many of them. And I wasn’t intending to say that Achebe should hide ugliness–far from it! I think that’s the book’s power–that rather than serving merely as an indictment of colonialism (which deserves one, no doubt), it offers also a vision of a culture with which Achebe is not entirely comfortable. Culture should provoke tension and response from the people inside it, and he wasn’t afraid to explore that reality.

    I agree that Okonkwo’s story is of real interest: I always saw him as more complicated than I could get my sophomores to. There is a lot to him, much of it molded by his culture more powerfully than he knew how to resist–it was too easy for them to revile at his domestic violence without trying to see what it meant, who the man was behind the image he had to project of himself. I just continue to feel that one of the reasons the story flags a bit is Achebe’s fixation on that one storyline–when I list my favorite moments in the story, Okonkwo figures in probably only half of them.

    Sadly, I’ve left teaching (another casualty of the public education system, alas–we are an increasingly large group, it seems), so I can’t be sure that this fall’s sophomores will read it. But I definitely continued to grapple with the novel despite the students’ resistance, for the very reasons you mentioned–asking questions about gender roles and masculinity, pushing them to see what really happened in Africa in the 1880s (i.e., not “the arrival of civilization”). I hope the teacher who takes my spot still engages with it–given our school’s paltry resources, it’s the only novel by an African writer in the high school, and it would be an appalling tragedy if the students graduated with the impression that only Europeans produce literature.

  • I’ve always liked TFA–for whatever reason I really felt everything Okonkwo had to face. But maybe the biggest reason I like it so much is because the first time I experienced it was right after reading Heart of Darkness. The contrast was intense, and my dislike for Conrad was, too.

  • I haven’t quite finished it yet but if I might put my 2 cents in… The whole story seems like a macro version of the stories that the women tell their children in the book, which are both allegorical and explain how something happened. Okonkwo’s story isn’t quite as fantastical but I feel like it wouldn’t have worked if it was, since the entire story is about losing massive parts of one’s culture; it’s necessarily a mundane story. If you look at it as a “woman’s story”, too, it makes an interesting contrast to Okonkwo’s hypermasculine ideal.

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  • April

    Things Fall Apart has a special place in my heart. I wrote my extended essay for IB in high school on it, alongside Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (which I also like, though I don’t agree with its characterization of Africa). If you’re just going for a breezy plot, then, no, you might not like it. But I love what Achebe does with the English language in it–his essay, which is mentioned in this post, does a great job of explaining it. Even simple things like calling a bicycle an “iron horse.” But I appreciate most how it explores both through its plot and imagery how colonialism did indeed make things fall apart, while neither glorifying Okonkwo’s traditional society nor completely vilifying the British colonizers.

  • Keith Brisbane

    as a young black male who grew up in the inner city i immediately sense a connection between Okonkwo’s life and mine, mainly dealing with a father that i didn’t feel did enough to stimulate my growth as a man. Seeing as this stemmed much anger in his demeanor, i feel this came from the same place as mine did… Confusion. Being confused as to what means I should maintain a male role in society. Its something that many young males battle with today. I’m interpreting the story from a more emotional standpoint, where i feel the real power of the novel lies.

  • Jalen Rose

    I think I will always love TFA because Okonkwo echoed my perspective of my own father – distant, full of resentment, misunderstood, and struggling to hold something together of which he has no control. I also had that same emotional connection to the story, because I saw so much of the my father, and the rest of the men in my family within Okonkwo.

  • shani

    I have a very emotional reaction to this book. I love it. It’s depressing as hell but I loved the two story lines of colonialism and Okonkwo the man. I was so engrossed in the day to day drama of village life and Okonkwo’s family that it hit me like a ton of bricks when the white man came and i realized this was all falling apart.

  • alexis

    i’m all full of agree. i LOVE this book.

  • lia

    I ve teaching this book for many years and each time i readit again i discover new things it’s areal amsterpiece of universal literature among the few best writings whic hd produced in the last century it’s anovel that deals with human values n ideals rather than with a simple story of a man 0