Things Fall Apart is a novel by Chinua Achebe that follows the story of the Umuofia leader Okonkwo. The story covers his rise to power, his exile, and the impact of colonization on his people. After reading this article you will know what are the themes in Things Fall Apart.
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The second half of the story is all about the impact of colonization on the Igbo people. During exile, Okonkwo starts hearing rumors of the white men and loses his son to the missionaries, but it isn’t till he returns home that he sees the full extent of their impact. This is one of the Things Fall Apart major themes. The entire way of the Igbo people is being changed and in some cases, completely destroyed by colonization. Okonkwo belongs to the older generation and as such values the old traditions and is horrified and angry to see his people’s customs changing. On the other hand, many young people are happy to break away from old traditions and accept the foreigners who make their life better, creating a divide between the Igbo.
Religion plays a central role in both Igbo culture as well as western culture in the novel. The Igbo people have their own religion based on spirits, nature, and respect for ancestors that have worked for them for generations. The first colonizers came as Christian missionaries, who viewed the local people and local religion as barbaric. Though initially hesitant to take the missionaries seriously, the missionaries and Christianity became the main reason why so many Igbo people started following the ways of the outsiders. Religion is powerful, and converting people destabilizes society. Many important moments in the book occur when local Christian converts disrespect the religious traditions of the Igbo.
Gender roles and stereotypes are a huge part of Igbo culture. Okonkwo himself believes that emotions are weak and for women, whereas men should be tough, strong, and unemotional. Igbo society is patriarchal, but women can achieve high positions in society by becoming an elder or by becoming an oracle. Okonkwo has a distorted view of what it means to be a man, even by the standards of his culture because his father was considered such a weak man. He thinks of his son Nwoye as weak and womanly just because he is sensitive and doesn’t like hyper-manly activities. He often wishes that his favorite daughter was a boy. Eventually, Okonkwo’s obsession with seeming manly leads to his downfall.
Traditions are what keep a society together, and when long-held beliefs are challenged or changed, divisions within society can be expected. The arrival of the missionaries led to many Igbo traditions being called into question. Converts to Christianity started questioning the religious traditions of their own people, eventually disrespecting their sacred ceremonies. The social hierarchy within the Igbo community was challenged when the missionaries started accepting outcasts and low social status members of the community. The missionaries gave people who were unhappy with the local traditions a place to feel included and powerful.
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Okonkwo is driven by ambition. His father was a lazy man who was ridiculed in society and gave Okonkwo nothing, so since he was a young child he felt the desire to not be like his father and accomplish a high level in society. He worked hard in his fields and became a successful farmer, he was praised for his wrestling abilities, he had three wives, he achieved a position of power. Despite all his success he still wanted more though, his plan was always to be the chief, and even though he was exiled, his ambition still stayed with him. The disruption of his society hurt Okonkwo more than others because his entire life his ambition was to reach a position of high power, but power structures changed within his lifetime.
Language is one of the Things Fall Apart themes that show up in unusual ways. In Umuofia culture, strong speakers are highly valued. Education is passed down verbally, and folktales and traditions are how they keep their religion alive. Initially, the missionaries struggle to communicate with the locals, but once the language barrier is overcome, changes happen quickly. Eventually, English becomes the language of power and authority, with many locals learning the foreign language and therefore associating themselves with the more powerful invaders.
Okonkwo starts out doing everything he can to change his position in life. He works hard and believes in his ability to change his future and is rewarded with success. It seems as if the Igbo people believe in free will based on a line from the book “the Igbo people have a proverb that when a man says yes his chi says yes also. Okonkwo said yes very strongly, so his chi agreed”. When bad things happen to Okonkwo which are out of his control though, he blames fate. His gun exploding and killing someone was the cause of his exile, and by the end of the book, Okonkwo is helpless to change anything about the disintegration of his culture.
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The Igbo people have their own complicated social systems including justice. Though they may seem foreign and strange to outsiders, it has worked for their people for centuries. More often than not, their sense of justice makes sense, but their justice system is also flawed because twin babies are killed, Ikemefuna is killed, killing a local by accident results in exile, etc. On the other hand, the Justice of the white man is no less flawed. The same way the laws of the Igbo people seem strange to the outsiders, the laws of the white man seem strange to the Igbo. Justice always needs to be seen through the lens of culture, and no system is perfect.
Change is an inevitable part of life, but when change happens quickly, it is complicated to deal with. Okonkwo wanted to change his life and change people’s perception of himself and he succeeded. When change went against him though, he struggled to understand and deal with it. Rather than accept the changes around him, he fights against them, even when it seems hopeless. His eventual realization that his world has changed and there is nothing he can do about it causes him to commit suicide.
Power is one of the main Things Fall Apart themes. Okonkwo himself is obsessed with power, but so are the missionaries, Nyowe, the outcasts, the converts, etc. Traditional Igbo rules that took power away from certain groups of people made them easy converts to Christianity where they were treated as equals. The colonials want to exert their power over the locals and take control. The lack of power that Okonkwo feels towards the end of the book after a lifetime of feeling powerful hurts him to the point of suicide.
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