The novel is set during the turn of the century and follows the life of a fictional local Igbo man Okonkwo. It is split into three parts, the first about the protagonist and Igbo traditions and customs, and the second and third about the impact of European colonists and Missionaries on the Igbo way of life. Below is a summary of “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe.
“Things Fall Apart” Plot Overview
The story starts with a flashback where we meet the main protagonist Okonkwo 20 years in the past as he wins a wrestling competition against the undefeated champion “The Cat”. The fight and his victory earned him much fame and glory. Now, 20 years later, Okonkwo is a very important man in his tribe. His father had been a lazy drunkard who enjoyed playing music and partying more than he enjoyed work and died with a lot of outstanding debts. Not being like his father was a driving factor of Okonkwo’s life and his hard work and ambition made him a respected and powerful man in the tribe with titles, a big yam farm, and three wives.
Gongs in the night indicate that a meeting of the men will happen in the morning. The meeting is about the murder of one of the tribe’s women at the market by someone from a neighboring tribe. Okonkwo, as a respected man and fierce warrior, is selected to go to the village. The neighboring tribe offers a peaceful solution of a virgin girl and a young boy to make amends for the killing which Okonkwo accepts The village elders decide that the girl should be given to the husband of the woman that was killed and that Okonkwo should take care of the boy, Ikemefuna.
Okonkwo’s father, Unoka, had been a laughingstock in the tribe and was often compared to being a woman. Unlike many other boys, Okonkwo received nothing from his father because he was always in debt. Okonkwo hated his father so much that he despised all the things his father enjoyed like music, fun, and gentleness. He saw these traits as weak and womanly. This philosophy made him a successful man in the tribe, but he was a tyrant at home, ruling with an iron fist and often yelling at and physically assaulting his wives and children.
His oldest son Nwoye was a disappointment to Okonkwo because he enjoyed stories and wasn’t manly enough. Ikemefuna was a positive influence on Nwoye and Okonkwo developed a soft spot for the adopted boy, though he never showed it. Ikemefuna soon started calling Okonkwo father.
Everything wasn’t perfect for Okonkwo though, he was chastised by the elders for mocking a titleless man. During the week of peace, he beat his third wife Ojiugo for getting her hair braided at a neighbor’s house instead of cooking a meal and gets punished by the elders. Later, he beats his second wife during the Feast of the New Yam.
3 years pass by, Ikemefuna has become a part of the family and has a close bond with Nwoye. One day a swarm of locusts descends on the village, which they proceed to eat as a delicacy. However, the village oracle decides that this is an omen, and Ikemefuna must now be killed for the transgressions that happened three years ago. Ezedu, a village elder advises Okonkwo not to participate in the killing as Ikemefuna calls him father.
The village men tell Ikemefuna that he is to be returned to his village and take them with him. On the journey they attack him, Ikemefuna runs towards Okonkwo who is at the back of the group and asks his father for help, but to appear manly, Okonkwo lands the killing blow. This causes a rift between Nwoye and his father, and Okonkwo goes through a few days of mental anguish over his actions.
Okonkwo goes to see a friend, Obierika, during this time to distract himself. Okonkwo is upset because he believes his emotions make him womanly. They discuss several things, each one contentious because of Okonkwo’s need to be manly. A suitor for Obierika’s daughter arrives and the men surreptitiously negotiate the bride price.
Okonkwo’s favorite child is his eldest daughter Ezinma. Of 10 children born to his second wife Ekwefi, she was the only survivor. Ezinma was sick often as a child but was growing up to be an outspoken and strong-willed girl. Okonkwo admired these traits about her and often wishes that she was a boy. Just as Okonkwo is getting over Ikemefuna, Ezinma falls sick. Contrary to his normal tough-guy persona, Okonkwo shows a lot of concern, rushing to find herbs to cure her fever.
Ezinma survives her fever, but a few nights later she is taken away by Chielo, the priestess of Agbala, Oracle of the Hills and the Caves. Chielo seems possessed by the spirit of Agbala, a common occurrence for priestesses. Despite being warned not to, Ekwefi follows the priestess and her only child till they disappear into a cave. Okonkwo shows up later, machete in hand, in a rare show of concern. In the morning, Chielo returns Enzinma unharmed to the village with her parents following from a safe distance.
We get a glimpse of the Umuofia justice system through the case of Mgbafo and her husband Uzowulu. The case is decided by the Egwugwu, the tribe’s nine gods. In reality, the gods are the village elders and powerful members dressed as gods, one of whom is Okonkwo. They hear both sides of the story, including witnesses, and prescribe the traditional solution to the presented situation.
Another example of Umuofia tradition is shown at the wedding feast of Obierika’s daughter. The celebration includes the whole village and includes drinking wine and dancing. Topics of conversation amongst the attendees include magic and a cow that was accidentally let loose. At the end of the festivities, Okonkwo gives the groom a gift of two roosters, both to show his wealth, as well as his friendship with Obierka.
The Umuofia have a deep respect for their ancestors and their elders. When Ezedu, the oldest man in the village, and the person who had advised Oknokwo not to partake in the killing of Ikemefuna dies, the entire village gets together to mourn. At the ceremony, however, Okonkwo’s gun accidentally fires, killing Ezedu’s16-year-old son. The killing of a clansman was a terrible crime, but because it was accidental and therefore considered womanly, Okonkwo and his family are banished for seven years to Okonkwo’s motherland - literally the village his mother came from. As Okonkwo and his family leave, the men of the village burn his house and land because even those are tainted and displease the earth goddess.
“Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe summary continues with Okonkwo and his family moving to his mother’s village in Mbanta where they are welcomed by his uncle Uchendu. Though unexpected, Uchendu is a gracious host, and he and his sons help Okonkwo build a compound and gift him yam seeds to plant his own farm. Okonkwo Is upset by his banishment but his uncle tells him traditional tales with moral lessons to make him feel better.
Obierika visits in the second year of Okonkwo’s exile. He brings bags of cowries (local money) from the sale of the yams from Okonkwo’s fields. He also brings news about the devastation of the Abame clan. A group came across a lone white man on an iron horse (bicycle) who could not speak their language. The clan’s oracle predicted that more white men would come and they would destroy the village, so the men kill the white man and display the bicycle on a tree as a warning. A few months later, three white men come to the clan led by a local, upon seeing the bicycle they quickly leave. Later, at the market, the entire clan is massacred by white men and their local allies. Okonkwo reacts with anger, but Obrieka expresses concern and fear about the stories he has heard about the white man.
Two years later Obierka visits again with shocking news, more white men have settled on the land including missionaries, and Nwoye has been converted! Okonkwo doesn’t want to talk about it, but Obrieka here’s the story from Nwoye’s mother. Some time ago, six missionaries came to Mbanta, one white man and five natives. The white man, aided by a translator, talks about the one true God and says that all Igbo gods are false. Most of the men, including Okonkwo, laugh at the message, but Nwoye was intrigued.
During their first week, the missionaries ask the Mbanta elders for land on which to build a church. Uchenda offers them to land in the Evil Forest and is surprised when the missionaries react with celebrations and songs. The locals believe that the Evil Forest is cursed and look forward to the end of the missionaries. After 28 days (the longest the gods wait for vengeance) nothing bad happens to the missionaries which confuses the locals. Nwoye had been hanging out around the church but had never entered. Okonkwo finds out that Nwoye had been spending time around the church though and confronts Nwoye and beats him. After the beating, Nwoye goes directly to the church and enters for the first time. He decides to move back to Umuofia and enroll in the white man’s school.
As the number of converts grows in Mbanta, confrontations between the locals and the missionaries increase. The church welcomes Igbo outcasts who quickly become the most faithful members of the church. The Mbanta people also hear stories about the white man’s government and laws coming to the area, but dismiss them as rumors. When one of the converts kills a royal python, one of the most sacred animals of the tribe, tensions flare, but are resolved when the man who killed the snake is found dead from a mysterious illness.
Okonkwo’s seven years of exile are almost over and he throws a huge feast to mark his departure and show his gratitude. He is frustrated at the seven years he lost and worries about his status when he returns to Umuofia.
“Things Fall Apart” summary continues with Okonkwo planning his return. He wants to rebuild his compound with space for two more wives and plans to regain his status and eventually gain the highest title of the Igbo people. His beloved daughter Ezinma has grown to become a beautiful woman, known as the “Crystal of Beauty” and he hopes that she will marry a powerful man and help him gain status. When he arrives back in Umuofia though he finds that his fatherland has changed dramatically. There are not just many converts, but the rumors about the white man’s government and laws were true as well.
Though some in the village agree that the white men should be driven out, many appreciate the changes brought by them. The white missionary in Umuofia, Mr. Brown, is well respected. He tries to understand local customs and disapproves of fanaticism, keeping the converts in check. Okonkwo is disappointed that his return isn’t a big deal, he thinks that the locals have become weak and too involved with the missionaries.
Mr. Brown is replaced with the fanatic Mr.Smith. This emboldens the converts, one of whom, Enoch, snatches the mask off an Egwugwu during a ceremony. This transgression causes the clan to burn down the church.
Five days after the church is burned Okonkwo and five other Umuofia leaders are invited to speak to the District Commissioner, but they are ambushed, beaten, shamed, and imprisoned. The clan pays 250 bags of Cowries to get their leaders back.
The day after the leaders return, they hold a war meeting to discuss what to do. Okonkwo is determined to go to war. During the meeting, 5 messengers arrive stating that the white man has ordered the meeting to stop. Okonkwo cuts the head off the lead messenger in a rage, but no one else makes a move to stop the other messengers from fleeing. Okonkwo walks away from the meeting in disgust, realizing that the clan will not go to war.
The district commissioner arrives with soldiers and demands to see Okonkwo. The clan men say Okonkwo isn’t there. Obierika takes the men to a compound where Okonkwo is hanging from a tree. Obierika explains that suicide is an abomination and the natives cannot touch the body. As the commissioner leaves, he thinks about including a paragraph about Okonkwo’s actions in his book titled “The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger”.
That cover’s the summary of Things Fall Apart. Read the book if you have a few hours! It’s short, easy to read, and fascinating.