Blogging the Bookshelf

Blogging my bookshelf – one book at a time

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“Things Fall Apart”, Chinua Achebe

August 28th, 2009 · No Comments · African, History, Literature, Philosophy

Synopsis: A tribal patriarch in pre-colonial Nigeria is forced to confront the changes to his society brought on by the arrival of European settlers. The Anti-“Heart of Darkness”.

My Take: “Things Fall Apart”, Chinua Achebe’s first novel, is a seminal work in the modern literary cannon. Released in 1958, it was one of the works of literature written from the African perspective that was widely read in the West. This, combined with Achebe’s outspoken stance on the representation of Africa in the Western cannon, gives “Things Fall Apart” a significance beyond its (not insubstantial) literary merit. In short, there are cultural, literary and historical dividends from reading this book.

Achebe took the title of “Things Fall Apart” from a Keats poem about the collapse of European societies in the aftermath of World War I titled “The Second Coming”:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

It’s disturbing prose and an ideal allegory for the book’s overarching theme– the wholesale upheaval in the normal order of things in African society brought on by the arrival of European colonisers. Achebe explores his theme through the eyes of Okonwo, an esteemed patriarch in a small tribe in pre-colonial Africa. Okonwo is born of humble origins but rises to a position of high status in his village through many years of hard work and personal, emotional sacrifice. Okonwo is someone who has invested much to progress according to the norms of pre-colonial African society.  Inevitably, the violent change in social norms and the loss of equilibrium brought on by the arrival of European settlers hits Okonwo more than most.

Achebe paints a convincing portrait of how the arrival of Europeans broke down the bonds and structures that held pre-colonial African society together. Interestingly, he dedicates particular attention to examining the impact of European missionaries and the spread of Christianity on tribal society. The animistic religions of tribal Africa were the foundation stone of societal organisation. As these religions were the primary source of power in these societies, the spread of Christianity and its active hostility to these beliefs, did not just cause a spiritual upheaval, but also resulted in a wholesale destabilisation of society.

“Things Fall Apart” is interesting in a cultural sense as Achebe consciously wrote the book in an effort to counter the negative stereotypes of African society perpetuated by turn of the century European authors like Joseph Conrad. However, the book really doesn’t have the feel of a public service announcement. Okonwo is far from a likeable hero – in fact in a lot of respects he really is a stupid and nasty piece of work. However, Achebe skilfully reveals the human drivers for his stupidity and nastiness. Okonwo isn’t nice – but he’s significant from a literary perspective for the mere fact that the story is told from his perspective as a complex human being influenced by the forces around him rather than as an outsiders view of a simple animalistic brute.


“The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”


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