One of the reasons I enjoy Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart so much is because of what it is not. Specifically, it is not a story of a simple, peaceful, African village that is invaded by cruel, coldhearted Europeans. Instead, it is something far more nuanced, where the imaginary Nigerian village, while undeniably oppressed, is far from a paradise, and the European missionaries, while undeniably oppressive, are not cartoonish villains. This is essential to appreciating what Things Fall Apart is because it would have been easy to paint this struggle as simply black-and-white (literally, in this case) and make the message that simple native traditions are good and modern “progress” is evil painfully obvious. This is clearly not Achebe’s message, because while it is impossible not to feel a profound sense of loss at the end of the novel, what is lost wasn’t necessarily all worth keeping.
Things Fall Apart centers on Okonkwo, an almost absurdly masculine character who abhors any sign of weakness in himself or others. He strives to always be strong and assertive and will do whatever it takes to maintain his fearsome reputation. Unfortunately, he is a bit of an outlier among the men in his family. His father had a terrible reputation and brought shame to the family (Okonkwo’s quest for respect is partly about redeeming his family’s name) and his son, Nwoye, is starting to show some of the same delicate, or at least less hyper-masculine, tendencies.
Okonkwo’s personal struggle is soon dwarfed by the larger conflict that arises between the Nigerians and newly-arrived Christian missionaries. At first, their presence is small and they seem genuinely interested in working with the natives. However, they quickly grow more aggressive and Okonkwo finds himself in danger of being a relic of a world that is passing away. The question is: how can he defend his community when the community itself doesn’t seem willing to defend itself?
Perhaps the smartest structural choice Achebe makes is to spend a significant portion of the book immersing you in Okonkwo’s culture. The outside world doesn’t exist in this opening section, and you become so invested in the unique customs and moral code (which inexplicably allows for a despicable and fateful act) that the arrival of the Christian missionaries comes as a jolt. Achebe manages to make you feel the way the insulated people of Umuofia (Okonkwo’s village) must have felt, like they were being visited by an alien species. And because we have been so immersed in Umuofia’s culture, we are able to simultaneously feel threatened by these outsiders yet unable to deny that there are some aspects of this culture that are frankly horrifying. It becomes even more difficult to decide how you “should” feel as we see the larger conflict between these two worlds play out between the increasingly hostile relationship between Okonkwo and his son.
Things Fall Apart is essential reading for anyone interested in world literature. It not only shows readers different perspectives on complex issues, but makes readers sympathize with those perspectives, making already complex issues that much more difficult to untangle. And if you somehow do manage to untangle this moral Mobius-strip of a novel, let me know, because I’m still working on it.
So go read it. Now.