Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
-W. B. Yeats, “The Second Coming”
It is from this excerpt of the Yeats’ poem that Chinua Achebe chose the title of his novel, Things Fall Apart. The story is set in turn of the century Nigeria, at the lbo village of Umuofia. It is at the time of the British colonization of Nigeria, a time when life for some members of the lbo people did begin to fall apart. Achebe’s novel presents a look at the complex nature of the lbo society. His writing also displays many notions of human nature. One concept is cultural misunderstanding. Another idea about human nature is how the flexibility or rigidity of one’s character affects one’s fate. Things Fall Apart also illustrates how the lbo practice of relegating certain members of their society eventually becomes a component in the destruction of the life they have always known. We also can see the theme of destiny throughout the novel. In many instances in Achebe’s narrative, the need for equilibrium between individual needs and
Achebe succeeds in painting a vivid picture of the complexity of the lbo society. He gives detailed descriptions of the social and family rituals of the lbo, such as the yearly Feast of the New Yam. Achebe also gives insight into the laws and trial processes of these people. Things Fall Apart also gives an excellent look at the marriage customs and religious practices of the lbo people, and the mechanism of shared leadership among this clan. All these components combine to give an excellent understanding of the lbo.
Achebe illustrates many facets of the human nature in this work. The idea of cultural misunderstanding is apparent in the interactions between the lbo and the British missionaries. One of the missionaries, Reverend James Smith, viewed the lbo as “heathens.” The lbo were just as guilty of this cultural misunderstanding, they saw the missionaries as “foolish” and initially criticize their beliefs.
Another theme is that of how the flexibility of one’s character affects
one’s fate. We see that Okonkwo’s stern nature plays a part his eventual downfall. On the other side, it is Mr. Brown, the missionary, whose acceptance of some lbo culture that allows him to gain many converts to Christianity. Another example of this theme, is the loss of lbo traditions due to the lack of resistance to the introduction of a new religion in their midst.
We see the idea that the lbo’s relegating of certain members of the group hastened the downfall of their society. These certain members were the outcast group and the women, who were always kept in a subservient role. When the missionaries arrived, they accepted these people as humans. It is this contrast to the mistreatment they had always experienced, which made the outcasts and women the quickest converts to the new religion. The introduction of this new acceptance causes a state of confusion that leads to the decline of the traditional lbo culture.
We see the theme of destiny throughout Thing Fall Apart. Each member of the lbo has their personal god or chi. They can equate this personal god to the person’s abilities and fate. In different instances, Okonkwo sees his chi in good and bad ways. At one point he feels his
personal god supports his goals: “When a man says yes, his chi says yes also” (p.27). At another point, Okonkwo feels his chi was not meant for success: “Here was a man whose chi said nay despite his own affirmation”(p. 13 1).
Achebe illustrates the need for a balance between the needs of the individual and community needs. The lbo feel the actions of the individual can affect the whole community. When Okonkwo accidentally shot the young boy, it was an offense against the Earth goddess. This offense, if not atoned by the clan, could bring the wrath of the goddess upon them. The lbo elders put this idea well: “…if one finger brought oil it soiled the
Achebe’s allusions to the complexity of lbo society helped to give a better idea of what these people were like before British colonization. Without this insight into their culture, the reader would not have a full understanding of the changes and eventual downfall of the lbo. The scenes of cultural misunderstanding, and the mistreatment of women and outcasts, help to understand the conflicts that arise between the lbo and the British missionaries.
Things Fall Apart is an excellent piece of literature. Achebe paints a picture of a people that most Westerners would otherwise never understand. He takes the reader right into the community of Umuofia. Achebe gives such a wonderful understanding of the conflict and strife of the lbo people at the time of colonization. The historical significance of Things Fall Apart is immeasurable. Achebe simply gives the world a look at the end of a traditional way of life caused by the specter of imperialism.