Why Things Fall Apart

July 30, 2019 by Essay Writer

“The white man is very clever…He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.” Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart is a prime example of African literature that demonstrates the clash between cultures and peoples that occurred across the African continent as a consequence of European colonialism. The novel is set in the 1890’s in the lower region of Nigeria and creatively paints a picture of the complex social institutions and traditions of Ibo culture prior to its contact with Europeans. The consequences of this contact are quickly revealed as Achebe artistically introduces the reader to the changes that have taken place on various levels among the Ibo people indigenous to the region. The author’s choice of the title “Things Fall Apart” was not simply a creative decision but a message on the book’s cover alluding to the changes that take place in the novel—a culture and people quite literally fall apart because of their contact with white European missionaries and colonialists during the late nineteenth century. The way in which Achebe has constructed his novel demonstrates the motivation behind his work and his desire to create an accurate representation of one of many indigenous ethnic groups in Africa. His novel not only adds to the richness of pre-colonial and colonial African history by shattering the stereotypical European portraits of Africans, but does so while being careful not to stereotype what one would deem the typical white European colonialist. His writing denies any declaration of a socially backward indigenous group of Africans and instead gives a voice to the indigenous Africans that have been underrepresented and exploited by colonialism. When choosing how he would represent white European colonialists and missionaries, he quite intelligently decided to offer various depictions of the white man, such as the benevolent Mr. Brown, the zealous Reverend Smith, and the ruthless District Commissioner. Achebe mindfully introduces and develops the protagonist of the novel, Okonkwo, as well as the Umuofia clan that he belongs to in the lower region of Nigeria. He describes Okonkwo’s village, Iguedo, and conveys his full understanding of its culture, its people, and its traditions. On the first page of the novel one learns that in this village men earn their social status through physical triumphs, that the spirit world and nature are highly respected, and that instruments and song are integral parts of the culture. His choice of vocabulary adds to the fullness of every description and his decision to integrate words from the Igbo language into the narrative, for example agbala and iyi-uwa, allow him to capture the rhythm of the language while achieving a great level of cultural revitalization. The message that Achebe has intended to send to the audience of his novel is that “things fall apart” for the people of Nigeria under British colonial rule, but it is imperative that one read and analyze the accounts in the novel to fully understand what it is that falls apart. He captures both the European and the African perspectives on colonial expansion and race relations and shows how family values, norms, religion, justice, and gender roles are among the many “things” that fall apart upon European contact. When Okonkwo returns to Umuofia from seven years of exile with his family, he is struck by the profound change that his clan has undergone and by the fact that his people take no special notice of their warrior’s return. “The new religion and government and the trading stores were very much in people’s eyes and minds. There were many who saw these new institutions as evil, but even they talked and thought about little else, and certainly not about Okonkwo’s return…Okonkwo was deeply grieved. And it was not just personal grief. He mourned for the clan, which he saw breaking and falling apart, and he mourned for the warlike men of Umuofia, who had so unaccountably become like soft women (pp. 182-183).” From the moment he returned, Okonkwo noticed that the white man had changed his world by imposing on his people a new religion—Christianity. In addition, he noticed the new European form of government—with a strict judiciary system and administrators like the District Commissioner, and new institutions for trade and agriculture—such as stores stocked with European goods and new rules to control production and trade. Both white and black missionaries had brought with them a new religion that spoke of the Holy Trinity and of one God who had a son without ever having a wife. These missionaries spoke through an interpreter, sang traditional hymns, and accused the African people of worshiping false gods. “The white man…told them about this new God, the Creator of all the world and all the men and women. He told them that they worshipped false gods, gods of wood and stone. He told them that…Evil men and all the heathen who in their blindness bowed to wood and stone were thrown into a fire that burned like palm oil. But good men who worshipped the true God lived forever in His happy kingdom (p.145).” The Ibo people did not understand how they were to be expected to believe that the gods they had worshiped all their lives, the same gods that had dictated the prosperity of their harvest and childbearing each year simply did not exist. They feared that if they left their gods and followed the God of the white man that their gods would rein over them with the deepest wrath. “These men must be mad, they [the people of Umuofia] said to themselves. How else could they say that Ani and Amadiora were harmless? And Idemili and Ogwugwu too? (p.146)” Before the foreign ideals proposed by Christianity were implemented and even accepted by many people in Umuofia, the original polytheistic religion, largely based upon rituals, the consultation of oracles, ancestral spirits, and the commanding god Chukwu, acted as one of the major stepping stones into the Ibo society. Unlike the original polytheistic religion that dominated Okonkwo’s village, Christianity presented the opportunity for men of a lower status to be treated equal to those men of even the highest status, for under the white man’s God, all men were equal. How can one be expected to throw away years of worship and an entire religious culture at the request of another man? This imposition of a new religion is a prime example of how the Ibo culture disintegrated. Once religious changes began to take place, it became obvious to the Ibo people that that was not the only change that would occur in Umuofia. The imposition of a new form of government under the British colonialists in Nigeria would disrupt the original highly patriarchal and collective political system that had been developed by the ancestors of the Ibo people. As Achebe demonstrates, decisions were not made by a chief or by any individual but rather were decided by a counsel of male elders. Religious leaders were also called upon to settle debates. After the arrival of the British colonialists, this traditional political system slowly began to deteriorate. The British government started intervening in disputes among the ethnic groups rather than allowing the Ibo to settle issues in a traditional manner. For someone who has not studied pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial African history, Things Fall Apart would still be a great representation of how a specific indigenous African society functioned prior to European contact, as well as provide an accurate reflection on the effects of the colonialism in the late 1800’s. However, the novel would prove a more useful and meaningful example through the eyes of an African historian or an individual who has been properly educated about African history. It is important to note that by the 1890’s, West Africa had already had centuries of contact with Europeans. For someone with little knowledge of African history, Achebe’s novel might be taken as an example of the standard imposition of colonialism in Africa. This could be problematic in a way that an audience uneducated about pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial African history might overlook the complex history of European colonial rule in Africa. Such an audience may not understand that colonialism began well into the 1500’s and the Achebe’s novel is merely a response to earlier colonial accounts in Africa and its effects on certain indigenous cultures that had yet to be crushed by the hand of imperialism. Things Fall Apart may appear to be a rich narrative based on an indigenous group in Nigeria in the 1890’s, but to an African historian it is a political commentary on the outcomes of European colonial rule. It is instead an account of the time period after the Europeans had secured their position in Africa. It does give accurate insight into the culture of colonialism but neglects to tell its reader that this has been a process—a process that took years and touched upon the many facets of culture including religion, politics, and economics. Chinua Achebe’s novel is a creative and effective portrayal of the clash that occurred between two extremely different cultures and civilizations in lower Nigeria in the late 1800’s. The author’s attention to detail and sensitivity to cultural revitalization are key in his presentation of the Ibo people of Umuofia. The book accurately expresses the outcomes and the realities of European colonialism and clearly demonstrates that after the imposition of British rule in Nigeria “Things Fall Apart.”

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