Things Fall Apart Novel Analysis Essay

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Chinua Achebe’s classic novel Things Fall Apart describes a critical juncture in Igbo society: the first point of contact with missionaries. Even prior to their arrival, the protagonist of the story, Okonkwo, contends with both personal and collective crises in his community. Okonkwo “was well known throughout the nine villages and beyond,” an introduction to a man whose power and prestige have become the cornerstones of his identity (Achebe, 1958, p. 1). However, Achebe (1958) also describes Okonkwo’s dark side: his severity, the way he would “pounce on people,” acting with violence and aggression to achieve his egoistic goals (Achebe, 1958, p. 1). As the community of Umuofia falls apart due to historical changes, external threats, and a leadership crisis, Okonkwo also falls apart due to his own existential crisis. Things Fall Apart has a strong ethical overtone, offering the reader insight into Igbo society but also into universal norms and values. If masculinity is defined by aggression and even violence, then men are doomed to repeat the mistakes of their fathers.

At the same time, Achebe makes another argument about the responsibility of the society to recognize and uproot bad leadership when they see it. The society does its best to remain within the rules of their culture and still censure their leader. Okonkwo is the leader but he is not totally omnipotent. The society has the power to exile him, and to censure him. Importantly, Okonkwo does have the dignity to accept his role and their judgment of him instead of fighting his fate. Perhaps the only saving grace of his character is his genuine commitment to what he believes to be the higher truth: that “it was a crime against the earth goddess to kill a clansman, and a man who committed it must flee from the land,” (Achebe, 1958, p. 110). Okonkwo might not ascribe to universal ethical precepts such as refraining from killing children or from beating women senselessly, but he does nevertheless submit to his own moral code. That is the moral code he also clings to fiercely in the face of encroachment by the missionaries. Okonkwo knows that once the missionaries arrive, his entire culture is at risk of being obliterated. As a matter of pride, he wants to use militaristic means of ousting the Christians from the villages. A leader’s legitimacy can remain only so long as he has the support of his people, though, so if he wants to eliminate the missionaries he needs support from the community. Okonkwo no longer has that support; he is no longer perceived of as a legitimate leader. The people have lost faith in Okonkwo and what he represents: the traditions of their society.

Okonkwo makes several ethical infractions that lead to his eventual downfall.
The community’s responses to these infractions are admirable in the sense that they take a stance and judge Okonkwo’s character and ability to lead. When he “broke the peace,” he “was punished,” (Achebe, 1958, p. 25). The gods are a symbol of justice, the religion a key to enforcing moral codes. Okonkwo has respect for his religion, which is why he does understand that this higher moral code is one that even he must submit to. Unfortunately, Okonkwo does not realize that his version of masculinity is contradictory to the moral code. Achebe shows that in many ways, the villages are democratic. The people have collectively more power than Okonkwo, and can decide how to punish one of the most powerful men in the village. He is not perceived of as invincible, and his power rests on a social contract and not on any arbitrary authority like heredity. The religion serves a meaningful purpose: it helps maintain social control and it serves as a quasi-legal system. No one is above the religious law. Even if the religion is also replete with superstitions, at least it does provide an umbrella of universal norms that all must submit to no matter what their status in the community may be.

After breaking the sacred Week of Peace, Okonkwo’s reputation suffers considerably but he is still given the benefit of the doubt as he already has an established role in the community. Okonkwo has lost sight of the ultimate purpose in his life, though. His image of fatherhood is so completely distorted that he believes it to be unmanly even to show affection for one’s children, and because he suppresses his love for Ikemefuna, he ends up displacing his suppressed emotions by turning them into rage. He beats his wife, and then he actually becomes willing to kill his own adopted son. Okonkwo clearly loved Ikemefuna, but now he must live with the consequences of his actions of the rest of his life. Because the village shaman ordained killing Ikemefuna, though, the community does not actually condemn Okonkwo in any direct way. It was believed that the gods had sanctioned the murder; it fell within their moral code. Okonkwo does seem to recognize, though, like the old man, that killing his own child is a greater ethical infraction than disobeying the gods. The oracle’s prediction therefore seems like the ultimate test for Okonkwo: does he act according to who he believes himself to be, or does he act in ways that are more in accordance with universal law. He clings fiercely to his identity as….....

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Achebe, C. (1958). Things Fall Apart. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

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