The Igbo people dramatized by Chinua Achebe in Things Fall Apart believe that twin siblings are evil. When born, tribal elders bring them to the haunted forest and leave the babies to die.
And like those twins, two ill-fated tales that meet the same end comprise Things Fall Apart. But akin to siblings generally, the two stories grapple and support one another, yet stand apart. Both parts of the novel follow the life of Okonkwo, a wealthy, powerful, and headstrong citizen of Umuofia, a village in what is now called Nigeria. In the first section, his forthrightness and fear of embarrassment brings him into opposition with tribal law. In the second part, Okonkwo returns after a seven-year period of exile to find a subtler, more formidable adversary: a peace-speaking enclave of white Christian missionaries. Between the influx of new ideas and the outpouring of intratribal violence, what will keep the village together? And who would be responsible for its collapse?
Things Fall Apart is not merely an apocalyptic book. It touches on many issues relevant to postcolonial Africa that have very little to do with eschatology. Who should write its history? What are the consequences of modernization? How to reconcile barbaric traditions from the past? What else is lost when languages fade away? This guide will attempt to steer clear of those discussions, except as they relate to the novel’s apocalyptic undercurrents.
Economic and Spiritual Colonization of Nigeria
In 1807, the British Parliament essentially killed the African slave trade. The ruling applied only to subjects of the British Empire, but de facto was used against ships of all homeports that tried to bring slaves out of West Africa. This legislation, after inspiring a few bloody battles in Lagos and elsewhere, “stabilized” African regions so that European corporations could establish non-human trading posts. The Empire laid the groundwork for colonization of Nigeria between 1845-1885, and it took off into the 20th Century.
Shortly after the merchants and overseers came to find, extract, and sell resources from Nigeria, waves of Christian missionaries settled and began to share the gospel throughout the region. Anglicans and Lutherans traveled there from the United States, as well as England, Portugal, and other European nations. But it was the Catholic mission that really thrived. Like an invasive species, the Catholic Church put its roots down deep, started to creep, and pricked anyone who tried to yank it out. It’s these Christians who come calling on Umuofia in Things Fall Apart and, one good deed at a time, begin to unravel the traditional spiritual beliefs and social structures of the Igbo people.
Reading, Misreading, and Disregarding Omens
Born, raised, and educated in colonial Nigeria, Achebe saw the religious symbols of both Igbo and Christian religions. To Western readers of Things Fall Apart, hints that a bad day is coming to Umuofia are abundant, almost ironically so. In the novel, we read of brief plagues of darkness, silence, hail, and illness. They recall the mortifying chapters of Exodus 7-12, when the God of Israel uses ten awful plagues to make Pharaoh and the Egyptian gods appear weak and ineffective. Achebe’s most blatant riff on this theme is with locusts.
When millions of locusts—the charismatic megafauna of biblical plagues—swarm to Umuofia, the villagers take it as a blessing instead of a curse. (What could be more fortunate during the dry season than protein raining from the sky?) Achebe describes the swarm:
And then quite suddenly a shadow fell on the world, and the sun seemed hidden behind a dark cloud [. . .] But almost immediately a shout of joy broke out in all directions, and Umuofia, which had dozed in the noon-day haze, broke into life and activity.
Compare it to the locust plague described to Moses in Exodus 7:5-6:
And they shall cover the face of the earth, that one cannot be able to see the earth: and they shall eat the residue of that which is escaped, which remaineth unto you from the hail, and shall eat every tree which groweth for you out of the field: And they shall fill thy houses, and the houses of all thy servants, and the houses of all the Egyptians; which neither thy fathers, nor thy fathers’ fathers have seen, since the day that they were upon the earth unto this day.
Can you think of a more apocalyptic way to describe colonization than “And they shall fill thy houses”?
One cannot fault the villagers of Umuofia for failing to heed Christian symbols and stories they had never encountered. They should at least have respect for their own coded warnings, however. As Achebe describes, the polite Igbo nickname for leprosy is “the white skin.” Such a superstitious and mythology-minded tribe would find superficial similarity between the flaky skin of the leper and the pale skin of European missionaries. And yet, the village allowed the contagious white skin of the Christians to linger nearby.
Throughout Things Fall Apart, the misinterpretation of omens and disregard for traditional Igbo knowledge allows disruptive forces to enter and systematically tear apart life in Umuofia.
“The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger” . . . AKA Modernity Comes to Africa
Modernity has many facets, from couture fashion to communications technology to political philosophy. It’s a complicated set of sometimes-connected-sometimes-not ideas and events that define most of our world today. Many of those things originated in post-medieval Europe, such as the printing press and the birth of capitalism—others have been assimilated. Modernity can also be a way of experiencing that world, like how French authors exude the condition of ennui. In Things Fall Apart, Achebe shows what happens when a modern culture meets a pre-modern culture.
Not only do the white men bring a new theology to Umuofia, they bring other symptoms of modern life. (Including a bicycle.) One of these symptoms is isolation from society. T.S. Eliot describes masses of people reporting for work in modern London: “Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled, / And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.” Hardly anything connects these Londoners except their location. Back at a feast in Umuofia, one of the older tribesmen says:
I fear for you young people because you do not understand how strong is the bond of kinship. You do not know what it is to speak with one voice. And what is the result? An abominable religion has settled among you. A man can now leave his father and his brothers. He can curse the gods of his fathers and his ancestors, like a hunter’s dog that suddenly goes mad and turns on his master. I fear for you; I fear for the clan.
Waxing nostalgic and mourning the slow death of the community might seem like a privilege granted to all elderly people, but when the stakes are high the warning is existential. Modernity includes some hallmark apocalyptic characteristics, but they play out at a funereal pace.
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
—William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”
For its epigraph, Things Fall Apart quotes “The Second Coming” by Irish poet W.B. Yeats. The poem is hallucinatory, incantatory, and apocalyptic. Readers and scholars have pulled many interpretations from the vivid imagery of “The Second Coming,” including a prophetic vision of life in Europe after World War I. It turns out, however, that Yeats had gone a tad loopy in his old age and started serving dollops of home-cooked mysticism with his verse.
The aforementioned “gyre” was one such notion of Yeats, who believed civilizations rose in fell in 2,000-year-long cycles. He believed that the end of one such cycle was immanent, and fretted over the role of a poet-prophet in the new gyre.
Ultimately it was not Yeats’ theories, but the simple, wild language in which Yeats expressed them which captivated Achebe. “It was only later I discovered [Yeats’] theory of circles or cycles of civilization,” he recalled for The Paris Review. “I wasn’t thinking of that at all when it came time to find a title. That phrase ‘things fall apart’ seemed to me just right and appropriate.”
Despite Achebe’s modesty, exploring the connection between the two texts is fruitful. As the world revolves and time passes in Umuofia, the basic ideas that have structured the community begin to fall apart. Legal customs are dismantled and rewritten. The newly arrived Catholics thwart the ritual sacrifices that keep evil spirits away from the town. When Yeats writes, “the best lack all conviction,” he could be speaking to Okonkwo’s indifference to the moral order of his village. (One elder admonishes him and says, “The evil you have done can ruin a whole clan.”) Yeats continues, “While the worst / Are full of passionate intensity,” which describes the fervor the Christians bring to their mission in Nigeria. After such turbulence, no wonder the “centre cannot hold.”
Ultimately, the confluence of Yeatsian quasi-mystical imagination and the book’s postcolonial culture clash allow a distinct apocalyptic characteristic to emerge. In Things Fall Apart, the progress of history is a force that inevitably pits civilizations against each other—and devours them from within.
- “You have a manly and a proud heart. A proud heart can survive a general failure because such a failure does not prick its pride. It is more difficult and more bitter when a man fails alone.” —Okonkwo’s father on his deathbed, to Okonkwo
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness, 1899.
Eliot, T.S. “The Wasteland,” 1922.
Fukuyama, Francis. The End of History and the Last Man, 1992.
Yeats, William Butler. A Vision, 1925.