Things Fall Apart displays a multifaceted portrayal of a society undergoing significant change. Achebe’s narrative of the tumultuous interactions between one tribe and Christian missionaries and colonial rulers exposes the conflicts that communities faced due to European interference in Africa. The novel aims to challenge the depiction found in Western literature of African culture and its people as savage and primitive, as exemplified in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899). Through his work, Achebe seeks to enlighten the literary world about the realities of pre-colonial African culture and society. Consequently, he presents the complexities and intricacies of Igbo culture in order to eradicate misconceptions. Achebe emphasizes that within Igbo culture, conversation is highly revered and proverbs are viewed as essential for effective communication, stating that “among the Igbo culture, the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten.”
In Igbo culture, proverbs are considered as valuable as palm oil in cooking. Just as palm oil adds flavor and substance to food, proverbs and folklore enhance the meaning and significance of words. The ability to communicate through stories is essential in Igbo culture, which is why the breakdown of communication between the villagers and missionaries leads to the tragic downfall of Igbo culture in the novel. Achebe emphasizes the importance of folklore to reject Orientalist writings about Africa and highlight the complexity of Igbo moral values expressed through proverbs. Additionally, he underscores the centrality of storytelling to all cultural history and morality, challenging Western depictions of African primitivism that have dehumanized Africans and justified Western imperialism.Achebe aims to challenge negative European perspectives of Africa by incorporating Igbo phrases that highlight the unique and distinct nature of the cultural community. The use of terms like “Chi,” “Obi,” and “Agbala” in the novel defy easy translation, emphasizing the authentic portrayal of the Igbo community as complex and not easily understood by outsiders. The Igbo language serves as a unifying force, allowing the negotiation of social conflicts, and words hold great importance in village life. In the beginning of the story, Achebe portrays the protagonist Okonkwo through the use of Igbo proverbs, describing his growing fame as spreading like a bush fire in harmattan.
The elders proclaimed that if a child cleanses his hands, he may dine with kings. Okonkwo had indeed cleansed his hands, and as a result, he feasted with kings and elders. Achebe’s incorporation of sophisticated proverbs, rather than just utilizing Standard English, underlines Okonkwo’s esteemed status within his community. The proverb, “if a child washes his hands he could eat with kings,” carries significance as it symbolizes Okonkwo’s emotional immaturity. Okonkwo is thus portrayed as lacking wisdom, yet still held in high regard by the village elders due to his physical accomplishments and immense masculinity. This ultimately presents the Igbo culture as one that disregards intellectuality, instead venerating the physical labor performed by men. Furthermore, Okonkwo can be seen as the embodiment of Igbo culture, safeguarding its fundamental beliefs and behavioral norms. Consequently, without Okonkwo’s presence, all that the Igbo culture represents is destined to be eradicated. Therefore, Achebe’s portrayal of Okonkwo as a “bush fire” implies that Okonkwo is the driving force behind the preservation of village culture, similar to later in the novel when he is referred to as the “Roaring Flame.”Achebe appears to be emphasizing the flaws within the Igbo culture through the depiction of Okonkwo, a character who epitomizes hyper-masculinity by suppressing anything perceived as weak or effeminate. This results in detrimental family relationships and ultimately leads to impulsive violence that not only contributes to his own downfall but also fails to deter the cultural changes he claims to fight against. Achebe may have chosen to portray Igbo culture negatively as a recognition that Africa is not flawless, and there exist numerous imperfections. However, even with its faults, pre-colonial Africa is far from primitive or inhumane. Hence, Achebe highlights the notion that there is little distinction between pre-colonial Africa and Western society in terms of questionable values, yet both possess immense richness and complexity.
Ultimately, the novel explores more than just the issue of colonialism. It delves into the universal challenge faced by humans in establishing their identity amidst cultural change and personal hardships, along with the complexities that come along with it. This theme is evident through the character of Nwoye, who represents the diversity within Igbo culture. While some members possess hyper-masculine traits that may be seen as “primitive,” others are more passive and emotionally intelligent, even effeminate. Nwoye serves as more than just a foil to highlight Okonkwo’s hyper-masculinity; he also highlights the various character types that existed in pre-colonial Africa, thereby challenging Conrad’s depiction of “primitive cannibals.” Achebe does, however, suggest a possible explanation for the Orientalist portrayal of pre-colonial Africa: it may stem from the perception of simplicity due to the naive innocence displayed by the Igbo people in their acceptance of Christian missionaries into their culture. Achebe employs the story of the tortoise and the birds to convey this naivety, stating, “[the] tortoise had a sweet tongue, and within a short time all the birds agreed he was a changed man…”
The story of the tortoise using his “sweet tongue” to deceive the birds serves as an allegory for the manipulation of the people of Umuofia by Christian missionaries. This exploitation takes advantage of the fault lines within the Igbo society, which is foreshadowed by the arrival of locusts in the earlier part of the novel. The presence of Europeans brings a mixed reaction among the villagers, initially creating a feeling of sleepiness and surprise but eventually being seen as a passing joke. Unfortunately, the Umuofian community fails to recognize that the introduction of Christianity will cause their tradition, solidarity, and familial ties, represented as the “mighty tree branches,” to crumble. These branches serve as the backbone of the pluralistic Igbo culture and traditions that hold their community together like a “mighty tree.” Consequently, when these branches are broken away, their power and cohesion are lost. Achebe’s use of proverbial language illustrates the impending devastation that awaits them.Once a united and prosperous community, the Igbo culture has now turned into a desolate fragment. It resembles a startled animal, with its ears raised, sniffing the silent and ominous air, uncertain of the direction to flee.
The way in which Achebe has structured the different sections in the book is significant in depicting the changing culture of the Igbo people. Initially, in the first section of the novel, each chapter stands alone, independently telling a complete story about the Igbo culture. This reflects a time of order, unity, and normalcy within the community. However, as the novel progresses into the third section, the chapters no longer tell individual stories. Instead, there is a diverse range of actions and climaxes in each chapter. This symbolizes the spread of colonization and the resulting chaos, which cannot be halted. Some may argue that this portrays Igbo culture as primitive, but only in their assumption that the Christian missionaries had good intentions. However, there is an endearing innocence associated with the Igbo tribe, showing African culture to be superior to Western presumptions even in its perceived primitiveness. Thus, it is evident that Achebe deeply respects and admires African culture along with its accompanying elements and believes that the world should also appreciate African literature and its history.The text suggests that Achebe’s purpose is to emphasize the irony in Western literature’s simplistic understanding of pre-colonial African culture, rather than portraying African culture as primitive. Achebe achieves this by highlighting the complex nature of Igbo language and historical proverbs. Although he does portray some aspects of Igbo culture as simplistic, it is mainly in their tolerance towards other cultures and religions, especially Christianity.