Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart tells the story of the African Igbo society which was dominated by European imperialism. Achebe uses his own personal knowledge of African culture to portray the Igbo tribes as a complex society with well-established beliefs and traditions. The heart of this novel is not in its context, however, but in its characters. Achebe creates complex characters to live in the vastly changing society of the Igbo tribes. It’s evident in the actions and beliefs of Okonkwo, Obierika, Mr.
Brown, and Reverend Smith that Achebe was trying to make a statement about the interrelationship between character and society in the novel. Okonkwo is the novel’s most complex character. His complexity stems from his relationship with society, which is best demonstrated in two ways in the novel. First, it is demonstrated in Okonkwo’s notoriety and the way it changes from the beginning of the novel to the end. The novel opens with a description of Okonkwo. He “was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievements. Achebe immediately introduces Okonkwo as a strong and powerful man. “That was many years ago, twenty years or more, and during this time Okonkwo’s fame had grown like a bush fire in the harmattan… When he walked, his heels hardly touched the ground and he seemed to walk on springs, as if he was going to pounce on somebody. And he did pounce on people quite often… He had no patience with unsuccessful men. He had no patience with his father” (Achebe, 4). Society is depicted as having a fixation with Okonkwo, though it is really the other way around.
Their admiration fills him with a deep devotion to his tribe and his culture. His complexity arises with his exile and the arrival of the European missionaries in Umuofia. While exiled, “he had lost his chance to lead his warlike clan against the new religion, which, he was told, had gained ground. ” Okonkwo felt personally obligated to save his people from the European colonization of his home. “He was determined that his return should be marked by his people. He would return with a flourish, and regain the seven wasted years” (Achebe, 171).
When he returns, Okonkwo finds that he is not needed in Umuofia anymore, since many of its inhabitants had already converted to Christianity, including his son, Nwoye. Okonkwo is hurt because he thinks of his people as cowards in a war. Eventually, he goes against his own beliefs and commits suicide. This act is a defining moment for Okonkwo as it serves to represent his relationship with society both tragically and ironically. By killing himself and committing his first real act of defiance against his society, the very society that he loved is forbidden to touch his remains.
Even his place of death is considered “desecrated land”. Obierika stands up for his fallen friend when he says, “That man was one of the greatest men in Umuofia. You drove him to kill himself; and now he will be buried like a dog” (Achebe 208). The second way Okonkwo’s complex relationship with society is demonstrated in the novel is in his stern unwillingness to accept change. Okonkwo had been wrecked by his father’s negligence growing up and wanted to “lay the foundations of a prosperous future. It was slow and painful. But he threw himself into it like one possessed.
And indeed he was possessed by the fear of his father’s contemptible life and shameful death” (Achebe, 18). It is Okonkwo’s fear of weakness that leads him to form such a strong bond with society. His devotion to Igbo culture and tradition was tested when his adopted son, Ikemefuna, was to be killed as per request from the Oracle. Okonkwo participates in the murder because “he was afraid of being thought weak” (Achebe, 61). Okonkwo’s excessive adherence to tradition in society leaves him with one less son and full of shame.
Additionally, Achebe uses Okonkwo’s resistance to change as a springboard for his role as the tragic hero. Though he doesn’t meet all the requirements of the usual tragic heroes in literature, Achebe does manage to create a sympathetic character out of Okonkwo. While society is changing, Okonkwo is resisting that change. This relationship with society demonstrates his tragic flaw: his fear of weakness. Because he possesses this flaw so powerfully, his suicide cannot be seen as an act of weakness or cowardice. It was an act of defiance that was necessary for the people of Umuofia.
Contrary to Okonkwo, Obierika’s interrelationship with society can be characterized by its open-mindedness rather than it’s complexity. He contradicts Okonkwo in almost every aspect, despite their close relationship. He “was a man who thought about things”, and it is evident several times throughout the novel that Obierika questions Igbo traditions and culture. When Okonkwo was exiled, Obierika was the only one to ask why. “Why should a man suffer so grievously for an offense he had committed inadvertently? He remembered his wife’s children, whom he had thrown away. What crime had they committed?
The earth had decreed that they were an offense on the land and must be destroyed” (Achebe, 124). Obierika’s uncertainty with the Igbo tribal law suggests early on that he may not show resistance to the societal changes coming in from the west. When the European missionaries come, Obierika keeps an open mind. When Okonkwo wants to fight them, Obierika explains that the damage had been done. “How do you think we can fight when our own brothers have turned against us? The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peacefully and with his religion… Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. Obierika’s open-mindedness and tendency to question society makes him a wise and intellectual character. Unlike Okonkwo, who focuses his energy on how society views him, Obierika focuses his thoughts and perceptions on the ways in which he can view society. Obierika saw that the damage to Umuofia had been done. Author Chinua Achebe stated in a 2002 interview titled “An African Voice,” that “the society of Umuofia, the village in Things Fall Apart, was totally disrupted by the coming of the European government, missionary Christianity, and so on.
That was not a temporary disturbance; it was a once and for all alteration of their society” (Bacon). Obierika knows that his allegiance is with his home, therefore he warns Okonkwo against taking further violent action against the missionaries. “[The white man] has put a knife in the things that held us together and we have fallen apart. ” (Achebe, 176). Achebe makes a statement about cultural and societal views in the characters Mr. Brown and Reverend Smith. The two characters contrast one another. Mr. Brown sheds light on the callousness of European invasion.
Because of his kind-heartedness, he is able to get many of the Igbo people to listen to him. Reverend Smith is cold-hearted and uncompromising. He does not excerpt the same patience and understanding with the Igbo people as Mr. Brown did. Achebe uses these two characters to demonstrate tolerance versus intolerance for other societies and cultures. The interrelationship between a character and society says a lot about them. Mr. Brown was welcoming to all. Reverend Smith was set in his ways. Obierika was curious to try something new.
Okonkwo was so faithful to his tradition that he was willing to die along with it. Each character has their own relationship with their own beliefs, traditions, and structures. But just as W. B. Yeats said in The Second Coming, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. ”
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor, 1994. Print. “An African Voice. ” Interview by Katie Bacon. The Atlantic. Web. 18 Sept. 2012. <http://www. theatlantic. com/past/docs/unbound/interviews/ba2000-08-02. htm>.