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Things Fall Apart: A Reflection on a Nuanced Novel

January 14, 2019

 

I read Things Fall Apart many years ago as a teenager, before it was as well known as it is today, and then I read it again in college. Readers often expect imperialism to be dealt with in black and white. Either the author desires to see native ways preserved and consequently views any imperial attempts as immoral and threatening, or he's a Kipling-style "white man's burden" devotee who believes non-European cultures ought to be improved by supervision from their European "superiors." Yet Things Fall Apart is a novel that complicates both of those simplistic views. In it, a desire to preserve the native way of life coexists with an urge to admit improvements to it. A tension inevitably arises from the juxtaposition of these two goals. This tension courses through every page of the novel, and it is part of what makes the book so fascinating. 

Achebe seems to despise the tendency to simplify complex human life. The events that occur in
Things Fall Apart signify the destruction of an entire way of life, an obliteration of the ties that bind a people together. Yet it is not that Achebe unconditionally embraces the culture of the Ibo people. He makes the reader feel for Okonkwo's father, whose failure by Ibo standards is the source of Okonkwo's severity, and for his son, Nwoye, who does not fit into the strictly ordered masculine warrior society. 

I appreciated, especially, Achebe's nuanced portrayal of both the positive and negative aspects of missionary activity. When the missionaries come to Nigeria, the church provides a haven for the discontent: for the woman who can not bear to leave her twins to die, for the outcasts who are shunned by the community, and for Nwoye, who can only fit into Ibo society by denying himself. I was moved by Achebe's depiction of how Christianity provides a place for the outcast: the hymn they sing about brothers "who sat in darkness and in fear seemed to answer a vague and persistent question that haunted [Nwoye's] young soul--the question of the twins crying in the bush and the question of Ikemefuna who was killed. He felt a relief within as the hymn poured into his parched soul." 

Yet by providing an outlet for the discontent, the church begins to unravel the ties that bind the Ibo people together. Although the church gives dignity to the outcast and the misunderstood, the second missionary who comes fails to restrain his converts from injuring the dignity of other Ibos. Achebe makes us sympathize with Nwoye's dissatisfaction and acknowledges that Ibo culture was imperfect, but through Okonkwo he also shows us what was lost when the Ibos failed to preserve their culture from the onslaught of the Europeans.

 

What was lost, Achebe has said elsewhere, was dignity, "and it is this that they must now regain. The worst thing that can happen to any people is the loss of their dignity and self-respect. The writer's duty is to help them regain it by showing in human terms what happened to them." Achebe succeeds brilliantly. He painfully and tragically depicts the tragedy that can result when the only way of life a man has ever known begins to crumble.

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