Things Fall Apart: Examining Literary Merit
by Feross Aboukhadijeh
In Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, the reader is taken on a literary journey to a Nigerian tribe, the Umuofia, to experience first-hand the struggles of a warrior named Okonkwo. At first glance, the novel appears to be written for a very specific audience: scholars familiar with Nigerian history, traditions, and culture. However, upon further examination the novel reveals itself to be a striking chronicle of human experiences, universal themes, and timeless struggles that appeal to every human, regardless of familiarity with Nigerian culture. Taken as a whole, the novel appears to be much more than the sum of its parts: syntax, diction, figurative language, imagery, repetition, and symbols. Things Fall Apart is a novel with literary merit—and lots of it.
Part of the novel’s appeal lies in its compelling themes which strike chords that resound throughout time and across linguistic barriers. The clash of cultures, the struggle with change, and fatal character flaws are the main themes which Achebe’s novel probes. In order to sculpt a literary monument to the human condition and these universal themes, the author, Achebe, employs a broad variety of literary tools. Literary devices play a crucial role in enhancing the novel’s main themes and earning Things Fall Apart its widespread acceptance as a quality piece of literature.
The clash of cultures is undoubtedly one of the most universal themes seen in literature. This cultural clash can be seen throughout life and history anytime two groups of people hold differing views that cannot coexist. Even today, Western and Eastern cultures—the U.S. and China are one example; the Palestinians and Israelis are another—continue their struggles to reconcile dissimilar beliefs through negotiation, and in some cases, armed conflict. Similarly, the European missionaries and the native Umuofians struggle to coexist peacefully. However, the relationship between the Europeans and the Umuofians is one-sided.
When the Europeans arrived in Umuofia, they brought Christianity with them but did not foist it upon anyone; joining the church was entirely optional. But over time, the missionaries became increasingly aggressive—even hostile—to the native Umuofian beliefs and culture. Slowly, the Europeans erode the native beliefs and come to dominate the native society. Achebe expresses the effects of the missionaries clearly through the repeated imagery of the tribal drums. The signature Umuofian drums are heard many times throughout the story—until the Europeans arrive in the tribe—after which the drums are heard no more. The tribal drums are a symbol of tribal unity. “The drums were still beating, persistent and unchanging. Their sound was no longer a separate thing from the living village. It was like the pulsation of its heart. It throbbed in the air, in the sunshine, and even in the trees, and filled the village with excitement” (44). Any time Achebe mentions the sound of the drums, Umuofian society is functioning properly. Every clansman knew his place and purpose in life; the tribe worked together, functioning as a single unit. Indeed, the drums seemed to have Umuofia under a spell. “Old men nodded to the beat of the drums and remembered . . . its intoxicating rhythm” (47). However, the constant repetition of the drum imagery before the European missionaries arrive stands in stark contrast to the lack of drums throughout the latter half of the novel.
After the Christian missionaries arrive in Umuofia, they immediately begin to evangelize the locals. One method they used to captivate the tribesmen was to sing hymns. “Then the missionaries burst into song. It was one of those gay and rollicking tunes of evangelism which had the power of plucking at silent and dusty chords in the heart of an Ibo man” (146). And pluck at Umuofian hearts the missionaries did. Achebe uses imagery of the “silent” and “dusty” Umuofian man’s heart being quenched by the Christian music to demonstrate the European point-of-view. No doubt, the missionaries believed that they were bringing salvation (water) to a savage people (living in the desert). When Okonkwo returns from his seven year exile, he finds the Europeans dominating Umuofian culture—even controlling the Umuofian government. The tribal unity has been shattered. Family ties—once so important in Umuofian society—are now nearly meaningless. In this clash between tradition and change, change was the clear-cut winner.
In addition to cultural clash, Achebe explores the theme of masculinity versus femininity, and in doing so, reveals Okonkwo’s fatal character flaw: hyper-masculinity. Okonkwo is motivated by a desire to prove himself superior to his father, who was cowardly and irresponsible and died a poor man with many unpaid debts. He viewed his father as overly pensive, slow to act, and effeminate (womanly). Therefore, Okonkwo adopts opposite traits; Okonkwo is rash, quick to act, and excessively violent (Okonkwo associates violence with masculinity). Achebe uses figurative language like metaphors and similes to compare Okonkwo to a fire. “. . . Okonkwo's fame had grown like a bush-fire in the harmattan . . .” (1). Okonkwo gained power and importance in Umuofian society by burning lesser people as fuel. Just like a brush-fire, Okonkwo’s fame, importance, and prestige grew stronger the longer he burned. He continued to burn strong into adulthood. “. . . [The drums] filled him with fire as it had always done from his youth. He trembled with the desire to conquer and subdue” (42). Okonkwo’s inner fire is what allowed him to conquer Umuofian society and rise above the disgrace of his father.
As his fame and popularity increased, Okonkwo pursued his ideal of masculinity. Okonkwo constantly distanced himself from anything even remotely feminine. He constantly reminded himself of his masculinity and strove to make sure all his clansmen knew of it as well. “Okonkwo was popularly called the ‘Roaring Flame.’ As he looked into the log fire he recalled the name. He was a flaming fire” (153). The metaphor of fire is perfect to describe Okonkwo’s character, and yields a deep analysis of human feelings and personality. Like a fire, Okonkwo is violent, and burns whatever he touches. In many cases, he “burns” his own family. Throughout the novel, Okonkwo nags on his wives and son, beats his family, and kills three innocent people—not to mention himself, as well. In many cases, he hurts his family for trivial reasons. For instance, Okonkwo chastised and beat his son, Nwoye, for merely listening to his mother’s stories. He beat Nwoye again when he discovered him helping women with their household tasks. Okonkwo saw within Nwoye the same “effeminate” essence of his the father whom he hates so much.
Although Okonkwo’s fiery personality is what allowed him to succeed in Umuofian society, his destructive nature also led to his eventual suicide. As the Europeans gained influence and political clout in the Umuofian government, Okonkwo saw his own power and influence at risk. When the Europeans finally succeed in taking control of the government, then Okonkwo—like a fire without any fuel—dies, a victim of his own nature. And this is the beauty of Achebe’s fire metaphor, which is seen throughout the novel.
Ultimately, the success of Things Fall Apart as a novel of literary merit is due to Achebe’s use of universal literary themes like self-exploration, change, tradition, cultural clash, and masculinity versus femininity. No matter what language is spoken by the reader or what time period they come from, Achebe’s writing about the human experience is relevant and meaningful. Of course, not all scholars agree with the assertion that Things Fall Apart has literary merit. However, this is not important. Achebe’s skillful use of literary devices like metaphor, simile, imagery, and repetition demonstrate the quality of writing. Achebe’s understanding of the “human experience” demonstrates the relevance of theme. And the number of copies of the novel sold (over two million worldwide) demonstrates the universality of the story. It is safe to say that Things Fall Apart has earned widespread acceptance as a quality piece of literature.