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Things Fall Apart

The novel Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe was one of the first works to make an African author famous worldwide. According to the author, his book depicts the spiritual history of the Igbo culture before the destructive invasion of European missionaries. Things Fall Apart sharply criticizes the policy of European imperialism, which has had pernicious influence on cultural and social life of peaceful population. Apart from this theme, the book focuses on human fear not to become like their parents. Okonkwo takes this issue too seriously and desperately tries to avoid his father’s traits, neglecting his independent life. Therefore, it may be reasonably claimed that Things Fall Apart highlights the three major themes: African spiritual life (including religion, sin, customs, and traditions), fear, and family life.

The Igbo religion is paganism: people worship the gods that embody elements of nature. Paganism is typical of agricultural society since people are fully dependent on natural forces and are afraid of them. The most important goddess is Ani, “the earth goddess and the source of all fertility. Ani played a greater part in the life of the people than any other deity. She was the ultimate judge of morality and conduct”. Although the goddess of fertility embodies new life, she also plays the role of a mediator between the living people and the dead: “And what was more, she was in close communion with the departed father of the clan whose bodies had been committed to the earth.” The Igbo people fear Ani very much and try not to commit sins against her; they are convinced that personal crimes make the goddess angry and she may take revenge on the offender, as in the following excerpt:

You know as well as I do that our forefathers ordained that before we plant any crops in the earth we should observe a week in which a man does not say a harsh word to his neighbor. We live in peace with our fellows to honor our great goddess of the earth without whose blessing our crops would not grow. You have committed a great evil….Your wife was at fault, but even if you came into your obi and found her lover on top of her, you would still have committed a great evil to beat her…The evil you have done can ruin the whole clan. The earth goddess whom you have insulted may refuse to give us her increase, and we shall all perish…You will bring to the shrine of Ani tomorrow one she-goat, one hen, a length of cloth and a hundred cowries.

The Ibo people use wooden idols of their gods to pray to them. Every person is believed to have one’s own or personal god (chi) that can be affected by human willpower: “The Ibo people have a proverb that when a man says yes his chi says yes also. Okonkwo said yes very strongly; so his chi agreed.” Also, the Igbo have the Oracle – Agbala, who is generally believed to foresee human destiny. In the same way, the spirits of the dead are considered to have prodigious wisdom. Ancestors are of a divine nature; they are consulted for almost any matter. There is no wonder that their spirits should be respected and honored as gods; otherwise, they may bring ill fortune. All these facts prove that polytheism is of vital importance to the Igbo world outlook and lifestyle and that Christian single God cannot be so relevant to the their religion.  

Firm religious beliefs considerably predetermine Igbo traditions and customs. Their everyday life is imbued with cults, religious ceremonies, and speeches. Many rituals honor the family, too.  Also, the Igbo pay attention to the matters of respect and awareness of one’s social role. For instance, to welcome a guest and show respect towards him/her, a host should bring a kola nut, which is later broken. A guest, too, should stick to some principles if he wants to show respect. Since the kola breaking is honorable, he must refuse to break it and offer a host to do that at first. Then a respectful guest is supposed to present a host with conventional gifts, pray for the health of the host’s family, and talk on the matters only after everyone has eaten plenty of meals. One more custom the Igbo may use to display politeness is to imbue their speech with proverbs and sophisticated expressions – such a slow and discreet approach to one’s topic is considered polite and respectful.   

Ibo marriage traditions are of high interest. First of all, a bride-price should be determined. For this purpose, short broomsticks are used. The bride’s family gives a certain number of broomsticks (which represents a sum) to the groom’s family, and the latter subtracts or adds sticks. The two families stop exchanging broomsticks when they reach an agreement. The final number of broomsticks stands for the quantity of bags of cowries, which the groom’s family pays for the bride. Therefore, we see that this wedding custom displays respect, too. Another respectful form of payment for a bride is a pot of palm-wine. The more pots of palm-wine is the groom’s family ready to pay with, the more highly the groom (and his family) esteems the bride.  

The Igbo have special traditions and customs for outcasts. An outcast – an osu is a person who lives far from other villagers in a special area since his existence offends the villagers. It is typically of the osu to wear long, dirty, and tangled hair. He has no right to cut his hair because it is the mark of his humiliating status. He cannot have any contact with free-born people, who, in turn, cannot stay with him under the same roof. The osu is doomed to loneliness, as well as his children. When he dies, his kind buries him in the Evil Forest. Notwithstanding, Christian missionaries destroy this social convention, claiming that if the osu accept the new religion, they may shave their hair and cast off the outcast’s shackles.

Things Fall Apart presents sin as a crime against the will of the gods. A person sins if he/she encroaches upon the most fragile family ties, especially with concern to one’s children, or insults the ancestors’ spirit. Such violations insult the earth goddess and result into severe and almost instant punishment, which may include animal sacrifice, fines, exile, and death.  Justice can be restored only if these penalties are applied. A sinner should be punished anyway; otherwise, Ani would get angry and the whole community would suffer.

Unoka’s death seems to be a “good example of divine justice”: he is punished by the gods for his laziness and dies alone in the forest because of an abominable illness; he is not buried. Okonkwo also commits a sin against Ani: he beats his wife during the Week of Peace. However, “Okonkwo was not the man to stop beating somebody half-way through, not even for fear of a goddess,” which proves that the man does not fear and respect the goddess. The peculiar feature of the Igbo sin is that it concerns the entire village and is a common matter; if one sins, everybody is responsible for a single sin.

Fear is the central element of the novel. It makes characters act unkindly, which leads to sin, guilt, societal condemnation, and the rage of the gods. Okonkwo’s greatest fear is becoming like his coward and lazy father, Ekwefi fears to think that he may lose his daughter, whereas Nwoye fears his father’s rage. Okonkwo’s fear deserves high attention since he, unlike others, does not fear some external forces but is deeply concerned with his own identity. The man chooses not the best way of fighting his fear; he even does not fight it but lets it completely absorb him. Okonkwo overcompensates for his paranoia: he beats his wives, abuses and alienates his oldest son, takes part in the murder of the boy he adopted, etc. Probably, such Okonkwo’s behavior is predetermined by his nature: he is “a man of action, a man of war, who could stand the look of blood.” Undoubtedly, he is a tragic figure because he conflicts with himself: the fear of weakness and failure rules over his soul. Moreover, his tragedy lies in the fact that he is afraid to show his emotions towards the closest people – his family. Afraid of being doomed woman-like, Okonkwo avoids anything that may be associated with femininity.

In Igbo culture, a model family should be united, show mutual respect for each member, and revere all the ancestors. The father provides the family with everything necessary, defends its honor and teaches his sons. The mother is obliged to bear healthy children and gratify her husband. Children are supposed to inherit the culture and pass on the values of the ancestors. For the Igbo, the family is the core unit of society, and family bonds are sacred. Although Okonkwo becomes the head of the household and provides for his sisters and mother, he is a tyrannical husband since he makes her sons and wives work very hard.

All things considered, in Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe touches upon an acute issue of encroachment on Igbo culture. Okonkwo alone is unable to withstand the influence of Christian missionaries, whereas the villagers betray their own values and fail to defend their culture. Okonkwo’s suicide embodies a silent protest against forced conversion into Christianity and the destructive impact of the latter; however, he dies in vain since his death changes nothing.

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