This story follows the rise and the fall of a respected Nigerian Igbo leader as he challenges European colonialism and modernization. We begin to see a changing culture that starts questioning traditions, which threatens the old customs. As new beliefs and institutions are introduced to the community, the Igbo culture collapses and, for our hero, ‘things fall apart’. It is a classic tragedy and is regarded as a milestone in African literature. This copy has been with me since high school english, but I didn’t really understand the implications until I had to re-read it for African Lit. There is a lot to unpack in this book but it is incredibly influential and definitely worth reading, at least once.
“Having spoken plainly so far, Okoye said the next half a dozen sentences in proverbs. Among the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten.” ―Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart
This quote alludes to the highly sophisticated art of rhetoric practiced by the Igbo by comparing food and words. The metaphor of words as food is appropriate, given the agricultural nature of Igbo society. Food is respected in Igbo culture and is regarded as the sustenance of life. They award the same value that they place on food to words, the sustenance of interaction and hence community. In the way that palm oil must be consumed, so must words and conversations.
This rhetorical formalness of this exchange offers insight into the misunderstandings that occur between the Igbo and the Europeans. Whereas the Europeans value efficiency and directness in their dealings, the Igbo value an adherence to their cultural traditions, which include certain patterns of dialogue considered inefficient by Western standards. “All their customs are upside down.”
“The new year must begin with tasty, fresh yams and not the shriveled fibrous crop of the previous year.”
I like this one because it is such a timeless idea that everyone can relate to; out with the old and in with the new. “All cooking pots, calabashes and wooden bowls were thoroughly washed,” to wash away the past and make space for the new. This is yet another beautiful food metaphor from Achebe, who does a wonderful job of expressing the importance of food in this culture.
“And then quite suddenly a shadow fell on the world …”
I like this imagery. It is simple but powerful, and it is wonderful foreshadowing for the troubles that are about to arise for Okonkwo.
“Okonkwo was ruled by one passion — to hate everything that his father Unoka had loved. One of those things was gentleness and another was idleness.”
This is a great quote because it draws a parallel between Okonkwo and the tragic hero Achilles. Homer paints Achilles as a hero who rejects the attitude of unthinking conformity that is prevalent in contemporary society. Achilles develops his own original relationship with the world in the same way that Okonkwo does, and both resist change.
“Okonkwo was not a man of thought but a man of action.”
Okonkwo also resembles Achilles in anger mismanagement. Okonkwo is painted as a ruthless person who does not know how to display emotion. In fact, “Okonkwo never showed any emotion openly, unless it is the emotion of anger. To show affection was a sign of weakness, the only thing worth demonstrating was strength”.
Despite his “fear of being thought weak”, Okonkwo is overcome by emotions and is unable to kill his adopted son. Similarly, Achilles is overcome by emotions and is unable to slay his own surrogate son, Patroclus.
“Umuofia obodo dike, ‘the land of the brave’.”
This particular quote stands out to me because it is reminescent of The Star-Spangled Banner. I think it is an ironic phrase to use. While the influence of Western culture ultimately causes the collapse of Okonkwo’s traditional village life, this phrase unites the two cultures together. There are similarities, despite the differences.
“The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.” ―
I love when books do this. Mention the title of the book within the book, that is. I like that it is near the end, and it is presented in a way that ties the story together.