**spoiler alert** This is a well-made short novel about African colonization by Europeans from the point of view of native Africans which articulates...more**spoiler alert** This is a well-made short novel about African colonization by Europeans from the point of view of native Africans which articulates the destructive power of exploitative forced modernization and why compensation is virtually impossible. Achebe is a good story-teller in firm command of his craft and the protagonist, Okonkwo, is compelling and convincingly rendered. Achebe does a good job of propelling the narrative through Okonkwo’s characterization and motives, much the way a sitcom will establish long-term character motives in the early episodes. Unlike most novels written for reasons primarily political rather than artistic, Achebe does a good job of individuating characters and giving the reader cause to remain interested out of something other than his or her deep-seated sense of liberal guilt. Ultimately, though, he is unable to prevent his agenda from ruining what could have been a nearly flawless novel.
Except, why does Okonkwo kill himself?
Okonkwo is ambitious, conservative, honorbound. He is the tribal African counterpart to the very colonists who have turned the world he understands and loves upside down, the doppelganger of the imperialist conquerors. In the novel’s climax, Okonkwo comes to realize any revolt against the Europeans is doomed to fail. The invaders are too many, their technology too superior, their White God too powerful. Things cannot return to how they were. The world will never be the same. The center cannot hold. Everything Okonkwo thought was important has been swept away. His traditions, his culture, his world is doomed. He knows all is lost, and, finally, he commits suicide. This suicide comes completely out of left field. Nothing has been done to set up such an action on Okonkwo’s part. The plot has not sufficiently driven him to it, suicide does not seem to be a psychologically plausible course of action for the character, and Achebe is good enough of a writer to know better.
So, why does Okonkwo kill himself?
Things Fall Apart was assigned reading in a novel-writing class I took a few years ago. The instructor challenged the class to determine, through close reading, why it makes sense for Okonkwo to commit suicide, why it was inevitable, why it is the perfect ending. Rather than a critical close reading, I chose instead to “read like a writer.” Here’s what I think happened: Before Achebe ever put pen to paper, it had been decided that Okonkwo would kill himself. Okonkwo was only created so he could kill himself to illustrate Achebe’s thematic point. He was reduced to a symbol before breath had ever been given him. But then something unforeseen happened: the story got away from Achebe. Okonkwo took over the novel. But Achebe didn’t care. The agenda was more important than artistic integrity, than adventure, than personal discovery. Thus Okonkwo must do this thing he would never do, as Achebe had invented him. Achebe, I believe, would sooner scrap the whole thing and start over than to let the story be true to the character he had actually invented. The character was created to do a job and Achebe couldn’t see the point in keeping him around if he wasn’t going to do his job.