James Korsmo's Reviews > Things Fall Apart

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
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Aug 03, 11


In my quest of thoughtful fiction, my most recent read has been Achebe's Things Fall Apart. It is an intriguing tragedy of cultural ignorance, set within a penetrating look at the colonization of Africa.

The book focuses on Okonkwo, a well-regarded warrior and leader in Unuofia, a village in the lower Niger valley. Okonkwo is a hard man who has made his way in the clan and the world through hard work. He leads his house with a heavy and unyielding hand, and is driven by the desire to be recognized and titled in his clan. He especially values the traditions of his fathers and their gods.

The people of Umuofia believe in a god above the gods who made the world, and who also made gods to interact with the people of the world. These gods are the gods of the land and sky. Umuofia has an oracle who is said to interact with one of these gods, and her word is highly valued. As part of their belief, twins are always discarded in the woods when they are born, and an entire class of people are considered outcasts because they are "set apart" to the gods.

The book opens with the murder of a woman of Umuofia by some men from a neighboring village. The men of Umuoafia gather for war and send an emisary to the neighboring village, and to avoid war, the village agrees to send a virgin and a young man as the price for the lost life. The girl is given to the man whose wife had been murdered. The boy was given to Okonkwo to keep in his house until his fate was decided. After three years, the clan decided to have the boy killed, even though he had become like a son to Okonkwo. And despite advice to the contrary, Okonkwo had a hand in his death.

Then one day, while celebrating a burial feast in the town square, Okonkwo inadvertantly killed a man when his gun exploded. As punishment for this offense against the clan and the gods, Okonkwo was banished from the clan for seven years, and he went off to the home of his mother. While there, he began to hear news of white men who were appearing the area. In one town, a white man was killed and then many white men came in and wiped out the village. And now white men had come to his mothers home and also to Umuofia.

When Okonkwo returned to Umuofia, he found that the missionaries had started a church and a school, and had also set up a District Comissioner's office and a trading post. They were bringing not only religion but also the sovereignty of the queen of England to this part of Africa. The church was growing, especially among the outcasts, but it began to gain more and more adherants. But clashes were inevitable. Some of the converts felt the need to not only accept a new faith but also to denounce and mock their old beliefs, a position that some of the missionaries shared. And when a new pastor came that believed there was no room for any accomodation or compromise, things quickly unravelled. When one man comitted what was viewed as a high abomination by unmasking a sacred dancer during a feast, the clan was deeply offended, and burned down the church building. The district comissioner responded by capturing six leaders of the clan, humiliating them, and holding them for ransom to punish the clan for their violence. After the paying of the ransom and the release of the men, the clan gathered to discuss open war with the white men. But when a messenger and guards came to break up the meeting, Okonkwo, who was set on war, murdered the messenger. But he quickly sensed that the village was not set on war, so he went out and hanged himself.

Achebe has written a vivid account of African life, and a penetrating critique of a colonial attitude toward cultures. The influence of the Western culture truly causes the fabric of Umuofia to begin to fall apart. In part, that can of course be viewed as a necessary influence of the grace and truth of the gospel, a putting off of the old wineskins for new wine. But Achebe also calls into question the enculturation that often comes with the message. Too often we attach our own cultural norms to the gospel message, when the relationship should be much more nuanced. And Achebe's book artfully brings this idea to the fore. I highly recommed it. It is a penetrating book that helps those of us in the dominant Western culture to see things from a different perspective.
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