Things Fall Apart tells two intertwining stories, both centering on Okonkwo, a “strong man” of an Ibo village in Nigeria. The first, a powerful fable of the immemorial conflict between the individual and society, traces Okonkwo’s fall from grace with the tribal world. The second, as modern as the first is ancient, concerns the clash of cultures and the destruction of Okonkwo's world with the arrival of aggressive European missionaries. These perfectly harmonized twin dramas are informed by an awareness capable of encompassing at once the life of nature, human history, and the mysterious compulsions of the soul.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Chapter OneOkonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievements. As a young man of eighteen he had brought honor to his village by throwing Amalinze the Cat. Amalinze was the great wrestler who for seven years was unbeaten, from Umuofia to Mbaino. He was called the Cat because his back would never touch the earth. It was this man that Okonkwo threw in a fight which the old men agreed was one of the fiercest since the founder of their town engaged a spirit of the wild for seven days and seven nights.The drums beat and the flutes sang and the spectators held their breath. Amalinze was a wily craftsman, but Okonkwo was as slippery as a fish in water. Every nerve and every muscle stood out on their arms, on their backs and their thighs, and one almost heard them stretching to breaking point. In the end, Okonkwo threw the Cat.That was many years ago, twenty years or more, and during this time Okonkwo's fame had grown like a bush-fire in the harmattan. He was tall and huge, and his bushy eyebrows and wide nose gave him a very severe look. He breathed heavily, and it was said that, when he slept, his wives and children in their houses could hear him breathe. When he walked, his heels hardly touched the ground and he seemed to walk on springs, as if he was going to pounce on somebody. And he did pounce on people quite often. He had a slight stammer and whenever he was angry and could not get his words out quickly enough, he would use his fists. He had no patience with unsuccessful men. He had had no patience with his father.Unoka, for that was his father's name, had died ten years ago. In his day he was lazy and improvident and was quite incapable of thinking about tomorrow. If any money came his way, and it seldom did, he immediately bought gourds of palm-wine, called round his neighbors and made merry. He always said that whenever he saw a dead man's mouth he saw the folly of not eating what one had in one's lifetime. Unoka was, of course, a debtor, and he owed every neighbor some money, from a few cowries to quite substantial amounts.He was tall but very thin and had a slight stoop. He wore a haggard and mournful look except when he was drinking or playing on his flute. He was very good on his flute, and his happiest moments were the two or three moons after the harvest when the village musicians brought down their instruments, hung above the fireplace. Unoka would play with them, his face beaming with blessedness and peace. Sometimes another village would ask Unoka's band and their dancing egwugwu to come and stay with them and teach them their tunes. They would go to such hosts for as long as three or four markets, making music and feasting. Unoka loved the good fare and the good fellowship, and he loved this season of the year, when the rains had stopped and the sun rose every morning with dazzling beauty. And it was not too hot either, because the cold and dry harmattan wind was blowing down from the north. Some years the harmattan was very severe and a dense haze hung on the atmosphere. Old men and children would then sit round log fires, warming their bodies. Unoka loved it all, and he loved the first kites that returned with the dry season, and the children who sang songs of welcome to them. He would remember his own childhood, how he had often wandered around looking for a kite sailing leisurely against the blue sky. As soon as he found one he would sing with his whole being, welcoming it back from its long, long journey, and asking it if it had brought home any lengths of cloth.That was years ago, when he was young. Unoka, the grown-up, was a failure. He was poor and his wife and children had barely enough to eat. People laughed at him because he was a loafer, and they swore never to lend him any more money because he never paid back. But Unoka was such a man that he always succeeded in borrowing more, and piling up his debts.One day a neighbor called Okoye came in to see him. He was reclining on a mud bed in his hut playing on the flute. He immediately rose and shook hands with Okoye, who then unrolled the goatskin which he carried under his arm, and sat down. Unoka went into an inner room and soon returned with a small wooden disc containing a kola nut, some alligator pepper and a lump of white chalk."I have kola," he announced when he sat down, and passed the disc over to his guest."Thank you. He who brings kola brings life. But I think you ought to break it," replied Okoye, passing back the disc."No, it is for you, I think," and they argued like this for a few moments before Unoka accepted the honor of breaking the kola. Okoye, meanwhile, took the lump of chalk, drew some lines on the floor, and then painted his big toe.As he broke the kola, Unoka prayed to their ancestors for life and health, and for protection against their enemies. When they had eaten they talked about many things: about the heavy rains which were drowning the yams, about the next ancestral feast and about the impending war with the village of Mbaino. Unoka was never happy when it came to wars. He was in fact a coward and could not bear the sight of blood. And so he changed the subject and talked about music, and his face beamed. He could hear in his mind's ear the blood-stirring and intricate rhythms of the ekwe and the udu and the ogene, and he could hear his own flute weaving in and out of them, decorating them with a colorful and plaintive tune. The total effect was gay and brisk, but if one picked out the flute as it went up and down and then broke up into short snatches, one saw that there was sorrow and grief there.Okoye was also a musician. He played on the ogene. But he was not a failure like Unoka. He had a large barn full of yams and he had three wives. And now he was going to take the Idemili title, the third highest in the land. It was a very expensive ceremony and he was gathering all his resources together. That was in fact the reason why he had come to see Unoka. He cleared his throat and began:"Thank you for the kola. You may have heard of the title I intend to take shortly."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. Okoye was a great talker and he spoke for a long time, skirting round the subject and then hitting it finally. In short, he was asking Unoka to return the two hundred cowries he had borrowed from him more than two years before. As soon as Unoka understood what his friend was driving at, he burst out laughing. He laughed loud and long and his voice rang out clear as the ogene, and tears stood in his eyes. His visitor was amazed, and sat speechless. At the end, Unoka was able to give an answer between fresh outbursts of mirth."Look at that wall," he said, pointing at the far wall of his hut, which was rubbed with red earth so that it shone. "Look at those lines of chalk;" and Okoye saw groups of short perpendicular lines drawn in chalk. There were five groups, and the smallest group had ten lines. Unoka had a sense of the dramatic and so he allowed a pause, in which he took a pinch of snuff and sneezed noisily, and then he continued: "Each group there represents a debt to someone, and each stroke is one hundred cowries. You see, I owe that man a thousand cowries. But he has not come to wake me up in the morning for it. I shall pay, you, but not today. Our elders say that the sun will shine on those who stand before it shines on those who kneel under them. I shall pay my big debts first." And he took another pinch of snuff, as if that was paying the big debts first. Okoye rolled his goatskin and departed.When Unoka died he had taken no title at all and he was heavily in debt. Any wonder then that his son Okonkwo was ashamed of him? Fortunately, among these people a man was judged according to his worth and not according to the worth of his father. Okonkwo was clearly cut out for great things. He was still young but he had won fame as the greatest wrestler in the nine villages. He was a wealthy farmer and had two barns full of yams, and had just married his third wife. To crown it all he had taken two titles and had shown incredible prowess in two inter-tribal wars. And so although Okonkwo was still young, he was already one of the greatest men of his time. Age was respected among his people, but achievement was revered. As the elders said, if a child washed his hands he could eat with kings. Okonkwo had clearly washed his hands and so he ate with kings and elders. And that was how he came to look after the doomed lad who was sacrificed to the village of Umuofia by their neighbors to avoid war and bloodshed. The ill-fated lad was called Ikemefuna.Chapter TwoOkonkwo had just blown out the palm-oil lamp and stretched himself on his bamboo bed when he heard the ogene of the town crier piercing the still night air. Gome, gome, gome, gome, boomed the hollow metal. Then the crier gave his message, and at the end of it beat his instrument again. And this was the message. Every man of Umuofia was asked to gather at the market place tomorrow morning. Okonkwo wondered what was amiss, for he knew certainly that something was amiss. He had discerned a clear overtone of tragedy in the crier's voice, and even now he could still hear it as it grew dimmer and dimmer in the distance.The night was very quiet. It was always quiet except on moonlight nights. Darkness held a vague terror for these people, even the bravest among them. Children were warned not to whistle at night for fear of evil spirits. Dangerous animals became even more sinister and uncanny in the dark. A snake was never called by its name at night, because it would hear. It was called a string. And so on this particular night as the crier's voice was gradually swallowed up in the distance, silence returned to the world, a vibrant silence made more intense by the universal trill of a million million forest insects.On a moonlight night it would be different. The happy voices of children playing in open fields would then be heard. And perhaps those not so young would be playing in pairs in less open places, and old men and women would remember their youth. As the Ibo say: "When the moon is shining the cripple becomes hungry for a walk."But this particular night was dark and silent. And in all the nine villages of Umuofia a town crier with his ogene asked every man to be present tomorrow morning. Okonkwo on his bamboo bed tried to figure out the nature of the emergency--war with a neighboring clan? That seemed the most likely reason, and he was not afraid of war. He was a man of action, a man of war. Unlike his father he could stand the look of blood. In Umuofia's latest war he was the first to bring home a human head. That was his fifth head; and he was not an old man yet. On great occasions such as the funeral of a village celebrity he drank his palm-wine from his first human head.In the morning the market place was full. There must have been about ten thousand men there, all talking in low voices. At last Ogbuefi Ezeugo stood up in the midst of them and bellowed four times, "Umuofia kwenu", and on each occasion he faced a different direction and seemed to push the air with a clenched fist. And ten thousand men answered "Yaal" each time. Then there was perfect silence. Ogbuefi Ezeugo was a powerful orator and was always chosen to speak on such occasions. He moved his hand over his white head and stroked his white beard. He then adjusted his cloth, which was passed under his right arm-pit and tied above his left shoulder."Umuofia kwenu", he bellowed a fifth time, and the crowd yelled in answer. And then suddenly like one possessed he shot out his left hand and pointed in the direction of Mbaino, and said through gleaming white teeth firmly clenched: "Those sons of wild animals have dared to murder a daughter of Umuofia." He threw his head down and gnashed his teeth, and allowed a murmur of suppressed anger to sweep the crowd. When he began again, the anger on his face was gone and in its place a sort of smile hovered, more terrible and more sinister than the anger. And in a clear unemotional voice he told Umuofia how their daughter had gone to market at Mbaino and had been killed. That woman, said Ezeugo, was the wife of Ogbuefi Udo, and he pointed to a man who sat near him with a bowed head. The crowd then shouted with anger and thirst for blood.Many others spoke, and at the end it was decided to follow the normal course of action. An ultimatum was immediately dispatched to Mbaino asking them to choose between war on the one hand, and on the other the offer of a young man and a virgin as compensation.Umuofia was feared by all its neighbors. It was powerful in war and in magic, and its priests and medicine men were feared in all the surrounding country. Its most potent war-medicine was as old as the clan itself. Nobody knew how old. But on one point there was general agreement--the active principle in that medicine had been an old woman with one leg. In fact, the medicine itself was called agadi-nwayi, or old woman. It had its shrine in the centre of Umuofia, in a cleared spot. And if anybody was so foolhardy as to pass by the shrine after dusk he was sure to see the old woman hopping about.
Excerpted from Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. Copyright © 1994 by Chinua Achebe. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
About the Book
It is the express purpose of this guide to aid your group in reading, discussing, and more fully enjoying this illuminating work. It provides you with new perspectives on the work and hopefully provides you with new avenues for your conversations.
About the Guide
Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe's first novel, was published in 1958. Worldwide, there are eight million copies in print in fifty different languages. This stunning work, which John Updike calls "a great book, that bespeaks a great, brave, kind human spirit," is often compared to the great Greek tragedies. It concerns itself with the classic struggle between rigid traditionalism and the winds of change. Specifically, it is about the effects of British colonialism on a small Nigerian village at the turn of the century. A simple story of a "strong man" whose life is dominated by fear and anger, it is written with remarkable economy and subtle irony. Uniquely and richly African, at the same time it reveals Achebe's keen awareness of the human qualities common to men of all times and places.
About the Author
Chinua Achebe was born in Nigeria in 1930. He was raised in the large village of Ogidi, one of the first centers of Anglican missionary work in Eastern Nigeria, and is a graduate of University College, Ibadan. His early career in radio ended abruptly in 1966, when he left his post as Director of External Broadcasting in Nigeria during the national upheaval that led to the Biafran War. He was appointed Senior Research Fellow at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and began lecturing widely abroad. From 1972 to 1976, and again in 1987 to 1988, Mr. Achebe was a Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and also for one year at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. Cited in the London Sunday Times as one of the 1,000 "Makers of the Twentieth Century," for defining "a modern African literature that was truly African" and thereby making "a major contribution to world literature," Mr. Achebe has published novels, short stories, essays, and children's books. His volume of poetry, Christmas in Biafra, written during the Biafran War, was the joint winner of the first Commonwealth Poetry Prize. His novel Arrow of God was winner of the New Statesman-Jock Campbell Award, and Anthills of the Savannah was a finalist for the 1987 Booker Prize in England. Often mentioned as a leading candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Mr. Achebe holds an Honorary Fellowship of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, as well as more than twenty honorary doctorates from universities in England, Scotland, the U.S., Canada, and Nigeria. He is also the recipient of Nigeria's highest award for intellectual achievement, the Nigerian National Merit Award.
1. The Ibo religious structure consists of chi--the personal god--and many other gods and goddesses. What advantages and disadvantages does such a religion provide when compared with your own?
2. The text includes many original African terms and there is a glossary provided. Do you find that this lends atmospheric authenticity, thus bringing you closer to the work? Do you find it helpful?
3. There is an issue here of fate versus personal control over destiny. For example, Okonkwo's father is sometimes held responsible for his own actions, while at other times he is referred to as ill-fated and a victim of evil-fortune. Which do you think Okonkwo believes is true? What do you think Achebe believes is true? What do you believe?
4. The threads of the story are related in a circular fashion, as opposed to a conventional linear time pattern. What effect does this impose on the tale of Ikemefuma? What effect does it have on the story of Ezinma?
5. The villagers believe--or pretend to believe--that the "Supreme Court" of the nine egwugwu are ancestral spirits. In fact, they are men of the village in disguise. What does this say about the nature of justice in general, and in this village in particular?
6. Our own news media pre-programs us to view the kind of culture clash represented here as being purely racial in basis. Does Achebe's work impress as being primarily concerned with black versus white tensions? If not, what else is going on here?
7. Certain aspects of the clan's religious practice, such as the mutilation of a dead child to prevent its spirit from returning, might impress us as being barbaric. Casting an honest eye on our own religious practices, which ones might appear barbaric or bizarre to an outsider?
8. In an essay entitled "The Novelist as Teacher," Achebe states: "Here then is an adequate revolution for me to espouse--to help my society regain belief in itself and put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self-abasement" (Hopes and Impediments, p. 44). In what ways do you feel that this novel places Achebe closer to the fulfillment of this noble aspiration?
9. Nature plays an integral role in the mythic and real life of the Ibo villagers, much more so than in our own society. Discuss ways in which their perception of animals--such as the cat, the locust, the python--differ from your own, and how these different beliefs shape our behavior.
10. The sacrifice of Ikemefuma could be seen as being a parallel to the crucifixion of Jesus. The event also raises a series of questions. Ikemefuma and the villagers that are left behind are told that he is "going home" (p. 58). Does this euphemism for dying contain truth for them? Do they believe they are doing him a favor? Why do they wait three years, him and Okonkwo's family to think of him as a member of the family? Finally, Okonkwo, "the father," allows the sacrifice to occur as God presumably allowed Christ's sacrifice, with no resistance. How can one accept this behavior and maintain love for the father or God?
11. Of Ezinma, Okonkwo thinks: "She should have been a boy" (p. 64). Why is it necessary to the story that Okonkwo's most favored child be a girl?
12. Of one of the goddesses, it is said: "It was not the same Chielo who sat with her in the market...Chielo was not a woman that night" (p. 106). What do you make of this culture where people can be both themselves and also assume other personas? Can you think of any parallels in your own world?
13. There are many proverbs related during the course of the narrative. Recalling specific ones, what function do you perceive these proverbs as fulfilling in the life of the Ibo? What do you surmise Achebe's purpose to be in the inclusion of them here?
14. While the traditional figure of Okonkwo can in no doubt be seen as the central figure in the tale, Achebe chooses to relate his story in the third person rather than the first person narrative style. What benefits does he reap by adopting this approach?
15. Okonkwo rejects his father's way and is, in turn, rejected by Nwoye. Do you feel this pattern evolves inevitably through the nature of the father/son relationship? Or is there something more being here than mere generational conflict?
16. The lives of Ikemefuma and Okonkwo can be deemed parallel to the extent that they both have fathers whose behavior is judged unacceptable. What do you think the contributing factors are to the divergent paths their fate takes them on as a result of their respective fathers' shadows?
17. The title of the novel is derived from the William Butler Yeats poem entitled The Second Coming, concerned with the second coming of Christ. The completed line reads: "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold." What layers of meaning are discernible when this completed line is applied to the story?
18. The District Commissioner is going to title his work The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Niger (p. 209). What do you interpret from this to be his perception of Okonkwo and the people of Umuofia? And what do you imagine this augurs in the ensuing volumes in Achebe's trilogy of Nigerian life?
NOTE TO TEACHERS
Things Fall Apart is acclaimed as the finest novel written about life in Nigeria at the end of the nineteenth century. Published in 1958, it is unquestionably the world's most widely read African novel, having sold more than eight million copies in English and been translated into fifty languages. But it offers far more than access to pre-colonial Nigeria and the cataclysmic changes brought about by the British. It also can be a window into the story of the Aborigines in Australia, the Maori of New Zealand, and the First Nations of North, Central, and South America in the "falling apart" of the indigenous cultures of these and other places whose centers could not hold.
Chinua Achebe is the ideal teller of this story, born in Nigeria in 1930 and growing up in the Igbo town of Ogidi. He spoke Igbo at home and studied English in school, imbibing the dual culture. In an autobiographical essay, he describes his childhood as being "at the crossroads of cultures." In the course of a distinguished academic and literary career, much of it in exile, Achebe has been the recipient of many awards, beginning with the Margaret Wrong Memorial Prize in 1959 for Things Fall Apart and including more than thirty honorary doctorates. Achebe is in great demand throughout the world as a speaker and visiting lecturer, and is presently teaching at Bard College in New York.
Achebe uses that most English of literary forms, the novel, to make his story accessible to Westerners, and interlaces the narrative with Igbo proverbs and folktales. The novel challenges Western notions of historical truth, and prods readers into questioning our perception of pre-colonial and colonial Africa. More than half the novel is devoted to a depiction of Igbo culture, artfully drawn as we follow the rise to eminence of the protagonist. As a champion wrestler and a great warrior, Okonkwo is a natural leader. His flaw, however, is that he never questions the received wisdom of his ancestors. For this reason he is not drawn in a flattering light, but his culture is given a full and fair depiction.
Students might well keep journals in which they identify their own culture's equivalent to each Igbo folkway, discovering affinities as well as differences. There is no culture shock in discovering that Okonkwo's father has low status because of his laziness and improvidence. He would rather play his flute than repay his debts. It follows, then, that land, a full barn, expensive titles, and many wives confer status. Our protagonist is ambitious. Indeed, one of his flaws is his fear of failure, of becoming like his father.
Viewing society from the inside, students can make inferences about why a high value is accorded to clan solidarity, kinship, and hospitality, and the reasons for courtship and funeral customs. In a culture without written language, the arts of conversation and oration are prized. Wisdom is transmitted through proverbs, stories, and myths. The agrarian cycle of seasons, with their work and festivals, the judicious use of snuff and palm wine, the importance of music and dance, all could be noted and compared to similar Western mores. Law and justice keep the peace, pronouncing on a land dispute or the killing of a clansman. A priestess and masked tribesmen interpret the Oracle, speaking for ancestors and gods. They enforce taboos against twins and suicide, and offer explanations for high infant mortality.
The second and third parts of the novel trace the inexorable advance of Europeans. For years, stories told about white slavers are given little credence in Okonkwo's village. The first white man to arrive in a nearby village is killed because of an omen, and in retribution all are slaughtered by British guns. Christian missionaries seem to be madmen, their message of wicked ways and false gods attractive only to outcasts. But along with Christianity come hospitals and schools, converting farmers to court clerks and teachers. Trading stores pay high prices for palm oil. Government is closely linked to religion and literacy. A District Commissioner superimposes Queen Victoria's laws, and Africans from distant tribes serve as corrupt court messengers and prison guards.
Okonkwo, upholder of the ways of his ancestors, is inevitably cast in the role of tragic hero. His eldest son's early conversion merely hardens his belief in a rigid code of manly behavior. In exile during the first years of colonization, he has less understanding of the power of the Europeans than his now-passive kinsmen. His doom is swift and sure. By the novel's end, readers flinch when a British official reduces Okonkwo's life and death to a passing reference in a book he plans to write to be titled The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.
Note: This guide uses the contemporary spelling, Igbo, rather than Ibo.
ABOUT THIS BOOK
Things Fall Apart tells two overlapping, intertwining stories, both of which center around Okonkwo, a "strong man" of an Ibo village in Nigeria. The first story traces Okonkwo's fall from grace with the tribal world in which he lives. It provides us with a powerful fable about the immemorial conflict between the individual society. The second story, which is as modern as the first is ancient, concerns the clash of cultures and the destruction of Okonkwo's world through the arrival of aggressive, proselytizing European missionaries.
These twin dramas are perfectly harmonized and they are modulated by an awareness capable of encompassing the life of nature, history, and the mysterious compulsions of the soul. Things Fall Apart is the most illuminating and permanent monument we have to the modern African experience as seen from within.
ABOUT THIS AUTHOR
Other Works by Chinua Achebe
Anthills of the Savannah
Girls at War and Other Stories
A Man of the People
Home and Exile
Morning Yet on Creation Day
Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays
DISCUSSION AND WRITING
Structure, Technique and Plot
1. The novel is structured in three parts. What do the divisions reflect about the stages of life of the protagonist? How do the divisions move toward and illustrate the collapse of Igbo society?
2. What is the point of view of the narrator? How does the point of view contribute to our understanding of the conflicting cultures? What techniques does the narrator use to evoke a participatory role for the reader?
3. In the novel's opening, Okonkwo is wrestling. How does this contrast with the ending, when Okonkwo is deliberating about an adequate response to the British humiliation of the Igbo elders in jail?
4. Achebe uses storytelling flashbacks to describe the relationship of Okonkwo and Unoka. What do the flashbacks reveal about their relationship? What is the effect of the use of storytelling to illustrate the flashbacks?
5. In Chapter One, how does Achebe foreshadow the presence (and ultimate fate) of Ikemefuna?
6. Describe the judicial function of the egwugwu and its relationship to the living, particularly to Igbo women. Why is it also related to the spiritual world? How does Achebe illustrate the blending of the spiritual and real worlds?
7. How does the killing of Ikemefuna foreshadow the fall of Okonkwo?
8. Why is Okonkwo exiled? Why is the exile ironic? Compare to Okonkwo's participation in the killing of Ikemefuna and its lack of consequences.
9. When and how is the white man introduced? Trace the chronology of the Igbo people's responses to the arrival and settlement of the white man. What attitudes toward the Igbo people do the white men bring and how do their attitudes determine their treatment of the Igbo people?
10. How does Achebe use incidents to paint the general character of the white colonizers?
Character and Conflict
1. How does Okonkwo achieve greatness as defined by his culture?
2. Why is Unoka, who suffers from a swelling in the stomach, left to die in the evil forest?
3. How does Okonkwo differ from his father? What are his feelings toward his father? How does his father shape Okonkwo's character and actions as an adult male? Cite examples in the attitude and actions of Okonkwo that show the Igbo division of what is considered manly and what is considered womanly.
4. Why is Okonkwo unhappy with his son and heir? How do his feelings toward Nwoye compare with his feelings toward Ikemefuna? How do Okonkwo's feelings affect Nwoye?
5. Why is Ikemefuna killed? Why does Okonkwo participate in the slaughter in spite of an elder's advice not to become involved in the sacrifice? How does Nwoye react to the sacrifice?
6. Okonkwo changes significantly after the killing of Ikemefuna. Describe those changes and tell how they reflect Okonkwo's struggle with his feminine side.
7. Consider Okonkwo's relationship to his daughter Ezinma and how he regards her compared to how he regards Nwoye.
8. During Okonkwo's exile, Obierika proves to be his friend. How do Obierika's actions show true friendship?
9. Describe actions that depict Obierika as Okonkwo's alter ego.
10. Why does Nwoye convert to Christianity? How does his conversion affect his relationship with his father?
11. Describe Mr. Brown. How is his portrayal different from the Igbo characters? Compare and contrast him with other white colonists.
12. Describe Enoch. How do his actions show disdain for Igbo traditions?
13. How does the Reverend Smith's personality differ from that of Mr. Brown? What is the impact of Reverend Smith's personality on the village?
Setting and Society
1. The novel begins in Umuofia and ends in Umuofia. Describe this village. What surprises you about life in an African tribal community? What preconceptions did you bring to your reading that were either reinforced or changed?
2. Why do the community celebrations make Okonkwo unhappy? How do Okonkwo's feelings conflict with the culture of his community? Cite examples.
3. Igbo culture is patriarchal. What is the role of women in the community? Does their role make them less valuable than men? How does wife beating reflect the community attitude toward women? Cite examples.
4. Near the beginning of the novel, we learn that Okonkwo has several wives. Describe the polygamous structure of Okonkwo's family. What does this arrangement reveal about family life in the community?
5. An African proverb states, "It takes a village to raise a child." How does this statement reflect the care of children in the Igbo community?
6. Describe the Igbo extended family system. How does it help Okonkwo to survive his exile in Mbanta?
7. Compare and contrast Umuofia and Mbanta. How do their similarities and differences add to an understanding of the Igbo culture?
8. A significant social marker in Igbo society is the honorific title system. Describe how the use of titles allows Igbo members to compare themselves with each other.
9. What is the symbolic meaning of the Week of Peace for the Igbo people? How does Okonkwo's anger violate the custom and what are the consequences of his action?
10. Agriculture is important in the Igbo community. How does sharecropping contribute to the prosperity of the community? How does it affect individuals?
11. What is the significance of the yam? What is the purpose of the New Yam Festival? How is it related to the religion of the community?
12. Explain the concept of ogbanje. Show how it is reflected in the relationship of Ekwefi and Ezinma.
13. How do the Igbo marriage negotiations and rituals compare with other nineteenth-century cultures in which the bride's family pays a dowry? What do these rituals reveal about the level of sophistication of pre-colonial Igbo civilization?
14. Obierika, a close friend, mourns the exile of Okonkwo, yet participates in the destruction of Okonkwo's property. Explain how Obierika's response to the exile signals a questioning of community traditions.
15. How does pre-colonial life in Umuofia differ from Western society? Are there similarities? Cite examples of any similarities and differences.
Themes and Motifs
1. Describe the Igbo concept of chi and how the concept relates to Okonkwo's desired success in life.
2. How is the theme of fate or destiny illustrated through the actions of the characters?
3. Fear is pervasive throughout the novel. How does fear affect the actions of Okonkwo? Of Nwoye? How does fear influence Okonkwo's relationship with others?
4. How is the concept of change and the response to change presented in the novel? What is the significance of the song sung at the end of Chapter Twelve? How does this new song convey the theme of change?
5. Who is Chukwu? How does Chukwu compare with the Christian concept of a supreme being? Use the conversation between Akunna and Mr. Brown to support your comparison.
6. How is Christianity depicted? Why does Achebe focus on the Trinity?
7. How does education advance Christianity among the Igbo people?
8. What are the human consequences of the collision between the two cultures? Describe both the societal and personal clashes.
9. At the end of Chapter Twenty, Obierika tells Okonkwo, "He [the white man] has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart." Explain the significance of this statement.
10. How does Okonkwo's suicide represent a break in the traditional Igbo culture?
Imagery and Language
1. Achebe seamlessly merges Igbo vocabulary into the general text. Explain how he helps readers to understand Igbo words and concepts that have no English language equivalents.
2. Achebe's characters tell traditional folk tales and intersperse their conversation with Igbo words, phrases and sayings. How does this use of language convey a sense of Igbo culture?
3. Explain the importance of folktales in the informal education of the children. Why does Nwoye like the tales of his mother better than those of his father?
4. How does the legend of the old woman with one leg help to explain why the other clans fear Umuofia?
5. How does the language of the women and children differ from that used by the priests, diviners, and titled men? What is the significance of this difference?
6. Wrestling is a recurring image. In addition to the literal match at the beginning of the novel, what are other examples of the theme of wrestling and how do they contribute to the overall theme?
7. What is the significance of the drums in communication among the villages of Umuofia? Why are they esoteric?
8. What is the significance of the pidgin English that is used for communication between the Igbo people and the colonists?
For Discussion and Assignment
1. The title of the novel comes from a line in The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats. Read this poem and apply it to the breakdown of African society as described in the novel.
2. What is the significance of the three proverbs in Chapter One? What is Achebe's purpose in using Igbo proverbs in the novel? How do proverbs promote the narrative action in the novel? What do they reveal about Igbo culture? Locate additional proverbs in the novel and explain their meaning and how they foster Igbo tradition.
3. How does the plot in Things Fall Apart follow the conventions of the Western tragedy, such as when major actions of the protagonist or hero create disastrous outcomes? Is Okonkwo a tragic hero? Compare Okonkwo with Oedipus, who is punished for the inadvertent murder of his father. How do they attempt to escape their fate? What are the tragic flaws that cause their downfalls? How do they evoke both pity and fear?
4. In what ways is Things Fall Apart a response to Conrad's Heart of Darkness - or other works of literature that contain demeaning stereotypes?
5. Achebe does not paint a clear view of good versus evil in either the Igbo culture or colonialism. How does Achebe show value in both systems?
6. In an interview shortly after the publication of Things Fall Apart, Achebe stated that his goal for writing the novel was: " ...to help my society regain belief in itself and put away the complexes of the denigration and self-abasement." Explain how he did or did not meet his goal.
7. In pre-colonial Nigeria, there were many spellings of the name Igbo. By the time Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart, the spelling was being standardized. Why do you think Achebe uses the archaic spelling, Ibo, instead of the contemporary spelling, Igbo?
BEYOND THE BOOK
No Longer at Ease by Chinua Achebe (1960) is the sequel to Things Fall Apart. It carries the reader forward in the lives of the descendants of Okonkwo. The novel focuses on Obi Okonkwo, whose downfall is caused by his inability to deal with the conflicting value systems of Igbo culture and his English training. No Longer at Ease is set in the late 1950's.
Arrow of God by Chinua Achebe (1964) takes place during the era between No Longer at Ease and Things Fall Apart. It is the story of an Igbo priest who copes with change by compromising his values and traditions. He sends his son to a mission school and testifies against his people in a land dispute. The result is that the Igbo people turn from the Igbo priest to the religion of the mission church. Again, Achebe shows how African tradition loses to European culture.
OTHER TITLES OF INTEREST
Mister Johnson, Joyce Cary
Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
Chinua Achebe, Ezenwa-Ohaeto
Omalinze: A Book of Igbo Folk-tales edited by E. Nolue Emenanjo (Oxford University Press, 1977)
The Growth of the African Novel, Eustace Palmer
ABOUT THIS GUIDE
This Teacher's Guide was produced by Daniel Beaupré of Education Quests, LLC and written by Judith Moore Kelly, Director of the District of Columbia Area Writing Project at Howard University. Advisors were Barbara Bloy, retired English Department Head and Advanced Placement teacher at Ransom Everglades School in Miami, Florida and Robin Osborn, retired English Department Head and Advanced Placement teacher at the Taft School in Watertown, Connecticut.
Copyright © 2001 by ANCHOR BOOKS