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Things Fall Apart Paperback – Unabridged, September 1, 1994
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One of Chinua Achebe's many achievements in his acclaimed first novel, Things Fall Apart, is his relentlessly unsentimental rendering of Nigerian tribal life before and after the coming of colonialism. First published in 1958, just two years before Nigeria declared independence from Great Britain, the book eschews the obvious temptation of depicting pre-colonial life as a kind of Eden. Instead, Achebe sketches a world in which violence, war, and suffering exist, but are balanced by a strong sense of tradition, ritual, and social coherence. His Ibo protagonist, Okonkwo, is a self-made man. The son of a charming ne'er-do-well, he has worked all his life to overcome his father's weakness and has arrived, finally, at great prosperity and even greater reputation among his fellows in the village of Umuofia. Okonkwo is a champion wrestler, a prosperous farmer, husband to three wives and father to several children. He is also a man who exhibits flaws well-known in Greek tragedy:
Okonkwo ruled his household with a heavy hand. His wives, especially the youngest, lived in perpetual fear of his fiery temper, and so did his little children. Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness. It was deeper and more intimate than the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of the forest, and of the forces of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw. Okonkwo's fear was greater than these. It was not external but lay deep within himself. It was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father.And yet Achebe manages to make this cruel man deeply sympathetic. He is fond of his eldest daughter, and also of Ikemefuna, a young boy sent from another village as compensation for the wrongful death of a young woman from Umuofia. He even begins to feel pride in his eldest son, in whom he has too often seen his own father. Unfortunately, a series of tragic events tests the mettle of this strong man, and it is his fear of weakness that ultimately undoes him.
Achebe does not introduce the theme of colonialism until the last 50 pages or so. By then, Okonkwo has lost everything and been driven into exile. And yet, within the traditions of his culture, he still has hope of redemption. The arrival of missionaries in Umuofia, however, followed by representatives of the colonial government, completely disrupts Ibo culture, and in the chasm between old ways and new, Okonkwo is lost forever. Deceptively simple in its prose, Things Fall Apart packs a powerful punch as Achebe holds up the ruin of one proud man to stand for the destruction of an entire culture. --Alix Wilber
From Library Journal
Peter Frances James offers a superb narration of Nigerian novelist Achebe's deceptively simple 1959 masterpiece. In direct, almost fable-like prose, it depicts the rise and fall of Okonkwo, a Nigerian whose sense of manliness is more akin to that of his warrior ancestors than to that of his fellow clansmen who have converted to Christianity and are appeasing the British administrators who infiltrate their village. The tough, proud, hardworking Okonkwo is at once a quintessential old-order Nigerian and a universal character in whom sons of all races have identified the figure of their father. Achebe creates a many-sided picture of village life and a sympathetic hero. A good recording of this novel has been long overdue, and the unhurried grace and quiet dignity of James's narration make it essential for every collection.?Peter Josyph, New York
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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There are a couple of crucial events in Okonkwo’s life in which his need to appear manly results in great inner distress. The first occurs when it’s determined that a young man who’s been staying with Okonkwo’s family must be killed. (The young man was sent to Umuofia as a settlement for a wrong between the young man’s father and an Umuofia resident.) Okonkwo has been a father to the young man. Even when a village elder tells Okonkwo to have no part in the killing owing to being like a father to the boy, Okonkwo feels he must participate lest he be seen as effeminate. Of course, Okonkwo is wracked with guilt because he murdered a boy who’d been like a son to him. Later, an accidental discharge of Okonkwo’s firearm kills an innocent young man. The worst part of this for Okonkwo is that an accidental killing is seen as a “woman’s offense.” As punishment, Okonkwo and his family are sent in exile on another village for seven years. Okonkwo isn’t so much torn up by killing another innocent as by the fact that the way it happened makes him look girly in the eyes of others—or so he believes.
Besides the character portrait of Okonkwo, the book is also a commentary on the nature of colonialism and proselytizing missionaries. The first part of the book is set in a pre-colonial state, but in the latter half the rapidly developing tensions between the missionaries and the local villagers is featured. When Okonkwo and his family return to Umuofia after seven years, he finds that white men have built a church and are actively seeking to turn the villagers away from the indigenous beliefs. Of course, for Okonkwo this is just too much, and he can’t believe others are putting up with this. (Adding to his torment is the fact that his son is one of the converts—possibly because that son himself wants to distance himself from the father who murdered his best friend [the boy from the other village.]) Okonkwo is ultimately unable to tolerate that the world has become something so different from what he believes is right, and to continue living means to steer away from the path that he has locked his life into.
This short and thought-provoking book is a great window into pre-colonial Africa and the clash of worldviews that colonization brought. It’s also a cautionary tale about not having sympathy for the failings of one’s father—not to mention the weakness inherent in our own humanity.
The protagonist of "Things Fall Apart" is Okonkwo, a dislikable, insecure, mean man. He comes across to the surface reader as the archetypal ignorant male head of the house. That is a lazy read, as Chinua Achebe has written a novel that goes deep below the surface, and although the novel and many of the customs are very dated and specific to the Ibo people of the 1890s, the problems that plague the characters (but not many of the circumstances) are universal and always will be. Don't read this novel with the goal of feeling culturally superior. Read it and accept it on its own terms and you will get so much more out of it.
There are many characters in the text, and it is to Mr. Achebe's credit that they all come across as very real, and his ability to give a good characterization in just a few sentences is astounding at times. One of my favorite characters is Uchendu, the uncle of Okonkwo. Although he does not appear until halfway through the novel and does not speak much, when he does speak pay attention. Some of the novel's best moments are his and much of the thematic wisdom of the text comes from his mouth.
This novel is a surprisingly quick read, you are sucked in quite seductively and don't realize it until it is too late. I hesitate to say what "Things Fall Apart" is about, but I will say that I think the novel does deal with a man who is uncomfortable in the time in which he lives. Okonkwo is a man who should have been born 100 year earlier. He is a strong man, in the traditional sense, but weak in the ways that matter. He is a man living down his father (who isn't) and an insecure individual who masks his fears by abuse and anger. The novel's ending is a chilling warning about where that path leads.
I regret that I have not read this wonderful novel sooner. Don't make the same mistake!