Things Fall Apart Turning and Turning in the Widening Gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
William Butler Yeats:
The Second Coming” 1921)
Things Fall Apart, written by Chinua Achebe in 1958 just before Nigerian independence, demonstrates the violent societal conflict that resulted from British colonialism and arrival of the missionaries at the end of the nineteenth century. The longstanding structure and tradition of the Ibo culture is ripped apart when confronted with the completely disparate followings of the Christian Church. The author demonstrates that even a society with as strong a foundation as the Ibo people in Umuofia can have a vulnerability for which it has not prepared. As the natives clearly stated in the book about the Imperial colonist: “He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart” (162).
Briefly, the novel Things Fall Apart takes place in a late-1800s Nigerian Ibo village of Umuofia, prior to the arrival of the first Christian missionaries and British officials. The main character, Okonkwo, represents the tragic hero who status and prestige, bravery, wealth and a strong desire to succeed to make up for his father’s failings. However, as a tragic figure, Okonkwo’s human flaws contribute to his downfall. More broadly, however, Okonkwo represents “every man” who must have a strong enough self-image and personal integrity to battle new ways and customs from a competitive culture.
Religious beliefs were deeply engrained in the Ibo culture, including a supreme God, known by various names in Iboland such as Chukwu (the great God). Because Chukwu was all powerful, prayer and sacrifice was usually made to the lesser and more accessible spirits who continually were part of human affairs. Other divinites came from various areas of the natural world included Amadioha (lightning), Igwe (the sky) and Anyanwu (the sun).
Before the influence of Europeans and Christian missions, most Ibo practiced some form of ancestor worship, which believed to gain success in the day-to-day world an individual had to appease the spirits of the deceased. This could be accomplished in a number of ways including participation in the secret men’s society, Mmo. The second level of initiates was responsible for carrying out the funeral ceremonies for the deceased and inducting the departed spirits into the afterworld, so that they would stop causing mischief in the village (Isichei 123). “Now and again an ancestral spirit or egwugwu. appeared from the underworld, speaking in a tremulous, unearthly voice and completely covered in raffia,” Achebe (114) recalls about a funeral rite of the elderly Ezeudu.
The role of the dead was fundamental in the Ibo religion. The principle of living man, his “soul” is obi or nkpulobi, the heart, or the kernel of the heart. The muo of a dead man was not only made up of this soul isolated from the body, as Christians tend to believe. Instead, the Ibo spirits had a para-body. The world of the spirits was a shadowy mirror of the real world, although with continual gloom, where the social hierarchy of the Ibo clan continued (Isichei 124) to exist.
The Ibo and Christian religions differed in a number of other ways. When the missionaries arrived, one of the natives complained about the clear distinction of the Christian heaven and hell, “For with us there is no very great difference between people — at least we do not see if there is — and good and evil seem to us to be more or less very evenly distributed” (Leonard 185-6). That part of the community that was in the spirit world and that remained on earth were closely linked for all of time. Ancestors always depended on their descendants for their burial rites and sacrifices. In return, these worldly spirits would watch over the community and be involved in the ongoing affairs of the tribe (Isichei 126).
The differences in the Christian religion were not easy for the Ibo to incorporate into their traditional beliefs. The missionaries often wrote about the alternating waves of conversion and “backsliding” (Mair 191). To the individual who believed in many spirits, the conflicting creeds of Christianity were difficult to accept. The doctrines of the Incarnation, Atonement and Trinity were especially difficult to incorporate, especially the first two that appeared to contradict the spiritual nature of God, as noted by in Things Fall Apart (137) as the “mad logic of the Trinity.”
Yet, on the other hand, “The white man was also their brother, because they were all sons of God” (Achebe 134). The question thus arose, how could they be brothers yet have religions that were so disparate? This made them question what was actually true (Isichei 126). Whose religion was right, whose wrong? The mixed feelings were exacerbated by the British who told the Ibo people that their customs were bad and their gods were not true gods at all (135, 162).
This created the beginning of a lasting rift between fellow clansmen and relatives who now differed in their beliefs. Those who first converted to Christianity were members not fully a part of the clan life. For example, the first woman convert was Nneka, who had to discard four sets of twins. Her husband and his family were becoming critical of her, so she fled to join the Christians were would accept her present pregnancy. Most of the clan considered this a “good riddance” (141). There was also the gentle Nwoye, who had been shunned because of his “less manly” ways and finds answers in the poetry of Christianity (137).
The missionaries also forced the Ibo to break with their strong past and not pass on their stories to the next generation. As Achebe writes, “Among the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten” (10). This would be equivalent today of destroying all written and visual communication.
Ironically, one of the main differences between the two cultures was the degree of allowance to kill. In fact, the British almost kill off an entire village in vengeance of the murder of one white man. (129). The Western tradition condoned people to fight each other over religion, such as in the Crusades, but the Ibo tradition forbade them to kill any present clan member. This was an abomination. Wars against other clans only took place when truly justified.
In his book, Achebe recognizes the art of writing by showing the range of human traits — good and bad. He does not portray the Ibo clan as perfect in terms of when violence was allowed:
This is where the writer’s integrity comes in. Will he be strong enough to overcome the temptation to select only those facts which flatter him? If he succumbs he will have branded himself as an untrustworthy witness…We can pretend that our past was one long, Technicolor idyll. We have to admit that like other people’s past ours had its good as well as its bad sides. (1978, 9)
Okonkwo’s level of prestige is shown by bestowing on him the duty of looking after Ikemefuna, a young boy from a neighboring village, who was sacrificed to avoid warfare and bloodshed. Ikemefuna is murdered for the sins of the clan, similar to the crucifixion of Jesus or, depicting the Old Testament, God’s request to kill Isaac (with a different outcome). Similarly, newborn twins were killed as a dishonor to the culture.
The missionary enterprise often seemed like an attack on the very structure of Ibo society” (Isichei 133), a society that had withheld myriad of challenges over centuries of time. Before the European colonial powers entered Africa, the Ibos “had a philosophy of great depth and value and beauty, in that they had poetry and, above all, they had dignity” (Achebe, 1978, 8). In his book about the Nigerians, Palmer adds that the Ibos had achieved a democratic society with a tolerance of other cultures, a balance of male and female principles, the ability to make changes for the better, a way of redistributing wealth, an effective system of morality, support for industriousness, a viable justice system and incredible poetry and art.
The political functioning of the tribe was alien to the British colonists, who believed that all civilizations progressed as theirs had from tribes through monarchy and finally to parliamentary government. When arriving in Mbanta, the missionaries expected to meet a ruling king (138). When finding no power with whom to work, the British set up its own political system that delegated rules from the English throne through district commissioners to native court messengers who did not in any way belong to the village government (160). “These court messengers (nicknamed “Ashy-Buttocks”) were greatly hated in Umuofia because they were foreigners and also arrogant and high-handed.”
Okonkwo inflexible traditionalism pitted him against his gentle son Nwoye, who joined the Christian European missionaries. In the book, Oknokwo had to participate in a ceremonial human sacrifice and endure a seven-year exile after his gun accidentally killed the son of the deceased warrior Ezeudu. He also lost part of himself when he lost Ikemefuna. Upon returning to the village, he found it torn apart by Western Imperialism. Finally, he commits suicide after decapitating a white messenger who violated his authority.
Okonokwo’s demise was brought about by breaking the sacred laws of the clan as well as unsuccessfully fighting against the unjust system of the colonists. He stands as a representation of his entire clan and other similar cultures who, through the centuries, have lost their traditions through the assault of Imperialism. Achebe’s book demonstrates that humanity, in both its best and worst cases, is represented in all cultures. Thus, it is imperative for any society that wants to survive to be prepared with all types of cultural intrusions. Ibo is strong as a just and democratic society, a moral code, economic base and arts and music. The society’s Achille’s heal is that it did not recognize it had to build in a failsafe to combat even stronger outside forces and the ability to meet and adapt to radical change.
To emphasize the importance of this impact on the Ibo by the European autocracy, at the end of Things Fall Apart the narrator reveals the sorriest irony of all: the District Commissioner’s mental absorption with a book he is writing, which he hopes to title The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger (Rhoads 73). It was not that the British had “pacified” the violent primitives. Rather it was that they had been too “pacified” to cope with the more “less pacified” Western cultures.
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Fawcett Press, 1959.
____. “The Role of the Writer in a New Nation.” African Writers on African Writing. Ed. G.D. Killam. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1978. 7-13.
Isichei, Elizabeth. Ibo and Christian Beliefs: Some Aspects of a Theological Encounter. African Affairs 68.271 (1969): 121-134.
Leonard, A.G. The Lower Niger and its Tribes. London: MacMillan, 1906.
Mair, L. An Introduction to Social Anthropology. London: Oxford, 1965.
Palmer, Eustace. The Growth of the African Novel. London: Heinemann, 1979.
Rhoads, Diana Akers. “Culture in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.” African Studies Review 36.2 (1993): 61-73.
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