Perhaps one of Achebe’s most famous and award-winning novels, Things Fall Apart is a challenging book to read in many ways. Written in exquisitely simple style, it deals with a multitude of complex issues, ranging from race and generational conflict to religious and cultural clash. At its core, it is about the imposition of colonial rule in Nigeria in the 1890s, but it is also a brutally honest examination of the cultures on both sides of the African/Western divide.
Written in 1959, Things Fall Apart is touted as one of the first novels written about Africa which does not fall into the supremely racist depiction of African tribal life as either “childlike” and requiring the mature guidance of colonial rule, or as violent, bloody, savage and requiring firm subjugation by colonial rule. Instead, we are introduced to a complex society of villages and clans, with their own religion, their own monetary and economic structure, their own history and traditions, their own moral code and their own system of justice. Yes, they kill twins and mutilate stillborn infants as evil spirits, but they also dish out remarkably appropriate punishments for those who violate their laws. For example, when the lead protagonist Okonkwo accidentally kills a young man from his tribe, he is exiled from his village—along with his wives and children—for seven years, shattering his long-held plan to become a tribal leader.
Along with tragedy and despair, there is also humor and irony. When the white missionary chastises the tribesmen for worshipping icons made of wood, they patiently explain that God made the tree from which they were fashioned, so that He could be approached by his people through these wooden icons. I couldn’t help but think of the wooden crucifix in every Christian church and abode I know. When a vast swarm of 7-year-locusts descends on the village, instead of eliciting dismay at the potential damage or superstitious dread of divine punishment, instead there is instant joy at having a new supply of protein—albeit in crispy insect form—come their way.
Through his writing, Achebe forces us to watch as tribal life in his native Africa literally “falls apart” with the encroachment of colonial intervention. Human dignity is destroyed along with primitive tribal structure, and respected elders replaced as lawgivers by a distant white Queen. Youth were encouraged to abandon their parents for the Christian Church, driving a devastating wedge into the heart of tight-knit family structure. Justice was redefined according to British requirements, and African self-sufficiency was denied the right under imperialist rule to evolve into a successful native economy—something which haunts much of Africa to this day