Ron’s #11: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Things Fall Apart tells the story of the Ibo tribe in Nigeria around the late 1800s. Okonkwo is one of the leaders in the tribe, admired for his strength and courage. He has many negative characteristics as well, particularly through our twenty-first century eyes: he is prideful, impatient with his son’s “manliness,” and he is violent to his wives. The main story is how the tribe reacts when European missionaries come to the village on their “iron horses” (bicycles). Okonkwo is faced with either acceptance or violence.

One of the most powerful scenes occurs early in the book when a slave boy from a neighboring village is captured and comes to live with Okonkwo and his family. After three years, Ikemefuna is treated as one of the family, even calling Okonkwo “father.” The Oracle tells that it is time to kill Ikemefuna, so the tribe takes him outside the village. Okonkwo is told not to, as this is his adopted son. After the first blow lands, Ikemefuna cries to Okonkwo for help, and Okonkwo runs to him killing him with a machete, just so others would not think him weak.

I taught this novel for the first time recently, and I was pleased at how students seemed to enjoy the story and discussions. There is much to discuss in this book: colonialism, culture differences, gender roles, and religion. Overall, it was a good experience. However, there was a disturbing part of having taught this. During discussions about Okonkwo’s beating his wives or killing his son, I heard over and over again, “Who are we to judge?” and “That’s their morals” and “We can’t force our morality on others.” I was stunned to see relativism so deeply ingrained at such a young age. We are training a generation of young people to think that it is wrong and America-centric to consider some actions as more correct than others. This may be true if we were talking about style of homes or clothing or television shows, but we are talking about something far more important than that. Some students in my classes could not admit that it is universally wrong to treat women like property or to kill your innocent son. They begin their objections with that pseudo-intellectual start, “Who are we…”

You are a human being, that’s who you are. As humans, we must address these universally wrongs: killing the innocence, enslaving others, abusing women and children. This is a good list with which to begin.

If you don’t agree, perhaps Okonkwo can come to your house and try to change your mind. A few minutes with him, I’m sure you’ll be quick to say how many universal crimes against humanity he commits.


About Ron 173 Articles
I teach English and government in Okinawa, Japan. I love reading theology and fiction, and helps keep me accountable. Reading with three kids under 5 is a bit of a challenge, but I keep trying to find ways to read more. My favorites writers are C. S. Lewis, Flannery O’ Connor, and Raymond Carver.

3 Comments on Ron’s #11: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

  1. Ron, this is one of my favorites to cover with high school classes and I can clearly envision the student reactions you described. No matter what religion or cultural background, killing (even adopted) family and physically abusing other humans, regardless of gender or ages should be a tough sell on any scale of morality. My guess is that some student views may have been skewed a bit based on context…Achebe does a masterful job of fleshing out the intricacies of Okonkwo’s complex character. His hubris is a bit over the top. However, he is incredibly human and in attitude is kind of characterized as a run-of-the-mill tough guy with an ego, culture and context aside. Pride and ego = tragic downfalls in literature and real life as well. I would empathize with Okonkwo at least a bit, as well, because how can I not when his actions were influenced by the core of all human sin – selfishness/pride, leading to insecurity – as well as a dramatically different belief system (oracles and “evil twins” left for dead in an evil forest??)? In the end, I’d like to root for the church, but Achebe sure makes it difficult.

  2. Cher Gangoueus,Je comprend mieux ce que tu veux dire. Mais je doute que tout le monde dans le clan d’Okonkwo se resufe pas e0 toute possibilite9 de remise en cause de ses valeurs. Okonkwo oui, ainsi que les hommes de pouvoir dans le clan, mais parmi les autres, il y en a qui ne sont pas d’accord avec le syste8me car ils ont e9te9 ensuite les premiers e0 se de9tacher du clan et e0 suivre les missionnaires. Ainsi, apre8s avoir e9te9 banni, Okonkwo revient au village pour y trouver des partisans du modernisme. Si le monde s’est effondre9 aussi “facilement” c’est parce qu’il n’e9tait pas solide au de9part: des dissensions devaient commencer e0 germer depuis longtemps meame si les questionnements restaient non dits (notamment chez les femmes dans cette socie9te9 re9gie par le patriarcat). Je ne pense pas que les Blancs soient juste venus et aient re9ussi e0 “blaguer” comme e7a certains de nos fre8res comme les chefs du clan veulent le croire. Les missionnaires ont donne9 e0 ceux qui se posaient naturellement des questions l’opportunite9 de manifester leur de9sapprobation par rapport e0 certaines traditions du clan. Citation:”Le Blanc est tre8s malin. Il est venu tranquillement et paisiblement avec sa religion. Nous nous sommes amuse9s de sa sottise et nous lui avons permis de rester. Maintenant il a conquis nos fre8res, et notre clan ne peut plus agir comme un seul homme. Il a place9 un couteau sur les choses qui nous tenaient ensemble et nous sommes tombe9s en morceaux.”Je pense que ceci est le coeur de la the8se de Achebe. Et ce que je veux dire c’est que ces “choses qui les tenaient ensemble” allaient tf4t au tard se fragiliser car rien ne re9siste au temps. Cela prend juste plus de temps dans les re9gions avec de bonnes terres (moins de chance de re9volte interne quand tout le monde mange e0 sa faim – la base de la re9volution frane7aise c’e9tait cela “Du Pain !”) et qui sont plus difficiles d’acce8s de part les foreats et les montagnes (influence exte9rieure). Mais ce clan aurait force9ment fini par avoir leur Robespierre au moindre me9contentement prolonge9 mais le Blanc est venu avant, tout simplement, et a impose9 un traumatisme brutal e0 une socie9te9 qui n’en e9tait pas le0 dans son e9volution interne.La diffe9rence avec le Japon, c’est que le Japon est un peuple qui avait une tradition pas mal impe9rialiste, depuis le 16e8 sie8cle au moins, notamment avec la Core9e. Et comme c’est presque toujours le cas avec l’impe9rialisme, c’e9tait pour des raisons e9conomiques vu qu’il s’agit le0 d’une pe9ninsule (ce sont les peuples qui ont le moins de ressources naturelles qui ont toujours le plus cherche9 e0 conque9rir d’autres terres). Le Japon ne cherchait pas seulement e0 survivre tranquillement dans son coin, mais aussi e0 dominer, e0 conque9rir par la guerre. D’of9 sa lance9e vers le modernisme apre8s le contact d’avec l’Occident. Ce clan Ibo quant e0 lui avait tout ce dont il avait besoin sur son territoire, ne cherchait pas e0 conque9rir le village voisin (d’of9 le sacrifice d’Ikemefuna pour e9viter la guerre) et tout ce que le pouvoir en place de9sirait en gros c’e9tait de pouvoir continuer tranquillement e0 cultiver la terre et e0 organiser la Feate de la nouvelle igname chaque anne9e… Et cela allait continuer ainsi jusqu’au jour of9 des dissensions surviendraient, que cela soit de l’inte9rieur (quand la re9colte d’igname ne sera plus aussi bonne !) ou de l’exte9rieur (parce que les re9coltes en Angleterre n’e9taient pas tre8s bonnes !). En re9sume9, pour moi les socie9te9s humaines e9voluent de la meame fae7on en ge9ne9ral, mais le timing est diffe9rent pour chacune d’elle, selon sa situation ge9ographique et e9conomique. Plus le sol est restreint et pauvre, plus vite le syste8me social changera e0 l’inte9rieur… et e0 l’exte9rieur aussi – malheureusement d’ailleurs pour l’exte9rieur car nous n’e9tions pas preats nous !c0 bientf4t !

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