Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
This is not an easy story for me to love, and maybe even like is not the appropriate word. I can appreciate it, as literature. That being said, unlike much of the so-called “great” or “classic” literature I have read to date, I do not feel immeasurably enriched by Things Fall Apart. Although at times moving and disturbing, Chinua Achebe’s account of how Europeans stripped Nigeria of its cultural and tribal identity lacks a certain resonance for me, something I put down to a lack of sympathy towards the main character.
Achebe presents Igbo culture plainly and unapologetically. There is no hedging and no excuses made for the poor treatment of women or the cruel attitudes towards twins (kill them!) or the warrior cults of masculinity that perpetuate endless cycles of violence among tribes. It’s easy for me, as an heir of the same white, European culture that colonized Nigeria, to condemn these aspects of Igbo culture. At the same time, there has to be some kind of line between cultural relativism and moral relativism. I think it’s to be found in the way in which one speaks of a culture’s less savoury elements. It’s possible to condemn the structural misogyny in Igbo culture without condemning all of Igbo society and its people (much in the same way we today should condemn our own society’s structural misogyny). By the same token, Achebe’s naked portrayal of this culture means that he is not setting up a straw man that the Europeans knock down. This is not the story of "noble savages" succumbing to imperialist aggressors. It’s far more nuanced than that, but it benefits from Achebe’s perspective as an indigenous Nigerian who has also been exposed to colonial education and perspectives.
I found most of Things Fall Apart fascinating simply as a result of this portrayal of Igbo society. The title is apt, in that the pace of the book’s plot moves with the gentle transition of seasons rather than the frenetic beat of a narrative drum. Achebe is more concerned with touring and exploring the various facets of life, particularly as he unravels Okonkwo’s complicated relationship with the rest of the tribe and with the Europeans. Each chapter is essentially an episode in which Okonkwo or his kin face a new challenge or experience that prompts them to question or redefine their goals and motivations. Here Okonkwo’s own obstinacy proves to be his undoing, first with the accidental discharge of a gun that has him exiled for seven years, and then later when he attempts to stir the village to war. In both cases, Okonkwo’s restlessness, symptom of a far more complex issue in the village, undermines the stable life he has managed to construct through his skill and perseverance.
So Okonkwo is not all bad. He’s a jerk to a lot of people, and he does not suffer fools gladly. But he is, at his core, fair in the eyes of his culture. We might not agree with his code, but one must recognize that he has one: he acts in accordance with a rigidly defined code of behaviour by which he understands what it means to be "a man" in his society. When his eldest son fails to live up to these expectations by converting to Christianity, Okonkwo declares him a "woman" and disowns him. This is not just the petty action of the older generation failing to understand the younger; it’s the logical consequence of Okonkwo’s code of behaviour conflicting with his son’s own understanding of maleness in the new Igbo society subject to colonial rule. This is what critics mean when they refer to the clash of cultures present in the book; though physical confrontation happens as well, there are far more nuanced examples of how European culture begins to dismantle or otherwise set aside the existing ideologies.
In this light, I see Okonkwo’s suicide as an allegory for the Igbo people’s choices when faced with the suppression and assimilation of their culture and society by Europeans. Unlike his son, Okonkwo could not accept the new rules and mores imported into Nigeria by Europeans. He must have been aware of the high cost of suicide: never to be buried on sacred ground, name besmirched in the eyes of the tribe forevermore … for someone like Okonkwo, for whom status and prestige were his life’s work, this was not a fate he would have chosen lightly. In this context it’s clear that his suicide is, therefore, an act of a man who thinks he is out of other options. He cannot fight—he does not have the support of the village—yet he cannot surrender either; he is not a "woman" to so peaceably turn his back on his beliefs. Okonkwo’s rigid code runs up against the implacable force of colonial assimilation, and he faces an impossible dilemma.
Things Fall Apart, then, is a tragedy of Shakespearean dimensions. Okonkwo is a tragic figure trying to keep his family and people together. He is not a hero fighting valiantly against a clear enemy, because Achebe mentions forces other the colonialism at work in the tribe. Even had the Europeans not invaded, there were signs that the Igbo youth were already leaving certain old ways behind them. But the Europeans’ arrival hastens these changes and augments them with strange new ones. That Okonkwo is doomed to failure seems obvious early on, probably even to himself (I suspect that his eagerness to engage the Europeans in battle has nothing to do with optimism for victory and everything to do with his expectations for himself to behave like a warrior). What matters, though, is that he must act in this way because to do otherwise would be to betray himself, to be like his father, and that is the one thing Okonkwo refuses to do.
I can appreciate Okonkwo’s struggle, even if I don’t particularly like him as a person. Achebe has crafted an intricate but simple story of entropy in the face of colonial expansion. He captures the way in which Europeans dismantle or replace the order and structure of Igbo life with an order and structure more to their liking. And he manages to do so while giving us a taste of what that pre-colonial structure was like, of how their people married and celebrated and feasted and died and held court. Things Fall Apart is equal parts tragic, fascinating, and frustrating. Despite its slimness, it is neither a light read nor a quick one. While I’m not going to place it near the top of my list of postcolonial literature, I’m still glad I’ve read it and had the opportunity to consider a chapter in colonial history that I haven’t otherwise paid much attention to.