Things Fall Apart: Questions and Answers
Length: 2705 words (7.7 double-spaced pages)
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Okonkwo embodies all the ideal and heroic traits of the Igbo culture. He is strong, authoritative, hardworking, and successful. The opening sentence states that “Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond” (3). Okonkwo is great and famous because of his “solid personal achievements” (3). Okonkwo first achieved fame and recognition when he became the village’s wrestling champion. At eighteen years of age, he had “brought honor to his village” by defeating the seven-year champion. By winning the wrestling match, Okonkwo demonstrates to his village his great strength and skill as a warrior. After that his fame spread “like a bush-fire in the harmattan” (3). Okonkwo governs his household with authority. He “ruled his household with a heavy hand” (13). His wives and children lived “in perpetual fear of his fiery temper” (13). Okonkwo is a hard task-master. He works on his farm “from cock-crow until the chickens went to roost” and compelled his family to do the same (13). He does not tolerate laziness in his sons. He punishes his son, Nwoye, with “constant nagging and beating” (14). Okonkwo is the sole and unquestionable authority figure in his household.
Okonkwo is a self-made man. He achieves greatness through his own hard work and determination. Okonkwo started his life without the benefits that other young men had. His father, Unoka, was a lazy man. He had acquired no honorary titles. When Unoka died, Okonkwo did not inherit any barn, title, or young wife. He merely acquired his father’s debts. Therefore, Okonkwo sets about to make a name for himself and to achieve greatness in his community. He diligently plants and harvests his yams, building a farm from scratch. He builds a large commune for his family. He marries three wives; one of them was the village beauty. He acquires two titles. Okonkwo is not a failure, like is father was. In Umuofia, “achievement was revered”, and Okonkwo’s achievement was immense (8). He was “clearly cut out for great things” (8). To the Igbo people, Okonkwo epitomizes greatness and success.
Okonkwo is actually very similar to Western heroes, particularly the Greek tragic heroes. Okonkwo acquires the status and prestige similar to the Greek tragic heroes.
Okonkwo is considered “one of the greatest men of his time” (8). He has demonstrated his greatness through wrestling, on the battlefield, in the farm, and in his community. He holds a high and respected position in the Umuofia society. Okonkwo’s strength lies in his noble and determined character. Okonkwo has great respect towards Umuofia’s laws and religion. He builds a shrine to worship the gods and do homage to his ancestors. He does not question the decisions of the gods and the leaders. When he is told that Ikemefuna must be killed, he does not protest. When he is sent into exile for an accidental murder, he submits to his fate. Okonkwo is also a very determined man. When he sets out on a task, he does not rest until he accomplishes it. He raises his status in society from “great poverty and misfortune” to becoming “one of the lords of the clan” (26).
However, like Greek tragic heroes, Okonkwo’s weak point is his pride. Having achieved greatness through his own might, Okonkwo scorns the weaker and less important men. He treats the less successful men with “brusqueness” (26). Furthermore, Okonkwo attempts to stifle sympathetic and gentle emotions, because he believes them to be a sign of weakness. Okonkwo lives his life with “the fear of failure and of weakness” (13). He tries not to show any signs of affection towards his wives or his children. Okonkwo’s prideful and stoic nature plays a role in his downfall. They cause him to commit his hamartia. Okonkwo is advised not to have anything to do with Ikemefuna’s death. Nonetheless, Okonkwo delivers the killing blow, because “he was afraid of being thought weak” (61). This action has a huge emotional effect on Okonkwo; it also changes the way his family and his community view him. Nwoye becomes further alienated from his father. Okonkwo’s pride plays a role in causing things to fall apart; his emotions and his family begin to break down. It is Okonkwo’s pride which brings about his ultimate downfall. Okonkwo has no toleration to the white men. Therefore, he unhesitatingly kills the District Commissioner’s messengers. He refuses to be killed by the white men; therefore, he defies his culture’s code of honor and chooses to hang himself instead.
Okonkwo is a respected and successful man in the Igbo community. He has achieved greatness and has everything under his control. Okonkwo attempts to keep his emotions under control. Therefore, he shows no human affection, kindness, or gentleness. He scorns those who are weak, lazy, and unsuccessful. Okonkwo is very much like the Greek tragic heroes who starts off as prestigious and prideful, but ends in a broken state.
Q2. Part I represents Igbo life and culture before the coming of the white man and colonialism. In what way(s) can Things Fall Apart be considered a “response” to depiction of Africans in Western Literature and media? How does Achebe’s novel correct such European depictions of Africa and Africans and offer the reader an Afrocentric perspective?
European depictions of Africa often portray Africans as savage and brutish. However, Achebe offers an Afrocentric perspective, correcting those misconceptions. He shows how the Igbo society is governed by laws and regulations. He demonstrates that the Ibgo culture is characterized by respect. He also shows how his African characters experience emotions common to everyone. All of this shows how Africans are not savages or devoid of human intellect; they are just as human as everyone else.
The Igbo society has laws which govern the people’s actions. Murder and acts of violence do not go unpunished. When a woman from Umuofia is killed in the market at Mbaino, the people of Mbaino must make retribution. When Okonkwo kills a clansman, even by accident, he is sent into exile for seven years. It was a “crime against the earth goddess” (124). When Okonkwo beats his wife during the Week of Peace, he must make sacrifices to the gods to atone for his wrongdoing. The Umuofia community has a ritual in which to settle legal and personal disputes. Several of the titled men and elders dress up as edwugwu and act as arbiters in disputes.
The Igbo people show great respect to others. Hospitality is valued by the Igbo people. A host always provides a kola nut and palm-wine for his guests. The Feast of the New Yam is an opportunity to prepare a huge feast and celebrate with the family. Families help each other in preparing feasts, such as during the celebration of Obireika’s daughter and her upcoming marriage. The bride’s family slaughters their best animals. The suitor’s family is also expected to bring large amounts of palm-wine to express appreciation and to symbolize their friendship.
Achebe also shows the Igbo people experiencing situations and emotions which are universal. Marriages, sickness, and deaths occur, just as in any other society. People experience worry, love, and fear. Ekwefi and Okonkwo are concerned and worried when Ezinma falls sick. Ekwefi and Okonkwo had fallen deeply in love years ago. Okonkwo was the wrestling champion, and Ekwefi was the village beauty. Ekwefi runs away from her husband to be with Okonkwo, who readily accepts her. Okonkwo comes to regard Ikemefuna as his own son. After his death, Okonkwo sinks into depression. Okonkwo’s human side also comes out when he follows Ekwefi and Chielo during the night to make sure that his wife is safe.
Achebe gives an honest depiction of Igbo society. He shows that the Igbo people are not lawless, violent savages. Instead, they are a people who care deeply about their fellowmen and make every effort to show hospitality. He makes his characters come alive by showing them experiencing the range of human emotions. The reader is then able to identify with the characters and realize that Africans are just as human as anyone else. Even though the action takes place on the other side of the globe and the story incorporates regional vocabulary, readers can still relate to the story. Achebe successfully creates a universal story by focusing on a particular people group.
Q3. Even as Achebe works to educate his readers about African culture and to combat demeaning stereotypes, he does not present Igbo society as ideal and perfect. The portrait of this culture on the eve of its “falling apart” is complex, sometimes contradictory and critical. What aspects of pre-colonial Igbo culture does Achebe seem to question and criticize?
The Igbo culture has been changing over time. Even at the time of the novel, the Igbo culture is different than in its former days. For example, when Okonkwo beats his wife during the Week of Peace, his punishment consists of offering a goat, a hen, some cloth, and a hundred cowries to Ani. However, this has not always been the punishment. Ofbuefi Ezeudu, the oldest man of the village, commented that in his father’s day, the offender was “dragged on the ground through the village until he died” (31). The old customs and traditions have already begun to deteriorate.
Achebe criticizes the cruelty and hard-nature of the Igbo community. This cruelty is particularly seen in Okonkwo. Okonkwo’s great flaw is his denial of gentleness. Okonkwo shows no emotion, except for anger. His family fears his temper. He beats his wife and threatens her with a gun. He scolds and berates his son for his indolence. He even kills his adopted son to avoid showing any sign of weakness. In spite of Okonkwo’s hardheartedness, or maybe even because of it, Okonkwo is upheld as “one of the greatest men of his time” (8).
Achebe voices his questions and critique of the Igbo culture, particularly of their ritualistic killing. Ikemefuna had lived with Okonkwo’s family for such a long time that he was practically adopted into it. He and Nwoye became as close as brothers. He viewed Okonkwo as his father, and Okonkwo regarded him as his son. Then, the Oracle decides that Ikemefuna must be killed. Okonkwo takes part in this human sacrifice. Nwoye is devastated; “something seemed to give way inside him” (61). “He just hung limp” (61). Nwoye had a similar feeling when he had heard the cry of twin babies enclosed in earthenware and left to die in the forest.
Okonkwo also begins to question the rules of his society. When he is sentenced into exile for accidental manslaughter, he wonders why a man should “suffer so grievously for an offense he had committed inadvertently” (125). He then thinks about his wife’s twin children. He had thrown them away, but they had committed no crime. “The Earth had decreed that they were an offense on the land and must be destroyed” (125). Why would the goddess call for the death and punishment of the innocent? Okonkwo cannot find the answer; he must submit to his fate. The people of pre-colonial Igbo have begun to change and to question their customs.
Q4. How has Umuofia changed over the seven years while Okonkwo was in exile?
Umuofia has changed due to the invasion of the white people. Missionaries were the first white people to arrive. The missionaries brought a religion which was completely foreign to the Igbo people. For example, the missionaries condemned the killing of twins; they welcomed the outcasts of the Igbo society. The missionaries were successful in gaining many converts, including Ogbuefi Ugonna, one of the two-titled men of the Umuofia clan. Many people resented the missionaries because the converts would disrespect the customs and religion of the Igbo.
After bringing in a church, the white men brought a government. They built a court in which a District Commissioner presided over cases. The Igbo people had to go to him to settle disputes. The Igbo people resented this because the District Commissioner “judged cases in ignorance” (174). The District Commissioner knew nothing about Igbo customs; therefore, his idea of justice was different from their own. Okonkwo wonders how the District Commissioner can settle their disputes when “he does not even speak [their] tongue” (176). The court had awarded a disputed land to Nnama, merely because he had given money to the messengers and interpreters.
The most notable changed that Okonkwo observed is that his people have “lost the power to fight” (175). Okonkwo cannot understand this sign of weakness; he wonders what has happened to his people that they do not at once arise and drive the foreigners away. The people of Umuofia are skilled warriors; they are ready and able to engage in tribal wars. Umuofia was “feared by all its neighbors” (11). It was “powerful in war and in magic” (11). However, Umuofia does nothing to stop the infiltration of the white people. Okonkwo “mourned for the clan, which he saw breaking up and falling apart” (183). Umuofia’s great warriors have become “soft like women” (183).
Q5. The District Commissioner decides that “the story of this man who had killed a messenger and hanged himself would make interesting reading,” if not for a whole chapter, at least for “a reasonable paragraph.” How do you think the District Commissioner would write Okonkwo’s story in this paragraph? In contrast, Achebe has made Okonkwo’s story the subject of a whole novel: Why?
The District Commissioner might have recounted Okonkwo’s story something like this: Mr. Smith’s church was burned to the ground by members of the Umuofia tribe. They were angered because one of the converts had torn the mask off of a fellow clansman. Apparently, it is a great crime in the Umuofia society to unmask a person engaged in a tribal ritual. I summoned six of the tribal leaders to explain the situation. Since they could not provide a reasonable explanation, I detained them until their tribe paid the ransom. I expected the Africans to behave more civilly to my people. However, the next time I sent messengers to them, one of the tribesmen promptly killed a messenger. The next day, I arrived at the Umuofia village with my interpreter and a band of soldiers, demanding that they turn in the guilty man. They showed me that he had hanged himself. However, they would not take him down, and I was forced to order my men to cut the hanged man down. This was a great deviation of my policy which I strictly adhered to since I arrived in Africa: a District Commissioner must never attend to such undignified details, because then the native would gain a poor opinion of him. However, in this case, I had no choice, because the Umuofia man claimed that their tribal religion does not allow them to bury men who died by suicide.
Instead of a single paragraph, Achebe devotes an entire novel to Okonkwo’s story. This illustrates the two views Achebe and the District Commissioner have regarding Okonkwo. The District Commissioner views Okonkwo as a mere specimen or case study. To the District Commissioner, Okonkwo is not a person; he is just a piece of trivia he can add to his story. Okonkwo’s story would be told in such a detached manner as a newspaper item. By contrast, Achebe views Okonkwo as a real person. Achebe believes that the reader can identify with and relate to Okonkwo. Okonkwo is not a member of the “Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger” (209). Okonkwo is a member of the human race and shares emotions common to all. This prompts the reader to think about all the insignificant depictions of other natives in Western literature. Each one of those people has a story of his own. Sadly, their stories will never be told, because no one cared enough for them to write them down in a sympathetic manner. Their stories will never be discovered until we learn to view others as equal to ourselves.