Set in Nigeria at the turn of the 19th century, Chinua Achebe's "Things Fall Apart" chronicles the rise and fall of Okonkwo, a powerful leader in the Igbo tribe, as he fights against the turning tide of British colonialism. As Okonkwo's tribe and even his own son fall away from tradition, Okonkwo clings more desperately to his heritage, a decision that will have tragic consequences. Achebe's narrative techniques, such as point of view and structure, are critical tools for exploring this theme of cultural change.
The Parable of Okonkwo
Achebe uses the third-person point of view, pronouns like "he" and "she," to showcase the narrative's cultural conflict through voice. The distance of this perspective choice, combined with the use of past tense narration, creates a narrative style that mirrors a folktale or parable. Because the Igbo heritage figures prominently in the story, this traditional tone helps reinforce the importance of culture to Okonkwo. The story of his rise and downfall sounds like something that could have been passed down across generations of Nigerians for the purposes of teaching a lesson.
"Things Fall Apart" is largely about the disintegration of African tribal tradition at the hands of European colonists. Achebe's narration makes a subtle commentary on this theme through blending western and non-western language and allusions. The book intersperses the Igbo culture's language, proverbs, family histories and rituals throughout the story, but also references John Bunyan's Christian allegory "Pilgrim's Progress," the Book of Common Prayer and Biblical teachings. By combining the two cultural heritages, Achebe demonstrates the battle between tradition and change that drives Okonkwo's story.
Achebe's three-part structure marks clear divisions in each section of Okonkwo's journey. Part One introduces Okonkwo's desire to redeem his family name by being a strong leader and warrior, and concludes when he is exiled from his village after accidentally killing a man. In Part Two, Okonkwo meets the British colonizers and witnesses their domination of local culture. Part Three marks Okonkwo's return, where he realizes his village has given in to the colonists and commits suicide. These divisions signal to readers that periods of change are approaching in Okonkwo's life; each is a step downward from his prideful goal of greatness.
The Tragedy of "Things Fall Apart"
In a tragedy, characters experience disastrous reversals of fortune brought about by their own flaws and wrongful choices. The narrative of "Things Fall Apart" makes use of this concept on two levels. Okonkwo himself is a tragic hero; although his greatest desire is to be greater than his father, his anger, bitterness and unwavering loyalty to the Igbo tribe all lead to his suicide. The story's other great tragedy, though, is the metaphorical death of the Igbo culture. In Okonkwo's absence, the village submits to British domination, erasing their society's tradition and heritage.