Spoiler Alert: Although this review contains some spoilers, the book is a treasure trove of metaphors and symbols; you’ll no doubt be captivated once you begin reading.
Chinua Achebe masterfully guides the reader to the Lower Niger region of West Africa to experience the beauty and despair of tribal life and the tumult that accompanies the arrival of Europeans, which is all filtered through the experience of the protagonist, Okwonkwo.
Okwonkwo is one of several respected chiefs in his village of Umuofia – one of a dozen or so villages that make up the region. Okwonkwo has three wives and eight children: Ekwefi (second) , Ojiugo (third), and an unnamed first wife.
Okwonkwo is a fierce warrior. He’s also a hard-worker, being driven by a keen fear of becoming his father. His dad, Unoka, was what some in the village called an agbala, or a man who has taken no title. In this case, Unoka had no title because he was practically destitute and could not provide for his family.
Okwonkwo remembers Unoka was a talented musician who occasionally played music in neighboring villages, but he was nothing more than that. Every time he earned, he’d quickly squander it, forcing young Okwonkwo to teach himself how to become self-sufficient.
“If any money came his way, and it seldom did, he immediately bought gourds of palm-wine…”Things Fall Apart: p. 4
Okwonkwo, though excelling in every facet that makes him a successful man, deals with completely unexamined emotional trauma that surfaces occasionally in the form of abuse of his wife and children, a stammer and unpredictable flares in temper. In spite of this, Okwonkwo is a likeable character. The reader retains hope that somehow Okwonkwo will come to understand himself and his trauma.
Abruptly, Okwonkwo is forced to exile himself and his family for seven years due to the sudden and accidental murder of a clansman. The seven years he spends with his mother’s tribe in Mbanta are filled with slow, but impactful changes. Rumors of white men and murder spread, then white men and church courts, and then suddenly, Okwonkwo sees the horrifying decline of his people’s way of life.
Okwonkwo felt a cold shudder run through him at the terrible prospect…the prospect of annihilation. He saw himself and his father crowding round their ancestral shrine waiting for worship and sacrifice and finding nothing but ashes…and his children [all] the while praying to the white man’s god.144
Nwoye’s Mother brings to mind flickering images of the ‘long-suffering’ mammy – an old black woman with deep waves of wrinkles on her face, a light hand tremor and soulful dark eyes that have seen everything; in spite of whatever trauma she experienced, Nwoye is clearly a pillar in the family, however silent her role may be.
Her oldest child is Nwoye, who has disappointed Okwonkwo due to his laziness, a love for ‘women’s’ storytelling and an inclination toward feeling – something that Okwonkwo thinks is womanly.
Eventually, a few years after the first European missionary arrives in Mbanta, Nwoye converts to Christianity to the dismay of his family.
“You have all seen the great abomination of your brother. Now he is no longer my son or your brother. I will only have a son who is a man, who will hold his head up among my people.”162
The story ends soon after this shocking turn of events. As Okwonkwo watches life as he knows it fade, he’s forced to take action. But the action he decides to take is something I’ll let you read about on your own. Things Fall Apart is highly recommended for your bookshelf. If you have a favorite metaphor or symbol in Things Fall Apart, go ahead and share in the comments!
Reality, by Alan Fleming