This book is another one for my Classics Club list. It is the late 19th century, and at the beginning of Things Fall Apart the Nigerian villagers have only heard of white men. They lead their agrarian life, counting wealth in yams and cowrie shells, and occasionally go to war.
The main character of the novel is Okonkwo. He is a proud man, once a great wrestler, who is intent on accumulating wealth and honor. His father preferred playing his flute to cultivating yams. Okonkwo did not respect him and has a secret fear of ending like him. To compensate, he is occasionally brutal and rigidly observant of the village customs, especially the “macho” ones.
After a woman from their village is murdered while visiting another village, the elders go to negotiate a settlement. They return with a hostage, a boy named Ikemefuna. He is handed over to Okonkwo and becomes part of his household. Okonkwo grows to care for him like a son and thinks Ikemefuna is a good role model for his own son Nwoye, in whom he fears weakness. After three years, though, the elders decide to kill Ikemefuna. An old man advises Okonkwo not to take part, but he does not want to look weak.
After Ikemefuna’s death, things begin to go wrong for Okonkwo. First, he is banished from his village for seven years for accidentally killing a man. Although he fares well in his mother’s village, he just wants to return home. While he is gone, though, missionaries arrive in his home village and a colonial government is set up. Nwoye and others convert to Christianity. Tragic cultural misunderstandings ensue between the Europeans and the villagers.
I was sympathetic to Okonkwo at times, but I did not like him. He is not fleshed out as a character, because he is more of a symbol for his culture. His tragedy stands in for the clash of cultures between the whites and the villagers. Certainly, the colonial government is arrogant and more interested in enforcing European concepts of law and morality than in trying to understand the local customs.
Things Fall Apart is a sparely written novel that is one of the most widely studied in African literature. Although I recognize its merits, I sometimes had difficulty staying with it.