Things Fall Apart is an English-language novel by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe published in 1958 by William Heinemann Ltd in the UK. It is seen as the archetypal modern African novel in English, one of the first to receive global critical acclaim. It is a staple book in schools throughout Africa and is widely read and studied in English-speaking countries around the world. The title of the novel comes from a William Butler Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming”.The novel shows the life of Okonkwo, a leader and local wrestling champion in Umuofia—one of a fictional group of nine villages in Nigeria, inhabited by the Igbo people (in the novel, “Ibo”). It describes his family and personal history, the customs and society of the Igbo, and the influence of British colonialism and Christian missionaries on the Igbo community during the late nineteenth century. SETTING
Time/Place • There is no specific date for the events in the novel.
• Based on these same events, however, we can surmise that the novel takes place during the early nineteenth century to the early twentieth century.
• The story occurs in Igbo territory in Nigeria.
• Specifically, the plot unwinds in the villages of Umuofia, Mbaino and Mbanta.
Historical Context • British expansion had just gained relevance in the African interior.
• Many of the missionaries, explorers and traders thought that the interior of Africa was a wild and dangerous place that was inhabited by primitive people.
• There was a scramble for territorial control of Africa between 1870 and 1900 for two reasons:
1. Africa was an untapped source for raw materials that could fuel the Industrial Revolution in Europe. 2. Trade could be enhanced by using Africa as a stop off port on the way to the Middle East. • This scramble opened the door to the missionary’s need to ‘civilize’ and ‘enlighten’ the population of this new colony/continent.
• With the infiltration of these missionaries came churches and schools, both of which were instrumental in the colonizing process. • The over arching result of the European infiltration was:
1. The indigenous cultural and religious practices were rejected and viewed as uncivilized and heathen.
2. Tribal practices were outlawed.
3. Local judicial systems were replaced.
4. Trading posts and monetary systems replaced barter and rural systems of trade.
Social Context • The men are dominant and the women are subservient.
• Social mobility is possible through personal achievement.
• Success is measured by the number of barns one owns and titles that their wealth can buy.
• The society is polygamous, and social prestige is accorded to a man that can afford to support many wives.
• The acquisition of a bride is a solemn event that involves ritual and ceremony.
• Children are a sign of virility.
• Villagers feel a sense of obligation to help each other.
• Being hospitable to each other is very important.
• Conversation involves ritual – palm-wine, kola nut, alligator pepper – and proverbs.
• Members of the clan are prohibited from killing each other. Political Context • Approval of the entire clan is necessary before any major decision is made.
• Egwugwu, the representative of the ancestral spirits, are integral in administering tribal justice.
• Ndichie, the elders of the village, have a place of honour in the clan and their advice is respected.
• The priests get their power from the Oracle, and their decisions are never questioned. Religious Context • Ordinary people gain access to the gods through the Oracle.
• The gods do not show themselves physically, but speak through the priests or priestesses.
• The ancestors, embodied physically in the egwugwu, are revered.
• There is the belief that the ogbanje, or spirit child, returns to plague its mother, ensuring that all her children die.
• Twins are taboo and placed in the ‘evil forest’.
• The concept of the chi, or a person’s identity in the spirit land, is important in Igbo religious beliefs.
• A good chi can mean success, while a bad chi can mean misfortune.
Economic Context • Sharecropping provides a financial base for young men who do not inherit a barn from their fathers, or are simply in a financial crises.
• Cowrie shells are the medium of exchange.
• The family unit provides the basis for economic success.
• Each individual, even the children, has a specialized role that contributes to the family’s financial success.