Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart”: Plot and Psychoanalysis of the Okonkwo

Subject: Literature
Pages: 6
Words: 1687
Reading time:
7 min
Study level: College


Africa joined the process of world artistic creation relatively late. The anti-colonial movement and the emergence of national consciousness contributed to the awakening of cultural life. By the 40-the 50s of the XX century, there was already journalistic poetry in Nigeria, cheap amateur novels of book bazaars that met the unassuming requirements of the African public. Such literature touched on a wide range of social topics: from the influence of traditions and beliefs to the problems of modern society. The authors of this genre of literature were artisan writers who considered writing books to earn money. In the early fifties, books by professional novelists began to appear, among which Chinua Achebe’s novel “Things Fall Apart” occupies a prominent place, a critical discussion of which is presented in this work.

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General Information

The novel was written in 1958, two years before Nigeria declared its independence. The writer in the novel showed the reader the starting point of the country’s colonial history and, thereby, allowed him to understand the reasons for the liberation movement (Diakhaté). The book takes place in the second half of the XIX century in the forests east of the Niger River when English colonization reached the tribes of Ibo untouched by European civilization.

Through the main character’s interaction with his clan, Achebe showed the audience how the norms and ideas of primitive society had outlived themselves. The superstitions and views inherited from the ancestors about the collective responsibility of people to spirits and nature seemed to many of the tribesmen to be unfair and incomprehensible (Diakhaté). They were outraged by traditions that forced married couples to leave newborn twins in the forest or kill prisoners for sacrifice. Terrible rituals and emerging inequality exacerbated social contradictions, and the decomposition processes of tribal society accelerated with the arrival of missionaries.

Psychoanalysis of Okonkwo

The main character named, Okonkwo, tries his best to gain a foothold in a society full of contradictions. There is a division in the tribe into those who, thanks to their work and military valor, have achieved well-being and won the respect of their fellow tribesmen and those whom Okonkwo calls worthless people (Diakhaté). Okonkwo refers to such people as weak, unsuccessful people who do not have a high status in the tribe and therefore do not have the right to vote. Among them, the main character sees his father, Unoka, who is reputed to be a good musician, a wine lover, and a constant debtor. Okonkwo is imbued with hatred for the character traits that Unoka possesses: softness, laziness, and inertia.

Okonkwo’s motivation is carefully spelled out in the book – the fear of being like his father. This fear caused Okonkwo to overflow his storehouses with farmed meat, get more wives, and be the fiercest in the war against enemy villages. The first plot twist was the murder of Okonkwo’s named son, Ikemefuna, a boy from a hostile clan offered to Okonkwo’s village to avoid war. The boy got into the Okonkwo family and quickly gained everyone’s trust (Achebe). Still, three years later, the oracle of the clan decided to sacrifice the prisoner, to which the main character, fearing to seem weak, agreed. Ikemefuna’s death permanently destroyed the relationship between Okonkwo and his son Nwoye and other close friends.

Analysis of the Colonization as a Systematic Program That Results in the Destruction of the Tribe and Okonkwo

The first English trading posts appeared in West Africa at the end of the XV century, and in the XVI–XVIII centuries, British merchants exported the bulk of enslaved people from the Guinea coast (Rashid). It is noteworthy that British merchants did not need to penetrate deep into the mainland during this period since coastal African states became the miners and sellers of people. Remarkably, the expansion deep into Africa was carried out under the pretext of combating the slave trade. In 1851, the British landed on the island of Lagos, which became a base and starting point for moving north along the Niger Delta.

At the end of the XIX century, the English capital planned to seize the main trade routes in Nigeria and change the terms of trade in its favor. The English navy, cheap consumer goods, and Anglican missionaries contributed to the fulfillment of the plans of the English bourgeoisie. Missionaries were the vanguard of colonization (Rashid). By the beginning of the military clashes of the British Empire with the coastal states, they were present in many cities of the Niger Delta. The rulers of the local states allowed them to gain a foothold there, wanting to enlist the support of Britain in the struggle among themselves with the help of missionaries (Salami and Bamshad). Nevertheless, the missionaries represented English interests, so they contributed to establishing the economic and political domination of the British Empire.

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The complete misunderstanding of the laws of the tribe by white people is clearly seen in this passage:

  • “What has happened to that piece of land in dispute?” asked Okonkwo.
  • “The white man’s court has decided that it should belong to Nnama’s family, who had given much money to the white man’s messengers and interpreter.”
  • “Does the white man understand our custom about land?”

“How can he when he does not even speak our tongue? But he says that our customs are bad; and our own brothers who have taken up his religion also say that our customs are bad. How do you think we can fight when our own brothers have turned against us? The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We are amused at this foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.” (Achebe 176)

In Achebe’s novel, one can see the methods used by the missionaries to expand their influence. The head of the religious mission, Mr. Brown, used the contradictions in the Okonkwo tribe. Through his speeches on equality and justice, the preacher gathered around him those oppressed by the emerging class society (Achebe). Families who had lost children because of ridiculous traditions that forced parents to leave newborn twins in the woods supported him. Gradually, more and more people began to listen to Mr. Brown, and even respected representatives of the tribe began to sympathize with the missionaries.

The change in missionary policy depicted in the novel also took place in the colonial history of Nigeria. Up until the 70s of the XIX century, the English parliament was cautious about territorial expansion in West Africa, and in the 40s, it even thought about abandoning the West African colonies (Salami and Bamshad). Nevertheless, this position changed after a series of crises that overtook capitalism in the last quarter of the XIX century. After the economic crisis of 1873, the struggle of European states for the partition of Africa intensified (Rashid). In addition to the change in economic policy, the approach to management has changed, and the attitude towards the colonial population. If earlier it was economically feasible to attract educated segments of the African people to administrative positions, then with the advent of imperialism, all-important public places were reserved for whites.

These historical events are similar to the events of Achebe’s novel, against which the protagonist’s tragedy unfolded. Returning to his native village, Okonkwo found it changed, and the tribesmen did not even notice his return. Their thoughts were occupied with the new order: many residents converted to Christianity, went to church school, and traded in a shop (Achebe). Okonkwo was discouraged by the situation, as he considered that the men of the clan had become effeminate and foreigners had settled disagreements in the village. Contradictions have been maturing for a long time, but only with the arrival of Reverend Smith did mutual discontent between the clan and the Christian community turn into an open clash. Okonkwo tried to speak out against the foreigners, but the people of his native village were afraid and did not fight (Achebe). Then, filled with a humiliating sense of powerlessness, Okonkwo committed suicide.

The colonization of Africa was a systematic program that gradually led to the death of the tribe, its culture, and Okonkwo. At the end of the XIX century, the number of Africans converted to Christianity was small concerning the population (Rashid). Still, the influence of missions affected the life of the tribal community. Often, converts stood out from the community, forming their settlements (Birhane). Even more often, converts to Christianity continued to live with “pagans” within the community, which inevitably gave rise to numerous conflict situations (Salami and Bamshad). The imposition of Christianity undermined the sovereignty of peoples and weakened their resistance to colonizers.

The destruction of residents’ resistance to a foreign religion occurred gradually, and over time, aggressive opposition was replaced by acceptance. The missionaries who preached Christianity had good oratorical skills, and the colonialists promised a better life and an abundance of new goods, which softened the attitude of the locals (Salami and Bamshad). The Okonkwo tribe initially tried to resist but then succumbed to gradual processing by the missionaries and lost significant features of their culture. This process has been going on for a long time throughout Africa so that the Okonkwo tribe could do little, like the main character himself. The problem of colonization as a systemic process is one of the key problems in the novel and an essential engine of the plot.

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Thus, Okonkwo, as a deep and thoughtful main character, contains both bad and good sides. He does not seem to be a character in the book, but a living person who has attachments, ideals, and weaknesses and makes mistakes that sometimes cost him everything. Okonkwo’s life path references the fate of the whole of Nigeria, which was colonized and strongly influenced by white people who affected the usual way of life and ancient traditions. The author of the book has created a vivid and dramatic story and an ambiguous protagonist whose life is filled with joy and grief.

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. Anchor Books, 1994.

Birhane, Abeba. “Algorithmic colonization of Africa.” SCRIPTed 17 (2020): 389.

Diakhaté, Babacar. “The Quest for Heroism: Flaws, Obstacles and Consequences in Chinua Achebe‟ s Things Fall Apart (1958).” Sch J Arts Humanit Soc Sci 1 (2021): 6-9.

Diakhaté, Babacar. “Traditional Education: Methods and Finality in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958) and Arrow of God (1969).” Budapest International Research and Critics in Linguistics and Education (BirLE) Journal 4.1 (2021): 1-6.

Rashid, Aminur. “Re-reading Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart: A Postcolonial Perspective.” International Journal of Linguistics, Literature and Translation (IJLLT) (2018). Web.

Salami, Ali, and Bamshad Hekmat Shoar. “Things fall apart and Chinua Achebe’s postcolonial discourse.” International Journal on Studies in English Language and Literature 6 (2018).

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