Things Fall Apart | Study Guide

Chinua Achebe

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Things Fall Apart | Part 1, Chapter 1 | Summary



The story is set in the fictional village of Umuofia, Nigeria, in the late 1890s. Okonkwo, the protagonist, is a member of the Igbo tribe (spelled Ibo in the novel), an ethnic group that resides in nine villages by the lower Niger River in Southern Nigeria.

Years ago Okonkwo gained fame because of his wrestling exploits. He has since become a successful farmer with a large family, including three wives. Because of his respected position, Okonkwo is given responsibility for the boy Ikemefuna, who has been sent to the tribe from another clan as a way to avoid war and bloodshed.

Readers learn that Unoka, Okonkwo's father, was a lazy man who enjoyed music and talking. People did not respect him, and his family struggled. Unoka owed money to all of his neighbors and had no intention of paying his debts. His indebtedness left Okonkwo ashamed.


This chapter opens the first of three parts of the novel. In Part 1, readers meet Okonkwo, the novel's larger-than-life protagonist, and gain a sense of his almost mythic reputation. Achebe also provides a thorough introduction to Igbo culture before the devastating effects of colonialism.

In Chapter 1, readers become acquainted with both Okonkwo and the person whose behavior has shaped Okonkwo's character: his despised father, Unoka. The chapter presents these details about Okonkwo:

  • He became a hero to his clan when, as a teenager, he beat a wrestling champion who had been undefeated for seven years. Okonkwo was "as slippery as a fish" and defeated the champion in a fight that was one of the fiercest his village had ever seen.
  • In the following 20 years, Okonkwo's fame and stature have grown. His status as a successful farmer and war hero with civic titles and three wives makes him "one of the greatest men of his time" in the eyes of his clan and in his own eyes. His jaunty step makes it appear that he walks "on springs."

Why, then, does Okonkwo so readily resort to violence? He has no patience, particularly "with unsuccessful men." It's no coincidence that the most unsuccessful man in Okonkwo's life is his father, Unoka. Although Unoka has been dead for 10 years, he still influences Okonkwo's life. Readers learn the following about Unoka:

  • A gifted flute player and lover of wine, Unoka was happiest when playing music.
  • Successful in music, Unoka was a failure at the practical aspects of life. He was lazy and provided little food for his family.
  • He was in debt to everyone and, though he kept a record of his debts, did not repay the people who lent him money.

Okonkwo was ashamed of his father, and that shame drives him as an adult.

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