Things Fall Apart | Study Guide

Chinua Achebe

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Things Fall Apart | Plot Summary

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Summary

Things Fall Apart takes place in the 1890s in Igbo villages in Nigeria. At this time, the British are colonizing Nigeria. Missionaries arrive as part of the takeover, and Britain imposes a legal system to assist them in converting villagers to Christianity. The Igbo are the last group to be converted because their culture is both prosperous and democratic. Achebe highlights the nature of a well-functioning culture and the loss that occurs in the inevitable progress of colonialism.

Readers are introduced to Okonkwo, the protagonist. Okonkwo is well respected in his village, Umuofia, one of nine villages of his clan. He gained that respect by winning a wrestling match against the undefeated champion. Since then, Okonkwo has become wealthy, marrying three wives and fathering several children. His success contrasts with the failures of his father, a musician and fun-loving gentle man but also an alcoholic slacker in debt to his entire community. Okonkwo is ashamed of his father and is driven to be fierce and masculine, unlike his parent.

Because of his father's laziness, Okonkwo fends for himself at an early age. Nwakibe, a farmer, views Okonkwo as hardworking and respectful and gives him yam seeds to plant. Yams are the main food source, and growing them is a man's job. Drought and violent rains turn his first planting season into a disaster, but somehow he finds a way to survive. Remembering that year "with a cold shiver," Okonkwo is convinced he can survive anything.

As a result of his position in society, Okonkwo is chosen to look after the boy Ikemefuna. The boy arrives in the village as a form of payment from a neighboring clan whose members have murdered a woman from Umuofia.

Ikemefuna adjusts to life in Umuofia and views Okonkwo as his father. Nwoye, Okonkwo's son, is fond of Ikemefuna, whom he sees as an older brother and admires for his skill at making bows from the local trees and building traps for hunting. This pleases Okonkwo, whose greatest fear is that Nwoye will take after Okonkwo's father, Unoka.

When the priestess Chielo orders that Ikemefuna is to be killed, a village elder, Ezeudu, warns Okonkwo not to take part in the killing. He does so anyway, fearing that if he does not participate he will lose respect. The murder causes Okonkwo great despair, and Nwoye is devastated.

Ezinma, daughter of Okonkwo's second wife, Ekwefi, becomes extremely ill with a fever, and Ekwefi is terrified the child will die. Although Okonkwo generally keeps his emotions in check, he rushes into the brush and collects herbs and tree bark to brew a medicine for the girl. After a restless night, Okonkwo uses the concoction to steam the fever out of Ezinma. This demonstration of care falls well outside his usual character.

Ezeudu dies, and during his funeral men beat ceremonial drums and fire their guns. When Okonkwo's gun explodes, he accidentally kills Ezeudu's son. The punishment for killing a clansman is seven years of exile.

Fleeing before dawn, Okonkwo and his family settle with his mother's clansmen in Mbanta. While Okonkwo longs for Umuofia, he is treated well by his kinsmen and prospers among them.

When Okonkwo's friend Obierika visits he describes the destruction of the Abame clan at the hands of the white man. The clan had killed the first white man who came to their village because of a warning from the Oracle. The Oracle had said that white men would descend like devouring locusts and destroy them.

When missionaries arrive in Mbanta and request land to build a church, the clan rulers give them part of the evil forest, believing that the clan's gods will strike the missionaries down. After the church is built and the missionaries survive, villagers begin attending services, including the first female convert and Nwoye. Soon Nwoye's cousin spots him at the church and goes straight to tell Okonkwo. This news drives Okonkwo to severely beat Nwoye, who then leaves home and moves to Umuofia. Okonkwo wonders how he could have a son who is so weak. He decides this is just the way things are: "living fire begets cold, impotent ash."

Okonkwo plans a triumphant return home. However, he finds that Umuofia has changed. The missionaries are established there now. He wants to fight them, but Obierika warns it is too late. The missionaries have already built a church and attracted followers. Nwoye is with them and has converted to Christianity.

The white man's presence extends further than the church. British officials have set up a government with a District Commissioner judging cases. A missionary, Mr. Brown, has been accepted in the village, as he does not force his religion upon the people. He has also opened a school where clansmen learn to read and write.

Another missionary, Mr. Smith, replaces Brown. Smith is fiery and rouses his followers. Enoch, a zealous convert, commits a crime against the clan, and the clan members then destroy Enoch's compound and the church. Okonkwo happily participates in the destruction. Swooping down on the clan, the District Commissioner jails six leaders, including Okonkwo. Their jailers take pleasure in humiliating and punishing the prisoners, forcibly shaving their heads, starving them, and whipping them. Okonkwo becomes eager for revenge. The District Commissioner imposes a heavy fine for their release, which, three days later, the clan pays.

The next morning the clan members—energized, angry, and fearful—gather to discuss the treatment of the prisoners, considering it a "shameful sacrilege." Okonkwo is seething and hopes the clan will finally fight back. When court messengers approach demanding the meeting be stopped, Okonkwo's rage boils over, and he kills the messengers' spokesman. Sensing fear in his startled clansmen, Okonkwo knows they will not go to war.

Soon the District Commissioner and an armed band arrive at Okonkwo's compound to arrest him. Obierika solemnly informs them that Okonkwo is not there and leads the group to where Okonkwo has hanged himself. Suicide is an abomination in their religion, and Okonkwo's friends cannot touch his body. They must rely on the soldiers to bury him. Furiously, Obierika rebukes the District Commissioner for destroying "one of the greatest men in Umuofia." As he walks away, the District Commissioner reflects that Okonkwo's story might be worth including in a book he is writing, which will be called The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.

Things Fall Apart Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction

Introduction

1 Growing up poor, Okonkwo gains fame by wrestling.

Rising Action

2 Okonkwo and his family take in Ikemefuna.

3 Okonkwo participates in the killing of Ikemefuna.

4 Okonkwo is exiled from the clan for an accidental killing.

5 The white man and missionaries arrive in the villages.

6 Nwoye leaves his father and joins the missionaries.

7 Okonkwo and his family return to Umuofia.

8 Enoch unmasks an egwugwu.

Climax

9 The egwugwu, village leaders destroy church.

Falling Action

10 Okonkwo, five other clan leaders are jailed and beaten.

11 Okonkwo kills the court messenger.

Resolution

12 Okonkwo hangs himself.

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