Things Fall Apart | Study Guide

Chinua Achebe

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Things Fall Apart | 10 Things You Didn't Know

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Chinua Achebe has often been called "the father of modern African literature"—and rightly so. Before the publication of Things Fall Apart, most novels about Africa had been written by and for Europeans and depicted Africans as savages who needed to be enlightened by the white man.

Things Fall Apart was one of the first novels to tell the story of European colonization from an African perspective. It was, in Achebe's words, "a story that only someone who went through it could be trusted to give."

Since its publication in 1958, Things Fall Apart has become a classic of world literature. It is required reading for students in schools across Africa and the world. Heralded as giving Africa its first authentic voice, Things Fall Apart has also inspired a generation of black writers.

1. The title of the novel comes from a W.B. Yeats poem.

Chinua Achebe chose the title of his first novel from a line in Yeats's 1921 poem The Second Coming:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

These lines foreshadow Achebe's themes of Culture and Change, along with Fate versus Free Will.

2. Things Fall Apart was loosely based on Achebe's own family history.

Like Okonkwo's son Nwoye, Chinua Achebe's parents were converted to Christianity by missionaries. They changed their names to Isaiah and Janet and named their son Albert. As an adult, Achebe reacted against the lies he felt the British had taught him as a child. He began using Chinua—a shortened version of his middle name—in place of the English name, Albert.

3. Chinua Achebe's decision to write in English caused controversy.

Some people criticized Achebe's decision to write Things Fall Apart in English—the language of the colonizer—instead of his native tongue, Igbo (or "Ibo" as used in the novel). Achebe defended his choice:

We chose English not because the British desired it but because...we needed its language to transact our business, including the business of overthrowing colonialism itself.

Achebe's decision to write in English made his work accessible to millions of readers.

4. Things Fall Apart was written partly as a rebuke to Heart of Darkness.

Before the publication of Things Fall Apart, one of the most famous novels written about Africa was Heart of Darkness, a novel written by Joseph Conrad, a white man. Achebe widely criticized Conrad for his depictions of Africans as savages and called him a "thoroughgoing racist." Published nearly 60 years after Conrad's novel, Things Fall Apart shows Igbo culture as contradiction to the stereotypes in Heart of Darkness.

5. Things Fall Apart was also written in response to Mister Johnson.

In college, Achebe was required to read Mister Johnson, a 1939 novel set in Nigeria and written by an Irishman. Most white reviewers and Achebe's white professors considered the novel one of the best about Africa. Achebe and his classmates disagreed. They found the childlike portrayal of the Nigerian protagonist to be demeaning and responded with "exasperation at this bumbling idiot of a character."

6. Achebe was inspired to write his novel after entering a writing contest.

His professor announced that nobody who entered was good enough to win but that Chinua Achebe had "some promise" though his story "lacked form." Achebe explained:

But when I then applied some pressure on this professor to explain to me what form was, it was clear that she was not prepared—that she could not explain it to me....She was not capable of teaching across cultures, from her English culture to mine.

He was then moved to write the story that became Things Fall Apart.

7. English typists almost lost the only copy of Things Fall Apart.

Achebe mailed his handwritten manuscript—the only copy in the world—from his home in Nigeria to a typing agency in London. He paid the £32 fee and then waited...and waited...and waited. Months passed, and he didn't hear anything from the agency. Finally, he asked his British boss to stop by the agency during a trip to London. "When they saw a real person come out of the vague mess of the British colonies," Achebe explained, "they knew it was no longer a joke."

8. Several publishers rejected it immediately.

Chinua Achebe explained in an interview that a British author he knew submitted the novel for him to several publishers. Some did not even bother to read the manuscript. They believed that a novel set in Africa would not sell, as they found the "very concept of an African novel amusing."

9. The novel received a short, but glowing, review.

Achebe's publisher, Heinemann, sent Things Fall Apart to a professor at the London School of Economics for his opinion on its literary value and marketability. The professor, who had just returned from a visit to Africa, wrote back with the shortest report they ever received on any novel: "The best first novel since the war."

10. Things Fall Apart has inspired several adaptations and tributes.

They include a 1970 film starring Princess Elizabeth of Toro (a Ugandan kingdom), a stage play produced in Nigeria, a radio program produced by the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation, and a successful miniseries broadcast on Nigerian television. The American hip-hop band The Roots called their fourth album Things Fall Apart as a tribute to the novel.

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