Depicts the Destruction of Ibo Culture Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart chronicled the destruction of the culture of the Ibo tribe of Nigeria as a consequence of the incursions of the British. It gained international fame, educating many members of imperial nations about the effects of their governments’ colonial enterprises.

Summary of Event

Chinua Achebe gained immediate fame when he published his first novel, Things Fall Apart, in 1958. It was a novel about Africa by an African. It was composed in English, in a writing style that was both simple and effective. It contained a fascinating combination of history and fiction, anthropology, political science, and sociology. It told its important story of racial clash without anger or militancy. Things Fall Apart (Achebe) Literary movements;postcolonialism Postcolonial literature [kw]Things Fall Apart Depicts the Destruction of Ibo Culture (1958) [kw]Ibo Culture, Things Fall Apart Depicts the Destruction of (1958) [kw]Destruction of Ibo Culture, Things Fall Apart Depicts the (1958) Things Fall Apart (Achebe) Literary movements;postcolonialism Postcolonial literature [g]Europe;1958: Things Fall Apart Depicts the Destruction of Ibo Culture[05760] [g]United Kingdom;1958: Things Fall Apart Depicts the Destruction of Ibo Culture[05760] [c]Literature;1958: Things Fall Apart Depicts the Destruction of Ibo Culture[05760] [c]Colonialism and occupation;1958: Things Fall Apart Depicts the Destruction of Ibo Culture[05760] Achebe, Chinua Cary, Joyce

Although Achebe was writing about the initial contact of British missionaries and colonial administrators with the Ibo (or Igbo) tribe of Nigeria, contact that proved immensely destructive to the extraordinary culture of his ancestors, he wrote an unimpassioned and balanced analysis of the experience. For Achebe, who was himself raised a Christian, the Ibo culture, though ancient and ordered, was not without its cruelties and ossified superstitions; the British incursionists, though fanatical at times and often callously condescending, did bring to the Ibos some changes that were truly beneficial.

Achebe’s central character is Okonkwo, an imposing hero by Ibo standards. He was in his teens a famous wrestler; later, he proved himself a brave warrior, killing his people’s enemies in battle. Okonkwo then became a prosperous farmer, having three wives, several children, and a compound with separate huts for each wife and her children; he had taken two titles, proving his value as an Ibo man. This is the hero that the British dishonored and drove to suicide.

Surprising objectivity appears in Okonkwo’s portrait. He is a troubled man, for whom hard work and success are obsessions. He fears comparisons to his father, lazy and improvident, who had died in great debt and who had been called an agbala, a woman, because of his worthlessness and the nature of his death with a distended abdomen. Okonkwo beat his wives, even during religious festivals where all violence was prohibited, showing an arrogant disregard of tribal custom; he even shot at one of them, forcing her to scurry over the compound wall to save her life. He killed a young boy called Ikemefuna who had been given to him by the elders of his village of Umuofia to raise and who called him “father.” He was urged not to join an expedition formed to carry out the order of the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves who demanded Ikemefuna’s death. Other warriors were ready to carry out the killing, but Okonkwo was afraid of appearing weak if he did not strike the boy.

This event alienated Okonkwo’s son Nwoye, who—like the mothers of doomed twins and other outcasts—was drawn to the moral teachings of Christianity when the missionaries appeared. Okonkwo’s closest friend, Obierika, serves as a contrast to the impetuous Okonkwo. He is the wise but prudent and obedient doubter of Umuofia’s laws, who wondered why he had to expose his twins, but did so, and who chided Okonkwo for having anything to do with the death of Ikemefuna. A lover of his clan, Obierika can nonetheless see its flaws. He is an astute observer who notes that it was Christianity that “put the knife” to the unity of the clan, allowing “things to fall apart.” In Obierika’s wise assessments, one can perhaps hear the voice of Achebe, himself.

Ibo law at times punished Okonkwo severely. Okonkwo caused the death of another boy when his rifle accidentally exploded while being fired into the air during a celebration. Even though the act was inadvertent, tribal law demanded that the relatives of the dead boy burn Okonkwo’s compound, kill his animals, and destroy his farm; Okonkwo himself was to be exiled for seven years. Even so, Okonkwo believed in the old Ibo ways and was willing to defend them with his life. He hated the British, with their new religion and their insistence that their laws should govern the Ibos, and he reacted violently to their presence.

Okonkwo’s resistance to change was a thematic element in the novel. Some changes were appearing in Ibo culture anyway, caused simply by the relentless march of history and the different attitudes of the younger generation. One elder of the clan complained that the new generation did not value family unity sufficiently. When Okonkwo resisted British authority, killing one of the kotma, court messengers, the tribe’s indecision allowed other kotma to escape. The clan no longer acted as one; the clan had fallen apart. Okonkwo hanged himself, and his death was symbolic of the death of a culture, a centuries-old way of life.

Achebe does not lament the passing of some aspects of the old Ibo ways, such as the killing of twins. Ibos thought twins evil and abandoned them in the forest. The British missionaries saved twins whenever they could find them in time.

Achebe’s command of English is another factor in his success. He converts ancient Ibo proverbs into English without losing the charm and universality of the primitive originals. He is capable also of superb irony. For the Ibos, suicide was an abomination, as was any form of spilling clan blood, including accidental killings such as the one that led to Okonkwo’s exile; thus, no Ibo would touch the defiled body of Okonkwo, previously the proud defender of traditional Ibo values, as it hung from the tree on which he had died.

Indeed, Achebe suggests that this fundamental taboo against the killing of clan members was a chief source of their vulnerability to the British once members of the clan had adopted Christianity, thus introducing disunity and leaving the clan few allowable options for retaliation or defense. Thus, the British that Okonkwo hated would have to take down his corpse and arrange its burial, and it is his friend Obierika, heartbroken at the loss, who explains to the British why no one in the clan can help. The irony continued: For the British District Commissioner, the suicide of Okonkwo was simply another interesting item for the book he would write someday on the pacification of primitives. He thought he might get almost a whole chapter out of the day’s events; then he reconsidered—maybe not a chapter, but at least a paragraph.

Achebe’s next novel brought the story of Okonkwo’s family into the present. No Longer at Ease No Longer at Ease (Achebe) (1960) told the story of Okonkwo’s grandson, Obi, whose problems in trying to exist in the British world while still aware of the demands upon him of tribal values led him into trouble with British law. Arrow of God Arrow of God (Achebe) (1964) finished Achebe’s trilogy. Set in the 1920’s, it showed the declining authorities of Ezeulu, priest of the great god Ulu. Christian teachers undermined his power, and the Ibos eventually turned against him.

Achebe said he had lived in three Nigerias: one under British authority, one of growing nationalist tendencies, and the modern one of a self-governing state. A Man of the People Man of the People, A (Achebe) (1966) dealt with the modern period. Its subject was political graft, corruption, and abuse of power, the inevitable results of British materialism and the destruction of traditional Ibo work ethics. In the period of African independence, the political leaders were shown as greedy and unprincipled. Chief Nanga, a candidate for president, exemplified what had happened to the old warrior class: He was not the defender of his people; he was their exploiter.


Achebe illustrated that Africa at the time the British came into Nigeria was more than a continent of savagery and superstition. He set Things Fall Apart in a village far inland, away from the coast where slavery had already led to the debasement of Africa; in this hinterland area of the Niger, an extraordinarily viable culture had flourished for a very long time. Achebe’s novel enabled Africans to feel pride in their racial past.

Before Achebe, the African novel did not really exist. Kenya, for example, had no writers who, in the strictest sense, could be called novelists. After Achebe had written of European incursions into Iboland and had argued that African writers must remain in touch with their past, a Kenyan who had been writing as James T. Ngugi began to write as Ngugi wa Thiong’o Ngugi wa Thiong’o , publishing The River Between River Between, The (Ngugi) (1965), a novel chronicling the incursions of European missionaries into his ancestral area of Kikuyuland. Ngugi and other African novelists agreed with Achebe on several key points, one being that the African writer must stay aware of problems spawned in the new Africa. Ngugi insisted upon this, stating that the social and political problems of modern Africa were so huge that no serious writer could be forgiven if he failed to deal with them. A Grain of Wheat Grain of Wheat, A (Ngugi) (1967) continued Ngugi’s study of his country by moving to troublesome modern developments. The story began just before Kenya’s celebration of independence in 1963; several characters felt great uneasiness, for they were not certain what the new Kenya would hold for them.

The impact of Achebe’s success was greatest in his own country. Nigerian writers had written long prose fiction works before Achebe, but these were essentially folktales of great adventures and supernatural powers. Many had been written in Yoruba rather than English. After Achebe showed that an African could write English effectively, one major Yoruba writer began to compose in English. Another writer who had previously written in stilted English was led by Achebe’s example to discover a simpler style.

Many of the major writers of modern Africa are Nigerian; certainly a large percentage of Africa’s novelists are, and Achebe’s influence on their choice of subject matter has been as great as it was on their style. Their novels show how difficult it is for many Nigerians who move to the cities to do what Achebe called for, remain in touch with their cultural past. Lagos, the setting for Achebe’s No Longer at Ease, is for many Nigerian writers a center of Nigeria’s problems. It is a modernized city, and Cyprian Ekwensi Ekwensi, Cyprian contrasted its sordidness with the purity of village life in Jagua Nana Jagua Nana (Ekwensi) (1961), the story of Jagua, a young village girl who became captivated by the bright lights of Lagos, especially those of the nightclubs, and fell into prostitution. Ekwensi showed the Lagos underworld, the political viciousness, the disgusting differences between the slums and a rich suburb. In Double Yoke Double Yoke (Emecheta) (1983), Buchi Emecheta Emecheta, Buchi , a Nigerian, told the story of a young girl trying to find her way in the modern world while still trying to hold to traditional values.

Achebe asked Nigeria’s writers to deal with the ugliest aspects of their country’s life. In Slave Girl Slave Girl (Emecheta) (1977), which was set in the 1940’s, Emecheta’s heroine was sold into slavery by her older brother. The military is one of the ugliest elements in Africa’s modern problems. Achebe’s A Man of the People closed with a military coup, a plot twist that soon seemed prophetic; Nigeria’s first army coup followed shortly thereafter, leading to a terrible civil war in which the secessionist Ibo state of Biafra, for which Achebe worked, was destroyed. Emecheta, an Ibo, dealt with the horrors of the war in Destination Biafra Destination Biafra (Emecheta) (1982). Many of Achebe’s themes reappeared in the novels of Festus Iyaye Iyaye, Festus , also Nigerian. Violence Violence (Iyaye) (1979) showed greed and corruption in Nigeria. Heroes Heroes (Iyaye) (1986) dealt with the Biafran war, crying out against corruption and injustice.

For some two decades, Achebe, occupied with the war and the necessity of rebuilding after it, wrote no novels. At last he produced Anthills of the Savannah Anthills of the Savannah (Achebe) (1987), another story of political viciousness and a rotting society. A ruthless politician who has gained power by a coup has brought to trial two childhood friends who have begun to oppose him.

Achebe has insisted that the story of Africa will have to be told by Africans. The European cannot do it. In Nigeria, several young novelists, male and female, are telling the full story—not just the attractive and pleasant parts. The young novelists are confronting the dangers and dealing with the atrocities of their troubled time.

Achebe has had an additional impact on other writers. His literary success led to fellowship awards that enabled him to travel extensively. In East Africa, he learned of the difficulty Swahili poets had in getting their works published, and he began to be involved in several publishing ventures. These provided outlets for new works by black writers, not just from Nigeria but from all over Africa.

Another travel fellowship brought Achebe to Great Britain and the United States, where Things Fall Apart had been published in 1959. The trip to America led to a visiting professorship from 1972 to 1975 at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and to later appointments at other American universities, helping to make American faculty and students aware of the African experience. Achebe is revered in America and Great Britain as well as in Africa, and his reputation as a literary force is immense. Things Fall Apart is widely read beyond Africa and is seen as dealing with universal human themes rather than being merely a regionally or historically bounded story. Even the title is drawn from William Butler Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming,” which Achebe quotes in his frontmatter. Like Yeats’s verse, Achebe’s masterpiece evokes religious imagery, the question of cultural change, the loss of faith, the clash of modernity with human tradition, and the stark predicament of humanity in a world marked by spiritual decay. Things Fall Apart (Achebe) Literary movements;postcolonialism Postcolonial literature

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carroll, David. Chinua Achebe. 2d ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1980. Very readable overview of Achebe’s life and work into the late 1970’s. Informative on the highly significant anthropological elements in Achebe’s fiction. Discusses key stylistic elements, including the abundant use of time-honored proverbs, which are an extraordinarily rich element in the conversation of the Ibos.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cook, David. African Literature: A Critical View. London: Longman, 1977. Separate chapters on Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease, with significant critical statements rather than plot summaries. Valuable assertions about style, structure, and irony. Discussion of Achebe in connection with broad movements in the Anglophone literature of Africa.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Innes, Catherine L. Chinua Achebe. Vol. 1 in Cambridge Studies in African and Caribbean Literature. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Biographical information on Achebe and his family. Discussion of Achebe’s dislike for Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson and analysis of the different views of the two writers. Sketch of Nigeria’s modern political troubles; interesting on Achebe as critic, his involvement in politics, and his concern for justice.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Killam, G. D. The Writings of Chinua Achebe. Rev. ed. London: Heinemann, 1977. A revision of Killam’s The Novels of Chinua Achebe (1969), one of the earliest and most appreciative long studies of Achebe. Discussion of Achebe’s ideas and style in the novels still worthwhile; new discussions of the poems, short stories, and other works by Achebe.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moore, Gerald. Twelve African Writers. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980. Achebe seen in the context of African fiction. Discussion of style and organizational schemes in the early novels, with attention to poems and stories also. Comments on the way different characters’ spoken English helps characterize them as Achebe switches from pidgin to a pompous, verbose style for various figures in his stories.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sallah, Tijan M., and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. Chinua Achebe, Teacher of Light: A Biography. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 2003. This study focuses not only on Achebe’s life and work but also on the intellectual life of Nigeria and the author’s contribution to it. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Taiwo, Oladele. Culture and the Nigerian Novel. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1976. Presents the relationship of Achebe to the indigenous culture of his area; discusses how elements of the old culture are relevant to modern novelists and to the characters in their modern settings. Extraordinarily useful index pinpointing topics within Achebe’s works.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wren, Robert M. Achebe’s World: The Historical and Cultural Context of the Novels of Chinua Achebe. Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1980. Valuable presentation of historical facts about the British presence in Nigeria, about the nature of Ibo life and customs, and about the ways in which Achebe has used these facts. Authoritative information from a scholar who knows Nigeria well.

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Categories: History