'Things Fall Apart' Overview

Chinua Achebe's Masterpiece of African Literature

Acclaimed Nigerian author Chinua Achebe (L) and fo
CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA: Acclaimed Nigerian author Chinua Achebe (L) and former South African President Nelson Mandela chat 12 September 2002 prior to Achebe receiving an honorary degree of Doctor of Literature and delivering the third Steve Biko Memorial Lecture at the University of Cape Town.

AFP / Getty Images

Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe’s classic 1958 novel, tells the story of the changing nature of a fictional African village as seen through the life of one of its most prominent men, Okonkwo, the novel’s protagonist. Throughout the story, we see the village before and after contact with European settlers and the effect this has on the people and the culture. In writing this novel, Achebe created not just a classic work of literature, but also a landmark representation of the destructive consequences of European colonialism.

Fast Facts: Things Fall Apart

  • Title: Things Fall Apart
  • Author: Chinua Achebe
  • Publisher: William Heinemann Ltd.
  • Year Published: 1958
  • Genre: Modern African Novel
  • Type of Work: Novel
  • Original Language: English (with some Igbo words and phrases)
  • Notable Adaptations: 1971 movie adaptation directed by Hans Jürgen Pohland (also known as "Bullfrog in the Sun"), 1987 Nigerian television miniseries, 2008 Nigerian film
  • Fun Fact: Things Fall Apart was the first book in what ultimately became Achebe’s “Africa Trilogy”

Plot Summary

Okonkwo is a prominent member of the fictional village of Umuofia in Nigeria. He rose from a lowly family through his prowess as a wrestler and warrior. As such, when a boy from a nearby village is brought over as a peacekeeping measure, Okonkwo is tasked with raising him; later, when it is decided that the boy will be killed, Okonkwo strikes him down, despite having grown close with him.

When Okonkwo’s daughter Ezinma falls mysteriously ill, the family suffers great distress, as she is the favorite child and the only one by his wife Ekwefi (out of ten pregnancies which were either miscarriages or died in infancy). After that, Okonkwo unintentionally kills the son of a respected village elder with a gun at the man’s funeral, resulting in a seven year exile.

During Okonkwo’s exile, European missionaries arrive in the area. In some places they are met with violence, in others, skepticism, and sometimes with open arms. Upon his return, Okonkwo distrusts the newcomers, and when his son converts to Christianity, he views this as an unforgivable betrayal. This hostility towards the Europeans eventually boils over when they take Okonkwo and several others as prisoners, only releasing them when a sum of 250 cowries has been paid. Okonkwo tries to incite an uprising, even killing a European messenger who interrupts the town meeting, but nobody joins him. In despair, Okonkwo then kills himself, and the local European governor remarks that this will make an interesting chapter in his book, or at least a paragraph. 

Major Characters

Okonkwo. Okonkwo is the novel’s protagonist. He is one of the leaders of Umuofia, having risen to prominence as a renowned wrestler and warrior despite his humble beginnings. He is defined by an adherence to an older form of masculinity that values actions and work, especially agricultural work, over conversation and emotion. As a result of this belief, Okonkwo sometimes beats his wives, feels alienated from his son, whom he views as feminine, and kills Ikemefuna, despite having raised him from youth. In the end, he hangs himself, a sacrilegious act, when none of his people join him in resisting the Europeans.

Unoka. Unoka is Okonkwo’s father, but is his complete opposite. Unoka is given to talking the hours away over palm wine with friends and throwing large parties whenever he comes into some food or money. Because of this tendency, he accumulated large debts and left his son with little money or seeds with which to build his own farm. He died of a swollen stomach from starvation, which is considered feminine and a stain against the land. Okonkwo constructs his own identity very much in opposition to his father’s.

Ekwefi. Ekwefi is Okonkwo’s second wife and the mother of Ezinma. Before having her daughter, she gave birth to nine stillborn children, which makes her resentful of Okonkwo’s other wives. Yet, she is the only one who stands up to Okonkwo, despite his physical abuse.

Ezinma. Ezinma is Okonkwo’s daughter and the only child by Ekwefi. She is a local beauty. Because of her assertiveness and intelligence, she is Okonkwo’s favorite child. He thinks that she is a better son than Nwoye, and wishes that she had been born a boy.

Nwoye. Nwoye is Okonkwo’s only son. He and his father have a very tough relationship because Nwoye is more drawn to his mother’s stories than to his father’s fieldwork. This makes Okonkwo think Nwoye is weak and feminine. When Nwoye converts to Christianity and takes the name Isaac, Okonkwo views this as an unforgivable betrayal and feels that he has been cursed with Nwoye as a son.

Ikemefuna. Ikemefuna is the boy given as a peace offering by a nearby village to avoid a war after a man kills a girl from Umuofia. Upon arriving, it is decided that he will be cared for by Okonkwo until a permanent solution is found. Okonkwo eventually takes a liking to him, as he seems to enjoy working on the farm. The village ultimately decides he must be killed, and even though Okonkwo is told not to do it, he ultimately strikes the fatal blow, so as not to appear weak.

Obierika and Ogbuefi Ezeudu. Obierika is Okonkwo’s closest friend, who helps him during his exile. Ogbuefi is one of the village elders, who tells Okonkwo not to participate in Ikemefuna’s execution. At Ogbuefi’s funeral, Okonkwo’s gun misfires and kills Ogbuefi’s son, resulting in his exile.

Major Themes

Masculinity. Okonkwo—and the village as a whole—adheres to a very rigid sense of masculinity, based mostly on agricultural labor and physical prowess. When the Europeans arrive, they upset this balance, throwing the whole community into flux.

Agriculture. Food is one of the most important totems of the village, and the ability to provide for one’s family through agriculture is the foundation of masculinity in the community. Men who cannot cultivate their own farm are considered weak and feminine.

Change. The changes that Okonkwo and the village as a whole experience throughout the novel, as well as the way they fight it or go along with it, is the story’s main animating purpose. Okonkwo’s response to change is always to fight it with brute force, but when that no longer suffices, as against the Europeans, he kills himself, no longer capable of living the life he had known.

Literary Style

The novel is written in a very accessible and straightforward prose, though it hints at deeper agonies below the surface. Most notably, Achebe, though he wrote the book in English, sprinkles in Igbo words and phrases, giving the novel local texture and at times alienating the reader. When the novel was published, it was one of the most prominent books about colonial Africa, and led to two other works in Achebe’s “Africa Trilogy.” He also paved the way for a whole generation of African writers.

About the Author

Chinua Achebe is a Nigerian writer, who, through Things Fall Apart, among other works, helped develop a sense of Nigerian—and African—literary identity in the wake of the fall of European colonialism. His masterpiece work, Things Fall Apart, is the most widely read novel in modern Africa.

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Cohan, Quentin. "'Things Fall Apart' Overview." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/things-fall-apart-overview-4693544. Cohan, Quentin. (2020, August 28). 'Things Fall Apart' Overview. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/things-fall-apart-overview-4693544 Cohan, Quentin. "'Things Fall Apart' Overview." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/things-fall-apart-overview-4693544 (accessed February 6, 2023).