'Things Fall Apart' Quotes

Chinua Achebe’s classic 1958 novel of pre-colonial Africa, Things Fall Apart, tells the story of Umuofia and the changes the community experiences over the course of about a decade, as seen through Okonkwo, a local man of stature. Okonkwo is grounded in an older style, in which traditional masculinity, action, violence, and hard work are valued above all else. The following selection of Things Fall Apart quotes illustrate Okonkwo's world and his struggle to adapt to the changing times and cultural invasion.

Umuofia's Old Ways

“Many others spoke, and at the end it was decided to follow the normal course of action. An ultimatum was immediately dispatched to Mbaino asking them to choose between war—on the one hand, and on the other the offer of a young man and a virgin as compensation.” (Chapter 2)

This brief passage both establishes one of the main plot elements of the book and provides a look into Umuofia’s system of law and justice. After a man from Mbaino, a neighboring clan, kills a girl from Umuofia, his village is given an ultimatum to deal with the situation: they must choose between violence or a human offering. The event reveals the highly masculine nature of this society, as the only way to account for violence is to rip the community even further apart. Additionally, the punishment, whichever one is chosen, is not directly vested upon the crime’s perpetrator—either the town as a whole is attacked, or the lives of two innocent young people are forever changed against their will. Justice, then, as represented here, is much more about vengeance than it is about rehabilitation.

Moreover, it is interesting that the (human) compensation is not a straightforward one-to-one swap, but that two individuals must be given over to Umuofia. This seems reasonable enough as a sort of payback of principle and interest, but it is of note that one of the people traded over must be a “virgin.” This further highlights the masculine focus of this verdict and sexualizes the situation as a whole. In fact, we see this gendering of crime again later in the book, when Okonkwo’s unintentional murder of Ogbuefi’s son is referred to as a “feminine crime.” This moment, therefore, establishes early on in the novel several key elements of this community’s underpinnings.

Quotes About Masculinity

“Even Okonkwo himself became very fond of the boy—inwardly of course. Okonkwo never showed any emotion openly, unless it be the emotion of anger. To show affection was a sign of weakness; the only thing worth demonstrating was strength. He therefore treated Ikemefuna as he treated everybody else—with a heavy hand.” (Chapter 4)

In this moment, we get a rare glimpse of Okonkwo’s softer side, though he is careful to make sure that nobody around him sees it. Of particular interest is that Okonkwo’s code isn’t to repress or hide all emotions—just all those that aren’t anger. This reaction stems from his ever-present need to appear strong, as highlighted by his thought that “to show affection was a sign of weakness; the only thing worth demonstrating was strength.” What is also of note, though it is not mentioned in this passage, is that Okonkwo’s fondness for Ikemefuna, the boy given as compensation from Mbaino, stems from the latter’s industriousness, which stands in contrast to Okonkwo’s own son's disposition. Regardless, Okonkwo treats his adoptive son the same way he treats everybody else—“with a heavy hand.”

Okonkwo’s lack of empathy and his willingness to use force to make his point is also evidenced in his physical nature—after all, he came to prominence in his clan as a renowned wrestler. He also was adamant on his desire not to become like his father, who was weak and couldn’t take care of himself. Though brief, this passage provides a rare moment of psychological insight into the novel’s otherwise very guarded protagonist.

“Inwardly Okonkwo knew that the boys were still too young to understand fully the difficult art of preparing seed-yams. But he thought that one could not begin too early. Yam stood for manliness, and he who could feed his family on yams from one harvest to another was a very great man indeed. Okonkwo wanted his son to be a great farmer and a great man. He would stamp out the disquieting signs of laziness which he thought he already saw in him.” (Chapter 4)

This moment demonstrates the important link in Okonkwo’s mind between the masculinity that pervades his world and the necessary act of farming that sustains it. As is stated here very unambiguously, “Yam stood for manliness.” This is partly because preparing these crops is a “difficult art,” and presumably, not something to entrust to women. The idea that being able to feed a family year after year on a yam harvest makes someone a “great man” is subtle dig at Okonkwo’s father, who was unable to feed his family on yam harvests, and left his son with very few seeds to start his own farm.

Okonkwo is very determined to pass on to his own son the importance of yams, and their connection to his understanding of what they mean about manhood. He is worried, though, that his son is lazy, which is an issue because it is reminiscent of his father and is just generally feminine, which Okonkwo views as negative. Whether or not this concern is actually true, it hangs around Okonkwo’s consciousness for the novel’s duration, until eventually he blows up at his son and ends his relationship with him. Okonkwo then kills himself feeling that he has been cursed with his son, and feels that he failed to teach him the importance of the yams.

Suffering in Umofia's Society

"You think you are the greatest sufferer in the world? Do you know that men are sometimes banished for life? Do you know that men sometimes lose all their yams and even their children? I had six wives once. I have none now except that young girl who knows not her right from her left. Do you know how many children I have buried—children I begot in my youth and strength? Twenty-two. I did not hang myself, and I am still alive. If you think you are the greatest sufferer in the world ask my daughter, Akueni, how many twins she has borne and thrown away. Have you not heard the song they sing when a woman dies? 'For whom is it well, for whom is it well? There is no one for whom it is well.' I have no more to say to you." (Chapter 14)

This passage arises from Okonkwo’s difficulty in accepting new circumstances. It is the end of an impromptu speech delivered by Uchendu, an acquaintance of Okonkwo’s in the village he and his family are exiled to for seven years, in which he attempts to show Okonkwo that his suffering is not as great as he thinks. Okonkwo tends to think that whatever is happening to him is the worst thing that has ever happened, and therefore cannot tolerate that he has been exiled from his clan for seven years (not banished, just exiled for seven years) and stripped of his titles.

Uchendu takes upon himself the difficult task of, essentially, kicking Okonkwo when he is down—a rather risky move. He describes a litany of fates, both personal and not, far worse than what has befallen Okonkwo. One particularly notable fate is that of the woman who “has borne and thrown away” twins, as this reflects the tradition in this culture of discarding babies born in pairs as they are believed to be bad luck. This is painful for the mothers, but it is done nonetheless.

The speech ends with the rhetorical question and answer about what happens when a woman dies, showing Okonkwo that there are outcomes in life worse than his, and yet people still go on living.

Quotes About the Foreign Invaders

"'He was not an albino. He was quite different.' He sipped his wine. 'And he was riding an iron horse. The first people who saw him ran away, but he stood beckoning to them. In the end the fearless ones went near and even touched him. The elders consulted their Oracle and it told them that the strange man would break their clan and spread destruction among them.' Obierika again drank a little of his wine. 'And so they killed the white man and tied his iron horse to their sacred tree because it looked as if it would run away to call the man's friends. I forgot to tell you another thing which the Oracle said. It said that other white men were on their way. They were locusts, it said, and that first man was their harbinger sent to explore the terrain. And so they killed him.'" (Chapter 15)

This passage, in which Obierika relates to Okonkwo a story of a neighboring clan, describes one of the first interactions between the people of the region and the Europeans. The most notable part, of course, is that the group, in following along with their oracle, decide to kill the European.

Obierika’s opening comment, that “he was not an albino. He was quite different,” seems to suggest that the people of this area are already familiar with, if not Europeans outright, then people with light skin in some sense. There is, of course, no way to fully unpack that statement, but it raises the possibility that somehow this man was distinct, and worse, from previous visitors to the area. An additional mark of differentiation is that Obierika refers to his bike as an “iron horse,” because he does not understand it as a bicycle. This is of interest because not only does it show an unfamiliarity between the two groups, but also, as bicycles are then-newly invented items of forged metal, reflects a lack of understanding or foresight on the part of the Africans about the oncoming of industrialization.

Whoever the “albino” of times past was, he did not have with him an item of industry like these new Europeans do. As such, this is yet another moment demonstrating an inability on Okonkwo’s, and now Obierika’s part, too, to grasp and process the radical change that their way of life is about to undergo. The conflict established here will motivate the final section of the novel.