'Things Fall Apart' Discussion Questions and Study Guide

Things Fall Apart
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"Things Fall Apart" is a famous novel by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. It's considered an important work in world literature, albeit a controversial one—the book has been banned in some places for its critical portrayal of European colonialism. The book is split into three parts showing the reader the negative effects of colonization on the main characters' tribe. It also shows how Christian missionary work to convert the African population forever altered their culture. The book was written in 1958 and became one of the first books from Africa to become world-renowned. It is seen as an archetype for the modern African novel.

Plot Summary

Protagonist Okonkwo becomes a successful farmer and earns titles and respect in his community, even though his lazy father, Unoka, was a disrespected laughingstock. His father is a source of shame for Okonkwo, who's strived to be everything his father was not. He's domineering over his family as a result, and his overarching desire to always seem "manly" leads to his downfall.

Okonkwo takes in a ward, given to him to care for as a peace offering to avoid war with the neighboring Mbaino community. An oracle says the boy must be killed, but Okonkwo is advised not to do it himself; he does it anyway. But it's after the accidental killing of a leader in his community that he and his family are exiled for seven years.

When they return, they find that much has changed in their community because of white missionaries who have come to town. They've set up a prison, a European-style court of law, a church, a school, and a hospital. Okonkwo doesn't understand why the people haven't revolted against these oppressors. Then, the benevolent Mr. Brown is replaced by a strict reverend who isn't interested in the people's existing culture. Violence eventually ensues, and the local leaders are eventually taken down by the colonizers. Okonkwo cannot cope and ends his own life.

Main Characters

These are the main characters in the novel:

  • Okonkwo: protagonist whose fatal flaw is his inability to adapt to change and his reverence for needing to appear tough and "manly"
  • Ikemefuna: clever, resourceful boy; ward of Okonkwo given to avoid war; killed by him so Okonkwo does not appear weak
  • Nwoye: son of Okonkwo who becomes a Christian; a sensitive boy
  • Ezinma: daughter of Okonkwo; bold; her father's favorite; the only surviving child of Ekwefi
  • Ekwefi: Okonkwo's second wife
  • Unoka: Okonkwo's father, whom Okonkwo strives to be the opposite of; lazy and enjoys music and conversation; gentle, cowardly, and unambitious; does not have the respect of the townsfolk.
  • Obierika: best friend of Okonkwo
  • Ogbuefi Ezeudu: the elder of Umuofia
  • Mr. Brown: missionary to Umuofia and Mbanta; patient, kind, respectful, open-minded person who builds a school and hospital in Umofia and encourages literacy so the people keep up with the rest of the world; represents colonization
  • Rev. James Smith: missionary who contrasts with Mr. Brown in that he is strict and doesn't compromise; has no interest in the native peoples' culture; also represents colonization

Major Themes

In addition to the themes of the effect of colonization on African society and how cultures clash, there are also personal themes in "Things Fall Apart." Readers can examine how people's character leads to their outcomes, such as how adaptable (or unadaptable) they are to change, and how that can be considered a kind of destiny. An examination of the book can also look at human emotions and find commonalities and universals.

The destiny theme can be examined on a societal level as well. Achebe illustrates the complexity of the Igbo society and how it functions—unlike the authoritarian encroachers—without a strong central government. Is it destiny for the people to have been conquered, then? You can also examine how the community and people interact to find balance and function as a society.

Historical Impact

"Things Fall Apart" has become one of the most important books in African literature, as it was among the first major works to bring the African perspective to a worldwide audience and launched the continent's modern literature. It even made Western anthropologists realize they'd been getting the story wrong and led them to re-examine their methods and scholarship on Africa's history and peoples.

Though controversial to write a novel in the colonizers' language, the book was able to reach more people that way. Achebe was also able to work untranslatable Ibo words into the telling so that people would be able to understand them through context as they read, rather than have a translator not achieve adequate subtleties of meaning.

The book awakened pride in history and community for people in Africa and led them to realize that they could tell their own stories.

Discussion Questions

  • What is important about the title: "Things Fall Apart?" Is there a reference in the novel that explains the title?
  • What are the conflicts in "Things Fall Apart?" What types of conflict (physical, moral, intellectual, or emotional) are present?
  • How do the story's themes relate to the plot and characters?
  • What are some symbols in "Things Fall Apart?" How do they relate to the plot and characters?
  • Are the characters consistent in their actions? Are they fully developed characters? Are some characters more fully developed than others? How? Why?
  • Do you find the characters likable? Are the characters people you would want to meet?
  • What is the primary purpose of the story? Is it important or meaningful? 
  • Do you think the novel is meant to be political? What point was the author trying to make? Did he succeed?
  • Why is the novel so controversial? Do you think the book should be censored or banned? Should it be taught in schools?
  • How essential is the setting to the story? Could the story have taken place anywhere else?
  • What is the role of family and community in this novel? How does it change when the missionaries arrive?
  • Does the story end the way you expected? How? Why? What point do you think the author was making with the conclusion of the novel? Does your perspective change knowing there is a sequel?
  • Would you recommend this novel to a friend? Why or why not?
  • How is religion portrayed in this novel? Do you think the Christian missionaries had a positive or negative impact on the characters?
  • What is important about the time period the novel is set in?
  • Why do you think the author's decision to write the novel in English rather than his native language caused controversy?
  • What point is the author trying to make about the African identity? What problems does the author outline? Does he offer solutions?