'Things Fall Apart' Study Guide and Discussion Questions

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 negative 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 missionaries work to convert the African population helped to forever alter 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. This is a recommended book to read in a book club because of the depth of the work.

Plot Summary

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

He 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. 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 coming to town. They've set up a prison, a European-style court of law, a church, school, and 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, whom he kills to not appear weak; given to Okonkwo to avoid war
  • 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; Unoka is lazy and enjoys music and conversation; is gentle, cowardly, and not ambitious; thus, he doesn't 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 people to become literate to keep up with the rest of the world; represents colonization
  • the Rev. James Smith: missionary who contrasts with Mr. Brown in that Smith 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 personal themes as well. Readers can also examine how people's character leads to their outcomes, such as in the case of how adaptable they are to change or inflexible (character is destiny). An examination of the book can look at human emotions and find commonalities and universals (people are people).

    The destiny theme can also be examined on a societal level. 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 a reexamine 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, and Achebe was 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 and that they were valid.

    Discussion Questions

    1. What is important about the title: "Things Fall Apart?" Is there a reference in the novel that explains the title?
    2. What are the conflicts in "Things Fall Apart"? What types of conflict (physical, moral, intellectual, or emotional) are present?
    3. How does Chinua Achebe reveal character in "Things Fall Apart"?
    4. How do the story's themes relate to the plot and characters?
    5. What are some symbols in "Things Fall Apart"? How do they relate to the plot and characters?
    6. Are the characters consistent in their actions? Are they fully developed characters? Are some characters more fully developed than others? How? Why?
    7. Do you find the characters likable? Are the characters persons you would want to meet?
    8. What is the central/primary purpose of the story? Is the purpose important or meaningful? 
    9. Do you think the novel is meant to be political? What point was the author trying to make? Did he succeed?
    10. Why is the novel so controversial? Do you think the book should be censored or banned? Should it be taught in schools?
    1. How essential is the setting to the story? Could the story have taken place anywhere else?
    2. What is the role of family and community in this novel? How does it change with the arrival of Europeans? How does it change when the missionaries arrive?
    3. 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?
    4. Would you recommend this novel to a friend?
    5. How is religion portrayed in this novel? Do you think the Christian missionaries had a positive or negative impact on the characters?
    6. What's important about the time period the novel is set in?
    7. Why do you think the author's decision to write the novel in English rather than his native language caused controversy?
    8. What point is the author trying to make about the African identity? What problems does the author outline? Does he offer solutions?