'Things Fall Apart' Summary

Okonkwo's Rise and Fall in Chinua Achebe's Classic Novel

Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe’s 1958 novel, the first of three in the author's "Africa Trilogy," tells the story of Okonkwo, a warrior of great renown in the fictional village of Umuofia, a community in the lower Niger region of Africa. The novel is divided into three parts: the first section covers Okonkwo’s rise and fall within the village, the second focuses on his exile and the arrival of European missionaries in the region, and the final section deals with his return to Umuofia and the conflict with the Europeans.

Okonkwo's Rise in Umuofia

Okonkwo is well regarded in his village as a great warrior and wrestler, having won renown in his youth after defeating the champion wrestler Amalinze the Cat (so-called because he never landed on his back). Fittingly for someone of his particular skill set, Okonkwo believes very adamantly in strength, self-sufficiency, and action—in short, masculinity in its most basic forms. This attitude formed partly as a response to his father, Unoka, who, though he was considered very lively and generous, also maintained many debts around the village and was seen as unable to provide for himself. Additionally, Unoka was scared of blood and died of swelling from an insufficient diet—both of which are looked down upon in the village and considered feminine. Okonkwo, therefore, desires to assert himself as a man of good standing in the village, which he is able to do after a generous gift (which he receives when his father’s death leaves him with nothing) of 1,200 yam seeds from two different elders in the village. From this he is able to start his farm, feed his family, and then, combined with his physical prowess, begin to earn respect in the community.

Having earned a prominent stature, Okonkwo is given the responsibility of looking after Ikemefuna when he arrives in the village. Ikemefuna is a young boy taken from a nearby village as recompense for a man in that village having killed the wife of a man in Umuofia. A virgin from the village is given as well to replace the man’s wife, thus avoiding an armed conflict, as Umuofia is greatly feared by other groups. Though Ikemefuna is desperately homesick at first, he eventually begins to develop a bond with Okonkwo, who, in turn, looks kindly on the boy whom he feels is more masculine than his actual son, Nwoye.

The Loss of Children

Okonkwo’s stewardship of Ikemefuna was always only a temporary arrangement until the village could determine a more suitable role for the boy, but they ultimately decide to have him killed. This decision is communicated to Okonkwo by Ogbuefi Ezeudu, one of the village’s most respected elders, who tells him not to “bear a hand in his death.” When the time comes and the men are marching Ikemefuna away from the town, Okonkwo, fearing being thought weak, decides to step up and hack the boy down. After doing so, Okonkwo feels unlike himself for a few days, but reflects that he just needs something to do, and that if this had happened during the planting season, he wouldn’t have had such problems.

Soon thereafter, Ekwefi, Okonkwo’s second wife and the only one who dares to knock on the door of his private quarters, wakes her husband up early one morning saying that her daughter, Ezinma, is dying. This is particularly stressful to Ekwefi because Ezinma is her only child who survived past infancy, and she is also Okonkwo's favorite. This had happened before, and in order to save her they had taken her into the forest with the medicine man to find and dig up her iyi-uwa, a sort of personal spiritual stone. Now they have to give her steaming medicine to treat her illness.

Later, at Ezeudu’s funeral, Okonkwo’s gun misfires and kills Ezeudu’s 16-year-old son, causing Okonkwo to be banished from the clan. The crime is determined to have been feminine, meaning unintentional, so Okonkwo and his family’s exile is set at only seven years. They leave and go to the village where Okonkwo grew up.

Exile and Arrival of the Europeans

For his exile, Okonkwo goes to Mbanta, his mother’s village, where he has not been since he brought his mother home to be buried. Although he is given a plot of land on which to build his compound, and land and seeds to grow his farm, he is still deeply saddened as his life goal had been to attain great status in his clan—an aspiration that is now tarnished. Uchendu, one of the leaders of the new clan, tells him not to despair, as his punishment is not so bad and he is among his kinsmen.

In the second year, Obierika, Okonkwo’s closest friend from Umuofia, comes to visit him, bringing with him bags of cowries, the local currency, which he made from selling Okonkwo’s yams. He also tells Okonkwo that the village of Abame has been wiped out in a confrontation with white settlers. He then leaves, not to return for another two years.

On his next visit, Obierika tells Okonkwo that white Christian missionaries have set up a church in Umuofia, and that some people, though none with titles, have started to convert. This was generally worrisome, though mostly because Obierika had seen Okonkwo’s son, Nwoye, among the converts. Eventually, the missionaries set up a church in Mbanta as well, and the relationship between them and the village is one of skeptical geniality. Nwoye soon appears in the village with the missionaries, and he and his father have a confrontation in which Okonkwo threatens to kill his son. The two are separated, but Okonkwo feels that he has been cursed with a woman of a son. As the group of Christians led by the missionary Mr. Kiaga begins to grow in size, the village holds a council to decide what to do about them. Okonkwo argues for killing them, but ultimately the council decides to just ostracise them, as Mr. Kiaga is seen as fairly harmless.

Okonkwo, having then reached the end of his exile, sends money to Obierika to begin building his new compound, and holds a feast for Mbanta to express his gratitude.

Return to Umuofia and Undoing

Upon arriving home, Okonkwo finds his village has changed since the arrival of the white men. Even more people have converted to Christianity, which not only bothers Okonkwo, but creates greater unrest throughout the community. One day, a convert unmasks a village elder during a religious ceremony—a major sign of disrespect—, which leads to the non-Christians destroying a local church in retaliation. The Europeans, in turn, respond by arresting Okonkwo and others, beating them and demanding a fine of 200 cowries for their release (a messenger then ups this to 250 cowries, planning to keep the additional amount for himself). When the fine is paid, the people of Umuofia gather to discuss how to proceed—a meeting Okonkwo appears at dressed in full combat garb. White messengers try to stop the meeting and Okonkwo beheads one of them, hopping to spur his people into action. When nobody joins him and they let the Europeans escape, Okonkwo realizes that Umuofia has lost its warrior spirit and given up.

Shortly thereafter, a few men ask the Europeans to come help them with something at Okonkwo’s compound. They don’t know what to expect and move hesitantly, but upon arriving see that the men needed them to take down Okonkwo’s lifeless body from the tree where he had hung himself, as local custom views suicide as a stain upon the Earth and the body cannot be touched or buried with its people. The Commissioner orders his men to take down the body, and then reflects that Okonkwo will make for an interesting chapter, or a paragraph at least, in the book he plans to write about his experiences in Africa, to be titled “The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.”

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Cohan, Quentin. "'Things Fall Apart' Summary." ThoughtCo, Feb. 9, 2021, thoughtco.com/things-fall-apart-summary-4688684. Cohan, Quentin. (2021, February 9). 'Things Fall Apart' Summary. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/things-fall-apart-summary-4688684 Cohan, Quentin. "'Things Fall Apart' Summary." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/things-fall-apart-summary-4688684 (accessed June 4, 2023).