'Things Fall Apart' Themes, Symbols, and Literary Devices

Masculinity, Agriculture, and Change in Chinua Achebe's Novel of Africa

Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe’s classic 1958 novel of Africa just before colonialism, tells the story of a world about to undergo a radical change. Through the character of Okonkwo, a man of prominence and stature in his village community, Achebe depicts how issues of masculinity and agriculture interact with each other and affect the world of the novel. Additionally, these ideas change greatly throughout the novel, and each character’s ability (or inability) to adapt to these changes plays a key role in where they wind up at the novel’s end.

Masculinity

Masculinity is the novel’s most important theme, as it means a great deal to the novel’s protagonist, Okonkwo, and motivates many of his actions. Though not a village elder, Okonkwo is no longer a young man, so his ideas of masculinity come from a time that is beginning to fade. Much of his view of manhood develops in response to his father, who favored chatting and socializing over hard work and died indebted and unable to provide for his family, an embarrassing fate that is considered weak and feminine. Okonkwo, therefore, believes in action and strength. He first came to prominence in the community as an impressive wrestler. When he began a family, he focused on toiling away in the field rather than idling with acquaintances, actions that reflected his attitude that agriculture is masculine and talking is feminine.

Okonkwo is also not averse to violence, viewing it as an important form of action. He acts decisively to kill Ikemefuna, even though he regards the young boy well, and later reflects that it would be easier to get over his grief about it if he just had something to do. Additionally, he sometimes hits his wives, believing this a proper act for a man to maintain order in his household. He also attempts to rally his people to rise up against the Europeans, and even goes so far as to kill one of the white messengers.

Okonkwo’s son, Nwoye, stands in contrast to his father, like Okonkwo and his father originally. Nwoye is not particularly powerful physically, and is more drawn to his mother’s stories than to his father’s fields. This greatly worries Okonkwo, who fears that even from a young age his son is too feminine. Nwoye eventually joins the new Christian church that the Europeans establish, which his father views as the ultimate rebuke of his people, and considers himself cursed to have had Nwoye as a son.

In the end, Okonkwo’s inability to handle the changing nature of his society in the wake of the arrival of Europeans, leads to his loss of his own masculinity. As rejection of his village’s decision not to fight the colonists, Okonkwo hangs himself from a tree, an abominable and feminine act that prevents him from being buried with his people, and functions as an important symbol of the way European colonization separated and feminized the African continent.

Agriculture

In Okonkwo’s view, agriculture is related to masculinity, and it is also of great importance in the village of Umuofia. This is still a very agrarian society, so, naturally, great importance is placed on the growing of food, and those who are not able to do so, like Okonkwo’s father, are looked down upon in the community. Additionally, seeds for growing yams, which are the most prominent crop, are a form of currency, as the bestowing of them indicates a respect for and investment in the receiver. For example, Okonkwo does not receive any seeds from his father, who dies with nothing, and as such, he is given several hundred seeds by various members of the community. This is done for practical reasons, so that Okonkwo can grow crops, but also as a symbolic act, to indicate that the people of the village still admire him despite his bad luck and hardships.

Therefore, when Okonkwo begins to notice that his son does not have much of an aptitude or interest in farming, he worries that he is not properly masculine. In fact, he begins to admire his adopted son, Ikemefuna, before he ultimately kills him, because he displays an interest in working around the house and in the field to produce crops.

With the arrival of the Europeans, the village's agricultural tradition comes into conflict with the newcomers' industrial technology, such as the “iron-horse” (ie, bicycle), which the villagers tie to a tree. The Europeans are able to change the landscape of the community through their industrial advantage, so the colonization of Africa represents the power of industry over agriculture. The arrival of the Europeans marks the beginning of the end of African agricultural society as Okonkwo understood it, and was personified by him.

Change

Change is one of the most important overarching ideas of the novel. As we have seen in the span of Okonkwo’s life, much of what he understood about his society, and his ideas on gender and labor in particular, undergo substantial change. Much of the book can be understood as a study in changes. Okonkwo changes his fortune from that of impoverished son to titled father—only to be punished into exile. The Europeans arrival later in the story stirs about a whole host of changes as well, most notably because they initiate a sort of metaphorical feminization of the society as a whole. This change is so great that Okonkwo, perhaps the toughest of all the men in the village, cannot abide by it, and chooses death by his own hand over life under the colonizer’s thumb, an act that is, of course, seen as the most feminine of all.

Literary Devices

Use of African Vocabulary

Though the novel is written in English, Achebe often sprinkles words from the Igbo language (the native tongue of the Umuofians and one of the most common languages in Nigeria in general) into the text. This creates the complex effect of both distancing the reader, who is presumably English-speaking and doesn’t know any Igbo, while simultaneously grounding the audience in the place of the novel by adding local texture. While reading the novel, the reader must continuously evaluate where he or she stands in relation to the characters and groups in the novel—is she aligned with Okonkwo or with Nwoye? Is there a greater sense of familiarity towards the Africans or towards the Europeans? Which is more comfortable and engaging, the English words or the Igbo words? Christianity or the native religious customs? Whose side are you on?