Chinua Achebe’s book Things Fall Apart begins with an anecdote from W.B. Yeats’s poem‘The Second Coming.’ The excerpt describes extreme chaos, culminating in the world falling into anarchy, or a state of disorder due to the lack of an acknowledged leader. While the Things Fall Apart seems to describe nothing as fantastic as Yeats’s apocalypse, the simple events of the cultural transformation it recounts are nearly as frightening.
By the end of the first chapter, we learn Okonkwo’s greatest motivation, the defining element of his character – a need to set himself apart from his contemporaries in all respects. Yet rather than merely being evidence of his vanity, this yen is what motivates the entire culture. Everyone constantly struggles to make themselves a paragon – in everything from religion to matters of war. Indeed, those who do not actively distinguish themselves by taking titles are disgraced and insulted, nicknamed ‘women’ by more ambitious tribesmen. This motivation, is, of course, not merely unique to the culture of Umuofia. In Okonkwo’s tribe, however, it is taken to an extreme degree, as illustrated by the story of Ikemefuna.
After a murder is committed by another clan, two children are given to Okonkwo’s village as a peace offering. One is given as a replacement for the victim of the murder, and one, who was named Ikemefuna, is put under Okonkwo’s protection. After the uproar of the murder calms, Ikemefuna settles into the village’s way of life, and is mostly forgotten about by the administrators of the clan. Indeed, Ikemefuna’s stay is extended so long, that Okonkwo begins to look upon him as his own son. Therefore, when Okonkwo is told that Ikemefuna is to be killed, he is wisely warned not to be present, as it would be excruciating to him. While the idea of the event disturbs him more than he will say, any admission of feelings would prove that he is an ordinary man, like his disgraceful father. Rather than imagine himself shamed by natural emotion, he brutally kills Ikemefuna himself. This story demonstrates the need for distinction which characterized Umuofia when Okonkwo was in power. When he returns from his exile, however, this is all changed.
When the colonials arrive with their new government and beliefs, they had no means of seamlessly integrating themselves and their beliefs into the culture, despite Mr. Brown’s attempts. This might seem odd, as the Igbo’s culture is composed of many different gods and ways of life. While the many idols and worldviews appear dissimilar, they are all built within an understandable framework – each person has their own personal god, not to mention ancestral and provincial gods, yet all acknowledge the collective deities of the tribe. The colonials have no way of fitting into such a mold, as their practices can only be accepted by those willing to renounce the traditions they know, believe and honor. The option of conversion to the colonial worldview is readily welcomed by those powerless or disgraced because of the values of the tribe such as Nwoye and the osu, not because they truly agree with its practices, but because they prefer them to the other available options. This is the attitude of many in the tribe, though they dare not openly express it.
“There were many men and women in Umuofia who did not feel as strongly as Okonkwo about the new dispensation. The white man had indeed brought a lunatic religion, but he also built a trading store, and for the first-time palm oil and kernel became things of great price, and much money flowed into Umuofia.” *
Whatever their personal reasons, it seems many in Okonkwo’s community at least recognize the benefits of colonial presence. However, because of the acts of brutality and injustice committed by the colonials, they do not consider them their true leaders, leading to chaos. In the end, both traditional beliefs and the order which held the tribe together have collapsed as new ideas undermine the old way. Things have fallen apart, possibly for the better, as the brutal desire for distinction is weakened, yet never to be restored.