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A reader's guide to Things Fall Apart

Updated Wednesday, 1st June 2005

Discover a novel originally written as a response to Western literature's protrayal of Africa and the myth of the "dark continent".

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Things Fall Apart was published in 1959 by the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. In part it was written as a response to offensive texts about Africa, which typically portrayed its people as primitive beings speaking pidgin English. Achebe felt particularly indignant about Joyce Cary’s ‘Mister Johnson’, with its depiction of a ‘comic’ African figure, and he also disliked Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’.

Achebe’s novel is set in the 1890s, and concerns the clash in Nigeria between white colonialists and the indigenous folk. The story of the hero, Okonkwo, is powerful and moving. He is an influential and well-respected man in his own community, but cannot cope with the changes imposed upon his people. Okonkwo is also a tragic figure in the true classical sense, because there is a definite flaw in his own personality which contributes to his downfall.

Chinua Achebe Creative commons image Icon Stuart C Shapiro under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license
Chinua Achebe

This important work informed the outside world about African cultures and traditions; however Achebe also wanted to remind Africans themselves to treasure their precious heritage. It is significant that he deliberately chose to write Things Fall Apart in English.

He could have opted for a native language, as a form of protest, but he intended Westerners to read his novel and learn from it. Achebe’s characters actually use an elevated diction, integrating Igbo vocabulary, and conveying to us a sense of their beautiful, intricate speech. Folktales, proverbs and songs are woven into the text.

Incidentally the title Things Fall Apart is from The Second Coming by W.B. Yeats, so you may like to look at the poem as well as the novel.

 

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