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Things Fall Apart Paperback – Unabridged, September 1, 1994
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“A true classic of world literature . . . A masterpiece that has inspired generations of writers in Nigeria, across Africa, and around the world.” —Barack Obama
“African literature is incomplete and unthinkable without the works of Chinua Achebe.” —Toni Morrison
Nominated as one of America’s best-loved novels by PBS’s The Great American Read
Things Fall Apart is the first of three novels in Chinua Achebe's critically acclaimed African Trilogy. It is a classic narrative about Africa's cataclysmic encounter with Europe as it establishes a colonial presence on the continent. Told through the fictional experiences of Okonkwo, a wealthy and fearless Igbo warrior of Umuofia in the late 1800s, Things Fall Apart explores one man's futile resistance to the devaluing of his Igbo traditions by British political andreligious forces and his despair as his community capitulates to the powerful new order.
With more than 20 million copies sold and translated into fifty-seven languages, Things Fall Apart provides one of the most illuminating and permanent monuments to African experience. Achebe does not only capture life in a pre-colonial African village, he conveys the tragedy of the loss of that world while broadening our understanding of our contemporary realities.
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Achebe does not introduce the theme of colonialism until the last 50 pages or so. By then, Okonkwo has lost everything and been driven into exile. And yet, within the traditions of his culture, he still has hope of redemption. The arrival of missionaries in Umuofia, however, followed by representatives of the colonial government, completely disrupts Ibo culture, and in the chasm between old ways and new, Okonkwo is lost forever. Deceptively simple in its prose, Things Fall Apart packs a powerful punch as Achebe holds up the ruin of one proud man to stand for the destruction of an entire culture. --Alix Wilber
“A true classic of world literature...A masterpiece that has inspired generations of writers in Nigeria, across Africa, and around the world.” —Barack Obama
“A magical writer—one of the greatest of the twentieth century.” —Margaret Atwood
“African literature is incomplete and unthinkable without the works of Chinua Achebe.” —Toni Morrison
“Chinua Achebe has shown that a mind that observes clearly but feels deeply enough to afford laughter may be more wise than all the politicians and journalists.” —Time
“Chinua Achebe is gloriously gifted with the magic of an ebullient, generous, great talent.” —Nadine Gordimer
“Achebe’s influence should go on and on . . . teaching and reminding that all humankind is one.” —The Nation
“The father of African literature in the English language and undoubtedly one of the most important writers of the second half of the twentieth century.” —Caryl Phillips, The Observer
“We are indebted to Achebe for reminding us that art has social and moral dimension—a truth often obscured.” —Chicago Tribune
“He is one of the few writers of our time who has touched us with a code of values that will never be ironic.” —Michael Ondaatje
“For so many readers around the world, it is Chinua Achebe who opened up the magic casements of African fiction.” —Kwame Anthony Appiah
“[Achebe] is one of world literature’s great humane voices.” —Times Literary Supplement
“Achebe is one of the most distinguished artists to emerge from the West African cultural renaissance of the post-war world.” —The Sunday Times (London)
“[Achebe is] a powerful voice for cultural decolonization.” —The Village Voice
“The power and majesty of Chinua Achebe’s work has, literally, opened the world to generations of readers. He is an ambassador of art, and a profound recorder of the human condition.” —Michael Dorris
- Publisher : Penguin Publishing Group (September 1, 1994)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 209 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0385474547
- ISBN-13 : 978-0385474542
- Lexile measure : 890L
- Item Weight : 7.6 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.12 x 0.57 x 7.96 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #1,126 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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Reviewed in the United States on July 16, 2019
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Admittedly, the first half of the novel does read more like an ethnographic account of daily Igbo life in the precolonial period than a conventionally structured novel. I still found it a fascinating and informative window into their culture, and it is nonetheless essential in characterizing the protagonist Okonkwo as well as demonstrating the damage that the British invasion of Nigeria will inflict in the second half of the book. To appreciate how things are going to fall apart for the Igbo community here, you need to understand what it was that would be broken in the first place.
If there was one aspect of the novel that I did not enjoy as much as the rest, it was that Okonkwo was a bit hard to like due to his sexist prejudice and the way he would beat his wives and children as punishment. He's not a one-dimensional brute for sure, and the book explains early on that he developed his attitude to avoid resembling a father he viewed as cowardly and impotent. Still, it might be rather upsetting for readers who have experienced domestic violence or abuse.
Fast-forward to last week in the US when something kept telling me to order another copy (I've lived in a few countries, including Nigeria, and always feel compelled to buy this book anywhere I live but never find time to read it). So, I ordered yet another hard copy and then saw Amazon's Kindle deal while the first copy was in transit in the post. It was a no-brainer -- the Kindle version would solve my traveling woes! Moreover, I devoured it in 3 days! Then I discussed certain passages with my parents whose grandparents would have been Okonkwo's peers and this precipitated priceless family discussions, taking my parents back to their respective childhoods.
Having been born in the US, I can count the number of times that we've tried to have similar discussions that ended up falling flat. I believe my re-reading of Achebe's book, plus my mother's grand decision to transplant me from the US and enroll me in a Nigerian secondary school decades ago, FINALLY helped us share and construct parts of our family's historical story's center that had never really had the chance to come together -- not to talk of fall apart.
The novel also elicited compassion from me that gets buried (far) beneath the frustration at present-day Nigeria, which I've recently lived in and visit often. In Things Fall Apart, Achebe describes this functional society -- sure, without the technological advances of iron horses and Western education -- but functional enough to maintain law and order, as well as family and community (kinship) structures. My parents say that they remember some of those days and now I understand the heartbreak and ambivalence they must feel when they look at Nigeria today.
I also finished the book with more compassion towards pre-colonial worshippers of traditional or cultural gods. Achebe cleverly shows that it wasn't much different from Christianity other than the multiplicity of mediator gods and the exclusion of certain groups and the sad, unfortunate mistreatment of twins. (My parents have a family friend who was an only child because his mother had given birth to FOUR sets of twins -- all of whom were you-know-what). As a Christian, I can easily rattle off the vast differences but sometimes it's helpful to look at similarities, so you can understand where people are coming from and why they see things the way they do, and therefore do the things they do. The Igbos were just one ethnic groups in Nigeria that had to make decisions and adjustments to literally abandon who they were. Never mind how many other groups had to do the same across the entire country and continent!
Finally, I was struck by how certain elements of this 60 year-old novel foreshadows aspects of present-day Nigeria. In particular, the part about the colonial government messengers and 250 cowries had me howling out loud! Obviously, I don't want to give it away, so please feel free to share your thoughts on this aspect after you've read the book!
While I understand Chimamanda Adichie's warning not to heed to the narrative of a single story, Things Fall Apart is one story that I am proud to say represents an aspect of my heritage superbly. Achebe should have won the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature because of the understanding Things Fall Apart presumably fostered between colonized peoples and their colonizers, between colonized people in general, and between people around the world in a much broader sense -- and still does.
In short: I simply adore this book and hope you do, too!
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The thing is that Achebe’s depiction of those ways and traditions are so appalling that I found myself completely on the side of the colonisers, not a place I either expected or wanted to be! The perpetual beatings of wives and children paled into insignificance when compared to the frequent killings for no reason at the behest of the many seemingly cruel and unjust gods worshipped and feared by the people. Centuries of farming tradition and yet they hadn’t worked out any methods of crop irrigation or protection, leaving them entirely at the mercy of the elements and of those pesky gods. The customs of deciding that some people should be treated as outcasts for no discernible cause and, even worse, of throwing twins out at birth to be left to die in the open made me feel that anything had to have been better than this. Come the colonisers, and with them education, healthcare, and a religion that taught of a loving god, gave a place to the outcasts and saved the lives of the abandoned twins – sounds good to me! And that makes me feel bad, because of course I really ought to be up in arms about the iniquities of the colonisers, oughtn’t I?
I really struggled for at least half of this quite short book. It’s quite repetitive and although it’s certainly revealing and, I assume, honest about the life and traditions of the village, there’s very little in the way of story. I must say Achebe surprised me, though. I knew nothing about him except that he called Conrad a “thoroughgoing racist” for his portrayal of colonisation, and I assumed therefore that he would show the Africans in a positive light. I admire him, therefore, for not taking that easy route and instead giving a very harsh and unromanticised portrayal of life before the colonisers arrived. I suspect his real argument with Conrad was probably that Conrad often leaves the “natives” at the periphery of the picture, as if they are merely props on a stage set for the star actors in his dramas, the white men, and I certainly would agree with that assessment though I wouldn’t agree that that makes him racist. Achebe reverses this, putting the Africans as the central stars, with the colonisers having merely walk-on roles, and this has apparently influenced generations of African writers ever since the book was first published in 1958, making them realise the possibility of telling their own stories.
The story picks up in the second half, once the colonisers arrive. We see the mix of missionary and soldier, one trying to change the Africans through the influence of Christianity, the other controlling them at the point of the gun. We see any form of violent resistance met with a wholly disproportionate response, and the newly installed justice system being used as a thin veneer to camouflage total dominance. We see misunderstandings caused by a failure of each to attempt to understand the other’s culture, and those misunderstandings often escalating to murder or massacre. Again, Achebe doesn’t make this entirely one-sided. While obviously the military might of the colonisers is by far the greater, he shows that many of the Africans are attracted to the things they offer, whether that be a better life or simply the pleasure that comes from being on the side of the more powerful, especially to those who have been treated as outcasts by their own society.
Through Okonkwo and the older villagers, we see their despair at the destruction of the old ways, and from a male perspective I could certainly sympathise with that. But from a female perspective, I couldn’t help but feel that the women would have had less to regret – on the basis of Achebe’s depiction, they lacked all political power and had little influence even in the domestic sphere, not to mention the accepted tradition that husbands ought to beat their wives regularly. (Not, of course, that that tradition was exclusive to Africans...)
I can’t say I wholeheartedly enjoyed it, either for the very bleak portrayal of the life of the Africans, nor for any particular literary merit. It is well written but not exceptionally so and the structure makes it feel rather unbalanced, with what story there is all happening towards the end. What makes it stand out is the rare centrality of the Nigerian people in their own story, and the, to me, unexpected even-handedness with which Achebe treats both Africans and colonisers. For those reasons, and because it’s considered an African classic by the “father of African literature”, I’m glad to have read it.
Taking place in a fictional Nigerian village, at some point during the Victorian era, it is the tale of Okonkwo, a proud, alpha-male patriarch, who is brought down when his age-old values and beliefs come up against Western attitudes, with the arrival of Christian missionaries and colonial governors.
Achebe is unsentimental about the more brutal and irrational aspects of African traditionalism (e.g. twins being seen as cursed), but once one grows accustomed to his studiedly unadorned style and the unapologetically insular perspective, one finds oneself utterly involved. Re-reading it after many years, I was struck both by the tragic inevitability of its hero's downfall, and the even-handedness of the story-telling.
Its reputation as one of the most significant novels of the 20th century is certainly merited.
I really like how it doesn't paint the villagers/villages as one homogeneous group as is the tendency of textbooks. The very ending is superb. Highly recommend.
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
When the clash of the traditional rules and customs of the Nigerian world in the late nineteenth century is confronted by the, at first relatively gentle, intrusion of Christianity, the foundations upon which the Umuofia’s village’s traditions have their roots start to be called into question. However, the novel’s reach goes far beyond the collision of Nigerian and western values. This is no politically crusading account. The drama of the book is worked out far more within the central character, Okonkwo. It is as much a personal as a political/social tragedy.
The book is beautifully written with a simplicity and words from the Ibo language that shunt aside any hint of pretension. Much of what we discover about the traditional Igbo way of life is brutal and shocking, not least the situation of women, who nonetheless hold significantly indirect power. Okonokwo, himself, is wedded to the strength and power he saw thrown aside in his feckless, drunken father’s neglect of any personal pride. In turn this desperate fight against signs of weakness within himself and others is to prove his nemesis The two worlds that are given increasingly sharp definition are so far apart as to defy any realistic understanding.
This simply written, yet subtle novel deserves every bit of its reputation as a classic of world literature.
The first part is about Okonkwo growing up and the way of life (all aspects, including beliefs, traditions, societal structures, divisions of labour and even food) in a traditional southern Nigerian village. It ends with Okonkwo, due to a tragic accident, being exiled from the village for seven years and moving with his immediate family to the village his mother came from.
The second part, covering the seven years of Okonkwo’s exile, sees the arrival of the “white men”, initially a soft approach by Christian missionaries, seeking converts, and, subsequently, colonial government, gradually imposing British laws and justice on the indigenous people.
In the third part, Okonkwo returns to his home, at the end of his seven years of exile, to find that everything has changed, with the missionaries and colonial government firmly ensconced and telling Okonkwo’s people that everything about their religion, culture and traditions is wrong and has to change. The colonisers toughen up their approach, leading to a clash of cultures and religions and, ultimately, disaster.
This is a powerful and compelling read; it is not an easy read, not least because of frequent use of Ibo language and concepts and traditions which are not fully explained, but is certainly a rewarding one, giving a strong and clear view of the impact of colonisation from the perspective of the colonised.