Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
The epigraph of Things Fall Apart quotes the above four lines from Yeats’ poem. While the original lines of Yeats’ poem continue with blasphemous details of his own era – full with angst for what seems like the end of Christianity, Achebe’s novel indicates something of an absurd contrast – the lines represent destruction, demolishment and ruin for the master African writer as well, however for Achebe’s Igboland, it was the beginning, rather than the end of their relationship with the Christian God that brought a vicious turn to their self-satisfied culture and survival.
Things fall apart is set in Umuofia in the second half of the 19th century - not long before the British began to colonize Nigerian territories. The writer begins with introducing the protagonist of the novel Okonkwo (one of the most forceful fictional creations in all of African Literature) as a man standing at the peak of his fame, and known in Umuofia for his remarkable personal and social achievements. However, while Okonkwo’s bearing goes on to symbolize male pride, courage and stubbornness, Achebe is quick to point out his weakness - Akin to any Greek tragic hero, Okonkwo is the victim of a single tragic flaw, the fear of failure.
The novel is divided into three parts that depict three different scenarios in Okonkwo’s life and land. The first part of the novel gives a background for the central plot of the story – that of the arrival of the white men in the African land; the beginning of colonization. Here we’re taken into detailed accounts of Okonkwo’s power, religion, culture, ethical life, and clan. Important ceremonies such as agricultural activities, marriage, funerals, and other social activities seem extraordinary with the participation of several gods, communal living, war, and magic, and give the impression of typical tribal life.
The second part of the novel focuses on the arrival of the British missionaries and colonizers. Here Achebe gives a realistic Igbo perspective on how the arrival of the Christian missionaries disrupted their well established Igbo culture; Christianity went about preaching its ways of tolerance and equality, and many detrimental practices of Okonkwo’s clan such as banishment from society, female abuse, and the reckless killing of twins were abandoned altogether by the Church. The new religion destroyed any differences that were set up by the African society and offered even outcasts a place to fit in and live meaningfully as equals. Okonkowo’s inner distress and struggle between the old and new ways is exposed in the third part of the novel – his titles are soon of no relevance, his worth is mitigated, and his pride is pricked – Okonkwo, the man revered for his numerous accomplishments fails to retain his place in the Igboland. The acknowledgment of this failure and the revulsion that Okonkwo feels towards his nation’s changed people and the colonizers, eventually leads the great man on to his end, and the great nation on to the hands of its colonizers.
The two hundred and odd pages that open out to tell this story is quite simply Achebe’s offering of an intimate insider’s preview into what we so often conjecture as an absurd, savage, and disagreeable culture. The novel’s roots were strengthened since the time Achebe had famously challenged the endless praise given to Conrad’s iconic Heart of Darkness. Achebe stated that Conrad’s novella dehumanized, ridiculed and portrayed the Africans as an ugly, revolting extension of the dark and dangerous jungles that the Europeans ventured onto. Conrad was called a “bloody racist” who made the African homeland an “other world” - an antithesis of Europe, and therefore of civilization. It was only worse still that Conrad offered absolutely no redeeming words for the black people – not in Heart of Darkness, nor in any of his other novels dealing with the black people. “The question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No, it cannot,” Achebe affirmed. But Heart of Darkness remained uncensored despite its racist remarks, for its pure complexity and next-to-perfect writing - a true work of art, as it was called.
The honor heaped on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness insisted for Achebe to tell the African tale by the owner of the story instead of having it depicted by an outsider. As research for An Image of Africa, Achebe's 1975 essay on the Conrad book, the writer counted all the words spoken in Heart of Darkness by the Africans themselves. "There were six!" he said in an interview, laughing exuberantly. The rest of the time Conrad's Africans merely made animal noises, or shrieked a lot, he concluded. Achebe thus rendered Things Fall Apart with an objective tone that refrains from being too tangled in any rich history of his nation – he gives us the details of his country like a true biography, inclusive of the dark details, without once criticizing the white man in wrath.
The conclusions are left for us to define. Is Achebe’s land truly a land of disease, darkness and madness? Is the writer critical of his nation? Does he confirm their primitive and mystical ways? Maybe, maybe not. What goes beyond all the cultural artifacts, rituals, customs, notions, premonitions and superstitions of the African nation is the magnificent voice of Achebe himself that admirably and honestly gives us a glimpse of the real story. And what we get in return for making Achebe’s people a spinning, leaping, race of horrid creatures is a thing of beauty. Things Fall Apart, is that dignified, affirmative, and awe-inspiring a sense of African life and culture.