Things Fall Apart is more than just another fictional story that allows readers to slip in and out of a fantastical world. This piece of historical fiction is grounded by truth and cultural insight, and the characters who are denied their happy endings are real.
The story takes you through the life of Okonkwo, a well-respected member of the Umuofia clan in Africa, and is segmented into three books.
The first book, which is also the most extensive, is the most important of the three because it provides context that explains Okonkwo’s mindset and future actions. When viewed from a European standpoint, many of Okonkwo’s controversial decisions, such as giving consent for his adopted son Ikemefuna to be murdered, may seem brutal and merciless. But whether or not you agree with Okonkwo’s choices, they become much more justified, and can even be deemed sacrificial, when viewed from the Umuofia perspective.
As explained in the first book, the Umuofia culture is shaped by obligation and respect for tribal customs, which must come before emotional attachments. So when Ikemefuna is killed, it is not out of heartlessness the Okonkwo allows it to happen but because of honored obedience to a well-esteemed Oracle. Because of his decision to put cultural values above his own emotions, Okonkwo must suffer through a period of unfathomable grieving.
The second book introduces colonial interference. These are the mellow, disturbing chapters that sit on the edge of everything falling apart in the novel. When Okonkwo hears of the European exploration, he foreshadows what the other leaders of his clan do not, but still he tolerates the European missionaries because their leader, Mr. Brown, attempts to respect Umuofia culture and forbids his followers from ruthlessly acting out against the Umuofia clan.
The clan graciously allows the missionaries to establish a small settlement on their territory, hoping to maintain peace.
Come book three, Mr. Brown is dead and a new, more brutal leader takes his place. The Europeans become increasingly forceful and expansive as outcasts of the African clan join the missionaries, leaving the Umuofia unable to defend themselves. Okonkwo is forced to watch the culture he built his life upon and sacrificed everything for fade away; and when he tries to do something about it, he is horrified to discover that the pride and bravery which once defined the Umuofia clan is no longer there to accompany him in a retaliation against the missionaries.
Things Fall Apart is a story that transcends beyond the sorrows of one individual. It is a story that describes the loss of a culture, the lack of understanding between individuals and the necessity to respect beliefs different from your own.
The more invested you are in this novel, the greater sorrow you will feel as Okonkwo’s hope and identity is gradually torn away from him. You will not be left with a happy ending, but thoroughly engaging with this story will leave you with cultural enrichment and, hopefully, the desire to make a difference in the world.