The setting in Nigeria around the turn of the 19th century is extremely important; it allows Okonkwo’s life to straddle the pre- and post-European imperial era. Because Okonkwo experiences both periods, we the reader have a window into the dramatic changes that occurred in Igbo culture and society as a result of imperialism. For example, we see two different manners in which crimes of murdering a clansman are treated: Okonkwo is exiled for seven years under Igbo laws while another man, Aneto, is hanged by the white court for a similar crime.
We also see two different examples of courts and justice. In the traditional Igbo system of justice, villagers bring their complaints to a group of nine elders dressed as masked gods, and the group jointly and publicly settles disputes. However, when the white men arrive, they set up their own court which settles disputes in favor of the highest bidder and isn’t above secretly ambushing respected clansmen who come to court to have a civilized discussion. These are only a few examples of how the temporal setting allows for clear and easy comparison between the Igbo way of life before and after the arrival of Europeans.
The physical setting of forest the forest villages are extremely important. The Umuofia clan has an elaborate religious system largely based on their natural environment. Surrounded by dense, dark woods, the forest is both respected and feared as a chief god, the Evil Forest. The earth goddess is also revered and feared; as farmers, the Umuofia rely completely on the produce of the land and are subject to drought and flooding. The earth goddess is seen as in control of the weather and productivity of the land, so much of the clan’s social structure is set around not displeasing the earth goddess. Fear of offending the earth goddess motivates the punishment for many crimes, such as Okonkwo’s seven-year exile for killing a clansman. Achebe’s descriptions of the isolation of the Umuofia people and their complete dependence on their natural setting make their culture and practices understandable to a Western audience.