Study Guide

Things Fall Apart Family

By Chinua Achebe

Family

Chapter Two

“These sons of wild animals have dared to murder a daughter of Umuofia.”…And in a clear unemotional voice he told Umuofia how their daughter had gone to market at Mbaino and had been killed. (2.6)

The speaker refers to the Umuofia clan as one big family. Thus, the murder of the girl is considered a blow to the family, and therefore a personal offense to everyone in Umuofia. Notice the speaker uses “their daughter” to describe the victim and thus riles up the crowd against the Mbaino.

[Okonkwo] was a very strong man and rarely felt fatigue. But his wives and children were not as strong, and so they suffered. But they dared not complain openly. Okonkwo’s first son, Nwoye, was then twelve years old but was already causing his father great anxiety for his incipient laziness. At any rate, that was how it looked to his father, and he sought to correct him by constant nagging and beating. And so Nwoye was developing into a sad-faced youth. (2.13)

As the head of his household, Okonkwo is free to be a tyrant and drive his wives and children to work too hard. Okonkwo’s loathing for laziness (carried over from his hatred of his father) causes him to lash out on anyone who seems the slightest bit idle, including his own son. By abusing his young son, it seems that Okonkwo is turning father-hating into a new trend in his family. Okonkwo hated his own father, and though he is trying to do right by his own son, he’s in fact only pushing the boy away.

Chapter Three

[…] what made it worse in Okonkwo’s case was that he had to support his mother and two sisters from his meager harvest. And supporting his mother also meant supporting his father. She could not be expected cook and eat while her husband starved. And so at a very early age when he was striving desperately to build a barn through share-cropping Okonkwo was also fending for his father’s house. It was like pouring grains of corn into a bag full of holes. His mother and sisters worked hard enough, but they grew women’s crops, like coco-yams, beans and cassava. (3.28)

Okonkwo, unlike his father, feels an obligation to provide for his family, even his lazy and ungrateful father. Since Okonkwo’s father does not work to be a good provider for his family, he is failure as a husband and father based on traditional Umuofia values. Because his father didn’t live up to his role as provider, Okonkwo had to break the usual family model and become the head of the household, providing for his mother and sisters.

Okonkwo did not have the start in life which many young men usually had. He did not inherit a barn from his father. There was no barn to inherit. (3.1)

Unoka, Okonkwo’s father, proves deficient in providing for his family. Based on the family roles valued in Igbo culture, one could argue that Unoka is a bad father.

Anasi was the first wife and the others could not drink before her, and so they stood waiting.

Anasi was a middle-aged woman, tall and strongly built. There was authority in her bearing and she looked every inch the ruler of the womenfolk in a large and prosperous family. She wore the anklet of her husband’s titles, which the first wife alone could wear.

She walked up to her husband and accepted the horn from him. She then went down on one knee, drank a little and handed back the horn. She rose, called him by his name and went back to her hut. The other wives drank in the same way, in their proper order, and went away. (3.15-17)

Families have very specific structures – multiple wives for a single man and a hierarchy of women within the household, all of whom are subservient to their husband.

Chapter Four

“Where are her [Ojiugo’s] children? Did she take them?” he asked with unusual coolness and restraint.

“They are here,” answered his first wife, Nwoye’s mother. Okonkwo bent down and looked into her hut. Ojiugo’s children were eating with the children of his first wife. (4.13-14)

Wives often look out for each other, banding together against their husband to minimize their suffering. Here, Nwoye’s mother takes care of Ojiugo’s children for her while she is out and even lies to Okonkwo to prevent too severe a punishment.

Even Okonkwo himself became very fond of the boy – inwardly of course…there was no doubt that he liked the boy. Sometimes when he went to big village meetings or communal ancestral feasts he allowed Ikemefuna to accompany him, like a son, carrying his stool and his goatskin bag. And, indeed, Ikemefuna called him father. (4.7)

After a while, Okonkwo becomes so fond of Ikemefuna that he comes to think of him as a son. Ikemefuna reciprocates the feeling, adoring Okonkwo enough that he calls him his father. Out of affection, Okonkwo extends his notion of family to include Ikemefuna even though the boy isn’t related to him by blood or even clan membership.

Ikemefuna had begun to feel like a member of Okonkwo’s family. He still thought about his mother and his three-year-old sister, and he had moments of sadness and depression. But he and Nwoye had become so deeply attached to each other that such moments became less frequent and less poignant. (4.38)

Ikemefuna has lived long enough with Okonkwo’s family to start feeling like a part of it, especially since he has developed such a close relationship with Nwoye. To Ikemefuna, mutual affection is the basis of a family, not shared blood.

Chapter Five

Ekwefi ladled her husband’s share of the pottage into a bowl and covered it. Ezinma took it to him in his obi.

Okonkwo was sitting on a goatskin already eating his first wife’s meal. Obiageli, who had brought it from her mother’s hut, sat on the floor waiting for him to finish…

He uncovered his second wife’s dish and began to eat from it. Obiageli took the first dish and returned to her mother’s hut. And then Nkechi came in, bringing the third dish. Nkechi was the daughter of Okonkwo’s third wife. (5.54-65)

In this family ritual, the husband eats one dish from each of his wives, in the order that he married them. The daughters of each wife bring in the dish to their father in the correct order. Domestic life is very organized in Igbo society.

The three women talked excitedly about the relations who had been invited, and the children reveled in the thought of being spoiled by these visitors from the motherland. (5.5)

The reunion of family members is an exciting prospect for the women, many of whom moved to a new village when they got married. They cannot wait to see their own blood relations.

The Feast of the New Yam was approaching and Umuofia was in a festival mood. It was an occasion for giving thanks to Ani, the earth goddess and the source of all fertility. Ani played a greater part in the life of the people than any other deity. She was the ultimate judge of morality and conduct. And what was more, she was in close communion with the departed father of the clan whose bodies had been committed to the earth.

The Feast of the New Yam was held every year before the harvest began, to honor the earth goddess and the ancestral spirits of the clan…So much was cooked that, no matter how heavily the family ate or how many friends and relatives they invited from neighboring villages, there was always a large quantity of food left over at the end of the day. (5.1-2)

This feast is designed to celebrate the family. Ancestors are honored in the name of Ani, the earth goddess, who keeps their bodies in her hold. People also honor their current family by inviting all their relations to splurge at their feast.

“Will you give Ezinma some fire to bring to me?” Her [Nwoye’s mother’s] own children and Ikemefuna had gone to the stream.

Ekwefi put a few live coals into a piece of broken pot and Ezinma carried it across the clean swept compound to Nwoye’s mother.

“Thank you, Nma,” she said. She was peeling new yams, and in a basket beside her were green vegetables and beans.

“Let me make the fire for you,” Ezinma offered.

“Thank you, Ezigbo,” she said. She often called her Ezigbo, which means “the good one.” (5.30-34)

Women within the same family maintain a solidarity in which they help each other, putting aside personal jealousies, to keep the family running.

Ezinma

“Ekwefi,” she said, “is it true that when people are grown up, fire does not burn them?” Ezinma, unlike most children, called her mother by her name. (5.16)

Ezinma is an anomaly in the Igbo family unit because she does not address her mother with a term of respect – like mother – but by her given name, as if they are equals.

Chapter Six

[Chielo]: “And how is my daughter, Ezinma?” (6.11)

Chielo is so fond of Ezinma that she calls her “my daughter” even though she has no blood relation to her. Calling Ezinma by a name denoting a family relationship is a way of showing deep affection and love.

Chapter Seven

[Ezedu]: “That boy calls you father. Do not bear a hand in his death.” (7.15)

It is considered a crime to kill a member of your own family. Even though Okonkwo isn’t Ikemefuna’s father by blood, the boy thinks of Okonkwo as his father, so it might as well be the case as far as Ezedu is concerned.

He could hardly imagine that Okonkwo was not his real father. He had never been fond of his real father, and at the end of three years he had become very distant indeed. (7.26)

Because he considers Okonkwo his real father, Ikemefuna does not feel fear as he is led into the woods to be slaughtered. The boy considers himself Okonkwo’s true son because of the bond of affection they share – something which Ikemefuna lacked with his biological father.

Chapter Eight
Okonkwo

Okonkwo did not taste any food for two days after the death of Ikemefuna. He drank palm-wine from morning till night, and his eyes were red and fierce like the eyes of a rat when it was caught by the tail and dashed against the floor. He called his son, Nwoye, to sit with him in his obi. But the boy was afraid of him and slipped out of the hut as soon as he noticed him dozing. (8.1)

Even though social structure dictates that Okonkwo had the right to kill Ikemefuna since the boy was neither a blood relation or a clan member, Okonkwo feels horribly guilty. Okonkwo’s lack of appetite for two days gives away his guilty conscience. Even though the feeling was not backed up by clan laws, Okonkwo’s entire household considered Ikemefuna a member of the family because of their affection for him. Nwoye, for his part, now fears his father – if Okonkwo could murder his son Ikemefuna who he loved, what will prevent him from doing the same to the less favored son, Nwoye? When viewing Ikemefuna as a member of Okonkwo’s family, Okonkwo has failed as a father because he didn’t protect his son. At this point, Okonkwo’s family begins falling apart for lack of trust.

Chapter Nine

At last Ezinma was born, and although ailing she seemed determined to live. At first Ekwefi accepted her, as she had accepted others – with listless resignation. But when she lived on to her fourth, fifth and sixth years, love returned once more to her mother, and, with love, anxiety. She determined to nurse her child to health, and she put all her being into it. She was rewarded by occasional spells of health during which Ezinma bubbled with energy like fresh palm-wine. At such times she seemed beyond danger. But all of a sudden she would go down again…Ekwefi believed deep inside her that Ezinma had come to stay. She believed because it was that faith alone that gave her own life any kind of meaning. (9.25)

Ekwefi’s sole reason for being is to nurture her daughter back to health. After so many disappointments, she pours all the frustrated love she’s held back into Ezinma. It could be said that she keeps Ezinma alive in those first fragile years by sheer force of will and love.

Chapter Ten

[Uzowulu]: “That woman standing there is my wife, Mgbafo. I married her with my money and my yams. I do not owe my in-laws anything. I owe them no yams. I owe them no coco-yams. One morning three of them came to my house, beat me up and took my wife and children away. This happened in the rainy season. I have waited in vain for my wife to return. At last I went to my in-laws and said to them, ‘You have taken back your sister. I did not send her away. You yourselves took her. The law of the clan is that you should return her bride-price.’ But my wife’s brothers said they had nothing to tell me. So I have brought the matter to the fathers of the clan. My case is finished. I salute you.” (10.24)

Uzowulu’s case concerns the rights he has to his family by Igbo law. He wants either his wife back or the money he paid for her.

Chapter Twelve

On the following morning the entire neighborhood wore a festive air because Okonkwo’s friend, Obierika, was celebrating his daughter’s uri. It was the day on which her suitor (having already paid the greater part of her bride-price) would bring palm-wine not only to her parents and immediate relatives but to the wide and extensive group of kinsmen called umanna. Everybody had been invited – men, women and children. But it was really a woman’s ceremony and the central figures were the bride and her mother. (12.1)

During a daughter’s uri, women are finally acknowledged as important parts of the family and given free rein to plan the festival and feast.

Chapter Thirteen
Obierika

He [Obierika] remembered his wife’s twin children, whom he had thrown away. What crime had they committed? The Earth had decreed that they were an offense on the land and must be destroyed. And if the clan did not exact punishment for an offense against the great goddess, her wrath was loosed on all the land and not just on the offender. (13.16)

Obierika regrets disposing of his twins just because the law decreed it so. But he understands that if a crime against the goddess goes unpunished, her wrath will fall not only upon the offender, but also upon his whole family and extended family – even the clan itself.

Chapter Fourteen

“Is it right that you, Okonkwo, should bring to your mother a heavy face and refuse to be comforted? Be careful or you may displease the dead. Your duty is to comfort your wives and children and take them back to your fatherland after seven years. But if you allow sorrow to weigh you down and kill you, they will all die in exile.” (14.32)

Uchendu implies that Okonkwo has a duty to honor his mother by refusing to give way to despair. As the head of his household, he also has the responsibility of setting a positive example for his wives and children. If he does not do so, that is a crime. When crimes are committed, they always impact the entire family. Just as Okonkwo’s family must share in his exile, they may also fall to death if Okonkwo sins against his mother by despairing in his motherland.

Okonkwo was well received by his mother’s kinsmen in Mbanta. The old man who received him was his mother’s younger brother, who was now the eldest surviving member of that family. His name was Uchendu, and it was he who had received Okonkwo’s mother twenty and ten years before when she had been brought home from Umuofia to be buried with her people. Okonkwo was only a boy then and Uchendu still remembered him crying the traditional farewell: “Mother, mother, mother is going.” (14.1)

Though Uchendu has only seen Okonkwo once, he welcomes Okonkwo because he is family, no matter what kind of crime Okonkwo committed.

Chapter Fifteen

[Uchendu]: “I knew your father, Iweka. He was a great man. He had many friends here and came to see them quite often. Those were good days when a man had friends in distant clans. Your generation does not know that. You stay at home, afraid of your next-door neighbor. Even a man’s motherland is a strange to him nowadays.” (15.7)

Uchendu criticizes the younger generation for falling out of touch with their relations in distant villages. The implication is that younger men have become so self-centered that they do not have time to think about and honor their extended family, especially if they live far away.

Chapter Sixteen
Nwoye

“What are you doing here?” Obierika had asked when after many difficulties the missionaries had allowed him to speak to the boy.

“I am one of them,” replied Nwoye.

“How is your father?” Obierika asked, not knowing what else to say.

“I don’t know. He is not my father,” said Nwoye, unhappily.

And so Obierika went to Mbanta to see his friend. And he found that Okonkwo did not wish to speak about Nwoye. (16.3-6)

Both parties – father and son – have expressed a wish to isolate themselves from each other and cut off all contact or means of association. Each is ashamed to be connected to the other now, Nwoye because he has never forgiven his father for killing Ikemefuna and Okonkwo, because of Nwoye’s new religion. Despite their shared blood, there is no affection or respect in their relationships, and thus they no longer consider each other to be family.

“You told us with your own mouth that there was only one god. Now you talk about his son. He must have a wife, then.” The crowd agreed.

“I did not say He had a wife,” said the interpreter, somewhat lamely.

“Your buttocks said he had a son,” said the joker. So he must have a wife and all of them must have buttocks.” (16.20-22)

The Igbo people understandably conclude that the missionaries must be mad to claim that a son of god has no mother. It goes against the very fabric of their society to make such a claim and breaks down the hierarchy of the family. They do not understand the concept of the immaculate conception or the Trinity.

When they had all gathered, the white man began to speak…He spoke through an interpreter who was an Ibo man…He said he was one of them, as they could see from his color and his language. The other four black men were also their brothers, although one of them did not speak Ibo. The white man was also their brother because they were all sons of God. And he told them about this new God, the Creator of all the world and all the men and women. (16.9)

The interpreter for the missionaries claims kinship with the Umuofia due to his skin color and language. However, he is mistaken in his claim of familiarity because his dialect is different enough to draw ridicule. Thus, his claims that the white man is also their brother because some arbitrary god said so is met with skepticism and downright scorn in the clan. Though the people of Umuofia do extend their understanding of family to their whole clan, kinship never expands to encompass other clans, and certainly not white men.

Chapter Seventeen

Mr. Kiaga’s joy was very great. “Blessed is he who forsakes his father and his mother for my sake,” he intoned. “Those that hear my words are my father and my mother.”

Nwoye did not fully understand. But he was happy to leave his father. He would return later to his mother and his brothers and sisters and convert them to the new faith. (17.23-24)

Christianity has concepts contradictory to Nwoye’s young mind. It asks followers to forsake their families to show loyalty to God. Yet at the same time, the religion reaffirms the sanctity of family in its very language, calling one’s peers brothers and sisters. While he’s happy to use his new religion as a justification for cutting ties with his father, Nwoye still loves his mother and sisters, and hopes eventually to bring them into his new family of Christian converts.

Nneka had had four previous pregnancies and childbirths. But each time she had borne twins, and they had been immediately thrown away. Her husband and his family were already becoming highly critical of such a woman and were not unduly perturbed when they found she had fled to join the Christians. It was a good riddance. (17.13)

In her crucial role as part of the family – the mother of her husband’s children – Nneka has failed and thus is deemed worthless to the family. Yet, it is this very worthlessness and forlornness that wins her a new family among the Christians.

Chapter Eighteen

[Mr. Kiaga]: “We are all children of God and we must receive these our brothers.” (18.8)

Christianity encourages its followers to expand their notion of family to God as the father of all humans. Thus, Mr. Kiaga insists that all humans are his brothers and sisters and therefore he cannot refuse anyone – even the social outcasts – admission to his church.

Chapter Nineteen

[Uchendu]: “We are better than animals because we have kinsmen. An animal rubs its itching flank against a tree, a man asks his kinsman to scratch him.” (19.9)

Uchendu celebrates family much as the Christians celebrate brotherhood, by claiming that everyone in the family must help one another. He considers the support a family gives one another the defining characteristic of humanity. Without family or respect for your family, you might as well be an animal.

“It is good in these days when the younger generation consider themselves wiser than their sires to see a man doing things in the grand, old way. A man who calls his kinsmen to a feast does not do so to save them from starving. They all have food in their own homes. When we gather together in the moonlit village ground it is not because of the moon. Every man can see it in his own compound. We come together because it is good for kinsmen to do so.” (19.24)

A family feast is not thrown to meet a family’s physical need for sustenance; it is a loftier event than that. A feast is a celebration of the family’s kinship.

“But I fear for you young people because you do not understand how strong is the bond of kinship. You do not know what it is to speak with one voice. And what is the result? An abominable religion has settled among you. A man can now leave his father and his brothers. He can curse gods of his fathers and his ancestors, like a hunter’s dog that suddenly goes mad and turns on his master. I fear for you; I fear for you the clan.” (19.24)

This elder laments that the family of the clan has fallen apart and turned upon each other. He believes that Christianity is bad because it has motivated the break of up individual families and the solidarity of the clan. The clan is no longer “one voice” that speaks or one united body that acts for the good of all.

Chapter Twenty
Obierika

[Obierika]: “How do you think we can fight when our own brothers have turned against us? The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has a put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.” (20.26)

Okonkwo’s family, the tribe, has fallen apart because it has crumbled from within. The family of tribal brothers has turned against one another and can no longer act as a group. Now, opposing the missionaries means opposing the tribal brothers as well.

Chapter Twenty-Two

[After the unmasking of an egwugwu]: That night the Mother of the Spirits walked the length and breadth of the clan, weeping for her murdered son. It was a terrible night. Not even the oldest man in Umuofia had ever heard such a strange and fearful sound, and it was never to be heard again. It seemed as if the very soul of the tribe wept for a great evil that was coming – its own death. (22.10)

The Umuofia consider the egwugwu part of their family – the spirits of their great ancestors. When an egwugwu is murdered by being unmasked, the crime can be considered an extreme case of patricide – the murder of one of the great fathers of the land.

Chapter Twenty-Four

“This is a great gathering. No clan can boast of greater numbers of greater valor. But are we all here? I ask you: Are all the sons of Umuofia with us here?” A deep murmur swept through the crowd.

“They are not,” he said. “They have broken the clan and gone their several ways. We who are here this morning have remained true to our fathers, but our brothers have deserted us and joined a stranger to soil their fatherland. If we fight the stranger we shall hit our brothers and perhaps shed the blood of a clansman. But we must do it. Our fathers never dreamed of such a thing, they never killed their brothers. But a white man never came to them. So we must do what our fathers would never have done.” (24.32-33)

An elder claims that the broken family of Umuofia is the single most important reason that they should go to war, even if it means harming their own brothers who have defected to join the missionaries. It shows how far the Umuofia have fallen that they see the necessity to commit the ultimate crime – brothers must kill their own brothers in order to save the clan/family as a whole.

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