Study Guide

Things Fall Apart Themes

By Chinua Achebe

  • Gender

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    Much of the traditional Igbo life presented in this novel revolves around structured gender roles. Essentially all of Igbo life is gendered, from the crops that men and women grow, to characterization of crimes. In Igbo culture, women are the weaker sex, but are also endowed with qualities that make them worthy of worship, like the ability to bear children. The dominant role for women is: first, to make a pure bride for an honorable man, second, to be a submissive wife, and third, to bear many children. The ideal man provides for his family materially and has prowess on the battlefield. The protagonist in the novel is extremely concerned with being hyper-masculine and devalues everything feminine, leaving him rather unbalanced. Much of the gender theme in the book centers around the idea of balance between masculine and feminine forces – body and mind/soul, emotionality and rationality, mother and father. If one is in imbalance, it makes the whole system haywire.

    Questions About Gender

    1. What characteristics are considered distinctly masculine and distinctly feminine? Do such stereotypes hold true in the actions of the actual characters?
    2. Which characters cross gender stereotypes? What are their occupations or roles in society? How does society react (if at all) to the break from normal gender roles?
    3. What is the purpose of gender-coding almost every aspect of society – right down to the crops?
    4. How might Okonkwo’s “sins” be seen as the results of an imbalance between nurturing feminine and aggressive masculine forces?

    Chew on This

    Although Okonkwo spends most of his time expressing his masculinity, he often ignores or violates feminine tenets like peace and valuing one’s family. Shunning of all things feminine causes him to commit ever-escalating crimes that lead to his downfall.

  • Family

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    For the Igbo, there are a few key ideas that form the basis of an ideal family: mutual respect for each other, a reverence for all past fathers, and unity. The father is not only the provider for the family, but defender of its honor and teacher of his sons. The mother’s main duty is to add to the family line by bearing healthy children and also to please her husband. Children are the inheritors of the future and are raised to continue the values of the older generation. This family unit is the most fundamental unit of society and its structure can be expanded to fit a whole community or even a pantheon of gods.

    Questions About Family

    1. What role do women play in the family? What sorts of responsibilities do they have? In return, what kind of power or respect do they command?
    2. How are children represented as innocent and closely connected to the earth? Consider Ikemefuna and Nwoye in particular.
    3. What is the relationship between mother and child and how does this play into the idea of Nneka – ‘Mother is Supreme’?
    4. How might one view the clan as an extension of an individual’s family?
    5. Does Okonkwo’s family fit the model of an ideal family? In which ways does his family meet the ideal, in which ways does it deviate?

    Chew on This

    Although wives must always act subservient to their husbands, the mother proves to be the most venerated role in Igbo society, even over that of the father.

  • Respect and Reputation

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    Reputation is extremely important to the men in the novel. Personal reputation is publicly denoted by the ankle bracelets men wear, which signify the number of “titles” they have earned. Reputation is based on merit – men gain reputation through bravery in battle, skill at wrestling, and hard work as seen through the size of their yam harvest. Reputation earns men positions of power and influence in the community as well as numerous wives. Okonkwo, the novel’s protagonist, is extremely concerned with reputation because he grew up with a father who was shameful and lazy. Okonkwo overcompensates by working tirelessly on his farm and taking every opportunity available to prove his bravery and strength.

    Questions About Respect and Reputation

    1. Does a man’s reputation in Umuofia usually accurately denote his personal value?
    2. On what factors are a man’s reputation based? Is reputation in Umuofia based on merit or based on some other qualities?
    3. What factors influence a woman’s reputation?
    4. Is Okonkwo’s desire for a strong reputation positive? Does it ever get in the way of his obligations, especially to his family and to the gods?
    5. Does Okonkwo’s reputation in Umuofia remain the same or does it change over the course of the book?

    Chew on This

    Though reputation may be an accurate indicator of a man’s work ethic, it says nothing about his merit as a husband, father, or friend.

    Reputation in Umuofia is based entirely on personal merit.

  • Fear

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    Many of the characters suffer from fear of some sort. Okonkwo fears becoming like his lazy, shameful father, Ekwefi fears losing her daughter, and Nwoye fears his father’s wrath. While most characters fear events that are outside of their control, Okonkwo is consumed by a terrible internal worry about himself and his identity. Rather than mastering his fear, he allows it to dominate him and drive his actions. Fear leads him to lash out in some pretty nasty ways: beating his wives, abusing and alienating his oldest son, partaking in the murder of his adoptive son, etc. Overall, fear in this novel leads characters to behave in negative ways that can bring the wrath of the gods, guilt, and the community disapproval upon them.

    Questions About Fear

    1. What does Okonkwo fear? How does he (over)compensate for it?
    2. What is the difference, if any, between fear of external things – the gods, loss of family members, etc. – and fear of internal aspects of oneself or one’s nature?
    3. According to what we know about Ekwefi, what is a mother’s greatest fear?
    4. How can fear be a positive force? What useful things does fear push some characters to do?
    5. How does fear of the unknown and misunderstanding of different cultures affect the Umuofia and the Christians? Does either side ever really try to understand each other? If so, name the specific characters.

    Chew on This

    Although Okonkwo performs every action with the deliberate purpose of appearing fearless, he is ultimately ruled by fear – the fear of appearing to have fear.

  • Religion

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    The Igbo gods are mostly manifestations of nature and its elements, which makes sense because they are an agricultural society that depends on the regularity of seasons and natural phenomena to survive. They worship the goddess of the earth and are always careful to avoid committing sins against her for fear of vengeance that might wipe out an entire generation. The Igbo ancestors also take on a divine nature to some extent. Family plays such a central role in Igbo life that the spirits of their ancestors are consulted for almost every decision and even serve as judges in legal trials (in the form of masked elders). The Igbo emphasis on numerous gods associated with nature and also on ancestors and somewhat divine contrasts sharply with the single God of Christianity which seems far less directly relevant to the Igbo lifestyle.

    Questions About Religion

    1. What is the nature of the Igbo gods? What sorts of elements or concepts do they represent? What does this indicate about Igbo culture?
    2. Why do you think there is so much superstition surrounding children (abandoned twins, ogbanje children)?
    3. Are the Igbo gods vengeful? When compared to Christianity? What sort of justice do they carry out?
    4. Do the Umuofia truly believe that the egwugwu are ancestral spirits or do they realize that they are masked elders of the clan?
    5. Did all of the villagers and Mr. Smith actually hear a goddess crying? How is the reader supposed to interpret the scene in which the Mother of the Spirits is weeping?

    Chew on This

    The essence of the Igbo beliefs is contrary to the monotheistic Christian religion promoted by the missionaries.

    Despite the Igbo’s polytheistic belief system, their gods are all different facets of one supreme god, ultimately similar to the Christian deity.

  • Sin

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    In Things Fall Apart, sin is defined as a crime against the gods. Such transgressions occur when a member of society violates the most intimate bonds of family, especially with regards to one’s children or somehow insults an ancestral spirit. These sins call for quick and severe punishment, often including animal sacrifices, a heavy fine, various symbolic gestures of atonement, exile from one’s fatherland, or even death. Only when such payment is given can justice be served. If punishment is not doled out, not only is the sinner subject to divine wrath, but the entire community suffers.

    Questions About Sin

    1. How is crime distinguished from sin? How are the two accordingly punished? Hint: consider the egwugwu trials.
    2. Do Umuofia punishments fit the crimes? Do they seem arbitrary?
    3. Why is offending the earth goddess such an enormous sin? What assumptions can we make about the role the earth goddess plays in Igbo society?
    4. In comparison to Igbo law, how does the white man’s justice system work? Are the same behaviors considered sins in both cultures? How and why do the punishments for the same crimes differ?
    5. Does Okonkwo sin when he aids in the murder of Ikemefuna?

    Chew on This

    Okonkwo sins when he murders Ikemefuna. The troubles that follow Okonkwo after the murder are a result of Okonkwo’s sin going unpunished.

  • Traditions and Customs

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    Igbo lifestyle is highly stylized, from its ritual speech to the actions performed for certain ceremonies. Most of these formalized interactions occur in an attempt to show respect to some external being – another man, an ancestral spirit, or a god. Respect and knowledge of one’s role in society is very important in determining such customs. Another institution that rituals address and honor is the family unit. Stylized language, in particular, seeks to hold the family together by means of promises.

    Questions About Traditions and Customs

    1. In such ritualized events as weddings and funerals, what aspects of life do the Igbo people celebrate or mourn?
    2. Much of Igbo culture includes highly stylized speech. What purpose does the formal way of speaking serve? To another man? To an audience? To a family member? To the gods?
    3. Is the younger generation of Umuofia straying away from long-established customs? What impact does the arrival of the Christians have?
    4. Can the Umuofia be a unified group of people without shared traditions?

    Chew on This

    The traditions of the Umuofia are used to show respect to either the family unit or the gods.

    The coming of the Christians is the sole cause of the breakdown of Umuofia traditions and customs.

  • Man and the Natural World

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    As an agricultural society, the survival of the Umuofia depends on the earth and its predictable cycle of seasons. Thus we see frequent worship of the earth and her bounty, especially at the new year and during harvest season. The Igbo also reap the earth’s wealth in rather economical and effective ways – tapping trees for palm-wine, capitalizing off of locust plagues, and making medicine with herbs. Human beings are implicitly viewed as the children of the earth, though the conduct of the white men throws doubt on that assumption. In addition to being generous, the earth can also be deadly and is ruthless and not provide food and resources if offended in some way by human actions.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. In terms of gender, how is the earth represented? Which of the earth’s qualities support this gender characterization?
    2. What role do folktales play in explaining natural phenomenon? How do they characterize animals?
    3. Are Umuofia people depicted as a harmonious part of nature or a disruption of it? How? And what about the white man?
    4. What emotions do the Umuofia feel toward the earth?

    Chew on This

    The Umuofia live in fear and reverence of the natural world.

    The Umuofia see themselves as a part of the natural world.

  • Fate and Free Will

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    Social rank and relative wealth play great roles in determining a person’s destiny in Umuofia society. But sometimes a man with sheer force of will can change his stars through hard work and a smattering of luck. One of the main conflicts in Things Fall Apart is the clash between Okonkwo’s determination to succeed and fate – which seems to have less appetizing things in mind. However, Okonkwo’s will does play a major factor in determining his future; he chooses to kill Ikemefuna with his own hands, he chooses to kill a government official, and in the end, he chooses to take his own life. Whether or not negative events in his life are tied to these three crimes or if they are just the result of chance or fate is debatable.

    Questions About Fate and Free Will

    1. How is Okonkwo’s destiny viewed in the beginning of the book? Why is it seen so positively?
    2. To what extent is Okonkwo’s life governed by forces outside his control?
    3. What deliberate choices does Okonkwo make that further his path towards self-destruction?
    4. Consider Ikemefuna. How does he, as a character, epitomize a victim more than anyone else in the novel?

    Chew on This

    Even though Okonkwo often exercises his “inflexible will,” fate ultimately clashes with and dominates his free will to bring about his demise.

    Although the missionaries comprise a formidable force, the Igbo people were not fated to fall to white men. By exercising their will and making key decisions, the Igbo could have avoided the disunity that followed the arrival of the missionaries.

  • Language and Communication

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    Speech is highly stylized in Igbo culture, with specific rules on how to addresses a neighbor, a superior, an ancestral spirits, and the gods. Respect is usually at the heart of formal speech. While dialogue is usually direct in its meaning, speakers often adorn conversations with proverbs or references to folktales, which play a profound role in shaping Igbo beliefs. Language, too, has a way of either including or alienating a listener. The gods have their own language which lowly humans cannot understand. The Christians speak English and require an interpreter to communicate with the Umuofia. However, interpreters are often from different parts of the country and have noticeable differences in speech. So concepts and connotations are inevitably lost in translation.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. How do men of the Umuofia greet each other? How do they greet crowds of people when speaking? What is the underlying motivation of such speech?
    2. How is music – in particular drums – a language in itself? How does it set tones and convey information?
    3. Does Okonkwo communicate effectively with any of his family members or does he just expect to have his mind read? Does he like Ezinma so much because she understands him without him having to communicate verbally?
    4. How do gods and spirits address humans and how must humans greet these superior beings? What is the implication in each one’s address?
    5. Are important concepts of Christianity and Igbo beliefs lost in translation? Are important Igbo beliefs misunderstood by the Christians because of poor translation?
    6. Why is it dangerous to kill a man who is silent? Think about the Abame clan that was annihilated after killing a white man they were unable to communicate with.

    Chew on This

    The troubles in Okonkwo and Nwoye’s relationships are the result of bad communications; neither shares his emotions with each other and Okonkwo quickly jumps to aggressive physical action, which halts communication.