The Chronicle Review

Five Views of 'Things Fall Apart'

February 08, 2008

It would be hard to overstate how important Things Fall Apart is for modern African literature. And yet, like many works at the root of literary traditions, its achievements are easy to overlook because it established a set of conventions and made them look natural.

Chinua Achebe found ways to represent the many forms of language that live together in modern Africa — indigenous mother tongues in their formal and informal modes and varieties of the colonial languages — by using different registers of English, from the sonorous cadences of the King James Bible to the crisp, clean prose of realist Anglo-American fiction. His choices now seem inevitable; but one has only to look at some of the earlier attempts at African novels in English to see that they were not.

He was able, too, to communicate, without exoticizing, an Igbo way of life that was already strange to many of his modern readers — in Africa as elsewhere — in part because he solved the problem of providing us with the background information we strangers needed without seeming to be simply ethnographic. The result was a world that many African readers have felt was theirs, even though it was, in fact, fully local to a particular place and time. (And, as T.S. Eliot said, "I doubt whether a poet or novelist can be universal without being local too.") Finally, I think he managed to represent the experience of colonization without reducing it to a caricature in black and white.

 — Kwame Anthony Appiah, professor of philosophy, Princeton University

I grew up in Nsukka, a small university town in southeastern Nigeria, and I started reading when I was perhaps 4 years old. I read a lot of British children's literature. I was particularly enamored of Enid Blyton. I thought that all books, by their very nature, had to have white people in them, and so when I started to write, as soon as I was old enough to spell, I wrote the kinds of stories that I was reading. All my characters were white and had blue eyes and played in the snow and ate apples and had dogs called Socks; this, by the way, at a time when I had not been to England and had never seen snow and was more familiar with mangoes than apples.

Then, when I was perhaps 8 or 9, I read Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. It was a glorious shock of discovery. Here were characters who had Igbo names and ate yams and inhabited a world similar to mine. Okonkwo and Ezinma and Ikemefuna taught me that my world was worthy of literature, that books could also have people like me in them. And so I like to think of Achebe as the writer whose work gave me permission to write my own stories.

 — Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of Purple Hibiscus (Algonquin Books, 2003) and Half of a Yellow Sun (Knopf, 2006), winner of the 2007 Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction

Whichever way you look at it, Things Fall Apart yields a vast payout of meanings, symbols, and provocations. The dominant meaning seems to be that of the effect of colonialism upon a coherent Igbo community and on Okonkwo, the central protagonist. But this is just to brush the surface of the novel. Like all historical processes, these changes do not manifest themselves as abstractions but as the subtly altered behavior of certain individuals and constituencies through time.

The real beauty of Things Fall Apart is that while Achebe so lovingly recreates a lost Igbo world, he still manages to avoid romanticizing it. In addition, he presents us with various characters who act as prisms through which we may understand the ambivalent finality of colonialism. Comparisons with some of the finest tragedies of the literary tradition are not misplaced. There is something of Oedipus and Agamemnon in Okonkwo; and Obierika's refusal of closure echoes features of Hamlet. When at the end of the novel Okonkwo hangs himself, it reminds us of the great existential abyss that all great tragedies invoke and dare us to cross. The real tragedy, we are reminded, is in being human. For then we are open to recalcitrant doubts, voracious nostalgias, and the vague sense that the meaning of our lives may only be understood at a point well beyond our living.

 — Ato Quayson, professor of English and director of the Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies, University of Toronto

What accounts for the phenomenal success of Things Fall Apart? Achebe is a gifted storyteller and novelist. But Things Fall Apart did not spring from his pen as an intuitive and unmediated corrective to colonial representations of Africa, as it is so often read. The novel draws on a great many cultural and narrative traditions — Igbo, Christian, Victorian, ethnographic, anthropological — that help make it intelligible and widely accessible. Moreover, it arrived on the scene at a moment when publics in Europe, Africa, and America were particularly receptive to its message and form. With respect to the latter, Things Fall Apart seemed to demonstrate that powerful and enchanting combination of "European form" and "local content": an unquestionably crafted and eloquent English, inflected by the rhythms and metaphor of Igbo speech and oral traditions. Regardless of whatever else it accomplished, its aesthetic finesse would seem to confirm both the triumph of the so-called European novel as a literary form and its indigenization.

 — Eileen Julien, professor of comparative literature, African-American and African Diaspora studies, and French and Italian, Indiana University

For my generation of Africans born at the cusp between colonialism and decolonization, the most important event after the independence of Ghana was the publication of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. This may appear to be an exaggerated claim, especially now that we live in an age where books have lost their aura, but as a novel and event, the influence of Things Fall Apart in shaping the literary sensibilities of African readers was unprecedented.

But the influence of Achebe's novel went beyond questions of sensibility. Things Fall Apart transformed the African social imaginary, the stories Africans tell about themselves, their relation to the world, and their place in the narrative of modern time. It also transformed the institution of modern literature and the English language, heralding the emergence of what has come to be known as the postcolonial canon. The publication of Things Fall Apart changed our understanding of English and its institutions of criticism.

Finally, the novel had, and continues to have, an affective, almost magical quality. In Robben Island, where he had been imprisoned for opposing the apartheid state in South Africa, Nelson Mandela turned to Things Fall Apart for solace — the novel provided him with the narrative anchor that would mitigate what was supposed to be a life sentence.

 — Simon Gikandi, professor of English, Princeton University Section: The Chronicle Review Volume 54, Issue 22, Page B7