Things Fall Apart is about a man who conducts his life ever trying to distance himself from his father. In the process, he sows the seeds of his own destruction. Residing in the small (fictional) Nigerian village of Umuofia in the late 19th century, Okonkwo strives to be hyper-masculine in everything he does. As a young man he becomes a village wrestling champion and, when it comes time to start farming, he’s driven to be the best farmer possible in order to pay off his debts and to be as wealthy as possible. He feels that his father, who was constantly in debt and negligent in his familial duties, was weak and effeminate. On the one hand, Okonkwo’s drive is respect worthy, but, on the other, his need to appear strong in the extreme comes off as a bit pitiful.
There are a couple of crucial events in Okonkwo’s life in which his need to appear manly results in great inner distress. The first occurs when it’s determined that a young man who’s been staying with Okonkwo’s family must be killed. (The young man was sent to Umuofia as a settlement for a wrong between the young man’s father and an Umuofia resident.) Okonkwo has been a father to the young man. Even when a village elder tells Okonkwo to have no part in the killing owing to being like a father to the boy, Okonkwo feels he must participate lest he be seen as effeminate. Of course, Okonkwo is wracked with guilt because he murdered a boy who’d been like a son to him. Later, an accidental discharge of Okonkwo’s firearm kills an innocent young man. The worst part of this for Okonkwo is that an accidental killing is seen as a “woman’s offense.” As punishment, Okonkwo and his family are sent in exile on another village for seven years. Okonkwo isn’t so much torn up by killing another innocent as by the fact that the way it happened makes him look girly in the eyes of others—or so he believes.
Besides the character portrait of Okonkwo, the book is also a commentary on the nature of colonialism and proselytizing missionaries. The first part of the book is set in a pre-colonial state, but in the latter half the rapidly developing tensions between the missionaries and the local villagers is featured. When Okonkwo and his family return to Umuofia after seven years, he finds that white men have built a church and are actively seeking to turn the villagers away from the indigenous beliefs. Of course, for Okonkwo this is just too much, and he can’t believe others are putting up with this. (Adding to his torment is the fact that his son is one of the converts—possibly because that son himself wants to distance himself from the father who murdered his best friend [the boy from the other village.]) Okonkwo is ultimately unable to tolerate that the world has become something so different from what he believes is right, and to continue living means to steer away from the path that he has locked his life into.
This short and thought-provoking book is a great window into pre-colonial Africa and the clash of worldviews that colonization brought. It’s also a cautionary tale about not having sympathy for the failings of one’s father—not to mention the weakness inherent in our own humanity.