Yesterday, I posted a link to the full text of W.B. Yeat’s Second Coming from which Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart takes its name. In discussing the book, I think it would be appropriate to print the first stanza in its entirety.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.
The dark, intense imagery of these lines foreshadow the tragic fate of Achebe’s main character, Okonkwo. Okonkwo’s father was a shiftless drunk and, from an early age, Okonkwo vowed to never, ever show even the slightest similarity to his father. While his father let debts pile upon debts, Okonkwo paid his off in full and on time. Where his father shunned battle, Okonkwo was a fierce warrior, taking particular pride in stories of his bloody exploits. He beat his wives, withheld affection from his children, and even went so far as to kill a boy from a neighboring clan to whom he had developed an attachment. All to prove that the weaknesses of his father were not the weaknesses of the son.
In his clan, Okonkwo was respected and successful. He was married and had sons (although, his first son exhibited traits of his grandfather). He was friends with the tribal elders and was well on the way to taking the ranks which would elevate his status even further.
Then, things fell apart. The “widening gyre” of Yeat’s falcon becomes larger and larger until Okonkwo’s life tragically collapses around him. Blood is shed, innocence is destroyed, “the best lack conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
Things Fall Apart has been described as a uniquely African novel. I haven’t read enough African literature to make a judgement on this front. It does take place in Africa, but I’m not certain whether the writing style itself is unique. I can, however, understand the universal appeal of the story. A man – strong, upright, and proud – horribly and tragically undone through his own unwillingness or inability to adapt to changing times and circumstances. It’s a timeless story, one that has been told from antiquity through modernity. In Achebe’s version, threads of colonialism and tribalism are woven in, but the essential theme remains the same.
I’m torn about the book itself. While the story has tremendous relevance to today’s world and Achebe writes with great poise and elegance, I wished that it would have moved along a bit more quickly. When I try to pinpoint what, exactly, should have moved along more quickly, I can’t. The writing was truly economical – there wasn’t much that could have been cut or shortened. While reading, I got the feeling that I’d read this all before in some other guise. Which, as I mentioned earlier, is true. The story arc is not incredibly unique. At the same time, I did find the descriptions of tribal life and customs particularly interesting.
Things Fall Apart, whatever its narrative shortcomings (or my perceptions of such) may be, is a worthwhile read. Its relevance hasn’t diminished over the years – while the story itself may be about an African tribesman, the real subject is human nature. And that’s something applicable to any reader.