Things Fall Apart

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.

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8 comments

  1. Is this an author I should have heard of before? The title sounds vaguely familiar but perhaps that’s only because it’s a relatively common phrase. Where did you first come across this book?

    1. I can’t remember when I first heard of this book. It may have been back in college when I was taking a history of sub-Saharan Africa class. But, it’s a pretty well-known book. One of my sisters recently read it for a high school class. I’d certainly recommend it – it’s only about 200 pages long, so it’s not a huge investment of time or energy. Thanks for the comments!

  2. It sounds like a book you tried to like, yet it still niggles you in ways that make you unsure that you can really do so. Some times no matter how much we want to like something or feel we should, we don’t. I have problems with Charles Dickens ,have read loads of his books (especially when I was school age) can understand why people like him, but can’t myself ,even though this is probably illegal or at least sacrilegious here in england.

  3. That was my problem with this book. I understand it’s appeal, understand why it’s considered a good book. But, I just had a hard liking it as much as I hoped I would. Doesn’t make it bad, by any means, and I’d still recommend it.

  4. I really loved this book. I read it quite awhile back before it gained a lot of its literary merit and I think that’s one of the reasons I liked it so much. Had I read it afterward, I probably would have been let down a little – if that makes sense.

    1. That makes total sense – sometimes a book (or movie, or play, or whatever) gets hyped up so much that there’s a sense that “I have to like this a lot.” When you don’t like it as much as you’re supposed to, it’s a bit of a let down. That may have been one of the reasons I didn’t like this as much as I wanted to.

  5. I’m a big fan of Achebe’s work. IMO, his best work is Arrow of God. Somehow, and I really can’t understand it, Things Fall Apart, is the more known work. If you have the time and the inclination, read Arrow of God.

    1. Thanks for the comments. I’ve added Arrow of God to my already considerable list of books to look for. If I see a copy in a used bookstore, I’ll definitely pick it up. I had my reservations with Things Fall Apart, but I would be inclined to read another of Achebe’s to see if I like it any better.

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