This novel is clearly more than just a representation of tribal life in pre-colonial Nigeria, it is a deep delve into the psychology of those in that realm and even beyond, looking critically at the psyche of those so deeply invested in tradition and belief and how their commitment to whatever cause or system they believe in inevitably sees them cast down a path they regret.
The character of Okonkwo is one that strongly believes in the Ibo ways, making himself a legend, effectively, and righting the wrongs of his father. He is a proud and celebrated man but we are allowed to see beyond the veil of fable and the facade of social image. We see how his relationship with his son is quite terrible with Okonkwo clearly attempting to ensure that his son does not end up like his father.
It is this other relationship introduced in the novel, that of a person to their community, that Chinua Achebe plays with beautifully. The concept of worth is dominated by one’s investment in their community, with Okonkwo’s father failing in that department and Okonkwo himself excelling. Though one can argue that such a concept of worth is not terrible, it is the effects and influences of that concept that are.
Okonkwo deeply fears a repeat of his father marking the state of his lineage and so imposes his beliefs and ways onto his son in order to avoid that. We see that his deep-seated subscription to the social way eventually leads him to murder his own adopted son because the village oracles declared it. His fear of appearing weak ignited him to murder and it is this decision that sends him plummeting into a depression.
We see, illuminated, how fallible the systems of a society or a community really are and how they often turn good people into drones. The growing presence of colonial powers we see during the later acts of the book may serve to add a secondary layer of nuance to the meaning.
We can view the slow creep of missionaries and harsher military powers as one culture imposing its beliefs upon another, with the arrogance of the former viewing the latter as inferior in some way and requiring help via colonialism. However, instead of taking sides, we see Achebe criticise both.
The colonists are intrusive and arrogant but we see how the two main missionaries, Mr. Brown and Mr. Smith, add realism to the side. Mr. Brown is compassionate and wants to keep the cultures intact and has enormous respect for those of the Ibo tribe. Mr. Smith is a near-polar opposite, remaining strictly repulsed and critical of those cultures outside of his own.
We also see how the tribes and pre-colonial communities of Nigeria also share their own problems. Okonkwo’s whole tragedy stems from the culture he is in. We see Achebe craft a narrative that isn’t black and white, there are no clear goodies and baddies. It is a realistic portrayal of how each group, each community, each culture has its own share of good and bad.
Things Fall Apart
Okonkwo is the greatest wrestler and warrior alive, and his fame spreads throughout West Africa like a bush-fire in the harmattan. But when he accidentally kills a clansman, things begin to fall apart. Then Okonkwo returns from exile to find missionaries and colonial governors have arrived in the village. With his world thrown radically off-balance he can only hurtle towards tragedy.