Okonkwo is simply a man. He has man-sized flaws, and man-sized virtues, most of them as a result of his indigent father's influence. The hero of Achebe's masterpiece Things Fall Apart is a champion wrestler, a successful yam farmer, the husband of three wives and the father of many children, some of whom he loves more than others. He has a violent temper and a stern exterior because he remembers his father's weakness and doesn't want to be remembered the same way.
Though the coming of white missionaries occurs relatively late in the novel, their shadow is present throughout. This is a book about African colonialism and its dismemberment of the elements of African society that held it, however precariously, together. Achebe sees the European missionaries as essentially tradition- and ritual-breakers with a total disregard for Africans and their formerly established way of life.
His argument is strengthened by the fact that he doesn't portray a pre-colonial paradise. The characters and societies are not perfect, and the coming of colonials doesn't bring utter ruin to an innocent region; the people in Okonkwo's tribe and the other neighboring villages represent all the aspects of human nature, good and bad. The coming of white people instead disrupts the historical framework of African society by demolishing and replacing its traditions with foreign, Christo-European ones. In the wake of such displacement the Africans are left with no societal cohesion, and things fall apart.
Okonkwo's personal story mirrors that of Job. Formerly a great man in his village, he gradually loses everything, including his carefully crafted sense of identity. His weaknesses come to the fore as he struggles to maintain equilibrium through loss, famine, war, and the "invasion" of the white missionaries. Ultimately he fails to hold his breaking world together, not only due to the collapse of his own will, but the gradual disappearance of anything familiar, any recognizable rules or order.
By chronicling the digression of Okonkwo the man side-by-side with that of his village, Achebe illustrates the ramifications of white settlement not only for African society as a whole, but for the individual members of that society. The callous disregard for African tradition displayed by the missionaries is not exaggerated as can be seen by the nearly entire appropriation and replacement of African culture that took place during the heyday of European colonization. This novel remains a powerful indictment and important warning about the interaction between cultures, and the significance individuals play both in the construction and demise of tradition.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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