Things Fall Apart Summary and Analysis
A huge crowd gathers to watch the wrestling matches. Ekwefi finds herself next to Chielo, a widow with two children. Chielo is quite an ordinary woman in ordinary life. But she occupies a position of great power in the village: she is also the priestess of Agbala, the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves. She is considered a different person when the spirit of the goddess enters her. Chielo is very fond of Ezinma. She often gives the girl sweets. The two women talk, and we infer that Ekwefi has had many children, and that many of them have died. Ezinma is now ten years old. Ekwefi prays that she stays; her children's deaths have been cause of great sadness for her.
The matches are exciting, and the great wrestlers all of have their fans. As the main event of the evening, Ikezue and Okafo, the two greatest wrestlers of Umuofia, square off in a fierce bout. Okafo wins, and is carried home on the shoulder's of his enthusiastic supporters, while the young women sing songs of praise.
We learn the greatest cause of Ekwefi's sadness, which was only hinted at in the last chapter. From her conversation with Chielo, we learn that she has had children other than Ezinma, but that they have died. In Chielo, we see an example of a powerful woman among the Igbo. Her orders supersede even those of the council of men; no great decision is made without her. Yet the two women discuss Okonkwo's recent attack against Ekwefi. Even as we see examples of women in power, we are reminded that Igbo women are vulnerable to their husbands' rages.
The wrestling matches are more of Achebe's documentation of Igbo life. From the large amount of exposition and commentary, it is clear that Things Fall Apart is not a book meant for Igbo readers. In fact, Achebe seems to assume that the reader has little or no knowledge of Igbo culture. We see the joy of festival time, and the excitement of the Igbo New Year. Achebe wants us to appreciate the beauty and strength of the Igbo people; sympathy and respect for the Igbo makes the end of the novel all the more painful.
Three years pass, and Ikemefuna matures into an adolescent in Okonkwo's household. Ikemefuna and Nwoye are as inseparable as ever, and because Ikemefuna treats Nwoye with respect, Nwoye is developing into a more confident and hard-working young man. Okonkwo is pleased by the change, and he knows it is due to Ikemefuna. He often eats with the two boys. (Typically, the man of the house eats separately in his central hut, or obi, while the women and children eat in their respective parts of the compound.) Nwoye seems to be pleasing his father more and more. To make him happy, he grumbles about women and pretends to scorn his mother's folktales (although in truth he still loves them). Instead, he listens to Okonkwo's stories of war and violence.
The locusts come. They are not a threat to Umuofia's staple crops, as they come after harvest, during the cold harmattan season. First, a small swarm of scouts comes, and then a larger group arrives. Their coming fills the Igbo with joy, because the locusts come only once every seven years, and they are delicious to eat.
Okonkwo is enjoying locust when Ogbuefi Ezeudu enters. He is a great village elder, and he has come to inform Okonkwo that the time has come for Ikemefuna's death. They tell Okonkwo not to bear a hand in the child's execution. The next day, a large group of elders comes to Okonkwo to discuss it more fully with him. Later that day, Okonkwo tells Ikemefuna that he is to be sent home. Nwoye hears, and begins to cry; his father beats him heavily.
A group of men brings Ikemefuna deep into the forest. The boy thinks about how strange it will be to see his family again; he is excited to see them, but also said to be leaving his new family. They walk for hours. The other men attack Ikemefuna with hatchets. He runs to Okonkwo, calling him father, begging for help. Afraid of being thought weak, and full of a terrible fear, Okonkwo uses his matchet to strike the boy down.
When Okonkwo returns later that night, Nwoye knows that Ikemefuna has been killed. A terrible sadness comes to him. He does not cry, but something in him has been broken. The last time he felt this way was during the last harvest season. He had been in the forest with his family, bringing back yams from the harvest. They heard an infant crying. The women fell silent and walked faster. Nwoye had heard that twins, considered evil by the Igbo, were left to die in the forest. He had never come across any. A great sickness and sorrow came over him. He has that feeling again now.
Ikemefuna is depicted as a perfect son and brother. He succeeds where Okonkwo cannot: he helps Nwoye to be more self-assured and confident. The exaggerated shows of masculinity Nwoye begins to make are contrived and for the pleasure of his father, but Nwoye is becoming more comfortable and confident. Ikemefuna's, with his gentleness and his love of folktales, has provided Nwoye with the positive male role model that he needed. Ikemefuna is also something of a Christ figure. He dies as a sacrifice for the good of the many; it is no coincidence that Nwoye later converts to Christianity. Nwoye is disturbed by some of the practices of his own people. They fill him with a vague fear and sorrow, and he will later seek solace in a foreign religion.
The arrival of the locusts might initially worry the reader who knows that locusts are often disastrous for a community of farmers. These locusts pose no threat to the Igbo. However, they foreshadow a more dangerous swarm that will arrive later. Like the white man, they send scouts first and then arrive with overwhelming numbers and force.
We see again Okonkwo's terrible fear of failure, which includes a fear of being thought weak. Despite sorrow and terror, he goes with the men when they kill Ikemefuna. He himself delivers the killing blow, even as the boy calls him "Father" and asks for his help. He was advised by the elders to stay home; to kill kin is considered a terrible offense to the Igbo. But Okonkwo is determined to prove himself unshakeable. In the proving, he does damage to himself and creates a rift between him and Nwoye that will never be healed.
Okonkwo does not touch food for two days after the death of Ikemefuna. He drinks, and though he calls Nwoye into his obi to be with him, the boy is scared of him and steals away when Okonkwo is dozing. He is weak and listless. On the third day, he asks his second wife, Ekwefi, to prepare some food for him. Ezinma brings out, encouraging him to eat. As she takes care of him, Okonkwo thinks repeatedly that she should have been born a boy. Okonkwo is ashamed that he has been affected by Ikemefuna's death.
He goes to speak with his good friend, Obeirika. Obeirika invites Okonkwo to be with him later while he negotiates the bride price for his daughter. Okonkwo criticizes Obeirika for not coming to kill Ikemefuna. Obeirika responds in turn that Okonkwo should not have gone; the act that Okonkwo committed is the kind of deed the gods punish.
Okonkwo is present for the negotiation of the bride price. There is polite negotiation, as the two families strive to reach a settlement that will be honorable for both groups. Many men from both families are present. Okonkwo enjoys himself. The talk turns to different customs, and they discuss rumors of the traditions in distant lands. Obeirika speaks of a particularly ridiculous story he heard: far away, the story goes, tribes have been visited by men with white skin.
Okonkwo's fear of effeminacy and weakness drives him to actions and emotions that do not always come naturally to him. He is disturbed by the death of Ikemefuna, but he is even more disturbed that he is disturbed. Any emotion approaching tenderness or softness must be suppressed.
Obeirika, Okonkwo's good friend, shows that Okonkwo's attitudes, though influenced by culture, are not exactly typical for an Igbo man. Okonkwo, along the model of the tragic hero, is an extreme example of his people. He carries their traits to excess. Obeirika, on the other hand, is a rich man and a man of sensitivity. He was not present at the Ikemefuna's death, nor does he approve of Okonkwo's participation in the act.
There is much digression in this chapter, as we witness the Igbo customs or courtship. The negotiations are civil and even joyous, as the men drink great quantities of palm wine. At the close of the chapter, we are given an ominous foreshadowing of what is to come. The men all dismiss the stories of approaching white men as patently ridiculous. Their reaction to the rumor shows how unready the Africans were for the coming of the European colonial powers. Everything we have learned about the Igbo shows that their concept of war and conquest is quite different from that of the European invaders: war is fought over questions of honor rather than a desire for material gain. And European military technology is beyond anything the Igbo have. The stories of white men seem so fantastic, so far outside of anything the Igbo have experienced, that they are immediately dismissed as myth.
Okonkwo sleeps well for the first time in three nights. He is woken in the morning by Ekwefi banging on the door: Ezinma is dying.
Ekwefi has had ten children. Nine have died. The medicine man has said that she has given birth to an ogbanje, a wicked child who, after dying, returns to its mother's womb to be reborn and die again. Ezinma has always been a sickly child, prone to swing between periods of great vivacity and darker times when she seems near death. A year ago, Okagbue, the medicine man, found Ezinma's iyi-uwa, her supposed link to the world of the ogbanje. So the girl should not die again.
But Ekwefi, fearful that she might lose the child that is the center of her life, is terrified. Okonkwo believes it is iba sickness, and he gathers herbs and begins to prepare a medicine for Ezinma. The girl is held over a concoction of herbs and hot water, and forced to breathe in the steam.
Igbo beliefs constitute one of the forces that holds their society together. Remember the title: we are reading about the disintegration of an old way of life and the end of autonomy for a great people. High infant mortality is one of the unfortunate truths of Igbo life. Their religion attempts to find meaning in this tragedy.
And although nothing supernatural happens in the novel, there are certain things in the Igbo religion that Achebe depicts as uncanny. When Okagbue searches for Ezinma's iyi-uwa, the girl seems to go into a strange, trance-like state: she cooperates with the medicine man as if the iyi-uwa is real, and indeed, he does find a strange object in the location that she indicates. Achebe does not depict the superstitions of the Igbo as being necessarily true, but he does show that their religious beliefs often contain uncanny insights. Later, the Oracle will predict with uncanny accuracy the methods of the white man.
Umuofia has a great clan gathering. Nine men in the cult of the egwugwu impersonate the nine founders of the villages of Umuofia. During the ceremony, the men are considered to be the spirits of the clan. The transformation is spiritual and complete, in the same way that Catholics believe that the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ.
The ceremony is for the administration of justice. Families with disputes come forward to have their cases tried publicly. The first case involves a woman who has left her husband. He wants her to return, along with her two children. The woman's family claims that her husband was abusive. Evil Forest, the egwugwu who listens to the case, decides that the husband must bear gifts to his in-laws and beg his wife's forgiveness. She will return, but he should not beat her again.
The ceremony of the egwugwu is clearly one dominated by men. Only men are in the cult of the egwugwu, and so only men are involved in the administration of justice. But for the first case of the ceremony, Achebe chooses a case involving a woman's well-being. Here and elsewhere, he tries to show that a woman's place in Igbo society, though vulnerable, is not unappreciated. Mgbafo, the abused bride, is protected by her brothers. Her case is viewed favorably by the judge. Although Achebe shows us that the Igbo society is deeply patriarchal, he also strives to show that Igbo woman, in at least a limited capacity, are respected and protected. There is an interest in justice and fairness. And to keep perspective on the issue, the reader should remember that women in 19th century England and America did not enjoy any more freedom than their counterparts in Nigeria.
Things Fall Apart Essays and Related Content
- Things Fall Apart: Major Themes
- Things Fall Apart: Essays
- Things Fall Apart: Questions
- Things Fall Apart: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- Chinua Achebe: Biography
- Things Fall Apart Summary
- About Things Fall Apart
- Character List
- Major Themes
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 1-5
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 6-10
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 11-15
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 16-20
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 21-25
- Related Links on Things Fall Apart
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 1
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 2
- Author of ClassicNote and Sources