Things Fall Apart Summary and Analysis
Ezinma and Ekwefi are spending a peaceful night telling folktales to each other. They are interrupted by Agbala, the Oracle, who has come for Ezinma. She takes Ezinma onto her back and carries her away, strictly forbidding the girl's parents from following. Ekwefi hesitates only a moment, and then secretly follows anyway.
The Oracle takes a long walk, going all the way around the nine villages. Despite the fact that she carries the child on her back, she moves at an astonishing speed; Ekwefi can barely keep up. The Oracle finally returns to her sacred cave. She disappears inside. Terrified, Ekwefi waits outside the cave: she resolves to enter if she hears her daughter crying. To save her child, she will fight the gods if necessary. Ekwefi is startled by Okonkwo, who has also followed the Oracle. The two of them wait for the priestess of Agbala to emerge again. Standing in the dark with him, she remembers when she first came to him. She was young, and she had been married off to another man. Two years into the marriage, she went to Okonkwo. Without speaking, he carried her to his bed and began to undress her.
The priestess of Agbala is a mysterious and frightening figure. Remember that in normal life she is Chielo, a widow who is slight and getting on in years. Yet even with a large child on her back, as the Oracle she moves at an astonishing rate.
Ekwefi's love for Ezinma is touching. She is determined to protect her child. The relationship between them is special, almost a bond between equals. Unlike Okonkwo, who constantly wishes that Ezinma had been born a boy, Ekwefi seems grateful for the female companionship her daughter provides. Igbo society may be patriarchal, but Achebe is determined to show the relationships between women as central to Igbo life. The wives of Okonkwo, for example, do not seem to compete with one another. Rather, they support and comfort each other; in this chapter, Okonkwo's first wife tries to reassure Ekwefi when the priestess takes Ezinma away.
And the relationship between Chielo and Ekwefi also seems important here. The Oracle's interest in Ezinma turns out to be benevolent. Remember that Chielo is a friend of Ekwefi, and the old widow is also particularly fond of Ezinma. Given Ezinma's health troubles, we can infer that the priestess is seeking some kind of spiritual protection for the child. And indeed, in later chapters we learn that Ezinma ceases to be a sickly child after this strange night with the Oracle.
Ezinma is loved by her father, also. Okonkwo follows the priestess, too, as determined as Ekwefi to protect the child if need be. But on his appearance outside the cave, we are reminded of Okonkwo's character and limitations: he is carrying a matchet, as if a mortal weapon could protect him against gods and spirits. Okonkwo approach to problems never varies. He has one set of reactions: willpower and the strength of his muscles are his only weapons. Later, this single-minded approach will cost him his life.
The next day is the uri of Obeirika's daughter. It is a woman's celebration, centering on the bride-to-be and her mother. Okonkwo's first and third wive's prepare their gifts. Ekwefi, exhausted by the ordeal of waiting for Ezinma and the Oracle, waits for Ezinma to wake and asks the other wives to explain her tardiness. No one besides Ekwefi knows that Okonkwo also followed the Oracle. He waited a suitable "manly" interval first before going straight to the cave. Finding no one there, he left, but he returned when worry seized him once again. All in all, he returned to the cave four times before he met Ekwefi there.
Obierika's compound is full of activity, as many people in the village are helping to prepare for the great feast. While the women are preparing food, they notice a cow has gotten loose in a neighbor's crops. The women all hurry to push the cow back home; its owner immediately pays the heavy fine for letting a cow loose in a neighbor's fields. The cow's release was an accident.
The feast is lively, full of gift-giving, dance, and song. The new in-laws exchange gifts and praise with Obierika's family, and before living the village they pay respects to the housed of high-ranking men. Among these men is Okonkwo. He gives them a gift of two cocks.
Okonkwo considers any show of feeling to be a weakness. He did not follow the Oracle immediately, but instead waited for a suitable "manly" interval. But his feelings for Ezinma are strong: despite his desire to appear manly and detached, he returns to the cave four times, gravely worried for his favorite daughter.
The festival illustrates the bonds of Umuofia's community. The gift-giving is generous, on both sides. Even the interruptive incident of the loose cow is resolved quickly and peaceful. Achebe emphasizes the strength of the social fabric of Umuofia. The social organization and customs of the tribe are not the barbaric practices of a primitive people, but rather a rich system of tradition and wisdom that preserves peace and harmony between the people of Umuofia. Potential sources of conflict (loose cows, runaway brides) are resolved rationally and fairly. The Igbo delight in festivals and generous gift-giving. Holidays like the uri involve the whole community.
The village crier announces the death of Ezeudu, one of the great elders of the clan. It was Ezeudu who first told Okonkwo that Ikemefuna most die. It was also Ezeudu who advised Okonkwo to take no part in it.
The funeral is a great event. The egwugwu cult is out in full force, as men embodying the gods and spirits of the clan come out to participate in the funerary rites. During the ceremony, Okonkwo's gun explodes suddenly. A piece of iron pierces the heart of one of Ezeudu's sons. Even though the death is accidental, the act is an abomination to the Igbo. Okonkwo is to be exiled for seven years. That night, Okonkwo packs up his most valuable belongings. His yams are transported to Obierika's barn. Before dawn, Okonkwo and his whole family set out for Mbanta, the home of Okonkwo's mother.
As day brokes, men come and destroy Okonkwo's home. They kill his animals and set fire to the buildings. They bear no malice to Okonkwo, but the laws of the Igbo must be obeyed. Obierika is sorry for his friend's misfortune. He is a thoughtful man, and he tries to think out why his friend should suffer. He also thinks of the twins his wife bore long ago, and how he had to abandon them to certain death. He arrives at no answers.
Achebe has shown the great social mobility of the Igbo. A man's worth is not at all determined by the wealth of his father: with hard work and determination, a man can rise to greatness. Okonkwo is proof of that. Consequently, one of his central belief's is faith in the fairness of the world. A man gets what he deserves.
But the beginning of Okonkwo's tragedy is a complete accident. It is a moment of blind chance that drives Okonkwo from his homeland. The greatest loss is more than material: Okonkwo's faith in the power of hard work is shaken. His will and strong arm are unable to prevent this disaster. As a middle-aged man, Okonkwo is being forced to start over again.
Although the event is an accident, it should also be remembered that Ezeudu was the man who warned Okonkwo not to take hand in Ikemefuna's death. The disaster, a seeming accident, seems to confirm the fears of Obierika, who warned Okonkwo that the earth goddess did not smile on Okonkwo's participation in Ikemefuna's murder. However, the incident here is as literary as it is mystical; the calamity taking place at Ezeudu's funeral is a kind of poetic justice more than it is an example of divine retribution. It is one of many incidents in the novel where tribal ceremonies and rites resonate with the novel's central action.
Okonkwo and his family are received by Uchendu, his mother's younger brother and the oldest living member of their family. The last time Okonkwo saw Uchendu was at the burial of Okonkwo's mother; Okonkwo was only a young boy. Uchendu is kind and generous. The kinsman of Okonkwo's mother donate some land and a modest quantity of seed yams.
But starting over is hard. Okonkwo and his wives are no longer young, and beginning all over again without the strength of youth is no easy thing. Okonkwo works hard, but it no longer gives him pleasure. He has always dreamed of being one of the lords of Umuofia, and now it seems that this setback may have shattered that dream for good. He works without joy and spends his days moping. Uchendu notices that Okonkwo has given himself over to despair.
Uchendu's youngest son is taking a new wife, and the family performs a ceremony marking her arrival. All of the daughters of the family return for this day, and remain for a few days afterward.
On the second day, Uchendu calls everyone together. He addresses Okonkwo, telling him that he must not give in to despair. A common name given to children is Nneka, "Mother is Supreme." Although their society is patriarchal, Uchendu points out that when a child is beaten by its father, it returns to its mother for comfort. In the same way, Okonkwo, exiled by his fatherland, has taken refuge in his motherland. He cannot allow himself to be bowed down by despair. Uchendu sternly reprimands him, telling him that many men have suffered more than he. He must take heart and resolve to keep on living, or his children and wives will die in exile.
Here as elsewhere, Achebe's digression into the rituals and celebrations of the Igbo in some way echo what is going on in the central story of the novel. In addition to fleshing out Achebe's portrait of Igbo life, the parallels here between ceremony and central action are strong. The ceremony welcoming the new bride is dominated by the women: it is the husband's sisters who subject the new bride to scrutiny, with the eldest sister taking on a protective role for her brother. Not coincidentally, Uchendu's lecture centers on the important role of a mother and maternal blood lines. Okonkwo, so proud of manhood and obsessed with masculinity, is being asked to accept a mother's comfort. He is also asked by Uchendu to be a source of tenderness and comfort to his wives; Okonkwo has always associated such behavior with weakness. Uchendu is reminding his nephew that strength is not synonymous with force and violence. He is also reminding Okonkwo that strength is not a uniquely male domain.
In the second year of Okonkwo's exile, Obierika comes to visit him. He brings two bags full of cowries; they are money he has made off of the yams Okonkwo left with him. Obierika comes with two young men as his attendants, and he and Okonkwo great each other joyfully. They eat kola with Uchendu, and Obierika shares a bit of disturbing news.
Abame, a neighboring village cluster like Umuofia, has been destroyed. Not long ago, a white man arrived in Abame on an "iron horse" (a bicycle). The people of the town did not know what to make of him. The Oracle warned them that the man was like a scout locust, a harbringer sent to explore the terrain. The other white men would follow, and when they came they were going to bring death and destruction with them. Some men killed the white man and tied up his iron horse. Not long afterward, three white men arrived with a large number of African attendants. They saw the bicycle and left. Several weeks later, three white men and a group of African subordinates came into the Abame marketplace armed with powerful guns. They shot everyone in sight. The only survivors were those who were lucky enough not to be in the market that day, and these refugees have scattered. The village of Abame is now completely empty.
Uchendu grits his teeth in anger and fear. The men of Abame were fools, he says, for killing the white man out of fear. They inadvertently brought destruction on themselves. Okonkwo says that they were fools not to prepare for an attack.
The talk turns to more pleasant conversation. Okonkwo thanks Obierika for his justness and generosity. Obierika brushes off his friend's thanks, kindly refusing to be praised for what is natural between friends.
This ominous chapter foreshadows the future that threatens Umuofia. The whites send a few men to explore the terrain, and on the slightest provocation retaliate with terrible force. Although the people of Abame were wrong to murder the white man (and notice that Uchendu stresses this point), the retaliation of the white man is excessive. For the ignorant and fearful murder of one man, the whites respond with a brutal massacre that destroys a whole village. Although we are not given the exact number of deaths, Abame probably had a considerable population: remember that Umuofia has some ten thousand adult males. The effects of European colonialism are finally beginning to penetrate into Nigeria. Although Obierika mentions old legends of white men who took slaves from distant parts of Africa, these stories have always been dismissed as myth.
The other ominous bit of foreshadowing comes with the two very different reactions of Uchendu and Okonkwo. Uchendu, depicted always as a wise and thoughtful man, says that the mistake was to kill the stranger. Okonkwo, characteristically, says that the mistake was failing to prepare for war. Okonkwo will later try to defy the white man, with tragic results.
Fear is one of the primary sources of tragedy in the novel. We are constantly shown how Okonkwo's fear of failure and effeminacy drives him to ill-considered acts. The village of Abame is destroyed because of fear. The men hear the prediction of the Oracle and panic. They kill the Scout,
Once again, we see the uncanny insights of the Igbo oracles. The oracle of Abame correctly predicted that the white man was the harbinger of destruction. She even accurately described the scout-and-conquer methods of the white man; remember that the Igbo have a very different concept of war. On the theme of tribal belief, Achebe is not out to prove that Igbo religion is "true." But he does show that the oracles often have uncanny insights. The use of the oracles in the novel also contributes to the theme of fate, which is always an important part of tragedy. One could argue that the Abame oracle's prophecy was self-fulfilling, which is another common aspect of tragedy: the more one tries to elude a foretold fate, the faster one reaches it. However, the Oracle's prophecy would have come true regardless of the townspeople's actions. European imperialists brought death and destruction on all of their subjects, innocent and guilty alike. In the same way, the tragedy that befalls Okonkwo is in part his own making, but also comes from predetermined forces.
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