Things Fall Apart Summary and Analysis
The white man brings his destructive religion and the yoke of his laws, but he also brings a trade center. The people of Umuofia begin to profit from selling local products, and so not all of the people of Umuofia oppose the whites as much as Okonkwo.
In Umuofia, the Christians are led by a kindly white man named Mr. Brown. Mr. Brown restrains the zeal of some of the fanatical converts. A convert named Enoch is particularly violent, always stirring up trouble; Brown strives to moderate Enoch's excesses. Mr. Brown is a wise and patient man; he befriends many of the local great men, and earns their affection. He spends a good deal of time with Akunna; they speak through an interpreter on the subject of religion. Neither man converts the other, but Mr. Brown learns much about the local religion and concludes that missionary work should be subtle and indirect: direct confrontation will not work. He also tries hard to get people to send their children to the Christian school. At first, people only send their lazy children. But more and more people begin to go as they realize that the ability to read and write opens up great social mobility. The DC is surrounded by Africans from Umaru; these literate subordinates earn high wages and how power in Umuofia. Mr. Brown's school begins to produce results.
Soon after Okonkwo's return, Mr. Brown pays him a visit. He has sent Nwoye, now called Isaac, to the teacher's college at Umaru; Mr. Brown hopes Okonkwo will be pleased by the news. Okonkwo chases Mr. Brown away from his house, threatening the man with violence. The first rainy season after Okonkwo returns home, Mr. Brown leaves Umuofia due to failing health from overwork.
Okonkwo's return has not been as grand an event as he had hoped. The people are troubled by the new religion and new government; they are occupied completely with these changes. Okonkwo suffers, not only for personal reasons, but because he fears the clan is dying.
Mr. Brown's approach to conversion helps the early church in Umuofia get along relatively peacefully with the clan. Still, he is part of the forces that are destroying clan life. British imperialism also brings benefits, which help to mask the long-term damage being done to the Igbo people. Money from the trade center, the promise of position and wages from the DC, the possibility of an education from Mr. Brown's church: these are all substantial benefits. But the clan also is losing its independence. Even the education at the church comes with the risk of indoctrination. Okonkwo's grief is based on the loss of his people's strength. He sees that they are being irrevocably changed, in many ways for the worse, by the arrival of the white man.
Mr. Brown's replacement is the Reverend James Smith, and he is not the tolerant and wise man that Mr. Brown was. Mr. Smith is fanatic and uncompromising, seeing the world entirely in terms of black and white. Under him, fanatics like Enoch flourish.
The festival of the earth goddess comes, when the egwugwu roam around the villages. It falls on a Sunday, and so the main passages are blocked by the ceremonies, especially for women, who have to maintain their distance from the masked spirits. On this occasion, the Christian women who have gone to Church cannot return home. Some of the Christian men beg the egwugwu to retire briefly, so that the women will be allowed to go home. The egwugwu agree. As they are retiring, Enoch boasts arrogantly that they would not dare to touch a Christian. One of the egwugwu strikes Enoch with a cane; Enoch unmasks him. To unmask an egwugwu is considered a terrible sin. The Igbo believe it kills the egwugwu.
That night, the Mother of Spirits roams the villages, weeping for the death of her son. The spectacle is terrifying. Mr. Smith hears it, and for the first time feels fear. The egwugwu approach the church. They will not harm the people, but they could no longer allow the church to work its evil among the Igbo. They destroy the building.
Under Mr. Smith, reason and compromise become impossible. Enoch's act is offensive in all senses. He is trying to start a holy war; when Mr. Smith hides him in the parsonage, Enoch is disappointed. He wants blood. His inflammatory comment comes right after the egwugwu have made a generous concession. Though the clan tries to compromise with the new religion and new government, it proves impossible. The white man has no respect for Igbo ways, and the new religion is intolerant and hypocritical, preaching peace out of one side of its mouth while serving an imperialistic government. It appeals to troublemakers like Enoch, who uses the new religion to goad people towards war.
And the people of Umuofia are afraid. When the Mother of Spirits roams the villages, weeping for her son's death, it seems that she is weeping for the death of the clan. The people of Umuofia are being destroyed. Yet again, the response of the clan is something of a compromise. In spite of the grave offense that has been committed, they kill no one. They simply decide to remove the source of the problem. They will destroy the building.
Okonkwo is pleased by the destruction of the church. At the clan meeting, he had urged the destruction of the church, the killing of the white man, and the exile of all the Christians. Though the clan decided only to destroy the church, Okonkwo is pleased that something was done.
Mindful of what happened in Abame, the men walk around armed. However, soon afterward the District Commissioner returns from his tour. He invites the leaders of Umuofia to come meet with him. Six men are invited, among them Okonkwo. The meeting is a trap; the six men are taking prisoner, and the DC demands the stiff fine of two hundred bags of cowries.
Ezinma, recently married, cuts short her stay with her husband to return home. She goes to see Obierika to demand what the men plan to do. Obierika is off at a secret meeting, and Ezinma is satisfied that someone is doing something.
In prison, Okonkwo and his colleagues are humiliated and beaten by the kotma, the African messengers of the court. Days pass. A clan meeting is called, and the clan decides to pay the fine of 250 bags of cowries. The fine was increased by the kotma, who will pocket the surplus.
The theme of justice is one of the preoccupations of the novel. Throughout the book, we have seen Igbo justice in action. Igbo laws and traditions preserve order. Justice is impossible under the new system. The DC is completely ignorant of local ways, and he has no intention of learning about them; the different ideas of justice ensure conflict.
The corruption of the system is also clear. The DC does not even speak the local language, giving the kotma ample room for trickery.
Okonkwo is humiliated and "choked with hate" for the white man. The DC arrogantly speaks of the need for "good government" and "justice" under the reign of the queen. He is speaking to the Igbo like subjects of the Empire; little by little, that is what they have become.
The men are released, and they go home in silence. Okonkwo seethes with hatred. His back bears the ugly stripes of the whip. A clan meeting is planned for the morning. Okonkwo hopes that war is coming. He takes out his ceremonial war garb, and remembers the most glorious war of his youth: Umuofia killed 12 men, while the other clan only killed two.
At the meeting, Okonkwo is ready to speak. He is worried that Egonwanne, a pacifist and powerful orator, will sway the people to peace. He resolves to fight, even if he must fight alone. The first man to speak is Okika, one of the six who was imprisoned. He begins a powerful speech on the necessity of action. They must fight, even against the Christian converts. They must resist before it is too late.
Five court messengers come up the path. Okonkwo rushes to block their way. He stands before them, brimming with hatred. The court messenger tells them that the white man has commanded this meeting to stop.
Okonkwo strikes the men down with his matchet. The other four men flee. Okonkwo knows from the reaction of the clan that they will not choose war. They muttered in confusion instead of seizing the other four messengers. In disgust, Okonkwo walks away.
Okonkwo aches for revenge. He has lost his son, the glory of a proper homecoming, and his dignity at the hands of the white man. His people have lost their independence. They are no longer free to administer justice. The white man refuses to treat their leaders with dignity, and lectures them on good government while his own revels in hypocrisy and violence.
At the same time, Okonkwo has no inkling of real warfare as conceived of by the white man. His glorious memories of Umuofia's great war are revealing: 14 men were killed. Igbo wars are fought on a relatively tiny scale. They are not wars of conquest. Okonkwo has no way of knowing that for whites, thousands can die even in a tiny war. His rage, though justified, does not provide him with any real way of resisting the white man.
The final indignity comes at the clan meeting. The white man is no longer satisfied in taking away justice: now, he wishes to destroy Umuofia's primitive democracy. The British want to deny the people their right to assembly and group decision-making. This change would mean death for the last shreds of Umuofia's self-determination. Okonkwo reacts the only way he knows how. He strikes the man down. But from his people's reaction, he knows that they are not behind him.
The District Commissioner arrives at Okonkwo's compound. He leads a small band of soldiers and court messengers. They find Obierika and several other men gathered inside. The DC fiercely asks Okonkwo to step forward. Obierika responds that he is not there. The DC demands that they produce Okonkwo, or they will be thrown into jail. Obierika and the other men mutter amongst themselves, and Obierika says he will take the DC to where Okonkwo is. Perhaps the DC's men can help them. He leads them to a tree behind Okonkwo's compound. Okonkwo has hanged himself.
No one in the clan can touch the body. Suicide is a crime against the earth goddess, and so the body must be handled by outsiders. Obierika says bitterly to the DC that Okonkwo was one of the greatest men of Umuofia. Because of the white man, he has been driven to suicide and will be buried like an animal.
The DC is quite curious about Igbo customs. Okonkwo's death may make a lively paragraph in the book he plans to write about the British victory over the savages of Africa. He has already chosen a title: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.
Okonkwo's suicide, in retrospect, seems nearly inevitable. Determined to fight the white man, alone if necessary, the betrayal by his people is more than he can bear. He realizes that he will resist alone, even after the outrage of the white man ordering a stop to the clan meeting. Okonkwo understands that his people have been broken. Instead of a war, he will have only the white man's noose; he will not even be tried under his own people's laws. He chooses suicide instead.
Long years of difficulty and disappointment have contributed to this moment. The accidental death and then exile darkened Okonkwo's view of life. The betrayal of his son was a very heavy blow. Now, the betrayal of his people, and their inevitable subjugation, pushes Okonkwo into despair. Okonkwo's central beliefs have been undermined. He believed that a man was the master of his own fate; his exile and the loss of his son challenged that belief. He also had great faith in his clan, but now his clan will be a subservient people. He cannot bear this disgrace. Parallel to Okonkwo's tragedy is the tragedy of his people's subjugation. As a final bit of bitter irony, Okonkwo's suicide violates the very traditions that are being menaced by the white man.
The DC's intrusion at the end of the novel is a commentary on a certain kind of narrative. In European conceptions of Africa, the DC's attitude is typical. Okonkwo's death, a great tragedy, is worth only one paragraph of entertaining reading. The DC also reflects on the need to cut out any unnecessary detail. The book the DC imagines is in many ways the opposite of Things Fall Apart, with its focus on a great African man, its many beautiful digressions, and its loving and sympathetic portrait of Igbo culture. The novel is in some ways a response to earlier depictions of "savage" Africa. Now that we have reached the end, the digressions pay off. In the course of following Okonkwo's tragedy, we have learned a great deal about Igbo life. Now we know that the culture depicted in the novel is a culture that in many ways no longer exists. Imperialism changed many aspects of life in Africa, and usually not for the better. The destruction of tribal social institutions and traditions led to great social and cultural voids, the negative results of which are still being felt in Africa today.
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