We are introduced to Okonkwo, a great man among the Igbo tribe, well known in the nine villages and beyond. In his youth, he became famous when he defeated Amilinze the Cat, a great wrester. He is a formidable man, stern and intimidating in appearance; when angry, he stammers. The stammer makes him angrier, and he uses his fists. He has a hot temper. He has no patience for unsuccessful men; his father had been such a man. His father, a man by the name of Unoka, was a lazy do-nothing, who has died deep in debt. The narrator digresses to tell us about Unoka. Unoka was a great flute player in his youth, but he became a failure as an adult. He was constantly borrowing from his friends and neighbors, and his children and wife did not have enough to eat.
One day, a neighbor of Unoka, a man named Okoye, came to discuss the money Unoka owed him. The rituals of hospitality are described: the guest brings kola, a kind of food eaten during visits, and the men often speak in proverbs. Okoye was about take the third-highest title in the land, and he needed to collect resources. Unoka laughed him off, telling him that he had many other debts he needed to pay first.
Unoka dies deep in debt. But Okonkwo, though young, is already a great man. He has two barns full of yams, and he has fought bravely in two inter-tribal wars. He has taken two titles already. He has three wives. The narrator tells us that his high standing was the reason he was trusted to watch over the doomed boy who was sacrificed to Umuofia to avoid war. The doomed boy was named Ikemefuna.
Things Fall Apart is part tragedy and part documentary. It is the story of Okonkwo and his tragic death after the coming of the white man; it is also a piece of fiction that documents the world that the white man destroyed. Structure is important to tragedy, and by Aristotle's rules of tragedy all that is inessential to the central action should be removed. However, the tragedy of Okonkwo's death is seen as part of a greater tragedy: the defeat and forced transformation of a great people. Achebe's novel is both tragedy and memory. The narrative tends to digress; to understand the gravity of Okonkwo's tragedy, the reader must see him within the context of his world.
Achebe gives us detailed descriptions of Igbo traditions, customs, and beliefs. Memory is an important theme; here, this study guide uses memory as a broad term covering all documentary-style descriptions of Igbo life. By the end of the novel, the reader realizes that the account he has just read is the story of a culture that has been irrevocably transformed. Another part of Achebe's project is to give a balanced and sensitive portrait of Igbo culture, as African tribal cultures were long dismissed by white scholars as barbaric and evil.
Digression is one of Achebe's most important tools. He takes any opportunity he can to tell us about a past incident which is only indirectly connected to his central story. These digressions allow him to flesh out his portrait of tribal life.
Ambition and greatness are two closely connected themes. Okonkwo is determined to be the opposite of his father. He has already taken two titles (honorary titles that give a man status in the tribe) and he is quite rich. Success and honor are very important to Okonkwo. He has worked his whole life to win the respect of his people. His work ethic and his ambition also give rise to his faults: he is a harsh man, quick to anger and without humility.
One night as Okonkwo prepares for bed, he hears the town crier, beating on his hollow instrument and calling all the men of Umuofia to a meeting early tomorrow morning. The night is dark and moonless, and the narrator explains that darkness was frightening even for the bravest of the Igbo. The forest is a sinister place at night. Okonkwo suspects that a war might be brewing: he's a distinguished warrior, and war gives him a chance to win greater esteem.
The next morning, the ten thousand men of Umuofia gather in the marketplace. Ogbuefi Ezuogo, a powerful orator, gives the traditional opening: he faces four different directions, raising a clenched fist, and cries "Umuofia kwenu," to which the men all cry "Yaa!" He greets them this way a fifth time, and then he tells them that men from the neighboring village of Mbaino have killed a girl from Umuofia. The men discuss the situation, and decide to follow the normal course of action: the will issue an ultimatum, demanding a boy and a virgin as compensation. The neighboring villages fear Umuofia, because its warriors and medicine-men are powerful. It's most powerful war medicine (magic) is agadi-nwayi, a magic enforced by the spirit of an old woman with one leg. The narrator tells us that in fairness to Umuofia, it should be said that the village never went to war without first trying a peaceful settlement, and even then it only went if the war was approved by the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves. And the Oracle often forbade war.
Okonkwo is chosen as emissary. He goes and is treated with respect, and he returns with the young boy and the virgin girl. The girl goes to the man whose wife was murdered. As for the boy, the village is in no hurry to decide his fate. His name is Ikemefuna. He goes to live with Okonkwo and his family.
The narrator describes Okonkwo and his family, as well as their living situation. Okonkwo has a separate hut, or obi, at the heart of their family compound. Each wife has her own hut. All is enclosed by a large red wall. Yams are the main crop for the Igbo, and the compound includes a barn for yam-storage. There is also a shrine, or "medicine house." Okonkwo is quick to anger. He rules his family like a tyrant. He fears failure, and hates the memory of his idle father; his oldest son Nwoye, shows signs of being like Okonkwo's father, and so Okonkwo is very hard on him. Ikemefuna is brought home with Okonkwo and given to Nwoye's mother. The boy is homesick and does not understand why he has been taken from his family.
Achebe gives us a concise portrait of the social organization of the Igbo, on several levels. We see that the town is not ruled by a chief, but by a general assembly of all the men. In effect, the Igbo have a primitive democracy. We learn that yams are a staple, and a large store of yams indicates prosperity. We also learn that Umuofia prizes justice, and does not wage wars of conquest. There is also a high level of social mobility. Note that while Unoka was a failure, Okonkwo has risen to become a great man among his people.
Okonkwo fears failure. The theme of ambition has its converse, and it is Okonkwo's fear of failure that makes him a harsh man. He is strong, but he fails to see that his wives and children are not as physically strong as he. Yet he drives them to work as hard as he does. All of his wives and children fear him. Okonkwo tries to help his son, Nwoye, by being doubly harsh on him. But this approach is turning Nwoye into a sad and resentful youth.
When Okonkwo was young, his father Unoka went to Agbala, the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves. He asked why he always had a miserable harvest, despite his prayers and offerings to the gods. The Oracle told him that the fault lay not in the gods, but in his laziness. Unoka died of swelling that the Igbo believe is an abomination to the earth goddess. Like others who died badly, he was left in the Evil Forest. Okonkwo lives in fear of the kind of failure and sad end that met his father.
Okonkwo did not inherit a barn full of seed yams. He had to start out as a sharecropper for a rich man named Nwakibie. Nwakibie was generous, but the first year Okonkwo planted was the worst planting year in Umuofia's living memory. Okonkwo, with superhuman determination, survived. His father was in his last days then. He gave Okonkwo encouraging praise, but it only tried Okonkwo's patience.
Okonkwo has overcome incredible diversity. His father's pathetic end and death tainted him with shame, and left him without inheritance. His rise to social power and wealth has been a triumph of stubbornness and will. Sharecropping is a difficult way to begin; moreover, the first year Okonkwo planted was a terrible harvest year. But Okonkwo was young and strong, and he was able to survive. The experience has been essential to the formation of his character. Central to Okonkwo's beliefs is not only a work ethic but a faith in the ability of the will to overcome adversity. He is confident that he can master his environment; he rules as a man, and he is fiercely proud of his people. Understanding these beliefs is key to understanding the tragedy that strikes Okonkwo later, after the coming of the white man.
Okonkwo shows few emotions openly, none of them tender ones. He once insulted a man at a town meeting, implying that the man was a woman. The man had no titles. Okonkwo was reprimanded, and a village elder said that the fortunate should show humility; yet Okonkwo has never been fortunate. Everything he has he has earned himself.
Ikemefuna is terribly homesick, but in time he finds a place among Okonkwo's family. Nwoye, two years younger, is inseparable from him; even Okonkwo grows fond of the boy, although he doesn't show it openly. Ikemefuna is a clever boy; he knows how to make flutes and traps for rodents. He begins to call Okonkwo "father."
During the Week of Peace, Okonkwo's youngest wife, Ojiugo, goes out to plait her hair and neglects to cook afternoon meal for him. When she returns, Okonkwo beats her savagely. This act is an abomination to the Igbo. No one is allowed even to speak unkindly to another during the Week of Peace; Okonkwo's transgression threatens the harvest of the whole clan. Ezeani, priest of the earth goddess, arrives before dusk. He scorns Okonkwo's traditional offer of kola nut and demands a stiff fine of goods and money from Okonkwo. Okonkwo pays it, inwardly repentant, but he is too proud to admit openly to his neighbors that he is in error. His neighbors begin to say he has grown to proud.
It is soon time to plant; as they prepare the seed yams, Okonkwo is very harsh to Nwoye and Ikemefuna. Yam is a man's crop, and Okonkwo is very demanding. Yams, too, are a difficult crop to raise, sensitive and labor-intensive. The rainy season comes, during which children huddle by fires indoors, resting. With planting season over, the Igbo enjoy a resting period before the work of the harvest.
Ikemefuna and Nwoye have become very close; Nwoye loves the older boy, who is now like a brother to him. Ikemefuna has an endless supply of folktales, and hearing them makes Nwoye see the world in a new light.
Maculinity is one of Okonkwo's obsessions. He sees any tender emotion as feminine and therefore weak. His culture is as patriarchal as any other, but in his need to be strong Okonkwo carries the preoccupation with manliness to an extreme. He has not learned restraint. His beating of Ojiugo is the first concrete incident in the book during which we watch Okonkwo lose control. Although he begins the beating having forgotten that it is the Week of Peace, when reminded he does not stop. He is not a man to do anything half-way, even if he knows there are consequences. Later, this hubris destroys him. His neighbors notice his pride. Even when Okonkwo feels penitent, he takes great pains to hide it. This drive and fierce pride have made him a great man, but they are also the source of all of his faults.
In his sincere desire to see his son Nwoye become great, he has made the boy extremely unhappy. Okonkwo is not exactly a typical Igbo male: though Achebe sets up Okonkwo's fall as parallel to the fall of his people, he also shows us that Okonkwo is an extraordinary man among the Igbo, in ways both good and bad. In other men of the village, we see restraint and humility. We see in Ikemefuna a role model that Nwoye has lacked. Fearful of his brutal father, Nwoye now has a kind older brother to look up to. We also see that Nwoye is a thoughtful boy: his responses to Ikemefuna's folktales are imaginative and beautiful.
The Feast of the New Yam approaches. It marks the beginning of harvest season. All old yams are disposed of, and new and tasty yams are eaten for the feasts. The New Yam marks the start of a new year, and the beginning of a season of plenty.
Okonkwo, like all rich men, always invites a huge number of guests for the feast. But he himself is rather impatient with holidays, and would prefer to be working on his farm. Preparation for the festival makes him testy. Three days before the festival, he becomes furious when he sees that a few leaves have been cut from the banana tree (banana leaves are used to wrap food in many tropical countries). When his second wife admits to the act, he beats her brutally. He then decides to go hunting. Though a great man, Okonkwo is not a great hunter. The wife who was just beaten makes a snide comment about guns that never shoot, and he tries to shoot her. He misses. Despite these disturbances, the festival is celebrated happily.
The second day of the new year is the day for wrestling. Ekwefi, Okonkwo's second wife, loves the wrestling matches. It was watching Okonkwo defeat the Cat that she fell in love with him. She married another man, but a few years after that she ran away from him and came to live with Okonkwo. In those days, she was the great beauty of the village. That was thirty years ago. Ekwefi has only had one child, her daughter Ezinma. Ezinma is a charming, pretty, and clever young girl, one of her father's favorites, though he rarely shows it. We see her helping the other wives, doing chores for her mother, and bringing Okonkwo his food.
Chapter 5 fleshes out the portrait of Okonkwo's family life. His three wives live together peacefully, and seem to have great affection for one another. Ezinma is well-beloved, not only by Ekwefi and Okonkwo, but by the other wives as well. The children live together as brothers and sisters. Ikemefuna has been fully absorbed into the family.
But Okonkwo rules with fear. His anger over the banana tree is completely unfounded; he uses it as an excuse to beat someone. He is madly self-absorbed, and does not see fit to learn constraint for the sake of his family.
Igbo society is patriarchal, but this chapter focuses on female characters. Ekwefi is far from timid: fresh from a beating, she makes fun of her husband. We also meet her daughter Ezinma, one of book's most likable characters. Okonkwo's treatment of her humanizes him, balancing his harsh treatment of Nwoye. One of the reasons for his gentleness with Ezinma is her gender: as a girl, the expectations on her are different. Okonkwo often wishes that she were a boy, but the wish seems benign next to his merciless treatment of Nwoye. We see that Okonkwo is at least capable of tenderness. Because he does not have the same terrible expectations of a girl as he does of his son, he can treat her with at least a little gentleness.