Things Fall Apart

Summary and Analysis of Chapters 16-20

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Chapter 16

Summary:

Obierika comes to visit Okonkwo again two years later. Circumstances are less happy. White missionaries have come to Umuofia; they have built a church and even won converts. Obierika visits Okonkwo because in Umuofia he saw Nwoye among the Christians. When he asked Nwoye what he was doing, Nwoye responded that he had embraced the new faith. And when he asked Nwoye about Okonkwo, Nwoye responded that Okonkwo was no longer his father. Greatly disturbed, Obierika visits Okonkwo, but Okonkwo does not want to talk about Nwoye. Obierika hears the truth from Nwoye's mother.

When the missionaries first arrived in Mbanta, all of the villagers came to see them. Their leader was a white man who spoke through interpreters. He informed the people that their gods were false and only the Christian god was real. Okonkwo, after hearing the convoluted theology of the Trinity, decided that the man was clearly mad. He left and went back to work. The Christians then broke into song. Hearing the words of the song, Nwoye felt something stirring in him. In the poetry of the new religion, he found some kind of answer, some kind of comfort to soothe away the scars of Ikemefuna's death and the sound of twin children in the forest. He left the market greatly puzzled.

Analysis:

Disintegration of Igbo society is central to Things Fall Apart; the idea of collapse, on both an individual and social level, is one of the novel's central images. This image also gives the book its title. The Christians arrive and bring division to the Igbo. One of their first victims is Okonkwo's family. The new faith divides father from son, and the Christians seek to attack the very heart of Igbo belief; such an attack also attacks the core of Igbo culture, as the tribe's religious beliefs are absolutely integral to all other aspects of life. Not coincidentally, the first converts are people who stand to profit from a change in the social order. They are people who have no title in the tribe, and thus have nothing to lose.

Chapter 17

Summary:

The missionaries soon asked the village leaders to give them a space for them to build a church. The village leaders decided to give them a plot in the town's Evil Forest. Every Igbo village has an evil forest, where the undesirable dead and the powerful fetishes of medicine men are buried. The Evil Forest is believed to be full of malevolent and unpredictable magical energies. Everyone expects the Christians to die in a matter of days. When they remain alive, the people of Mbanto have to concede that the white priests command powerful magic. The Church begins to win a tiny number of converts.

Mr. Kiaga, an African convert, takes charge of the new church in Mbanto; the white priest goes to Umuofia. Initially, Nwoye does not dare to go into the church, but he listens to the men preaching the gospel in the market. He begins to learn the simple stories from the Bible. The one month mark passes, by the end of which the gods should most certainly take their revenge. The Christians remain alive. They also win their first female convert, a woman named Nneka. She is pregnant; the previous four times she has given birth, she has had twins. Following Igbo custom, the twins were abandoned to a death by exposure. She flees her family and takes refuge with the new church.

Okonkwo's cousin, Amikwu, is in the market when he sees Nwoye among the Christians. He goes and tells Okonkwo immediately. When Nwoye comes home, Okonkwo attacks him viciously. The women scream outside, afraid to enter. Finally, Uchendu sternly commands Okonkwo to stop. He does, and Nwoye leaves without a word. Nwoye tells Mr. Kiaga that he wants go to Umuofia, to attend the missionary school where he will learn to read and write.

Okonkwo is furious and bitter that his son has joined the Christians. He wonders what he did to deserve such a son.

Analysis:

In Christianity, Nwoye finds comfort for things that have long disturbed him. But the religion also provides him with a way to rebel against his father. And the social effects of Christianity will be as bad as the Igbo fear. The new religion undermines the hierarchies of the culture; Achebe also points out that the religion provides hope to those who have suffered under Igbo law. Although the men without title embracing the religion says little in favor of it (especially since Igbo society has a high degree of social mobility), Nneka's defection to the new faith is telling. She has born four pairs of twins, and has been forced to throw all of them away. Pregnant again, she is desperate to save her children. Not coincidentally, she bears the name that Uchendu mentioned earlier: "Mother Is Supreme."

But just as Igbo faith is integral to Igbo society, the new religion also comes with social and political attachments. Once land has been granted for the building of the church, the whites become difficult to dislodge. They bring their laws and their guns soon afterward, and Igbo men and women are forced to live under the colonial yoke.

Okonkwo is not a man who learns. He cannot understand that his own harshness has driven Nwoye away. The boy is terrified of him, and he has suffered greatly because of his sensitivity. We see an array of different male role models. Uchendu provides a sage counterpoint to Okonkwo's violent masculinity. Mr. Kiaga and the men of the church provide another alternative; to escape his father, Nwoye goes with them.

Chapter 18

Summary:

The church grows despite some difficulties. The Christians rescue twins from the forest, and Mr. Kiaga leads the fledgling community with strength and unshakeable conviction. Trouble rises between the church in Mbanta and the clan when three converts go into the village and say that all of the Igbo gods are false. They announce their intention to burn all the shrines. Furious, the clanspeople beat the three men severely.

Disturbing stories are also making their way to Mbanto. Rumor says that where the white man's religion goes, the white man's government follows. Churches arrive first, and soon after the targeted village is forced to bow under white authority.

Controversy rises in the young church over the question of admitting the osu, a caste of outcasts who are set aside in dedication to the gods. They are not allowed to use razors, and their dead are buried in the evil forest. Mr. Kiaga demands that the outcasts be accepted. The osu shave their heads, at Mr. Kiaga's encouragement, and they soon become the most faithful followers of the new faith. More trouble arises when one of these osu converts kills a python, which is a sacred animal and the emanation of the god of water.

The people of Mbanto meet to decide what to do about this new religion. Okonkwo councils war against the Christians, but cooler heads prevail. Fearing that the gods will be angry with Mbanto if the clan does nothing, the clan decides to ostracize the converts. They are no longer allowed to enjoy the privileges of clan membership. Initially, that includes not drawing water from the spring; the first day, the Christians are threatened by violence. But then Okoli, the man who killed the python, falls ill mysteriously and dies. His death proves the gods are watching; after that, the clan relaxes its stance towards the Christians.

Analysis:

Achebe's portrait of the Christians is as fair and balanced as his portrait of the Igbo; remember that his own parents were Christian missionaries. Although Christian intolerance leads to problems in the beginnings of the new community, Mr. Kiaga's wise and steady leadership is quite admirable.

We also see that the Christians fill a void in clan life; they do great good by rescuing the twins and providing comfort to outcasts. But it is also true that the Christians are the first wave of imperialism. The arrival of the missionaries is the precursor to subjugation.

Okonkwo, characteristically, calls for war. Remember that he despises the Christians because of the conversion of his son. He is disgusted when Mbanto chooses the softer penalty of ostracizing them. He believes that Umuofia would have chosen a different course. His hotheadedness and determination to fight the new faith with his fists is typical of him; we are reminded that when faced with a problem, Okonkwo only knows one way to fight back.

Chapter 19

Summary:

The seven years of exile are coming to an end. Okonkwo sends money to Obierika to build two huts where Okonkwo and his family will live until Okonkwo can build the rest of the compound. Okonkwo has prospered in Mbanto, but he knows he would have prospered more in Umuofia. These seven years have been an embittering experience.

Before Okonkwo returns to Umuofia, he hosts a magnificent feast for his mother's clan. The quality and quantity of the food rivals that of a wedding feast; Okonkwo outdoes himself to show his gratitude to his mother's clan. One of the elders gives a speech thanking and praising Okonkwo. But the speech ends on an ominous note: the elder fears for the future of their people. The new religion has come, and some people of the clan have betrayed their tribe's beliefs. He worries that the Igbo way of life is threatened.

Analysis:

Okonkwo's feast is in keeping with his greatness. He needs to be as generous to his mother's clan as they have been to him. He also is celebrating finally being allowed to return to his homeland. The chapter ends on an ominous note, foreshadowing the threats to the Igbo. The elder's speech, placed at the end of the chapter, which is also the end of Part Two, hints that Okonkwo's return to Umuofia may be far more difficult than he had hoped.

Chapter 20

Summary:

Okonkwo hopes to return to Umuofia with great fanfare. He has two beautiful daughters, and he has asked them, through Ezinma, to wait until the return to Umuofia to take a husband. Ezinma has become one of the great beauties of their people. She has also become a healthy, lively young woman, and none of the children understands Okonkwo's moods better than she.

The church has won a powerful foothold in Umuofia. Even several men of title have joined the new religion. The white man has also built a court house, where a district commissioner imposes white law. The DC is served by a gang of kotma, African court messengers who come from far away. They are greatly hated because they are arrogant and brutal. There is a prison as well, and even men of title are being put there. The white man says that Igbo laws are foolish, and they impose their own law on the Igbo.

Okonkwo is horrified. He and Obierika discuss what has happened. He wonders why the men of Umuofia do not rally and fight; they are a proud and strong people. But Obierika fears that if they do, the same fate will befall them as befell Abame. Resistance is now difficult, because fighting the white man would also mean going against the converts. Obierika puts it succinctly: "The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart" (126-7). They discuss the hanging of Aneto. In a land dispute, Aneto struch his neighbor Oduche; he did not mean to kill him, but he did. In accordance with Igbo custom, Aneto prepared to flee. But he was seized, with all his family, and thrown into prison. He was taken to Umuru, where the whites have a major center of government, and hanged.

Analysis:

Note that since her night with the Oracle, Ezinma has grown into a healthy, beautiful child. Her sickliness has ended.

Okonkwo had hoped to return to his fatherland with joy and celebration, but he finds Umuofia sadly changed. The Igbo are no longer free to dispense justice. For the crime of manslaughter, Igbo custom demands the relatively humane punishment of exile. The white man, in contrast, demands execution. White laws are not superior or more humane than the laws of Umuofia, yet the whites insist that Igbo laws are inferior. In building their courthouse, they rob Umuofia of its self-determination.

The religion and the new government are wreaking havoc on the harmony of Igbo life. Social instability and the threat of violence have arrived in full force, and armed resistance is impossible. The old religion is threatened; with humiliation, the Igbo are forced to bow down to white authority.