Things Fall Apart, a novel set in Pre-colonial Nigeria in the 1890s highlights the fight between colonialism and traditional societies. The protagonist Okonkwo is famous in the surrounding villages for being a wrestling champion, defeating a wrestler nicknamed "the cat" (because he never lands on his back). He is strong, hard-working, and strives to show no weakness. Okonkwo wants to dispel his father Unoka’s tainted legacy of being effeminate (he borrowed and lost money, and neglected his wife and children) and cowardly (he feared the sight of blood). Okonkwo works to build his wealth entirely on his own, as Unoka died a shameful death and left many unpaid debts. He is also obsessed with his masculinity, and any slight compromise on this masculinity is swiftly destroyed. As a result, he is brusque with his three wives, children, and neighbours, he is wealthy, courageous, and powerful among the people of his village. He is a leader of his village, and he has attained a position in his society for which he has striven all his life.
Okonkwo is selected by the elders to be the guardian of Ikemefuna, a boy taken by the village as a peace settlement between Umuofia and another village after Ikemefuna's father killed an Umuofian woman. The boy lives with Okonkwo's family and Okonkwo grows fond of him. The boy looks up to Okonkwo and considers him a second father. The Oracle of Umuofia eventually pronounces that the boy must be killed. Ezeudu, the oldest man in the village, warns Okonkwo that he should have nothing to do with the murder because it would be like killing his own child. But to avoid seeming weak and feminine to the other men of the village, Okonkwo participates in the murder of the boy despite the warning from the old man. In fact, Okonkwo himself strikes the killing blow even as Ikemefuna begs his "father" for protection. For many days after killing Ikemefuna, Okonkwo feels guilty and saddened by this.
Shortly after Ikemefuna's death, things begin to go wrong for Okonkwo. During a gun salute at Ezeudu's funeral, Okonkwo's gun explodes and kills Ezeudu's son. He and his family are sent into exile for seven years to appease the gods he has offended. While Okonkwo is away in Mbanta, he learns that white men are living in Umuofia with the intent of introducing their religion, Christianity. As the number of converts increases, the foothold of the white people grows and a new government is introduced. The village is forced to respond with either appeasement or resistance to the imposition of the white people's nascent society.
Returning from exile, Okonkwo finds his village changed by the presence of the white men. He and other leaders try to reclaim their hold on their native land by destroying a local Christian church. In return, the leader of the white government takes them prisoner and holds them for a ransom two hundred cowries for a short while, further humiliating and insulting the native leaders, doing things such as shaving their heads and whipping them. As a result, the people of Umuofia finally gather for what could be a great uprising. Okonkwo, a warrior by nature and adamant about following Umuofian custom and tradition, despises any form of cowardice and advocates war against the white men. When messengers of the white government try to stop the meeting, Okonkwo kills one of them. He realizes with despair that the people of Umuofia are not going to fight to protect themselves — his society's response to such a conflict, which for so long had been predictable and dictated by tradition, is changing.
When the local leader of the white government comes to Okonkwo's house to take him to court, he finds that Okonkwo has hanged himself to avoid being tried in a colonial court. Among his own people, Okonkwo's actions have ruined his reputation and status, as it is strictly against the teachings of the Igbo to commit suicide.