Chinua Achebe's college work sharpened his interest in indigenous Nigerian cultures. He had grown up in Ogidi, a large village in Nigeria. His father taught at the missionary school, and Achebe witnessed firsthand the complex mix of benefit and catastrophe that the Christian religion had brought to the Igbo people. In the 1950s, an exciting new literary movement grew in strength. Drawing on indigenous Nigerian oral traditions, this movement enriched European literary forms in hopes of creating a new literature, in English but unmistakably African. Published in 1958, Things Fall Apart is one of the masterpieces of 20th century African fiction.
Things Fall Apart is set in the 1890s, during the coming of the white man to Nigeria. In part, the novel is a response and antidote to a large tradition of European literature in which Africans are depicted as primitive and mindless savages. The attitudes present in colonial literature are so ingrained into our perception of Africa that the District Commissioner, who appears at the end of the novel, strikes a chord of familiarity with most readers. He is arrogant, dismissive of African "savages," and totally ignorant of the complexity and richness of Igbo life. Yet his attitude echoes so much of the depiction of Africa; this attitude, following Achebe's depiction of the Igbo, seems hollow and savage.
Digression is one of Achebe's most important tools. Although the novel's central story is the tragedy of Okonkwo, Achebe takes any opportunity he can to digress and relate anecdotes and tertiary incidents. The novel is part documentary, but the liveliness of Achebe's narrative protects the book from reading like an anthropology text. We are allowed to see the Igbo through their own eyes, as they celebrate the various rituals and holidays that mark important moments in the year and in the people's live.
Achebe depicts the Igbo as a people with great social institutions. Their culture is rich and impressively civilized, with traditions and laws that place great emphasis on justice and fairness. The people are ruled not by a king or chief but by a kind of simple democracy, in which all males gather and make decisions by consensus. Ironically, it is the Europeans, who often boast of bringing democratic institutions to the rest of the world, who try to suppress these clan meetings in Umuofia. The Igbo also boast a high degree of social mobility. Men are not judged by the wealth of their fathers, and Achebe emphasizes that high rank is attainable for all freeborn Igbo.
He does not shy from depicting the injustices of Igbo society. No more or less than Victorian England of the same era, the Igbo are deeply patriarchal. They also have a great fear of twins, who are abandoned immediately after birth to a death by exposure. Violence is not unknown to them, although warfare on a European scale is something of which they have no comprehension.
The novel attempts to repair some of the damage done by earlier European depictions of Africans. But this recuperation must necessarily come in the form of memory; by the time Achebe was born, the coming of the white man had already destroyed many aspects of indigenous culture.