Culture and Collision: The Clash of Ideals in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart

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To understand the true conflict represented in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, one must understand how European imperialism in Africa sparked drastic change in the 19th Century. The novel deals specifically with an Ibo man who is staunchly proud of his culture and ideals. Through his life, the novel explores Nigerian culture and how it was affected by the Europeans who tried (mostly successfully) to gain physical and cultural control over the Nigerian people. Umuofia is a fictional village, but the experiences that are said to have occurred within it are anything but.

The European empire began its acquisition of African countries long before the events of Things Fall Apart take place, but it was in the latter half of the 1800s that the empire really set its sights on Nigeria. As Toyin Falola explains in the book, Colonialism and Violence in Nigeria, there were many resources that the European empire hoped to gain control of, such as, “enormous resources of peanuts and cocoa [that] made colonial conquest a lucrative enterprise. There was the yet-to-be-fully-explored River Niger, which the British regarded as a principal route to the rich Nigerian hinterlands” (2009, p. 1). According to Filola, “Colonization was achieved in Nigeria either by the use of war or by surrender because of the threat of war" (2009, p. 1). It was also achieved through cultural and religious influence, and of course, if all else failed, violence. In Things Fall Apart, we see an effective combination.

Achebe’s novel is both a symbolic and realistic representation of the clash between the European empire and the Ibo people. The Ibo people are a proud, respectful people. Much of their actions are carried out in order to pay deference to an ancestor or an ancient God. They believe in medicine men and rituals. Achebe describes the village as being “powerful in war and in magic...” He goes on, “and its priests and medicine men were feared in all the surrounding country. Its most potent war-medicine was as old as the clan itself. Nobody knew how old...the medicine itself was called agadi-nwayi, or old woman” (Achebe, 1994, p. 11). This practice of a nearly ancient “medicine” and the strict respect the Ibo people have for their ancestors has a direct effect on the course of the novel, as Okonkwo behaves the way he does, in part, due to this. He believes his suffering, at least, comes as punishment from the spiritual world.

It may seem a contradiction for such a spiritual people, but another characteristic specific to the Ibo, and thus, foreign to the European missionaries, is the manner in which success is measured—which is in mostly physical terms. Okonkwo, a highly respected leader in the village—and the novel’s protagonist—is described early on as being respected for these reasons. Achebe describes him as being “well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievements. As a young man of eighteen he had brought honor to his village by throwing Amalinze the Cat” (Achebe, 1994, p. 1). Achebe goes on to describe him:

That was many years ago, twenty years or more, and during this time Okonkwo’s fame had grown like a bush-fire in the harmattan. He was tall and huge, and his bushy eyebrows and wide nose gave him a very severe look. He breathed heavily, and it was said that, when he slept, his wives and children in their houses could hear him breathe...whenever he was angry and could not get his words out quickly enough, he would use his fists. He had no patience for unsuccessful men. He had no patience for his father. (Achebe, 1994, p. 4)

This passage does much to explain to the reader about both Okonkwo and the Ibo people. Okonkwo is respected because he is physically intimidating. He is not known for being articulate, but he gets his point across. His imposing nature makes him a capable individual, and he is rewarded for this. By mentioning Okonkwo’s wives and children, the reader learns quickly that having multiple wives is customary (or at least practiced by the respected men of the village) in Umuofia—a custom that the European invaders will no doubt find issue with. In addition, much of the conflict of the novel comes from errors in Okonkwo’s behavior that stems from his distaste for “unsuccessful men,” namely, his father, and his efforts to distance himself from them. These are all elements that will become crucial later on in the novel.

Even before the European men arrive, the reader is made aware of just how highly Okonkwo values his position within the Umuofia people. Among his children is a young boy, Ikemefuna, who was placed in Okonkwo’s care after the village received him as trade for the killing of one of their own. Okonkwo grows very fond of the boy, raising him as a biological son, but when the Umuofian Oracle declares that the boy must be killed, Okonkwo is too concerned with being seen as weak to speak out against this. He even receives a warning from a member the elder council, Ezuedu, who tells Okonkwo directly, “‘that boy calls you father. Do not bear a hand in his death’” (Achebe, 1994, p. 57). However, despite this warning, Okonkwo participates in the young boy’s murder—delivering the killing blow—because, as Achebe writes, “He was afraid of being thought weak” (Achebe, 1994, p. 61). Again, the reader sees just how important it is for Okonkwo to be seen as a strong, insensitive member of the village. It is this involvement in his adoptive son’s murder that sets off a chain of events that forever alter Okonkwo’s life and the entire village as well.

Sometime after Ikemefuna is killed, Ezeudu, the elder who warned Okonkwo to have no involvement in the boy’s murder, dies. A traditional Ibo funeral is held in his honor. The reader is given another example of the Ibo customs and how much they differ from the European missionaries who are soon to arrive. The reader sees the egwugwu who are masked representatives of the ancestral spirits of the Umuofia village. They are often feared and always respected. The egwugwu are an important symbol of the village, as they represent the traditions and culture of the Ibo people. When, later on in the novel, the reader sees their loss of power, it becomes obvious that the white missionaries have finally won full control.

The funeral also features frenzied dancing and the beating of drums, native displays of ritual and custom for the Umuofia village. Machetes are “clanged together in warrior salutes” and “The air [is] full of dust and the smell of gunpowder” (Achebe, 1994, p. 123) as the men fire guns into the air in tribute to the fallen elder. It is at this point that Okonkwo’s tragedy strikes. His gun explodes, and piece of metal flies from it, piercing the heart of one of Ezuedu’s sons. It is fitting, that Okonkwo, who kills his own son, also kills the son of the man who warned him against having involvement in Ikemefuna’s death. While killing Ikemefuna gained him no punishment, the death—however accidental—of Ezuedu’s son certainly does. Okonkwo is forced into exile. For seven years he must return to his mother’s homeland and live there without the titles and respect he has worked so hard to gain and retain in Umuofia.

Even before Okonkwo’s exile and the arrival of the European missionaries, we begin to see the effects of outside influence on the Ibo people. Achebe does not make much mention of the interaction the Ibo people had with outsiders prior to the European colonialism that would eventually be forced upon them. However, it is important to note that it is the misfiring of a gun that kills Ezuedu’s son and leads to Okonkwo’s exile. It is not as though gun power was a technology native to the Ibo people. But, as Kula Ogbaa explains in Understanding Things Fall Apart, the Ibo people had hundreds of years of interaction with outsiders before the European missionaries ever arrived. As early as the 1400s, Portugal was traveling to parts of Africa, setting up trading posts in what would eventually become Nigeria. The relationship was at first civil, but, like the oncoming missionaries, the Portuguese visitors felt compelled to impose their ways of life upon the native people. Ogbaa describes how a mutually beneficial relationship brought about a great period of darkness for the Ibo: “Prince Henry, also known as Henry the Navigator, had taken a group of Africans to Lisbon to educate, intending to use them to further ‘civilize’ their brethren back home in Africa. However, Gonsalves, a Portuguese explorer, captured a small group of Africans in 1441 and turned the Africans into slaves” (Ogbaa, 1999, p. 24). In this way, slavery was brought to Nigeria. It is no wonder that Okonkwo, and many other villagers, were vehemently opposed to the introduction of another group of outsiders into their village.

It is after Okonkwo is exiled that the European missionaries arrive. This is significant because Okonkwo serves as the symbolic representation of the cultural and religious heritage of Umuofia. His leaving allows for the introduction of the missionaries into his village. His first interaction regarding the white men is via a recounting during a visit by his friend, Obierika. The exchange underscores the clash between the two cultures and just how different they perceive each other to be. Obierika tells Okonkwo that a white man came to visit one oft the local clans. He tells Okonkwo, “‘He was not an albino. He was quite different...And he was riding an iron horse. The first people who saw him ran away, but he stood beckoning to them. In the end the fearless ones went near and even touched him” (Achebe, 1994, p. 138). The men do not understand the “iron horse” and many of them are even afraid to approach. The bravery of “even” touching him is an example of just how foreign the white men are to the Ibo people. Obierika continues telling Okonkwo about how the man was killed in response to the Oracle’s warning. One of the men in Obierika’s group is asked what the white man said before he was killed. He responds, “He said nothing,’” but Obierika quickly corrects, “He said something, only they did not understand him” (Achebe, 1994, p. 139). For many of the Ibo men, the English language is so foreign to them, it does not even constitute actual speech. It is this disparity in understanding that leads to much of the later conflict in the novel, including the issues with the interpreters and the imprisonment of the Umuofian elders.

The reader is given myriad examples of the ways in which the white missionaries have taken over when Okonkwo returns to Umuofia. To begin with, Okonkwo’s own son has taken to the Christian worldview. Nwoye takes some comfort in the Christian hymns, which “seemed to answer a vague persistent question that haunted his young soul—the question of the twins crying in the bush and the question of Ikemefuna who was killed. He felt a relief within him as the hymn poured into his parched soul” (Achebe, 1994, p. 147). Nwoye, as a young man, is still troubled by the actions of his father from many years ago, and he gains relief from the one thing Okonkwo fights so hard to defeat. All of this is a fitting punishment for Okonkwo. Nwoye’s rejection of his father’s name in lieu of the biblical “Isaac” is his final severance from his father.

This severance parallels Umuofia’s overall separation from its own traditions and customs—represented by the unmasking of the ugwugwu by one of the clan’s younger men. Through Okonkwo’s own stubborn will he brings about a punishment befitting his sins, and loses his dignity. Through their inability to resist the missionaries, the clan loses its own. The clan’s refusal to fight and Okonkwo’s suicide show just how far the missionaries have come in gaining control in Umuofia. The final paragraph reveals how much has been lost by Okonkwo and his people. It is telling that this is seen through a white man’s eye. The novel provides nearly the entirety of Okonkwo’s life, but the Commissioner believes he constitutes only “a reasonable paragraph” (Achebe, 1994, p. 209). Okonkwo, and by extension, the Ibo people, are rich, complex individuals, but the Commissioner, and by extension, the European Empire, sees them as savages. Things Fall Apart is a complex novel that explores what happens when one man holds too tightly to his ideals and how one culture can force their own upon another.


Achebe, C. (1994). Things fall apart. New York, NY: Anchor Books.

Brien, S. T. (1999). Chinua Achebe's Things fall apart. Piscataway, N.J.: Research & Education Association.

Falola, T. (2009). Colonialism and violence in Nigeria. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Ogbaa, K. (1999). Understanding Things fall apart a student casebook to issues, sources, and historical documents. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.