Chinua Achebe is probably the most widely read of contemporary African writers. His first novel, Things Fall Apart published in 1958 brought forth glory and fame. Then it was followed by his other novels such as No Longer Ease (1960), Arrow of Good (1964) and A Man of the People (1966). His father was an evangelist and church teacher, although many of his relatives adhered to the Ibo religion and customs. Thus, he grew up `at the crossroads of cultivars'. To quote in his own words Achebe took up the theme of how Christianity influenced and enveloped gradually the tradition of Ibo religion and culture in Things Fall Apart. The title of the novel borrowed from Yeats' The Second Coming is appropriate to the novel's record of the destruction of a civilization. Yeats' poem, The Second Coming, foresees the end of the Christian era while Achebe's novel, Things Fall Apart records the end of the non-Christian era in Eastern Nigeria. The parallel between Okonkwo's sacrifice of Ikemefuna and the story of Abraham and Isaac is brought to the surface when Nwoye takes Isaac as his Christian name.
Things Fall Apart seems a simple novel, but it is deceptively so. On closer inspection we see that it is provocatively complex, interweaving significant themes: love, compassion, colonialism, achievement, honour and individualism. Achebe employs devices such as proverbs, folktales, rituals and juxtaposition of characters to provide a double view of Ibo society and the central character, Okonkwo. The traditional Ibo society is a complex one: ritualistic and rigid yet in many ways surprisingly flexible. The child is valued more than any material acquisition yet the innocent Ikemefuna is denied love and life. Outwardly Umuofia is a world of serenity and harmony but inwardly it is torn by individual's doubts and fears. It is a society in which "age was respected ... but achievement was revered." It is this sustained view of duality that the novel consistently presents in order to create and intensify the sense of tragedy and make the reader understand the dilemma that shapes and destroys the life of Okonkwo.
Okonkwo throughout his life is ruled by an overriding passion to become successful, powerful, rich, and become one of the lords of the clan of Umuofia. His violent hatred being referred as failure arises in reaction to his father's disastrous life and shameful death. The reader may at first stand in Okonkwo's side, but his violent repudiation in turn tears apart those positive qualities of love, compassion and sensitivity. His obsession for manliness dominates the entire life, both public and private. He ruled his household with a heavy hand. His wives lived in perpetual fear of his fiery temper and so did his little children. He sees a threat to himself and his `dynasty' even the informal relaxed story-telling sessions because he thinks that these stories will make women of his sons. So, he encourages the boys to sit with him in his obi and tells stories of the land - masculine stories of violence and bloodshed. No episode in the novel dramatizes Okonkwo's desire to assert his manliness more clearly than the killing of Ikemefuna whom he loves as his own son. It took place during the feasting of the oracle of the hills and caves. Ezeudu also advises him to abstain himself from the participation. But Okonkwo did participate and slain the innocent child. He does so as the narrator affirms because he was afraid of being thought weak. On the other occasion Okonkwo exerts force to mould his chi, personal god, to his will. He thereby violates the conventional harmonious relationship that one has with his personal god.
For Okonkwo, the conflict between private self and public man is the conflict between the feminine and masculine principles. His inability to comprehend the fact that the feminine attributes makes him vigorously suppress in himself. His idea of the necessity for greatness is revealed in his naive comments on the deaths of Ndulue and his eldest wife, Ozocmena. Ndulue was a great warrior, the respected elder village because he balanced the strength and sensitivity of masculine and feminine principles. But for Okonkwo, one is either a man or a woman; there can be no compromise, no composite identity.
Throughout his life Okonkwo relies on violence to solve any issues. This code negates human response and severs him from his traditional roots that ultimately lead him to a tragic end of his life. He fails to hold Nwoye from turning to Christianity, lay his masculine forces like coercing, threatening and even beating because Nwoye seeks release from bondage in the new religion of the white man. Again, when he returns from exile, he faces an altered society, a society that in its flexibility has allowed a place for the white Christian missionaries. Then when the entire clan gathers to decide how to deal with the inroads established by the missionaries, Okonkwo responds to use violence. But this recourse to violence is not the view of Ibo society any more. Unable to change himself, he does not accept change in others in the world around him, in the people of Umuofia. When no one listens to his opinion, he suddenly realizes, too belated, that he is all alone pushed outside of his own society. He cannot return as well as cannot begin again. Having no place in this new Umuofia, driven out by his own inability to bend and change, Okonkwo ends his life as he lived it - by violence.
Achebe also portrays the Ibo community, besides Okonkwo, as a staunch and rigid in their adherence to values and customs. The trial scene reveals the rigidity and flexibility of the society in which the domestic conflict between Uzowulu and his wife, Mgbafo is settled. Uzowulu has beaten his wife so severely once, as he does so very often that she has fled to her family for protection. While such conflicts are solved in personal level but Uzowulu is the kind of man who will listen only to the judgement of the great Egwugwa, The masked ancestor spirits of the clan. This shows that the peace of society depends on the decrees of the gods, which take precedence over personal consideration even though it means a ruthless violation of human impulses as in the murder of Ikemefuna or the throwing away of twins.
The firmness, with which the society controls impending disorder, becomes even more apparent when contrasted with spontaneous communal feasting that precedes it - the coming of the locust. This sudden occurrence aptly demonstrates the joy and vitality of the society. This suddenness, bringing joy, is matched with the joy being taken away. The very moment that Okonkwo and his sons sit feasting, Ezeudu enters and tells the decree of the oracle of the hills and caves. Just as Okonkwo's response to the celebration is controlled by simultaneous announcement of the doom of the innocent child so the narrator modulates the readers' response to contrasting values and customs of Umuofia.
The rigidity and firmness of Ibo society is evident by the exile of Okonkwo for the inadvertent killing of Ezeudu's son. Achebe shows that the death of Ezeudu's son comes as a result of the circumstances of the situation and not by the deliberate act on Okonkwo's part, to confirm the rigidity of tribal laws. The inflexibility is further revealed by the simple act of a cow getting loose in the fields being met with a harsh penalty. Achebe, with subtlety, succeeds in presenting the inflexibility of the values of Umuofia as it responds to any threat, no matter how small, to the overall stability of the clan.
The Ibo community, how hard they tried to preserve their own religion but at last they succumb to the Christianity that percolated rapidly. Rev. Brown was the pioneer and he succeeded in preaching Christianity through peace, love and harmony. But his successor Rev. Smith was brutal and used violent means. He was determined to destroy the traditional practice and uses force to accept his ways and humiliate or eliminate those who do not want to accept his ways. He has the Egwugwu, including Okonkwo, disgraced and humiliated, their head shaven in testimony to their dishonour. For this reason, we sympathize with Okonkwo at his violent action in killing the messenger. Christianity tried to answer the private fears and doubts oven the arbitrariness of the god's decrees, which deny human considerations. It is the catalyst but not the primary cause of things falling apart. Umuofia was already disintegrating and reforming, and Christianity took the advantage out of it. Achebe succeeds in the technique of juxtaposition in articulating complexities and contradictions of Umuofia, of Okonkwo and of the dilemma, which arise when they confront Christianity.
Achebe's great achievement lies in his ability to keep alive our sympathy for Okonkwo despite our moral revulsion from some of his violent inhuman acts. With Obierika we condemn him for participating in the killing of the innocent boy, Ikemefuna, a felling of despise for denying his son, Nwoye, love, understand and compassion. We join the village elders in disapproving Okonkwo's uncompromising rigid attitude towards unsuccessful effeminate man. Yet our sympathy lies with him because we know from his reactions to his violence that deep within him, he is not a cruel man. Though he participates in the brutal killing of Ikemefuna, his basic aim was to show that he is not effeminate. We see him brooding over this deed for three full days. On one hand, Okonkwo is dispassionately castigating his fragile loving daughter Ezinma and deeply regretting that she is not a boy while on the other occasion struggling all night to save her from Ibo or returning again and again to the cave to protect her from any possible harm.
Achebe's characters are complex individuals, typeo rather than archetypes, resolutions of whose conflict is central to the plot. It is clear that Achebe's Europeans even the more liberal ones like Mr. Brown will never dream that they have anything to learn from Africans - who may be studied but never imitated ... That is part of the tragedy for Africans who find it almost impossible to comprehend the depth and consequences of white man's arrogance, as pointed out by Bernth Lindfors.