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An Analysis of Important Themes in Things Fall Apart

written by: Trent Lorcher • edited by: SForsyth • updated: 2/8/2012

Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart revolves around Okonkwo's external conflicts with his society, his family, the new arrivals, with his past, and with himself. Learn about the main themes in this brief summary and analysis.

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    Following are interpretations of manhood in Things Fall Apart.

    Interpretation #1 - Okonkwo is a breath of fresh air. Tired of the pansy youth of his tribe who don't understand the manliness of things, such as drinking wine from a skull, providing for one's family, letting everyone know who's boss, killing your adopted son -- Okonkwo does what any man with dignity would do -- resort to violence.

    Interpretation #2 - Okonkwo is the embodiment of evil. He opresses women and children and doesn't appreciate the finer things in life; good stories, an occasional rest, and walks on the beach.

    Interpretation #3 - Manhood in Things Fall Apart motivates Okonkwo's actions. Okonkwo lives in fear of being thought weak and effeminate. His concept of manhood doesn't change, even when his society does. His inability to change destroys him.

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    Change vs. Tradition

    Important themes in Things Fall Apart include the struggle between change and tradition:

    Interpretation #1: The following is a hypothetical conversation between Nwoye and a tribal elder:

    Nwoye: I don't agree with some of these traditions.

    Tribal Elder: My dad killed twins, drank palm wine, talked to egwuwu, opressed women, and prayed to Agbala. His dad killed twins, drank palm wine, talked to egwuwu, opressed women, and prayed to Agbala. I kill twins, drink palm wine, talk to egwuwu, opress women, and pray to Agbala. Now get out before I beat you.

    Interpretation #2:
    The Ibo need to scrap their traditions, implement national health care, start a dialogue with enemy spirits who terrorize them, rewrite their laws, and collect all their yams and divide them equally at the end of the harvest so everybody will be equal.

    Interpretation #3:
    Confronted with change, individual members of Ibo society react differently. Those who stand to gain from change--the outcasts, titleless, and oppressed--welcome it. Those who have risen to positions of authority by following the old way--Okonkwo, for example--resist change. The battle between the old and the new is highlighted by the arrival of Christian missionaries and colonial authority. Okonkwo and Obierika recognize that many of their clansmen adopt the new ways. Obierika realizes resistance is futile. Okonkwo chops the head off a colonial messenger, something the old tribe would have found heroic, but something the new tribe does not endorse.

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    Fate vs. Free Will

    Another theme that is explored is the concept of free will versus fate.

    Interpretation #1 - Whatever the gods dictate happens. When the Earth goddess plans a drought, the crops are destroyed. When the Earth goddess calls for rain, there is a great harvest. When Agbala wants to talk, you talk or are struck down. Whatever you do, don't have twins. The gods hate twins.

    Interpretation #2 - Free will is valued in Igbo society. Okonkwo becomes wealthy from his hard work. His father achieves nothing on account of his laziness. Bad things happen to Okonkwo when he acts irrationally. Good things happen when the Umuofians make decisions that will gain them favor in the eyes of the colonialists.

    Interpretation #3 - Both free will and fate play a role in the life of Okonkwo. He becomes wealthy because he works hard. While others curse their fate during the worst harvest ever, Okonkwo's first, Okonkwo perseveres and becomes successful. Okonkwo, however, is unable to change and control his temper. His poor choices doom him. On the other hand, fate intervened to destroy him. His gun explodes and kills a fellow villager, to no fault of his own, and tradition forces him into exile for seven years. It is during these seven years that Okinkwo loses his opportunity to gain stature in the eyes of the villagers. By the time he returns, Umuofia has changed too much for Okonkwo to matter.

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