The concept of global history is impossible to define without consideration of countless cultural collisions since the dawn of human history. Exchanges and clashes of culture grew in frequency upon the discovery of the Americas at the close of the fifteenth century and in importance during periods of colonization in North and South America and Africa. This type of cultural collision was prominent in the colonization of the Nigerian Igbo people, and Chinua Achebe's documentation of the events has become one of the greatest accounts of colonization told through the eyes of those facing colonialism. In Things Fall Apart, the Igbo-European cultural collision challenges Okonkwo's identity which has already become unrooted from his own culture.
From the beginning, Things Fall Apart presents Okonkwo as a man who has been trapped by cultural practices and norms and has fought his hardest to establish a more personal, individual identity. As Achebe outlines the Igbo culture in which the story is set, we learn that "among these people a man was judged according to his worth and not according to the worth of his father" (Achebe 8). Okonkwo tries desperately to distance himself and his image from his father Unoka's reputation of laziness and improvidence, a
reputation which isolated Unoka from the tribe and first confined Okonkwo within firm cultural boundaries. In separating himself from his father's legacy, Okonkwo develops traits of anger which allow him contrast with his father's personality, but serve to parallel his role as a lesser member of the community as the anger forces Okonkwo to veer further from his culture. Still early in the story, Okonkwo stands tall in Umuofia with a bounty of five heads and achievement as the first to kill in the most recent war (Achebe 10). On the brink of a shift in Okonkwo's identity, "Achebe develops the theme of Okonkwo's struggle for recognition and the larger existential implications… of the universal human predicament" (F. Abiola Irele). Okonkwo begins his relationship with his culture and identity in a search for achievement, a method requiring feats of strength and power to gain acceptance.
However, the book continues in seeing a change in Okonkwo's cultural role in Igbo society. He chooses personal fulfillment over tradition as he punishes his wife by beating, an act that is unacceptable according to cultural tradition. He deals with the communal implications of his wrong-doings as the people "talked of nothing else but the nso-ani which Okonkwo had committed" (Achebe 31). Although Okonkwo works towards repentance, it begins a chain of doubt in his identity in Umuofia and the Igbo culture as a whole. He continues on his journey as he is forced to murder Ikemefuna, causing him to be "distraught and deeply affected" and starved and tortured himself to forget the death (Nnoromele). At this point, Okonkwo succumbs to cultural pressures and overrides his own personal beliefs, showing a deep obligation towards his cultural identity which is lost as he loses himself after his adopted son's death.
Okonkwo reaches a breaking point with his Igbo culture as he is exiled to his motherland by his own Umuofia clansmen. In Mbanta, he refuses to accept new cultural ideas and remains steadfast in his personal identity, one which no longer has deep ties to the village where he was raised. He watches as his son finds religion through the Christian missionaries, and disowns Nwoye as a result (Nnoromele). Returning to Umuofia, Okonkwo sees that the new European-Christian identity which has overtaken his motherland has reached his village as well. Unable to adapt, the progression of his loss of identity, along with depression from his adopted son's death, leads Okonkwo to kill himself, freeing him from his deep cultural conflict. In his failure to retaliate against the settlers in Nigeria, Okonkwo's role becomes "symbolic of the local leadership’s implication in the triumph of the British occupation of Igboland" (Ogede).
Things Fall Apart tells the story of a man who watches his culture fall away from him and eventually sees his identity stripped by the forces of colonization. However, this tale is representative of the stories of many Igbo and African people who faced a loss of cultural identity as they were overtaken by new European ideals. Okonkwo's eventual suicide and the European disregard for his life both serve to teach us of the dangers of not accepting and exchanging the ideas and beliefs of those who we encounter.
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. Anchor Books, 1959.
Irele, F. Abiola. The Crisis of Cultural Memory in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 278. African Studies Quarterly, 2000.
Nnoromele, Patrick C. The Plight of A Hero in Achebe's Things Fall Apart. Bloom's Modern Critical Interpretations, 2000.
Ogede, Ode. Reading Things Fall Apart: The Communal World, the Embattled Zones of Conquest, and the Decline of Tradition. Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 370. Continuum, 2007. London.
...(download the rest of the essay above)