The Center Cannot Hold



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Power, Knowledge, Education and Religion: “The Center Cannot Hold”

These important minor themes of the novel are what many critics point to as what causes things to fall apart in Umofia: the “cracks” in Igbo thought that create power differentials and make some more likely than others to covert and/or embrace the changes the Europeans bring to town; the introduction of Christianity and its appeal to those at the lowest end of the social strata; and the power of education in the new system of colonial administration (particularly the use of English and the role of translators). These themes overlap and have various other impacts in the novel, but make a good unit when used to discuss some of the impacts of colonialism in the novel, and the power relations and inequities of Igbo society that make Christianity seem very appealing to many people in Umuofia.



Discussion Questions

  1. Discuss the religious significance of the W.B. Yeats poem, “The Second Coming” and what it means to the novel?

  2. What is “the center” of this novel? Why can it not hold? What forces are working in the book that prevent the “falconer” from hearing the “falcon”? What do these symbols translate to in the novel?

  3. How do the missionaries set the stage for colonial control? Who are the first converts, and why do these people find Christianity so appealing?

  4. What is Okonkwo’s view on the missionaries? On colonial education? How does his view differ from other characters’ views?


Close reading:

  1. Conversion of the osu (156‐157) and the killing of royal python (157‐159)

  2. The prophetic words of “one of the oldest members of the umunna” (166‐167), in which he says: “I fear for you young people because you do not understand how strong is the bond of kinship. You do not know what it is to speak with one voice. And what is the result? An abominable religion has settled among you. A man can now leave his father and his brothers.”

    1. Obierika’s big speech:




      1. “[The white man] does not even speak our tongue[.] But he says that our customs are bad; and our own brothers who have taken up his religion also say that our customs are bad. How do you think we can fight when our own brothers have turned against us? The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.” (176)

  1. Chapter 21 (178‐183), a short chapter on Mr. Brown, who “came to be respected even by the clan, because he trod softly on its faith” (178), and how “from the very beginning education and religion went hand in hand” (182).

  2. Contrast the description of Brown’s methods with this description of his successor, Rev. Smith: “He openly condemned Mr. Brown’s policy of compromise and accommodation. He saw things as black and white. And black was evil. He saw the world as a battlefield in which the children of light were locked in a mortal conflict with the sons of darkness. He spoke in his sermons about sheep and goats and about wheat and tares. He belived in slaying the prophets of Baal.” What does this passage say about the relationship between power, control and religion?

  3. The scene where Enoch, a Christian convert, unmasks an egwugwu during a public performance (186‐187)

  4. Why do some people convert to Christianity in the book and others do not? Use evidence to support your view, and write an essay in which you demonstrate which side is more convincing.

  5. Prepare group presentations which explain the meaning of the book’s title.

  6. What causes things to fall apart in this novel? Stage a debate in which students are assigned various positions on this topic, and answer “in character,” using evidence/quotes from the text to support their views.


Destiny and the role of chi in the novel

Destiny, the role of one’s chi, and the struggle of the individual within society are major issues throughout the novel. One could argue that Okonkwo’s central conflict lies in his constant struggle to understand and make sense of his own lot in life – which he variously sees as inevitable or something he can manipulate. By the end of the novel, the significance of this theme becomes very clear as we’re forced to ask if Okonkwo was a success or failure. Did he defy his chi? Was he powerless to control a natural progression of events? And is the concept of chi to be taken literally, or metaphorically? What does Okonkwo’s destiny signify for the theme of colonialism? Is it symbolic? If so, of what?


Colonial Impacts and Postcolonial Considerations

Discussion Questions:

  1. Compare and contrast Mr. Brown and Mr. Smith. What do these characters represent? What do you make of their names?

  2. What is the role of the missionaries in the novel?

  3. What are the advantages and disadvantages of colonial education?

  4. Who is the District Commissioner? What is his role? What does he represent in this novel?

  5. Achebe wrote his novel in 1958, just before Nigeria’s independence. Why do you think he set the novel in the 1890s? What does this allow him to say about colonialism that he might not have said had his text been set in the present?

  6. Why does Okonkwo kill the court messenger?

  7. What are the consequences of Okonkwo’s murder?

  8. How do you interpret Okonkwo’s suicide? Why did he do it?


Suggested passages for close reading:

  1. Chapter 23 (192‐197) describes the futile attempt of the leaders of Umuofia to negotiate with the District Commissioner at his headquarters, and the arrest of Okonkwo and 5 others. The District Commissioner says: “We shall not do you any harm…if only you agree to cooperate with us. We have brought a peaceful administration to you and your people so that you may be happy…” then describes the new “justice” which is to be meted out under the authority of his “great queen…the most powerful ruler in the world.” Do a close reading of this passage, considering what assumptions the District Commissioner is making, and how the men might take offense at his suggestion that they do not have justice under their own authority, etc. Point out lines in the speech that seem condescending or insulting and discuss.

  2. Analyze the climactic point of the novel: Okonkwo’s murder of the court messenger (204‐205). The last two paragraphs of this chapter reflect Okonkwo’s thoughts and actions immediate after killing the man; interpret those paragraphs.

  3. Read and discuss the novel’s closing, Chapter 25 (206‐209).


Things Fall Apart as tragedy

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why is Okonkwo’s death “tragic”?

  2. What is the general feeling you get at the end of the novel? Have things fallen completely apart? Is there hope for Umuofia? Do you feel sad or relived that Okonkwo has died?

  3. Do you think this book is a positive or negative assessment of the colonial encounter? Defend your answer with quotes from the text.

  4. Why does Achebe let the District Commissioner have the last word in his novel? What does this tell us?

  5. Reflect on the nature of Okonkwo’s death and the irony of his being “buried like a dog.” What do you make of this sad ending?

  6. Do you think Okonkwo dies in vain? Why or why not?

Answer on separate sheet of paper:

  1. Is Okonkwo at odds with, or at peace with, his chi? Support your answer with examples from the novel.

  2. There seem to be conflicting ideas about how chi works in the novel. One proverb says: “If a man says yes, his chi says yes also” (27, 131), indicating that people can have some influence over their own fate. Other passages suggest that one has no control over the decision of the chi (79, eg) and that “a man could not rise beyond the destiny of his chi” (131). Okonkwo himself seems to struggle with this question. Which do you think is the dominant, or correct view in the novel?

  3. Think about the ending of the novel, and Okonkwo’s death. In the end, after all his efforts to be the opposite of his father, he dies a very similarly shameful death. What does this ending mean to the larger theme of destiny? Was this the inevitable end determined by Okonkwo’s chi?

  4. Who or what is responsible for Okonkwo’s fate? Support with quotes from the novel.

  5. The novel is structured in three parts. What do the divisions reflect about the stages of life of the protagonist? How do the divisions move toward and illustrate the collapse of Igbo society?

  6. What is the point of view of the narrator? How does the point of view contribute to our understanding of the conflicting cultures? What techniques does the narrator use to evoke a participatory role for the reader?

  7. In the novel's opening, Okonkwo is wrestling. How does this contrast with the ending, when Okonkwo is deliberating about an adequate response to the British humiliation of the Igbo elders in jail?

  8. Achebe uses storytelling flashbacks to describe the relationship of Okonkwo and Unoka. What do the flashbacks reveal about their relationship? What is the effect of the use of storytelling to illustrate the flashbacks?

  9. In Chapter One, how does Achebe foreshadow the presence (and ultimate fate) of Ikemefuna?

  10. Describe the judicial function of the egwugwu and its relationship to the living, particularly to Igbo women. Why is it also related to the spiritual world? How does Achebe illustrate the blending of the spiritual and real worlds?

  11. How does the killing of Ikemefuna foreshadow the fall of Okonkwo?

  12. Why is Okonkwo exiled? Why is the exile ironic? Compare to Okonkwo's participation in the killing of Ikemefuna and its lack of consequences.

  13. When and how is the white man introduced? Trace the chronology of the Igbo people's responses to the arrival and settlement of the white man. What attitudes toward the Igbo people do the white men bring and how do their attitudes determine their treatment of the Igbo people?

  14. How does Achebe use incidents to paint the general character of the white colonizers?


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